Carolyn and I have both long admired the writings of the French poet, philosopher, essayist, and art critic Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire is known for his major contributions to 19th-century French literature and is renowned for his revolutionary collection of lyric poems, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil).
Charles Pierre Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821. His father was a senior civil servant and amateur artist, and he was 34 years older than Baudelaire‘s mother. Baudelaire was 6 years old when his father died, so he never had an opportunity to know him well, and his mother remarried a man that Baudelaire never got along with well.
Baudelaire was educated during his stay at a boarding school in Lyon. In 1835, a fellow student at the school had this to say about Baudelaire, “[He was] much more refined and distinguished than any of our fellow pupils… we are bound to one another… by shared tastes and sympathies, the precocious love of fine works of literature.” Baudelaire later attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he studied law, and gained his degree in 1839. At the time, the law was a popular course of study for those not yet decided on any particular career.
Baudelaire spent his days in art galleries and cafés, and he experimented with opium and hashish. In 1841 he went on a voyage to Calcutta, India, and the trip left vivid impressions on him that later influenced his poetry. Baudelaire found beauty in the darker elements of human experience and was rather eccentric in his style of dress. He often dressed in black, dyed his hair green, and rebelled against the conformist, bourgeois world of 19th-century Paris in both his personal life and his poetry.
Baudelaire’s first art review was published in 1845, and between 1844 and 1847 eleven of Baudelaire’s poems were published in the Parisian weekly review magazine L’Artiste under a pen name. These were Baudelaire’s first published poems and it is unknown why he used a pen name for both the poems and the art review.
In 1847, Baudelaire’s novella, La Fanfarlo was published. The name in the title, Fanfarlo, has been associated with a Polka-dancer of the time. This novella tells the fictionalized story of the writer’s love affair with a dancer. That same year Baudelaire became acquainted with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, which he felt a strong kinship with.
Baudelaire translated a number of important English works into French, such as Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and many of Poe’s works, which helped to popularize his work in France. Although Baudelaire admired Poe, and the two never met, there was a literary connection between the two writers. Baudelaire found tales and poems by Poe that he claimed, “had long existed” in his “own brain but never taken shape.” Baudelaire also wrote critical essays on contemporary art, and essays on a variety of other subjects.
In 1857 Baudelaire’s most famous work, Les Fleurs du mal was first published, although more poems were added in later editions. Upon its original publication, the poetry collection was embroiled in controversy. Within a month of its publication, the French authorities brought legal action against Baudelaire and his publisher, claiming that the work was “an insult to public decency.”
Although the French government condemned the poetry collection when it was first published, with six of its poems censored due to their “immorality,” it is now considered an important work of French poetry. The poems in this radical volume frequently break with tradition, and deal with themes relating to decadence, eroticism, suffering, and an aspiration toward an ideal world. The final volume of Les Fleurs du mal was published posthumously in 1868, and it includes nearly all of Baudelaire’s poetry, written from 1840 until his death.
Despite his inheritance of a respectable fortune at the age of 21, making his way financially wasn’t easy for Baudelaire, as he had a taste for extravagance. By 1844, just two years later, he had spent nearly half of his inheritance, and he had become known in artistic circles as a “dandy” and “free spender.” Baudelaire “regularly begged his mother for money throughout his career, often promising that a lucrative publishing contract or journalistic commission was just around the corner.” During the course of his life, he borrowed from his mother an estimated total of 20,473 francs, and much of what is known of his later life comes from his correspondence with her. Baudelaire faced increasing financial difficulties toward the end of his life; he was forced to sell off many of his possessions in order to pay his debts and was frequently in and out of debtors’ prison.
In 1859 Baudelaire’s health began to deteriorate due to chronic illness brought on by stress, poverty, syphilis, and his long-term use of laudanum, a tincture of opium. In 1861 his financial difficulties increased when his publisher went bankrupt. Despite these difficulties, Baudelaire continued to write and publish his works, and he gained recognition for his critical essays.
Baudelaire died in 1867 at the age of 47, leaving behind a legacy as one of the greatest poets in French literature. He is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. Baudelaire’s mother died in 1871, outliving her son by almost four years.
Despite Baudelaire’s relatively slim production of poetry, his work has had a huge influence on Modernism, a movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms of expression, and which embraced experimentation and “a focus on the individual experience.” Baudelaire is noted for his innovative use of creative language, as well as for his use of symbolism and imagery in his poetry, and his work has had a significant impact on later poets.
Some of the quotes that Charles Baudelaire is known for include:
The dance can reveal everything mysterious that is hidden in music, and it has the additional merit of being human and palpable. Dancing is poetry with arms and legs.
Any healthy man can go without food for two days — but not without poetry.
A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors.
An artist is an artist only because of his exquisite sense of beauty, a sense which shows him intoxicating pleasures, but which at the same time implies and contains an equally exquisite sense of all deformities and all disproportion.
Always be a poet, even in prose.
Nothing can be done except little by little.
I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.
Whether you come from heaven or hell, what does it matter, O Beauty!
The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be himself and others, as he wishes.