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.
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.
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.