Charles Baudelaire

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2089

Article abstract: Baudelaire was instrumental in the transformation from a classical conception of poetry, which concentrated on the subject, to the Romantic focus on the self and presented in his own poetry a heightened sensitivity to the dark dimensions of the beautiful, which served as a consolation for his own awareness of the human inclination toward self-destruction.

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Early Life

Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821. His father, a member of the senate during the reign of Napoleon I, died in 1827 at the age of sixty-eight, and his mother was married to a successful career officer twenty months later. In 1830, Baudelaire entered the Collège Royal, a boarding school in Lyons, where his stepfather was stationed, and remained there until his family returned to Paris in 1836. He loathed the routine and the excessively strict code of discipline at the Collège Louis-le-Grand and was expelled in 1839. To satisfy his stepfather, who hoped that he would follow a career in law, Baudelaire continued his studies at the Collège Saint-Louis and passed the examination for his baccalaureate later that year.

Between 1839 and 1841, Baudelaire lived as a sort of idle protodandy in the Latin Quarter while he tried to pursue a literary career. One of his closest friends, Ernest Praround, described him:

. . . coming down a staircase in the Baily house, slim, a low collar, an extremely long waistcoat, detached cuffs, carrying a light cane with a small gold head, walking with a supple, almost rhythmic step . . . Baudelaire had a somewhat yellow and even complexion, which had a little color on the cheekbones, a delicate beard which he didn’t clip, and which did not smother his face.

His expression, sharpened sometimes by genuine malice, sometimes by irony, would relax when he stopped talking or listening to withdraw into himself.

Théodore de Banville remarked on his “long, dense, and silk-black hair,” while others noted that he presented himself with a painterly regard for appearance, a reflection of his growing commitment to art as a means of enhancing every aspect of life. His stepfather believed that he could find “better sources of inspiration” than “the sewers of Paris,” and, to separate him from his “abominable friends,” convinced him to sail to India. The trip lasted eight months, giving Baudelaire a taste for the exotic.

In 1842, having returned to France, Baudelaire took possession of his inheritance, a small fortune equivalent to $100,000. He settled in the expensive Quai de Bethune area, the first of fourteen addresses he maintained in Paris during the next fourteen years, and with the resources to cultivate his public presentation of himself, he moved with a crowd that valued the shocking remark and the outrageous gesture. His experiments with hashish began at about this time, as did his liaison with Jeanne Duval, a beautiful actress of mixed racial descent—the “Black Venus” of Les Fleurs du Mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1909). His stepfather was so alarmed by Baudelaire’s style of living that he appointed a guardian to handle his monetary affairs, an act which irritated Baudelaire for the remainder of his life and may have contributed to a halfhearted attempt at suicide in 1845.

Baudelaire’s spirits were revived by his first real success as a writer, his review of the 1845 exhibition at the Louvre, which blended the emotional responsiveness of the poet with the critical acuity of the trained art critic. His “Salon de 1846” (“Salon of 1846,” 1964) was similarly successful, and on its last pages there was an announcement for a book of poems to be titled “Les Lesbiennes”—a title designed for its effect. This was the first public reference to Flowers of Evil, which in fact would not be published for another decade. In 1847, Baudelaire published La Fanfarlo, an extended short story with a protagonist who served as a semisatiric reflection on his inclinations toward the sensational and began to suffer from the periodic onslaughts of syphilis, which eventually led to his death. His gradually declining health caused a radical change in his appearance, the dandy now transposed into a prematurely aged flaneur with an almost-grim visage, high forehead, and piercing eyes.

Life’s Work

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In 1846 or 1847, Baudelaire read Edgar Allan Poe and remarked, “The first time I opened a book of his, I saw, with horror and delight, not just subjects I had dreamt of, but sentences I had thought of.” He began to publish translations of Poe in 1848 and was also placing some poetry in Revue de Paris, a journal edited by Théophile Gautier and other friends. In 1857, the first edition of Flowers of Evil appeared. The title was proposed by Hippolyte Babou; Baudelaire liked its suggestion that beauty could be born of evil and that the seemingly perverse could be recast into poetic grace. Baudelaire knew that the book might be considered obscene, but a critic in Le Figaro may have exceeded his expectations by saying, “The book is a hospital open to all forms of mental derangements and emotional putrefaction.” The government agreed and brought an indictment which compelled the confiscation of the book on July 17, three weeks after it had gone on sale. Baudelaire was found not guilty of blasphemy at the resulting hearing, but the charge of offending public morality stood, and six poems were banned. When asked if he expected to be acquitted, Baudelaire replied, “Acquitted! I was hoping for a public apology.”

The prosecution of his masterwork diminished whatever remained of an optimistic outlook, and in 1860 he published Les Paradis artificiels: Opium et haschisch (partial translation as Artificial Paradises: On Hashish and Wine as a Means of Expanding Individuality, 1971). The book condemned hallucinogenic agents as providers of an illusion of the paradisiacal and described opium as a sapper of the will, which made it impossible to work. The essay, however, was misread as a celebration of decadence. Baudelaire knew that this was likely, but his imp of the perverse compelled him to continue. In 1861, he completed his definitive edition of Flowers of Evil (although an uncensored version did not appear in France until the twentieth century) and briefly considered applying for election to the French Academy. From 1862 to 1864, the twin plagues of poor health and poverty continued to unsettle him, but he was able to focus his mood into his final collection of poetry, Le Spleen de Paris (1869; Paris Spleen, 1869, 1905), a volume that dealt with the unreal city of T. S. Eliot’s vision. He attempted to capitalize on his notoriety by scheduling a lecture tour of Belgium, and when this failed he remained in Europe until July, 1866, suffering from the effects of a stroke. His health worsened steadily, and he died in Paris in 1867.


Along with his transoceanic double, his brother in letters Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire was the model for the nineteenth century archetype of the doomed artist, driven by an implacable destiny while struggling against his own self-destructive tendencies, an ignorant public, and a reactionary literary establishment. Underrated and misunderstood in his own time, Baudelaire—like Poe—had mythic aspects of his life that have a perverse allure that captures the imagination; but—like Poe—the perfected originality of his art, and the intensity and seriousness of his approach to his profession (which he listed as “lyric poet” on a passport application), have ultimately been recognized as the real attributes of his genius.

Baudelaire was one of the inventors of the Romantic attitude which has shaped and influenced the manner in which artists see themselves in relation to their work to this day. As Victor Brombert notes, Baudelaire’s poetry defined Romantic sensibility in some of its most crucial aspects. The obsessive fascination with “erotic exoticism”; the urge to escape from the world while, in turn, being lured into its debauchery; the urge to follow the imagination to the furthest ranges of the conceivable; the sense of the artist as simultaneous victim and tyrant; the inclination toward prophetic affirmation of poetic destiny; a pervasive sense of sadness leading to strange beauty and an expression of the artist’s awareness that he is damned by a kind of hyperconsciousness are some of the elements of the Romantic vision which Baudelaire fashioned.

On the other hand, as T. S. Eliot’s well-known essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” argues, Baudelaire had other attributes that are ordinarily included under the rubric of classical constraint. Baudelaire’s background and early formal education enabled him to use the French language with subtlety, elegance, and precision. His command of traditional poetic technique permitted him to employ a philosophy of composition that called for the accumulation of effect through a mastery of poetic means that would overcome or transform the ugly into the beautiful, the evil into the potentially divine. Even as Baudelaire’s life and work projected a counterstrain to classical aesthetics which has become a permanent part of modern artistic thinking, his ability to use the resources of language with a meticulous awareness of linguistic traditions demonstrates that placing the self at the center of experience does not mean that a refinement of craft is obsolete. The power of art, he believed, could enable mankind to transcend the limits of an inherently evil world and a fundamentally sinful human condition. This belief was based on his Catholic background, but Baudelaire’s real religion was poetry, and his own work was its truest sacrament.

As Peter Quennel observes, Baudelaire was “the chief accuser of the modern world, yet he is also its most patriotic citizen.” Baudelaire never felt really comfortable in his world, but he knew how to make the most of his life there. “One must always be drunk,” he advised. “To escape being the martyred slaves of time, be continually drunk. On wine, poetry, or virtue, whatever you fancy.” For Baudelaire himself, an intoxication with art was the only form of addiction that provided true satisfaction.


Baudelaire, Charles. The Flowers of Evil. New York: New Directions, 1955. A complete bilingual edition which includes the work of many translators. The best single source for Baudelaire’s poetry in English.

Baudelaire, Charles. Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire. New York: Grove Press, 1974. A collection of translations by Geoffrey Wagner which concentrate chiefly on the erotic poetry, including some of the poems banned from the 1857 edition of Flowers of Evil. Includes an excellent introduction by Enid Starkie, which covers Baudelaire’s life and work.

Brombert, Victor. The Hidden Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. Described as “a close reading of a high order,” Brombert places Baudelaire within the context of Romanticism in “an uncommonly thoughtful commentary on the greatest of all ages of French literature.”

Butor, Michel. Histoire Extraordinaire: Essay on a Dream of Baudelaire. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Jonathan Cape, 1969. An approach to Baudelaire from the underside. Written in a very contemporary, somewhat fragmented style, this is a most perceptive psychoanalytic study. Speculative, daring, and sympathetic, it covers Baudelaire’s life and his relationship with Poe, and captures the spirit of Baudelaire’s work.

de Jonge, Alex. Baudelaire: Prince of Clouds. New York: Paddington Press, 1976. Probably the best biography of Baudelaire in English. De Jonge is an intelligent and understanding biographer and translator, who has utilized the best biographical work prior to his own book and included many of Baudelaire’s own letters to substantiate his observations.

Poulet, Georges. Exploding Poetry: Baudelaire/Rimbaud. Translated by Françoise Meltzer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. A study of the affinities between two poets from the perspective of a critic who is firmly located in the cerebral realm of contemporary French literary criticism. Much arcane terminology combined with much critical insight. Tends toward the philosophical but offers some quite worthwhile conjectures for the advanced student.

Ruff, Marcel A. Baudelaire. Translated by Agnes Kertesz. New York: New York University Press, 1966. An extremely thorough but very readable biography, based on sound scholarship, sympathetic understanding, and an appealing basic decency. A good companion to de Jonge’s more dramatic presentation, with a list of all Baudelaire’s publications, including dates and other important annotations.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Baudelaire. Translated by Martin Turnell. London: Horizon, 1949. One brilliant, quirky, singular genius regarding another. Sometimes incisive, sometimes wrongheaded, almost always fascinating if not always reliable.

Starkie, Enid. Baudelaire. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1933. Accurately described as the “foremost modern English authority on Baudelaire’s life and work,” Starkie writes a groundbreaking work which has provided an essential foundation for all Baudelaire studies in the United States and the United Kingdom. Still unsurpassed for breadth of coverage and intelligent commentary on the poetry and its sources in Baudelaire’s life.

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