Charles Baudelaire  

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"It is not necessary to demonstrate at length that Baudelaire was a degenerate subject. He died of general paralysis, after he had wallowed for months in the lowest depths of insanity. But even if no such horrible end had protected the diagnosis from all attack, there would be no doubt as to its accuracy, seeing that Baudelaire showed all the mental stigmata of degeneration during the whole of his life. He was at once a mystic and an erotomaniac, an eater of hashish and opium; he felt himself attracted in the characteristic fashion by other degenerate minds, mad or depraved, and appreciated, for example, above all authors, the gifted but mentally-deranged Edgar Poe, and the opium-eater Thomas de Quincey. He translated Poe's tales, and devoted to them an enthusiastic biography and critique, while from the Confessions of an Opium-Eater, by De Quincey, he compiled an exhaustive selection, to which he wrote extravagant annotations." --Degeneration, Max Nordau

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Charles Baudelaire (April 9, 1821 – August 31, 1867) was a French poet and art critic1 best-known for his collection of poems, Les Fleurs du mal and his dark romanticism. He was also a translator, most notably of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. He was romantically involved with Madame Sabatier and Jeanne Duval; and member of the Club des Hashischins.

He is credited with coining the term "modernity" (in Le peintre de la vie moderne) to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility art has to capture that experience.

Contents

Life and work

Baudelaire was born in Paris. His father, a senior civil servant and amateur artist, died early in Baudelaire's life in 1827. In the following year, his mother Caroline married a lieutenant colonel Jacques Aupick, who later became a French ambassador to various courts. Baudelaire was educated in Lyon and at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Upon 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. In the hope of reforming him, his guardians, sent him on a voyage to India in 1841, although he never actually arrived there. When he returned to Paris, after less than a year's absence, he was of age; but within a couple of years his extravagance threatened to exhaust his small inheritance, and his family obtained a decree to place his property in trust. It was 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 their boldness: 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 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 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 offence 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:

... 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)

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 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 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 favourite 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 until 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.

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.

Bibliography

Trivia

  • Baudelaire is referenced in Edward Albee's one act play The Zoo Story. The character Jerry asks Peter who his favorite authors are: J.P. Marquand or Baudelaire? Peter responds, "Baudelaire [...] is by far the finer of the two."
  • Baudelaire is referenced in Amiri Baraka's play "Dutchman". The character Clay claims he once considered himself a black Baudelaire.
  • Baudelaire is referenced in Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel The Subterraneans, where Kerouac compares the main character to Baudelaire's contrast in his works and in real life.
  • Barry Perowne features Baudelaire as a main character in his novel A Singular Conspiracy, featuring a hypothetical meeting with Edgar Allan Poe during the months in 1844 unaccounted for in Poes' Life; as Poe (under an assumed identity) designs a conspiracy to expose Aupick to blackmail to free Charles' patrimony.
  • H.P. Lovecraft begins his story Hypnos with a line of verse attributed to Baudelaire: if we did not know that it is the result of ignorance of the danger.
  • The first chapter of the novel The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad opens quoting Baudelaire's verses: ...D'autre fois, calme plat, grand miroir / De mon désespoir.

See also




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