(1821-1867) poet, critic
Considered one of the greatest 19th-century French poets, Charles-Pierre Baudelaire was born on April 9. He was the son of Joseph-Francois Baudelaire and Caroline Archimbaut Dufays. His father had been an ordained priest who left the ministry during the French Revolution to work as a tutor for the duc of Choiseul-Praslin’s children. During this time, he met a number of influential people and amassed a small financial fortune. A modestly talented poet and painter, he taught his son an early appreciation for art.
Considered by many to be a revolutionary even in his own time, Baudelaire was often given to depression and cynicism. His father died when Baudelaire was only six years old. For a short time, he received a great deal of attention from both his mother and his nurse, Mariette, until his mother’s remarriage, this time to a man much closer to her own age, Major Jacques Aupick. Aupick was an intelligent and self-disciplined man who served as a military general, an ambassador, and ultimately as a senator. Baudelaire’s relationship with his stepfather was not a good one, although he did not reveal his dislike of the man until later in life, at which point he attributed much of his depression and dual personalities to his mother’s remarriage.
In 1833, the family moved to Lyons, and Aupick enrolled Baudelaire in a strict military boarding school. The influence of the education and discipline he received there had a great impact on his outlook on life; it also increased his dislike for his stepfather. He continued his education at Louis-le-Grand, a respected French high school in Paris. His growing behavior problems led to his expulsion in 1839. It was at this point that he announced his decision to become a writer. To appease his family, he also agreed to study law at the Ecole de Droit, but his attention was never focused on his studies. He led a bohemian life, going deeply into debt and becoming an increasingly radical thinker. During these years, he also made his first contacts in the literary world and discovered the use of hashish and opium.
In 1841, hoping to encourage him to change his way of life, Baudelaire’s parents sent him by boat on a trip to India. Throughout the voyage, he remained depressed and sullen; therefore, when the ship was forced to stop for repairs after a terrible storm, he decided to return to France. Although he did not enjoy the journey, it did have a strong influence on his writing by giving him a unique perspective on the world that few other writers of his time could claim. On his return, he collected a large inheritance that allowed him to immerse himself in art and literature, paying particular attention to the satanic-based and horror literature that was popular at the time. However, in only two years, he had spent almost half of his money. He was placed by his family under a legal guardianship and was forced to live on a controlled income for the duration of his life.
A series of amorous affairs provided much of the impetus for Baudelaire’s erotic poetry. The Martinican Jeanne Duval, whom Baudelaire met in 1842, held perhaps the greatest influence. Her exotic black hair provided the erotic imagery for his poem “La Chevelure” (“The Head of Hair”). A dark-haired, dark-skinned beauty, she was referred to quite derogatorily by Baudelaire’s mother as the “Black Venus.” Daubrun, an actress and his mistress from 1855 to 1860, as well as Apollonie Sabatier, who presided over a salon for artists and writers, were also the objects of Baudelaire’s poetic and as well as romantic attentions.
In 1845, Baudelaire’s depression caused him to unsuccessfully attempt suicide. Soon after, he published La Fanfarlo (1847), an autobiographical novella that anticipated his experimentation with prose poetry. In 1848, French workers against social injustice minimally involved him in the revolution: He fired a few shots through the barricades and worked on radical political publications.
Baudelaire turned to literary and art criticism, for which he became well respected. His admiration for Delacroix and Constantin Guys influenced his own modern aesthetics. He translated Edgar Allan Poe’s works into French, publishing five volumes of these translations from 1856 to 1865. He became greatly influenced by the dark melancholic brooding nature of Poe’s works and began to incorporate the ideas into his own writing. He was particularly interested in the transformation of life in the modern city.
The first edition of Baudelaire’s collected poems, Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) was published in 1857. Focusing on erotic, satanic and often lesbian themes, the work was not well received by the public. Scathing reviews of the work published in literary journals had a profoundly negative effect on Baudelaire’s writing career, and both he and the publisher were ultimately prosecuted and heavily fined for offending public morality. Six poems from the collection were expressly banned as too radical for public consumption.
Baudelaire became more depressed as a result of this seeming failure and, after the death of his stepfather, he returned in 1859 to live once again with his mother. He wrote 35 new poems for the second edition of Les Fleurs du mal (1861), including one of his best-known poems, “Le Voyage,” first published in 1857. He also published a book of essays on the use of drugs, Les Paradis artificiels (Artificial Paradises, 1860). He had often used opium and hashish as a means of inspiring creativity. He began to become convinced, however, of the dangers inherent in this habit.
Baudelaire’s life, however, was plagued by tragedies. He was financially unable to assist his publisher, who had been jailed for debt from the first edition of Baudelaire’s poems, and he learned that his mistress Jeanne Duval had been living with another man. He also began to experience severe headaches and suffered from nightmares, most probably as a result of syphilis, which caused him to think he was becoming insane. He moved to Brussels in 1863, hoping to find a new publisher, but his health steadily declined until a series of strokes left him partially paralyzed. He returned once again to Paris, where he died in his mother’s arms on August 31.
Baudelaire’s works, including his critical essays Curiosities esthetiques (Aesthetic Curiosities, 1868) and his collections of prose poems Les Petits poemes en prose (Little Prose Poems, 1868) and l’Art romantique (Romantic Art, 1869) were major influences on the symbolist and modernist movements (see modernism). Through his use of irony and his depiction of the scenes of modern life, he transformed poetic language, and his criticism founded an aesthetics of modernism.
Another Work by Charles Baudelaire
Baudelaire: Poems. Translated by Laurence Lerner. London: J. M. Dent, 1999.
Works about Charles Baudelaire
Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Translated by Harry zohn. London: New Left Books, 1973.
Hyslop, Lois Boe. Charles Baudelaire Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
Richardson, Joanna. Baudelaire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.