(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Charles Baudelaire was a poet of dreams and despair, one of the first to bring a vision of modern, urban humanity to verse. His Les Fleurs du mal (1857; Flowers of Evil, 1931) rocked the French literary world with its combination of aching formal beauty, spiritual exaltation, and utter moral degradation. The publication caused Baudelaire to be prosecuted and found guilty of an “offense against public morals.” He was fined and ordered to excise six “immoral” poems from the collection (a position not legally reversed until 1949). A more important result of the scandal, however, was the mantle of literary martyrdom with which the poet was endowed.

Baudelaire’s life is embarrassingly poor in high drama and adventure. Scarred by his mother’s remarriage, he was incapable of a sustained adult relationship and never married. He was doomed to physical decline by syphilis contracted at eighteen. He lived in sordid circumstances and was irresponsible financially, a failure by all worldly measures. Yet Baudelaire was also a genius, one of those figures who illuminate not only their own time and place but all times. The tragic paradox of his life is the subject of Joanna Richardson’s exhaustively documented biography.

Richardson writes for readers familiar with the literature and history of the nineteenth century. Among her other publications are biographies of poet Paul Verlaine and novelist Gustave Flaubert. She refers to wide-ranging period sources, from literary texts to private correspondence and journals. Readers must be capable of understanding Baudelaire’s verse in French, since translations are provided only for prose texts, and verse citations often make key points. The work is extremely detailed, following the life of the poet from family origins through the minutiae of financial records and correspondence.

Richardson’s initial presentation of Baudelaire is based on the character and talents of his parents. In his father, Joseph-François, who had been a priest under the Ancien Régime, she sees the prefiguration of Charles’s preoccupation with sin as well as many of his gifts. Joseph-François had served a noble family as a tutor and drawing teacher; his home was full of books and paintings. Charles was born when Joseph-François was sixty-five. At his father’s death in 1828, the child was six years old. Charles inherited his father’s exquisite manners and refined aesthetic taste. All the intensity of his nature focused henceforth on affection for his mother.

Caroline Dufays Baudelaire, thirty years younger than her late husband, doted on her little son. Nevertheless, she soon married Jacques Aupick, a career military man of her own age. She was several months pregnant at her marriage, late in 1829. A daughter was stillborn a month later. Assuming young Charles to be aware of his mother’s emotional and physical state, Richardson sees a pattern of passionate attachment and betrayal between mother and son. In Caroline’s remarriage, with its erotic implications, is the germ of Baudelaire’s future vision of women as Madonna-Muses and as voracious whores.

Madame Aupick was devoted to her second husband. Richardson contests the image of Aupick as a martinet, in perpetual conflict with his sensitive stepson. Her analysis indicates that the first years of their relationship were happy. Yet Aupick never understood why Charles would not conform to discipline in practical matters and used the affection between his wife and her son as a tool, withholding contact as punishment. Continuation of this policy into the poet’s adult life led to complete estrangement. It was largely Aupick who attempted to protect Charles from his chronic extravagance by imposing the conseil judiciare, or financial guardianship, which blighted his adult life. Long after Aupick’s death, Charles was compelled to wheedle money from his mother, as proof of her love for him, while she continued the pattern of alternate indulgence and coldness she had practiced during her husband’s life.

Richardson divides her biography into six segments: “The Son of Joseph-François Baudelaire: 1821-1828,” “The Stepson of Jacques Aupick: 1829-1857,” “The Author of Les Fleurs du Mal: 1857,” “The Widow’s Son: 1857-1864,” “The Exile: 1864-1866,” and “The Returning Poet: 1866-1867.” The first segment is family history and childhood; the last two are periods of literary sterility, when the progress of Baudelaire’s syphilis had permanently impaired his ability to work. The central periods of literary productivity are covered from a multifaceted point of...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)