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(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The name Charles Baudelaire has a brooding magic of its own, the bitter music of a poet caught in a world of brisk values of security and prosperity. Baudelaire, born April 9, 1821, made himself an embodiment of the eccentric artist, the man for whom the Muse’s touch is a curse. Both the early death of his father and the presence of his domineering stepfather prefigured the disappointing and disapproving world in which he was forced to live, a dandy bored by middle-class society, yearning for unreachable ideals and imaginary paradises. He was the poet of urban despair, of hashish, cats, and wandering acrobats. He spent his life among bohemian artists and prostitutes and died of syphilis. He found a kindred soul in Edgar Allan Poe and produced versions of Poe’s stories which have served as models of translation and have made Poe one of the most studied of foreign writers in France. To his family, he was a failure, dissolute, financially irresponsible, a blasphemous writer whose most important collection was banned for obscenity. Today, this same man is revered as a master in verse and prose, and a seminal thinker in modern art criticism. Claude Pichois, in his Baudelaire, gives a straightforward, sympathetic portrait of this difficult man who frustrated his family and continues to inspire both poets and literary theorists.

Many illustrious scholars have studied Baudelaire, among them Jean-Paul Sartre, Roman Jakobson, and Claude Levi-Strauss. His work is fertile ground for literary analysis and theory. Pichois delivers a biography that is demystifying rather than reductive. He does not sit in judgment, nor does he overidealize. As the editor of Baudelaire’s complete works (1975-1976) and correspondence (1973), as well as the author of numerous other Baudelairean studies, Pichois marshals a wealth of appropriate experience and knowledge.

The potent myth surrounding Baudelaire is the product of many factors: historical period, poetic themes, and the poet’s own deliberate cultivation. France had passed through a cataclysm in its Revolution, First Empire, and Reconstruction and throughout the nineteenth century would continue to struggle with the rending forces of revolution. During Baudelaire’s lifetime, the greatest part of social energy was spent in worship of stability at any cost. Pichois sets the stage for the poet with an introduction of his family and the history of his parents as they emerged scarred from the Revolution, his father a defrocked priest and artist, his mother the orphan of exiles. When they were married in 1819, the bride was thirty-five years younger than the groom. Charles was an only child, six years old when his father died in 1826. Caroline’s remarriage to Jacques Aupick in November, 1828, came to serve as a major element in Baudelaire’s pose as a misunderstood artist. Pichois uses family letters to substitute an intelligent, warm, loved, and loving stepfather for the mythic ogre. It was only with Baudelaire’s late adolescence and the disciplinary problems that caused his expulsion from secondary school that the family coldness arose and grew to total estrangement. Madame Aupick was affectionate but always desirous of stability, and she cast her lot with her husband. In Pichois’ analysis, Jacques Aupick was not the cause of Baudelaire’s alienation but was chosen by the younger man to symbolize a repressive society where he was at odds, devoid of the talents and tastes necessary for success in mid-nineteenth century France.

In the successive portraits that accompany the text, the reader can witness the transformation from sweet-faced schoolboy to quizzical young dandy and finally the haunted and haunting poet of 1864. Here are the faces of family and friends (oddly, no portrait of his mother), here many of the women associated with him and his verse. Although the biographer supposes a familiarity with the poet’s writing and the general literary and historical context of his life, the text is...

(The entire section is 1,877 words.)