|French literary history|
Charles Pierre Baudelaire (French IPA pronunciation: [bod'lɛʀ]) (April 9, 1821 – August 31, 1867) was one of the most influential French poets of the nineteenth century. He was also an important critic and translator.
Baudelaire was born in Paris. His father, a senior civil servant and an amateur artist, died in 1837, and in the following year his mother married a lieutenant colonel named Aupick, who later became a French ambassador to various courts. Baudelaire was educated in Lyon and at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris. On gaining his degree in 1839 he decided to embark upon a literary career, and for the next two years led a somewhat irregular life. It is believed that he contracted syphilis during this period. To straighten him out, his guardians, in 1841, sent him on a voyage to India. When he returned to Paris, after less than a year's absence, he was of age; but in a year or two his extravagance threatened to exhaust his small inheritance, and his family obtained a decree to place his property in trust. It is in this period that he met Jeanne Duval, who was to become his longest romantic association.
His art reviews of 1845 and 1846 attracted immediate attention for the boldness with which he propounded his views: many of his critical opinions were novel in their time, but have since been generally accepted. He took part in the revolutionaries in 1848, and for some years was interested in republican politics, but his political convictions spanned the anarchism of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the history of the Raison d'Ėtat of Giuseppe Ferrari, and ultramontane critique of liberalism of Joseph de Maistre. Baudelaire was a slow and fastidious worker, and it was not until 1857 that he produced his first and most famous volume of poems, Les Fleurs du mal ("The Flowers of Evil"). Some of these had already appeared in the Revue des deux mondes, when they were published by Baudelaire's friend Auguste Poulet Malassis, who had inherited a printing business at Alençon. The poems found a small but appreciative audience, but greater public attention was given to their subject matter. The principal themes of sex and death were considered scandalous, and the book became a by-word for unwholesomeness among mainstream critics of the day. Baudelaire, his publisher, and the printer were successfully prosecuted for creating an offense against public morals. 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:
Five 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.
His other works include Petits Poèmes es prose ("Small Prose poems"); a series of art reviews published in the Pays, Exposition universelle ("Country, World Fair"); studies on Gustave Flaubert (in Lartisge, 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 entitled "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.
Baudelaire had learned English in his childhood, and Gothic novels, such as Lewis's The Monk, became some of his favorite reading matter. In 1846 and 1847 he became acquainted with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, in which he found tales and poems which had, he claimed, long existed in his own brain but never taken shape. From this time till 1865 he was largely occupied with his translated versions of Poe's works, which were widely praised. These were published as Histoires extraordinaires ("Extraordinary stories") (1852), Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires ("New extraordinary stories") (1857), Aventures d'Arthur Gordon Pym (see The Narrative of 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.).
Meanwhile his financial difficulties increased, particularly after his publisher Poulet Malassis went bankrupt in 1861, and in 1864 he left Paris for Belgium, partly in the hope of selling the rights to his works. For many years he had a long-standing relationship with a bi-racial woman, Jeanne Duval, whom he helped to the end of his life. He had recourse to opium, and in Brussels he began to drink to excess. He suffered a massive stroke in 1866 and paralysis followed, and the last two years of his life were spent in "maisons de santé" in Brussels and in Paris, where he died on August 31, 1867. Many of his works were published posthumously.
He is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris.
Baudelaire is one of the most famous French poets and Decadent authors, but before the 20th century, his work was generally considered controversial, difficult, if not subversive. He is famous for his criticism of "usefulness" in poetry, an idea he admired in the work of the Parnassian artists, such as Théophile Gautier, to whom he dedicates Les Fleurs du Mal. He thought that poetry was only acceptable in the form of pure, superior beauty, never to teach something or to convey a political message (like Victor Hugo or La Fontaine did). Baudelaire was one of the first poets to describe and celebrate life in the crowded modern city. He is also famed for being one of the originators of the Symbolist movement in art.
He is now considered one of the most important precursors of 20th century literature. His poetry and, to a lesser extent, his literary criticism, have had a very deep influence on the following generations of writers, both in France and abroad, which can still be felt today.