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Charles Baudelaire - Biography

Charles Baudelaire was born on April 9th in 1821 in Paris, France and died there forty-six years later on the 31st of August in 1867. He is considered one of the most influential French poets in history and one of the greatest poets of the 19th century influencing an era of poetic symbolism. He was also a translator, essayist, and critic lauded for his celebration and acute articulation of a notion of modernity. Charles Baudelaire became the archetypal modern artist/poet living (and creating) the “bohemian” life that developed among the artists of the mid to late 19th century. He is most known for his scandalous work of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil), (1857), his translations and commentaries of the work of Edgar Allen Poe and his depiction of the modern artist in Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne (The Painter of Modern Life), (1863).

Born to Joseph-Francois Baudelaire and Caroline Archimbaut Dufays in Paris, Charles Baudelaire had an early exposure to art through his father who was an amateur artist as well as a civil servant. Unfortunately, his father, who was anywhere between thirty and thirty-four years older than his mother, died when he was just six years old. While Charles Baudelaire developed an intensely close relationship with his mother it was also contentious due to his despair over her second marriage a year later to Major Jacques Aupick. He was sent to a military boarding school in Lyon where the family had moved in 1832/3. He was an intelligent student yet not always taken with instruction and especially rebelled against the military structure. Fortunately the family moved back to Paris in 1936 and he attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, though was apparently dismissed just before graduation in 1839.

Back in Paris, Charles Baudelaire found himself most at home in the Latin Quarter, or what has infamously become known as the “left bank”. Formal schooling not being of interest to the young man, the emerging poet setout to pursue a career in writing. As well, he pursued a flagrant lifestyle, running up great debts, and pursued his interest in sex through various prostitutes. It is presumed that he contracted gonorrhea and syphilis at this time, which would obviously come to cause health problems. His mother and stepfather stepped in a couple years later and offered him a trip to India with the hope that the young “rebel” would adjudicate his ways. In 1841, Charles Baudelaire set sail on his ‘imposed’ adventure only to return within ten months.

Upon his return to Paris, Charles Baudelaire also received his inheritance, due him on his 21st birthday. The “un-reformed” poet-in-waiting thus embarked on his luxurious bohemian lifestyle, which included a penchant for fashion, experimenting with hashish and opium, and a ‘commitment’ to spending his days frequenting artists and cafes. He met and fell in love with Jeanne Duval who would be his long-time mistress and is considered the inspiration behind the “Black Venus” in Les Fleurs du mal; “This girl of another race who like a slave let him drape her in his exotic dreams. He loved her for her savage blood, defiantly.” Having gone through almost half of his inheritance within a couple years his parents managed a court order in 1844 to control his funds dispensing it in small increments over the rest of his life.

Charles Baudelaire’s disdain for the growing bourgeoisie escalated and he became politically involved and participated in the infamous 1848 revolution. This was, sadly for many, followed by the coup d’état and Napoleon III’s coronation in 1852. His brief participation in the 1848 revolution and the events that spawned from it turned to be incredibly disillusioning for Charles Baudelaire and he “retreated” into his work aligning more and more with an emergent awareness of modernity’s sense of alienation. It was also at this time that he discovered Edgar Allan Poe and thought of him as his “twin soul” and he would publish translations of his work in 1854 and 1855.

There is no form of rational and assured government save an aristocracy. A monarchy or a republic, based upon democracy, are equally absurd and feeble. The immense nausea of advertisements. There are but three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill and to create. The rest of mankind may be taxed and drudged, they are born for the stable, that is to say, to practice what they call professions.

In his own writing, Charles Baudelaire was praised for his first major public work, which was a piece of art criticism on the Salon of 1845, in which he championed the work of Eugene Delacroix as a “poet in painting”. This was followed by another critical discussion of the Salon the following year in which he expounded on his admiration and critique of Romanticism and put forth substantive ideas that would later be evident in the new painting of the later 19th century. It is in his Salon of 1846 that Charles Baudelaire would speak of the “Heroism of Modern Life.” He addresses the review, “To the Bourgeoisie”, “some are scholars, others are owners; a glorious day will come when the scholars shall be owners and the owners scholars.” He heeds to the bourgeoisie as the mass audience and posits his criticism more specifically with the arbiters of taste, “the monopolists of the things of the mind … But the monopolists have decided to keep the forbidden fruit of knowledge from you, because knowledge is their counter and their shop, and they are infinitely jealous of it.”

The next year Charles Baudelaire published La Fanfarlo (1847), an autobiographical novella. As well, some of his poems that would comprise Les Fleurs du mal were published in Revue des deux mondes (Review of Two Worlds). In 1857 the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal was published by his friend Auguste Poulet-Malassis; apparently Charles Baudelaire was so consumed with the publication that he was a constant presence during its production, assuring the quality of printing et al. Immediately there were six poems that were condemned by the Ministry of Interior due to their obscene content that included vampires and lesbian love (the ban remained in effect until 1949). Four years later there were another thirty-five poems added to the publication, along with the section “Tableaux parisiens”, but no longer included the six poems that had been banned, published in 1961.

Les Fleurs du mal, at first, received more attention because of its ‘scandalous’ subject matter than anything else though it was immediately praised and lauded by the great French writers of the day such as Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo. Gustave Flaubert wrote to him, “You have found a way to inject new life into Romanticism. You are unlike anyone else (which is the most important quality) … You are as unyielding as marble, and as penetrating as an English mist.” Victor Hugo wrote, “your fleurs du mal shine and dazzle like stars … I applaud your vigorous spirit with all my might.” Some of the critics hailed it as a passionate success of art and poetry while others, as Habas writing for Le Figaro, claimed the Les Fleurs du mal as “incomprehensible” and “hideous” and anything one understands is “putrid”.

The work was “shocking” and “modern” in its content, juxtapositions and tone. Charles Baudelaire came from the Romantic tradition yet his poetry seized the edge of modernity in all its expanding industrial depravity as sublime and beautiful. Within that is the one who roams within such modernity and his plague of existence. Charles Baudelaire gave voice, gave a new, cutting, direct voice to what he found already accumulating in the alleys and sewers, and the salons and table settings of a bourgeoisie milieu, including then of course, the reader to whom his collection of poems opens up with/to:

If rape, poison, daggers, arson
Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs
The banal canvas of our pitiable lives,
It is because our souls have not enough boldness.

But among the jackals, the panthers, the bitch hounds,
The apes, the scorpions, the vultures, the serpents,
The yelping, howling, growling, crawling monsters,
In the filthy menagerie of our vices,

There is one more ugly, more wicked, more filthy!
Although he makes neither great gestures nor great cries,
He would willingly make of the earth a shambles
And, in a yawn, swallow the world;

He is Ennui! — His eye watery as though with tears,
He dreams of scaffolds as he smokes his hookah pipe.
You know him reader, that refined monster,
— Hypocritish reader, — my fellow, — my brother
! Au Lectuer
(To the reader)

Overtime of course Les Fleurs du mal gained in notoriety for both its form and content in its ability to create a sense of depth in feelings of intimacy, despair, loss and nostalgia. The more shocking and sexual explicit content of his work gained him the title as poéte maudit (cursed poet). And Charles Baudelaire certainly did nothing to hinder such thoughts, but rather only encouraged it with his behavior in which there are now countless stories of his character, part myth and part truth.

Charles Baudelaire continued to write on a variety of themes and subjects. He wrote on poetry and, among others, writers, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Théophile Gautier. He was extremely critical of photography and its influence as an art form, claiming in his review of the Salon of 1859 that it should remain in the service of the arts and sciences and that it had no place in the arts. As this excerpt reveals, it also speaks to his critique of progress and its effect on the arts ‘in general’:

… I am convinced that the ill-applied developments of photography, like all other purely material developments of progress, have contrib­uted much to the impoverishment of the French artistic genius, which is already so scarce. In vain may our mod­ern Fatuity roar, belch forth all the rumbling wind of its rotund stomach, spew out all the undigested sophisms with which recent philosophy has stuffed it from top to bottom; it is nonetheless obvious that this industry, by invading the territories of art, has become art’s most mor­tal enemy, and that the confusion of their several func­tions prevents any of them from being properly fulfilled. Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place. If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude which is its natural ally. It is time, then, for it to return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts— but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature.
Salon of 1859

In the same year Charles Baudelaire composed his text known as Le peinture de la vie moderne (The Painter of Modern Life), that was originally published as three articles in Le Figaro in 1863. This essay has become infamous in defining the character of modernity in art, and went on to influence generations of artists and writers well into the twentieth century. Some of the most intriguing and lasting aspects of his essay are his dialectical notions of the artist and of beauty: “the duality of art is a fatal consequence of the duality of man.” Of the latter, beauty is that which is both fleeting and transitory yet enduring and eternal. “The pleasure which we derive from the representation of the present is due not only to the beauty with which it can be invested, but also to its essential quality of being present.” Of the former, the ‘contemporary’ artist is much like the dandy, a worldly observer with the curiosity of a child. The painter who enables his discussion is a “Monsieur G” who has been identified as the artist Constantin Guys. He was an illustrator and painted watercolors, and was known for his journalistic-like pictorialism that renders ‘modernity’ (inclusive of its dandy’s, women and prostitutes—all of which have their own section in the text).

He has everywhere sought after the fugitive, fleeting beauty of present-day life, the distinguishing character of that quality which, with the reader’s kind permission, we have called ‘modernity’. Often weird, violent and excessive, he has contrived to concentrate in his drawings the acrid or heady bouquet of the wine of life.
Le peinture de la vie moderne

While he wrote of “Monsieur G.”, it would turn out to be the famed painter Èdouard Manet who most embodied ‘the painter of modern life’ that Charles Baudelaire bespoke. The two met around 1860 and became fast companions and shared a pleasure in “dandyism”. For the poet, a dandy was more than simply a well-dressed man about town—he revered the dandy as an aesthetic and philosophical practice (so-to-speak). “Dandyism is a mysterious institution, … It is a kind of cult of the self … These beings [dandy’s] have no other calling but to cultivate the idea of beauty in their persons, to satisfy their passions, to feel and to think … dandyism borders upon the spiritual and social … Dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence; … Dandyism is a sunset; like the declining daystar, it is glorious, without heat and full of melancholy. But alas, the rising tide of democracy, which invades and levels everything, is daily overwhelming these last representatives of human pride and pouring floods of oblivion upon the footprints of these stupendous warriors.”

Clearly, Charles Baudelaire had a need to elevate as well as substantiate the life of the dandy, and he wasn’t the only one. It was in its own way, a mode of protest—protest in being, in seeing and being—rather than in vulgar revolution. He was very much against democracy as it was seen as a leveling of society and culture. At a time that many scholars consider to be the birth of modernity, as such, culture was often seen as being at the expense of progress—a view that Charles Baudelaire held and littered the pages of his writings and poetry. And such a progression he attributed to the democratization of society and the expansion of the bourgeoisie, which would thus come ‘under attack’ by his pen in the celebration of the deviant. While Realism and Naturalism were reigning schools, Baudelaire found them to be more full of artifice than the everyday embrace of life’s vice, follies and fashion—the artifice so well cultivated by the dandy.

Charles Baudelaire’s life of dandyism did take its toll though and his health began to deteriorate most evidently after his arrival in Brussels. He went to Brussels to give a series of lectures in 1863 and in 1866 published ‘out-takes’ from his opus work including the original six poems that had been banned in France, into a collection entitled Les Èpaves. He had over the years continued writing poetry, though was experimenting with prose poetry and produced a series of prose poems that were published in a collection in 1869, Le Spleen de Paris or Petits poémes en prose (Little Poems in Prose). The spleen, which is also part of a title section in Les Fleurs du mal, was symbolic, not to mean the bodily organ but rather express its secondary meaning as melancholic, and characterized with a sense of disgust for everything. Thus the poems seek to capture the essence of the Paris “spleen” and continue with his already present themes as he states in the opening, “these are the flowers of evil again, but with more freedom, much more detail, and much more mockery.” These poems were highly regarded as a radical break and innovation in poetry in their contravention with metered composition and verse form.

While still in Brussels he suffered from many strokes and soon became partially paralyzed in 1866. He relocated to Paris and was essentially under convalescence cared for primarily by his mother whose arms he died in at the very young age of forty-six. Four years later Arthur Rimbaud would call him “the king of poets”. He greatly influenced the former as well as Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marcel Proust, T.S. Eliot and is often considered the ‘father’ of Symbolism. Charles Baudelaire was a force of nature, rather literally, and impacted the course of not only poetry and art, but the way in which one thinks and perceives of as such. He was able to descry the cusp of modernity that would have a lasting impact from Walter Benjamin to Jean-Paul Satre to the present day.

Conceive me as a dream of stone:
my breast, where mortals come to grief,
is made to prompt all poets' love,
mute and noble as matter itself.

With snow for flesh, with ice for heart,
I sit on high, an unguessed sphinx
begrudging acts that alter forms;
I never laugh, I never weep.

In studious awe the poets brood
before my monumental pose
aped from the proudest pedestal,
and to bind these docile lovers fast
I freeze the world in a perfect mirror:

The timeless light of my wide eyes.

Charles Baudelaire was a French Poet and Critic. (1821 - 1867).