Baudelaire, Charles 1821-1867
French poet, critic, translator, novella and short fiction writer, diarist, and dramatist.
Regarded among the world's greatest lyric poets, Baudelaire is the author of Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), a highly influential work esteemed both for its technical artistry and as the first collection of poems to depict human life from a distinctly modern perspective. Baudelaire's view of contemporary life also informs his pioneering achievement in the prose poem genre, Petits poèmes en prose: Le spleen de Paris, a collection of short fictional sketches possessing characteristics often associated with poetry: concision, emphasis of images over plot, and heightened attention to word choice, phrasing, and cadence. Baudelaire's only other fictional composition, the novella La Fanfarlo, revolves around the artistic aspirations and amorous entanglements of a young Parisian writer and is prized for its autobiographical content and elucidation of Baudelaire's aesthetic theories.
Baudelaire was born in Paris to financially secure parents. His father, who was thirty-four years older than his mother, died when Baudelaire was six years old. Afterward Baudelaire grew very close to his mother, and he later remembered their relationship as "ideal, romantic .. . as if I were courting her." When Madame Baudelaire married Jacques Aupick in 1928, Baudelaire became deeply resentful. Initially he had excelled in school, but as he grew older he increasingly neglected his studies in favor of a dissipated, rebellious lifestyle. In 1841 the Aupicks sent him on a trip to India in hopes that his experiences abroad would reform him. During his travels he began writing poetry and composed the first poems that would be included in The Flowers of Evil. When Baudelaire returned to Paris in 1842, he received a large inheritance and began to live as a highly self-conscious dandy. In Baudelaire's view, the dandy was one who glorified the ego as the ultimate spiritual and creative power—a heroic individualist revolting against society. At this time, Baudelaire fell in love with Jeanne Duval, whom many scholars believe inspired not only the "Black Venus" cycle of love poems in The Flowers of Evil but also the titular character of La Fanfarlo. In 1844 Baudelaire's mother obtained a court order blocking his inheritance, and thereafter he supported himself by his writing, much of it art criticism. Published in 1857, The Flowers of Evil shocked readers with its depictions of sexual perversion, physical and psychological morbidity, and moral corruption. Not only was the work a critical and popular failure during Baudelaire's lifetime, he and his publisher were consequently prosecuted and convicted of offenses against religion and public morality. Several years later Baudelaire attempted to reestablish his reputation and deteriorating financial situation by traveling to Belgium on a lecture tour. The tour was unsuccessful, and in 1866 he returned to Paris, where he suffered a debilitating stroke. Having recently reconciled with his mother, he remained in her care until his death in 1867.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Petits poèmes en prose comprises fifty prose poems; Baudelaire projected the collection to contain one hundred pieces but his vision of the work was never realized. The prose poems tend to present a disheartening picture of the world inhabited by Parisian underclasses and lowlife; a broader underlying theme is the fragmented, alienating quality of modern life, especially as manifested in human relationships. For example, "Les yeux des pauvres" ("The Eyes of the Poor") depicts an impoverished family on the street gazing in the window of an expensive restaurant in which a couple sits discussing their opinions about the people outside. The social and economic disparity between the two diners and the poor is apparent, but the reader also becomes cognizant of a basic incompatibility between the diners, as evidenced in the personal convictions and outlooks on life that surface in their dialogue. The prose poem "Le désespoir de la vieille" ("The Old Woman's Despair") describes an elderly woman who stops to admire a baby but is rebuked when the child begins to cry. Here the reader senses an inherent inability of humans to establish community. In "Le mauvais vitrier" ("The Bad Glazier") a deluded man smashes the transparent panes carried by a window maker in the belief that the world, seen through colorful tinted windows, would be a more happy place. In the novella La Fanfarlo, a young aesthete named Samuel Cramer—in whom many commentators have observed a strong similarity with Baudelaire—fancies himself to be a gigolo and a very talented poet. As a result of his egotism as well as his love for a married woman whose husband left her for the dancer La Fanfarlo, Cramer accepts the challenge of seducing La Fanfarlo away from the unfaithful husband. By the conclusion of the story, Cramer is revealed to have neither true commitment to his art nor the upper hand in his personal relationships.
Considered the earliest significant collection of prose poetry in French literature, Petits poèmes en prose deviates sharply from traditional poetry in its subject matter. Here Baudelaire portrays marginal and loveless lives in prosaic, urban terms, rejecting more elevated themes and language. While critics such as Jonathan Monroe and Edward K. Kaplan have insisted that the prose poems are concerned with ethics and social injustice, J. A. Hiddleston avers that in this collection Baudelaire depicts the world as absurd and lacking moral order. Commenting on La Fanfarlo, some scholars have speculated that Baudelaire feared that he was like the protagonist Cramer, an arrogant, self-absorbed, affectatious artist with unproven talent. Critics agree that in La Fanfarlo Baudelaire expresses contempt for the character of Cramer, a man with an overactive imagination and an inclination toward extreme romanticism, and La Fanfarlo is generally considered a reproof to the moralizing stories by Romantic writers in France, who had done little to legitimize the short story as a genre. According to historians of French literature, La Fanfarlo and works by Gérard de Nerval and Gustave Flaubert precipitated the modern short story, and, consequently, accomplished writers in the second half of the nineteenth century began to specialize in short fiction.
La Fanfarlo 1847
Petits poèmes en prose: Le spleen de Paris 1869
Other Major Works
Histoires extraordinaires [translator; from the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe] (short stories) 1856
Les épaves (poetry) 1857
Les fleurs du mal [The Flowers of Evil] (poetry) 1857
Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires [translator; from the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe] (short stories) 1857
Aventures d'Arthur Pym [translator; from the novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe] (novel) 1858
*Les paradis artificiels: Opium et haschisch [Artificial Paradises: On Hashish and Wine as a Means of Expanding Individuality] (autobiography and poetry) 1860
Curiosités esthétiques (criticism) 1868
L'art romantique (criticism) 1869
†Journaux intimes [Intimate Journals] (diaries) 1887
Lettres: 1841-1866 (letters) 1905
Oeuvres complètes de Charles Baudelaire. 19 vols. (poetry, criticism, essays, novella, letters, journals, autobiography, and translations) 1922-63
The Letters of Charles Baudelaire (letters) 1927
Baudelaire on Poe (criticism)...
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SOURCE: "To Arsène Houssaye," in Paris Spleen, 1869, translated by Louise Varèse, New Directions, 1947, pp. ix-x.
[Below, Baudelaire describes his prose poems to Arsène Houssaye, editor of La Presse, who published twenty of his pieces in late 1862. ]
My dear friend, I send you a little work of which no one can say, without doing it an injustice, that it has neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, everything in it is both head and tail, alternately and reciprocally. I beg you to consider how admirably convenient this combination is for all of us, for you, for me, and for the reader. We can cut wherever we please, I my dreaming, you your manuscript, the reader his reading; for I do not keep the reader's restive mind hanging in suspense on the threads of an interminable and superfluous plot. Take away one vertebra and the two ends of this tortuous fantasy come together again without pain. Chop it into numerous pieces and you will see that each one can get along alone. In the hope that there is enough life in some of these segments to please and to amuse you, I take the liberty of dedicating the whole serpent to you.
I have a little confession to make. It was while running through, for the twentieth time at least, the pages of the famous Gaspard de la Nuit of Aloysius Bertrand (has not a book known to you, to me, and to a few of our friends the right to be called...
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SOURCE: "Contexts of Twilight in Baudelaire's 'Petits poèmes en prose,'" in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 25, 1970, pp. 352-60.
[Hubert is a German-born poet and educator specializing in contemporary art and literature. In the following essay, she examines the symbolic uses of light, darkness, and color in Petits poèmes en prose.]
Even if its effect and function seem more limited than in Les Fleurs du mal, even if it never suggests spiritual aspiration as in "Bénédiction", light is present in most of the Petits poèmes en prose. Nothing offers escape, in"Le Fou et la Vénus", from the dazzling sun whose watchful eye never blinks. Overpowered by this force, nature voices no protest; not even the murmur of waters can disturb the silence. But muteness does not imply the reduction of nature to an object. The word ecstasy ("L'extase universelle des choses") refers to sensuous pleasure while expressing a feeling of admiration, as well as an expansion upward, echoed by such terms as rivaliser, croissant, crescendo. As a result, the silence, comparable to meditation, is compensated for by visual effects. As every particle of nature sparkles and produces heat, light fills the world with visible elements, generating enough power and energy to make even the fragrance of flowers perceivable. What relation does this setting, where every flower expresses an erotic vitality, bear to the scene between...
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SOURCE: "Intimacy and Distance in Baudelaire's Prose-Poems," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XII, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 241-47.
[In the following essay, Hubert finds that Baudelaire 's prose poems present true intimacy as virtually unattainable.]
In his Poesie in prosaischer Welt, Fritz Nies claims that some typical Baudelairean themes, such as love, do not fully belong to the world of the Petits poèmes en prose. To be sure, Baudelaire, by emphasizing the contemporary scene either in its everyday aspects or viewed as a satanic city haunted by humble but disturbing creatures, recasts, as it were, the traditional lyrical themes. Nonetheless, love is present, in all its diversity, from the mysterious charm of a beautiful woman in "Un hémisphére dans une chevelure" and "La Belle Dorothée," or woman's paradoxical nature in "Laquelle est la vraie?" and "Le Désir de peindre" to man's unrequited love in "Le Fou et la Vénus" and "Les Yeux des pauvres," or even imaginary love inspired by dream in "Les Projets" and "L'Invitation au voyage." The opposition between spleen and ideal, suffering and dream, mystery and discovery, is usually expressed within each prose-poem rather than suggested by contrasting series of poems as in Les Fleurs du mal Thus conflict and tension become dominant. "Un Cheval de race" begins with the contradictory statement: "Elle est bien laide....
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SOURCE: "Samuel Cramer—Eclectic or Individualist?," in Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, May, 1981, pp. 10-21.
[In the following essay, Jeremy maintains that the protagonist of La Fanfarlo is a writer who lacks the intense focus and aesthetic vision of an artistic genius, and therefore represents Baudelaire's fear about himself]
Baudelaire criticism has long been familiar with the idea of Samuel Cramer as the poet's alter ego and of a Baudelaire who treats his fictional counterpart with indulgent irony—"un Baudelaire dont Baudelaire se détache" as Ferran calls him [in L'esthéstique de Baudelaire, 1933]—in order to mock and no doubt also to exorcize his own weaknesses, and to examine, within the secure boundaries of fictional invention, the complexities of his own nature. [In "Baudelaire and Samuel Cramer", Australian Journal of French Studies 6, nos. 2-3] C. A. Hackett goes further. "Above all, it seems that he needed, at this moment in his career, to exhibit all his talents, to test, examine and analyse himself; and he draws attention to the ambiguity in the character of Samuel and to Baudelaire's ambivalent relationship with his hero, varying as it does between close identification and ironic distance. Jean Prévost is convinced that the nouvelle expresses Baudelaire's anxiety that he may "manquer sa carrière" [Baudelaire, 1953]; and if we...
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SOURCE: "Baudelaire and the Poetry of Prose," Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. XII, Nos. 1 & 2, Fall-Winter, 1983-84, pp. 124-27.
[Hiddleston is the author of Baudelaire and "Le spleen de Paris" (1987). In the following essay, he contends that Baudelaire's prose poems are poetical though they lack qualities traditionally associated with poetry, such as compact form and elevated language, sentiments, and subjects. ]
It is clear from the references to the Petits Poèmes en prose in his correspondence that Baudelaire intended them to complement Les Fleurs du mal and to provide a kind of companion volume. In 1862 he talks of the two works as "se faisant pendant réciproquement," and as late as 1866 he writes of the prose poems as being "encore Les Fleurs du mal, mais avec beaucoup plus de liberté, et de détail, et de raillerie" [Baudelaire, Correspondance, Pléiade edition, 1973]. In order to give expression to "toute l'amertume et toute la mauvaise humeur dont je suis plein," he constantly places the emphasis upon an intensification of that clash of opposites—Spleen/Ideal, God/Satan, "extase de la vie"/"horreur de la vie"—which characterizes Les Fleurs du mal. He will associate "l'effrayant avec le bouffon, et même la tendresse avec la haine." But the differences between the two volumes are more numerous and more profound than this intensification...
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SOURCE: An introduction to La Fanfarlo, in Baudelaire: "La Fanfarlo" and "Le spleen de Paris" by Barbara Wright and David H. T. Scott, Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1984, pp. 9-33.
[Wright is an educator specializing in French literature. In the following essay on La Fanfarlo, she discusses the structure of the novella and assesses the relationship between the narrator and the story told.]
Ambivalence surrounds virtually everything concerned with La Fanfarlo. First published in January 1847 in the periodical Bulletin de la Société des gens de lettres, the precise date of its composition is the source of disagreement among scholars. It was probably written some time between 1843 and the end of 1846.
The autobiographical links, likewise, are tantalisingly elusive. If Asselineau and Gautier were among the first of many authoritative commentators to reach unanimity on the striking resemblance, physical and otherwise, between Samuel Cramer and Baudelaire himself, the parallelism with Emile Deroy (1820-46) is none the less significant. Deroy's early portrait of Baudelaire is probably the best visual representation available of the quasi-fictitious Samuel Cramer. Furthermore, since Baudelaire did not become acquainted with Delacroix until March 1846, Emile Deroy is now thought to have been Baudelaire's aesthetic mentor in the period leading up to Le Salon de...
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SOURCE: "Two Prose Poems by Baudelaire: 'Le vieux saltimbanque' and 'Une mort héroïque,'" in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. XIV, Nos. 1 & 2, Fall-Winter, 1985-86, pp. 51-60.
[In the following essay, Rubin suggests that in the prose poems "Le vieux saltimbanque" and "Une mort héroïque" Baudelaire defends the role of the artist and the power of art. ]
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SOURCE: '"Une morale désagréable,'" in Baudelaire and "Le spleen de Paris," Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1987, pp. 33-61.
[In the following excerpt, Hiddleston argues that Le spleen de Paris is a pessimistic work refuting the presence of moral order and divine providence in the world.]
It was Baudelaire's stated intention in Le spleen de Paris to emphasize the random and accidental aspects of his thought and inspiration and to draw, or to give the impression of drawing, from his observation of Paris street scenes through the disillusioned eyes of a man afflicted by the ennui of a vast modern capital, an unpleasant moral lesson. His intention . . . was to show another Joseph Delorme, without the languor and the elegant melancholy, but with the added qualities of irony, bitterness, and modernity, 'accrochant sa pensée rapsodique à chaque accident de sa flânerie et tirant de chaque objet une morale désagréable' [Baudelaire, Correspondance, edited by Claude Pinchois, 1973], an intention which, though enunciated as late as 1866, becomes increasingly obvious in the various alternative titles he envisaged for the collection: Poèmes nocturnes, La Lueur et la fumée, Le Promeneur solitaire, Le Rôdeur parisien, Le Flâneur des deux rives. There is, consequently, in many of the prose poems, which bear witness to that fascination with crowds and urban life which Baudelaire...
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SOURCE: "Baudelaire's Poor: The Petitis poèmes en prose and the Social Reinscription of the Lyric," in A Poverty of Objects: The Prose Poem and the Politics of Genre, Cornell, 1987, pp. 93-124.
[Monroe is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he maintains that economic and social concerns motivated Baudelaire's use of the prose poem.]
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SOURCE: "The Function of Literature in Baudelaire's La F anfarlo," in L'esprit créateur, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 42-55.
[In the following essay, Hannoosh contends that the relationship depicted in La Fanfarlo between the characters and literature provides the key to understanding the novella.]
Baudelaire's La Fanfarlo is a story replete with books, writers, readers, and critics, and yet the function of literature in the narrative has prompted no systematic study. Most of the major elements of the plot turn around a literary object: Samuel is introduced immediately as a writer, and his character defined in terms of his method of reading and the contradictory contents of a "typical" nineteenth-century artist's library; his first encounter with Madame de Cosmelly is dominated by a novel of Walter Scott's, and the second by his own volume of poetry, Les Orfraies-, he contrives to meet La Fanfarlo by means of his journalism; in the end he is reduced to grinding out books for money and founding a socialist newspaper; long discussions of literature occupy the first half, and allusions to literary characters and works occur throughout. We might ask, then, why literature plays so prominent a role in the story, and to what effect?
On the one hand, the theme reflects the status of parody in the work. The overt use of texts within a text is a convention of...
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SOURCE: "Interpreting the Prose Poems: An Amalgam beyond Contradictions," in Baudelaire's Prose Poems: The Esthetic, the Ethical, and the Religious in "The Parisian Prowler, " The University of Georgia Press, 1990, pp. 1-18.
[Kaplan is an American poet and critic. In the following excerpt, he finds that Le spleen de Paris addresses the conflict between "compassion and a fervent aestheticism. " According to Kaplan, compassion entails community, while fervent aestheticism leads to isolation. ]
Baudelaire's 1855 experiments with lyrical prose quickly faded into the background as he developed autonomous subgenres—"fables of modern life," as I call them. The formalistic problem of the "prose poem" is far less valuable in interpreting them than a focus on their narrator, a Second Empire Parisian poet—a flâneur, or urban stroller—who struggles with his conflicting drives. It is remarkable that Baudelaire's early critical essays anticipate, by many years, his new prose genre and the revised second edition of Les Fleurs du Mal (1861) which they parallel. In fact, his overall development confirms his conversion from "poetic" idealism to a literature of daily experience.
Questions of form are of course essential and we need an appropriate interpretive model: "These texts include in perfect but minimal form the Märchen or wonder-tale, the Sage or anecdote,...
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Aynesworth, Donald. "Humanity and Monstrosity in Le spleen de Paris: A Reading of 'Mademoiselle Bistouri.'" Romanic Review LXXIII, No. 2 (March 1982): 209-21.
Contends that the fragmentation, linguistic ambiguity, and eclecticism of Petits poèmes en prose, as evidenced in "Mademoiselle Bistouri," reflect the nature of life in the city.
Boyd, Greg. Introduction to La Fanfarlo, edited by Kendall E. Lappin, pp. 7-22. Berkeley, Calif.: Creative Arts Book Company, 1986.
Examines the autobiographical elements, literary influences, and aesthetic principles reflected in La Fanfarlo.
Carter, A. E. "Other Prose Works" and "Le spleen de Paris." In his Charles Baudelaire, pp. 44-6, pp. 109-14. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Brief examinations of La Fanfarlo and Petits poèmes en prose.
Chesters, Graham. "The Transformation of a Prose-Poem: Baudelaire's 'Crépuscule du soir.'" In Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Valéry: New Essays in Honour of Lloyd Austin, edited by Malcolm Bowie, Alison Fairlie, and Alison Finch, pp. 24-37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Demonstrates that Baudelaire's revision of an earlier version of "Le crépuscule du soir" indicates that he consciously employed a highly experimental artistic approach when...
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