Where Does Beaudelaire's Poetry Fit?
Depending on which critics you read, the poetry of nineteenth-century French writer Charles Baudelaire might be fitted into several different places in literary history. Some place him as a late member of the romantic movement; others as a precursor, by several decades, of the French symbolists. Still others will resist putting him into any category, and will explain the illogic of doing so by saying that his work was just too unique to force into a grouping with any others. All of these assertions have been made by intelligent, thoughtful critics, and each is right in its own way (and therefore, of course, wrong in its own way as well). In a poem like Baudelaire’s “Hymn to Beauty” readers can see the elements of several different literary schools, as well as elements that defy any attempt to narrow the scope of his achievement. While it is good to avoid insisting that the poet is anything that he is not, there are even more compelling reasons for taking a look at possible schools of thought that he could be affiliated with, if only to better understand how literary style evolves over the course of generations.
To start with, the last claim is the most obviously true: that Baudelaire wrote from such an original perspective that his talent cannot entirely be claimed by any larger movement. This is actually true of any artist, no matter how much teachers try to use them as examples of what was going on in their societies. Technically, a writer who...
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Charles Baudelaire is one of the most compelling poets of the nineteenth century. While Baudelaire’s contemporary Victor Hugo is generally—and sometimes regretfully—acknowledged as the greatest of nineteenth-century French poets, Baudelaire excels in his unprecedented expression of a complex sensibility and of modern themes within structures of classical rigor and technical artistry. Baudelaire is distinctive in French literature also in that his skills as a prose writer virtually equal his ability as a poet. His body of work includes a novella, influential translations of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, highly perceptive criticism of contemporary art, provocative journal entries, and critical essays on a variety of subjects. Baudelaire’s work has had a tremendous influence on modernism, and his relatively slim production of poetry in particular has had a significant impact on later poets. More than a talent of nineteenth-century France, Baudelaire is one of the major figures in the literary history of the world.
The extent of the influence of Baudelaire’s family background on his life and work has been the subject of some interest to critics. In his lifestory there are classic ingredients for neurosis, and his adult life was shaped by a triangle of family relations that some believe explains his complicated psyche. Baudelaire’s father, François Baudelaire (1759–1827), came from a family of woodworkers, winegrowers, farm laborers, and...
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