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Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire Essay - Baudelaire, Charles

Baudelaire, Charles

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Response

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.

Principal Works

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) 1952

The Mirror of Art: Critical Studies (criticism) 1955

Baudelaire as a Literary Critic (criticism) 1964

Art in Paris, 1845-1862: Salons and Other Exhibitions Reviewed by Charles Baudelaire (criticism) 1965

Selected Writings on Art and Artists (criticism) 1986

*Includes Baudelaire's translation of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater.

†Includes the diaries "Fusées" ("Skyrockets") and "Mon coeur mis á nu" ("My Heart Laid Bare").

Criticism

Charles Baudelaire (letter date 1862)

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...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Renée Riese Hubert (essay date 1970)

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,...

(The entire section is 3315 words.)

Renée Riese Hubert (essay date 1970)

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....

(The entire section is 2825 words.)

John Jeremy (essay date 1981)

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...

(The entire section is 5667 words.)

J. A. Hiddleston (essay date 1983-84)

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...

(The entire section is 5886 words.)

Barbara Wright (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 7914 words.)

Vivien L. Rubin (essay date 1985-86)

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. ]

(The entire section is 4942 words.)

J. A. Hiddleston (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 13076 words.)

Jonathan Monroe (essay date 1987)

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.]

(The entire section is 11018 words.)

Michele Hannoosh (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 5423 words.)

Edward K. Kaplan (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 5300 words.)