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Charles Baudelaire

[bohd-l-air; Fr. bohduh-ler]

Charles Pierre Baudelaire (French ) (April 9, 1821 - August 31, 1867) was an influential nineteenth century French poet, critic and acclaimed translator.

Biography

Early life

Baudelaire was born in Paris, France in 1821. His father, a senior civil servant and amateur artist, died during Baudelaire's childhood in 1827. The following year, his mother, Caroline, thirty-four years younger than his father, married Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Aupick, who later became a French ambassador to various noble courts.

Baudelaire's relationship with his mother was a close and complex one, and it dominated his life. He later stated "I loved my mother for her elegance. I was a precocious dandy". He later wrote to her "There was in my childhood a period of passionate love for you". Aupick, a rigid disciplinarian, though concerned for Baudelaire's upbringing and future, quickly came to odds with his stepson's artistic temperament.

Baudelaire was educated in Lyon, where he was forced to board away from his mother (even during holidays) and accept his stepfather's rigid methods, which included depriving him of visits home when his grades slipped. He wrote when recalling those times: "A shudder at the grim years of claustration... the unease of wretched and abandoned childhood, the hatred of tyrannical schoolfellows, and the solitude of the heart". At fourteen, Baudelaire was described by a classmate: "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". Later, he attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Baudelaire was erratic in his studies, at times diligent, at other times prone to "idleness".

At eighteen, Baudelaire was described as "an exalted character, sometimes full of mysticism, and sometimes full of immorality and cynicism (which were excessive but only verbal)". Upon gaining his degree in 1839, he was undecided about his future. He told his brother "I don't feel I have a vocation for anything". His stepfather had in mind a career in law or diplomacy, but instead Baudelaire decided to embark upon a literary career, and for the next two years led an irregular life, socializing with other bohemian artists and writers.

Baudelaire began to frequent prostitutes and may have contracted gonorrhea and syphilis during this period. He went to a pharmacist known for venereal disease treatments, upon the recommendation of his older brother Alphonse, a magistrate. For a while, he took on a prostitute named "Sara" as his mistress and lived with his brother when his funds were low. His stepfather kept him on a tight allowance which he spent as quickly as he received it. Baudelaire began to run up debts, mostly for clothes. His stepfather demanded an accounting and wrote to Alphonse: "The moment has come when something must be done to save your brother from absolute perdition". In the hope of reforming him and making a man of him, his stepfather sent him on a voyage to Calcutta, India in 1841, under the care of a former naval captain. Baudelaire's mother was distressed both by his poor behavior and by the proposed solution.

The arduous trip, however, did nothing to turn Baudelaire's mind away from a literary career or from his casual attitude toward life, so the naval captain agreed to let Baudelaire return home. Though Baudelaire later exaggerated his aborted trip to create a legend about his youthful travels and experiences, including "riding on elephants", the trip did provide strong impressions of the sea, sailing, and exotic ports, that he later employed in his poetry. Baudelaire returned to Paris after less than a year's absence. Much to his parents' chagrin, he was more determined than ever to continue with his literary career. His mother later recalled: "Oh, what grief! If Charles had let himself be guided by his stepfather, his career would have been very different... He would not have left a name in literature, it is true, but we should have been happier, all three of us".

Soon, Baudelaire returned to the taverns to philosophize and to recite his unpublished poems, and to enjoy the adulation of his artistic peers. At twenty-one, he received a good-sized inheritance of over 100,000 francs, plus four parcels of land, but squandered much of it within a few years, including borrowing heavily against his mortgages. He quickly piled up debts far exceeding his annual income and, out of desperation, his family obtained a decree to place his property in trust. During this time he met Jeanne Duval, the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute from Nantes, who was to become his longest romantic association. She had been the mistress of the caricaturist and photographer Nadar. His mother thought Jeanne a "Black Venus" who "tortured him in every way" and drained him of money at every opportunity.

Career

While still unpublished in 1843, Baudelaire became known in artistic circles as a dandy and free-spender, buying up books, art and antiques he couldn't afford. By 1844, he was eating on credit and half his inheritance was gone. Baudelaire regularly implored his mother for money while he tried to advance his career. He met Balzac around this time and began to write many of the poems which would appear in Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). His first published work was his art review "Salon of 1845", which attracted immediate attention for its boldness. Many of his critical opinions were novel in their time, including his championing of Delacroix, but have since been generally accepted. Baudelaire proved himself to be a well-informed and passionate critic and he gained the attention of the greater art community.That summer, however, despondent about his meager income, rising debts, loneliness and doubtful future, because "the fatigue of falling asleep and the fatigue of waking are unbearable", he decided to commit suicide and leave the remainder of his inheritance to his mistress. However, he lost his resolve and wounded himself with a knife only superficially. He implored his mother to visit him as he recovered but she ignored his pleas, perhaps under orders from her husband. For a time, Baudelaire was homeless and completely estranged from his parents, until they relented due to his poor condition.

In 1846, Baudelaire wrote his second Salon review, gaining additional credibility as an advocate and critic of Romanticism. His support of Delacroix as the foremost Romantic artist gained widespread notice. The following year Baudelaire's novella La Fanfarlo was published.

Baudelaire took part in the Revolutions of 1848. For some years, he was interested in republican politics; but his political tendencies were more emotional positions than steadfast convictions, spanning the Blanqui, the history of the Raison d'Ėtat of Giuseppe Ferrari and ultramontane critique of liberalism of Joseph de Maistre. His stepfather, also caught up in the Revolution, survived the mob and was appointed envoy extraordinary to Turkey by the new government despite his ties to the deposed royal family.

In the early 1850s, Baudelaire struggled with poor health, pressing debts, and irregular literary output. He often moved from one lodging to another and maintained an uneasy relationship with his mother, frequently imploring her by letter for money. (Her letters to him have not been found.) He received many projects that he was unable to complete, though he did finish translations of stories by Edgar Allan Poe which were published in La Pays. Baudelaire had learned English in his childhood, and Gothic novels, such as Lewis's The Monk, and Poe's short stories, became some of his favorite reading matter, and major influences.

Upon the death of his stepfather in 1857, Baudelaire received no mention in the will but he was heartened nonetheless that the division with his mother might now be mended. Still strongly tied to her emotionally, at thirty-six he wrote her: "believe that I belong to you absolutely, and that I belong only to you".

The Flowers of Evil

Baudelaire was a slow and fastidious worker, often sidetracked by indolence, emotional distress and illness, and it was not until 1857 that he published his first and most famous volume of poems, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), originally titled Les Limbes. Some of these poems had already appeared in the Revue des deux mondes (Review of Two Worlds), when they were published by Baudelaire's friend Auguste Poulet Malassis, who had inherited a printing business at Alençon.

The poems found a small, appreciative audience, but greater public attention was given to their subject matter. The effect on fellow artists was, as Théodore de Banville stated, "immense, prodigious, unexpected, mingled with admiration and with some indefinable anxious fear". Flaubert, recently attacked in a similar fashion for Madame Bovary (and acquitted), was impressed and wrote to Baudelaire: "You have found a way to rejuvenate Romanticism... You are as unyielding as marble, and as penetrating as an English mist".

The principal themes of sex and death were considered scandalous. He also touched on lesbianism, sacred and profane love, metamorphosis, melancholy, the corruption of the city, lost innocence, the oppressiveness of living and wine. Notable in some poems is Baudelaire's use of imagery of the sense of smell and of fragrances, which is used to evoke feelings of nostalgia and past intimacy.

The book, however, quickly became a byword for unwholesomeness among mainstream critics of the day. Some critics called a few of the poems "masterpieces of passion, art and poetry" but other poems were deemed to merit no less than legal action to suppress them. J. Habas writing in Le Figaro, led the charge against Baudelaire, writing: "Everything in it which is not hideous is incomprehensible, everything one understands is putrid". Then Baudelaire responded to the outcry, in a prophetic letter to his mother:

"You know that I have always considered that literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality. Beauty of conception and style is enough for me. But this book, whose title (Fleurs du mal) says everything, is clad, as you will see, in a cold and sinister beauty. It was created with rage and patience. Besides, the proof of its positive worth is in all the ill that they speak of it. The book enrages people. Moreover, since I was terrified myself of the horror that I should inspire, I cut out a third from the proofs. They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even the knowledge of the French language. I don't care a rap about all these imbeciles, and I know that this book, with its virtues and its faults, will make its way in the memory of the lettered public, beside the best poems of V. Hugo, Th. Gautier and even Byron."

Baudelaire, his publisher and the printer were successfully prosecuted for creating an offense against public morals. They were fined but Baudelaire was not imprisoned. Six of the poems were suppressed, but printed later as Les Épaves (The Wrecks) (Brussels, 1866). Another edition of Les Fleurs du mal, without these poems, but with considerable additions, appeared in 1861. Many notables rallied behind Baudelaire and condemned the sentence. Victor Hugo wrote to him: "Your fleur du mal shine and dazzle like stars... I applaud your vigorous spirit with all my might". Baudelaire did not appeal the judgment but his fine was reduced. Nearly 100 years later, on May 11, 1949, Baudelaire was vindicated, the judgment officially reversed, and the six banned poems reinstated in France.

In the poem "Au lecteur" ("To the Reader") that prefaces Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire accuses his readers of hypocrisy and of being as guilty of sins and lies as the poet:

...If rape or arson, poison or the knife
Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff
Of this drab canvas we accept as life -
It is because we are not bold enough!
(Roy Campbell's translation)

Final years

Baudelaire next worked on a translation and adaptation of Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Other works in the years that followed included Petits Poèmes en prose (Small Prose poems); a series of art reviews published in the Pays, Exposition universelle (Country, World Fair); studies on Gustave Flaubert (in L'Artiste, October 18, 1857); on Théophile Gautier (Revue contemporaine, September, 1858); various articles contributed to Eugene Crepet's Poètes francais; Les Paradis artificiels: opium et haschisch (French poets; Artificial Paradises: opium and hashish) (1860); and Un Dernier Chapitre de l'histoire des oeuvres de Balzac (A Final Chapter of the history of works of Balzac) (1880), originally an article "Comment on paye ses dettes quand on a du génie" ("How one pays one's debts when one has genius"), in which his criticism turns against his friends Honoré de Balzac, Théophile Gautier, and Gérard de Nerval.

By 1859, his illnesses, his long-term use of laudanum, his life of stress and poverty had taken a toll and Baudelaire had aged noticeably. But at last, his mother relented and agreed to let him live with her for a while at Honfleur. Baudelaire was productive and at peace in the seaside town, his poem Le Voyage being one example of his efforts during that time. In 1860, he became an ardent supporter of Richard Wagner.

His financial difficulties increased again, however, particularly after his publisher Poulet Malassis went bankrupt in 1861. In 1864, he left Paris for Belgium, partly in the hope of selling the rights to his works and also to give lectures. His long-standing relationship with Jeanne Duval continued on-and-off, and he helped her to the end of his life. Baudelaire's relationships with actress Marie Daubrun and with courtesan Apollonie Sabatier, though the source of much inspiration, never produced any lasting satisfaction. He smoked opium, and in Brussels he began to drink to excess. Baudelaire suffered a massive stroke in 1866 and paralysis followed. The last two years of his life were spent, in a semi-paralyzed state, in "maisons de santé" in Brussels and in Paris, where he died on August 31, 1867. Baudelaire is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris.

Many of Baudelaire's works were published posthumously. After his death, his mother paid off his substantial debts, and at last she found some comfort in Baudelaire's emerging fame. "I see that my son, for all his faults, has his place in literature". She lived another four years.

Critiques

Baudelaire was an active participant in the artistic life of his times. As critic and essayist, he wrote extensively and perceptively about the luminaries and themes of French culture. He was frank with friends and enemies, rarely took the diplomatic approach and sometimes responded violently verbally, which often undermined his cause. His associations were numerous and included: Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Franz Liszt, Champfleury, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, Balzac and the artists and writers that follow.

Edgar Allan Poe

In 1846 and 1847, Baudelaire became acquainted with the works of Poe, in which he found tales and poems that had, he claimed, long existed in his own brain but never taken shape. Baudelaire had much in common with Poe (who died in 1849 at age forty). Both had a similar sensibility and macabre and supernatural turn of mind; both struggled with illness, poverty, and melancholy. Baudelaire saw in Poe a precursor and tried to be his French contemporary counterpart. From this time until 1865, he was largely occupied with translating Poe's works; his translations were widely praised. Baudelaire was not the first French translator of Poe, but his "scrupulous translations" were considered among the best. These were published as Histoires extraordinaires (Extraordinary stories) (1852), Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires (New extraordinary stories) (1857), Aventures d'Arthur Gordon Pym, Eureka, and Histoires grotesques et sérieuses (Grotesque and serious stories) (1865). Two essays on Poe are to be found in his Oeuvres complètes (Complete works) (vols. v. and vi.).

Eugène Delacroix

A strong supporter of the Romantic painter Delacroix, Baudelaire called him "a poet in painting". Baudelaire also absorbed much of Delacroix's aesthetic ideas as expressed in his journals. As Baudelaire elaborated in his "Salon of 1846", "As one contemplates his series of pictures, one seems to be attending the celebration of some grievous mystery... This grave and lofty melancholy shines with a dull light... plaintive and profound like a melody by Weber". Delacroix, though appreciative, kept his distance from Baudelaire, particularly after the scandal of Les Fleurs du mal. In private correspondence, Delacroix stated that Baudelaire "really gets on my nerves" and he expressed his unhappiness with Baudelaire's persistent comments about "melancholy" and "feverishness".

Richard Wagner

Baudelaire had no formal musical training, and knew little of composers beyond Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber. Weber was in some ways Wagner's precursor, using the leitmotif and conceiving the idea of the "total art work" ("Gesamtkunstwerk"), both of which found Baudelaire's admiration. Before even hearing Wagner's music, Baudelaire studied reviews and essays about him, and formulated his impressions. Later, Baudelaire's put them into his non-technical analysis of Wagner, which was highly regarded, particularly his essay "Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser a Pàris". Baudelaire's reaction to music was passionate and psychological. "Music engulfs (possesses) me like the sea". After attending three Wagner concerts in Paris in 1860, Baudelaire wrote to the composer: "I had a feeling of pride and joy in understanding, in being possessed, in being overwhelmed, a truly sensual pleasure like that of rising in the air". Baudelaire's writings contributed to the elevation of Wagner and to the cult of Wagnerism that swept Europe in the following decades.

Théophile Gautier

Gautier, writer and poet, earned Baudelaire's respect for his perfection of form and his mastery of language, though Baudelaire thought he lacked deeper emotion and spirituality. Both strove to express the artist's inner vision, which Heinrich Heine had earlier stated: "In artistic matters, I am a supernaturalist. I believe that the artist can not find all his forms in nature, but that the most remarkable are revealed to him in his soul". Gautier's frequent meditations on death and the horror of life are themes which influenced Baudelaire writings. In gratitude for their friendship and commonality of vision, Baudelaire dedicated Les Fleurs du mal to Gautier.

Edouard Manet

Manet and Baudelaire became constant companions from around 1855. In the early 1860s, Baudelaire accompanied Manet on daily sketching trips and often met him socially. He also lent Baudelaire money and looked after his affairs, particularly when Baudelaire went to Belgium. Baudelaire encouraged Manet to strike his own path and not succumb to criticism. "Manet has great talent, a talent which will stand the test of time. But he has a weak character. He seems to me crushed and stunned by shock". In his painting Music in the Tuileries, Manet includes portraits of his friends Théophile Gautier, Jacques Offenbach, and Baudelaire. While it's difficult to differentiate who influenced whom, both Manet and Baudelaire discussed and expressed some common themes through their respective arts. Baudelaire praised the modernity of Manet's subject matter: "almost all our originality comes from the stamp that 'time' imprints upon our feelings". When Manet's famous Olympia (1865), a portrait of a nude prostitute, provoked a scandal for its blatant realism mixed with an imitation of Renaissance motifs, Baudelaire worked privately to support his friend, though he offered no public defense (though he was ill at the time). When Baudelaire returned from Belgium after his stroke, Manet and his wife were frequent visitors at the nursing home and she would play passages from Wagner for Baudelaire on the piano.

Nadar

Nadar (Félix Tournachon) was a noted caricaturist, scientist and important early photographer. Baudelaire admired Nadar, one of his closest friends, and wrote: "Nadar is the most amazing manifestation of vitality". They moved in similar circles and Baudelaire made many social connections through him. Nadar's ex-mistress Jeanne Duval became Baudelaire's mistress around 1842. Baudelaire became interested in photography in the 1850s and denounced it as an art form and advocated for its return to "its real purpose, which is that of being the servant to the sciences and arts". Photography should not, according to Baudelaire, encroach upon "the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary". Nadar remained a stalwart friend right to Baudelaire's last days and wrote his obituary notice in Le Figaro.

Philosophy

Many of Baudelaire's philosophical proclamations were considered scandalous and intentionally provocative in his time. He wrote on a wide range of subjects, drawing criticism and outrage from many quarters.

Love

"There is an invincible taste for prostitution in the heart of man, from which comes his horror of solitude. He wants to be 'two'. The man of genius wants to be 'one'... It is this horror of solitude, the need to lose oneself in the external flesh, that man nobly calls 'the need to love'."

Marriage

"Unable to suppress love, the Church wanted at least to disinfect it, and it created marriage."

The artist

"The more a man cultivates the arts, the less randy he becomes... Only the brute is good at coupling, and copulation is the lyricism of the masses. To copulate is to enter into another -- and the artist never emerges from himself."

"Style is character"

Pleasure

"Personally, I think that the unique and supreme delight lies in the certainty of doing 'evil' -- and men and women know from birth that all pleasure lies in evil."

Nature

"I should like the fields tinged with red, the rivers yellow and the trees painted blue. Nature has no imagination."

Politics

"I have no convictions, as they are understood by the men of my century, because I have no ambition... However, I have some convictions, in a nobler sense, which cannot be understood by the men of my time".

Influence

Baudelaire's influence on the direction of modern French (and English) language literature was considerable. The most significant French writers to come after him were generous with tributes; four years after his death, Arthur Rimbaud praised him in a letter as 'the king of poets, a true God'. In 1895, Stéphane Mallarmé published a sonnet in Baudelaire's memory, 'Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire'. Marcel Proust, in an essay published in 1922, stated that along with Alfred de Vigny, Baudelaire was 'the greatest poet of the nineteenth century'.

In the English-speaking world, Edmund Wilson credited Baudelaire as providing an initial impetus for the Symbolist movement, by virtue of his translations of Poe. In 1930 T. S. Eliot, while asserting that Baudelaire had not yet received a "just appreciation" even in France, claimed that the poet had "great genius" and asserted that his "technical mastery which can hardly be overpraised... has made his verse an inexhaustible study for later poets, not only in his own language".

At the same time that Eliot was affirming Baudelaire's importance from a broadly conservative and explicitly Christian viewpoint, left-wing critics such as Wilson and Walter Benjamin were able to do so from a dramatically different perspective. Benjamin translated Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens into German and published a major essay on translation as the foreword.

In the late 1930s, Benjamin used Baudelaire as a starting point and focus for his monumental attempt at a materialist assessment of 19th century culture, Das Passagenwerk. For Benjamin, Baudelaire's importance lay in his anatomies of the crowd, of the city and of modernity.

Baudelaire was also an influence on H. P. Lovecraft, serving as a model for Lovecraft's decadent and evil characters in both "The Hound" and "Hypnos".

See also

Bibliography

Online texts

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