Although dismissed as morbid by many of his contemporaries, Baudelaire was actually lancing the boils of neurotic repression. He confronted images of gross flesh, the intoxications of strange touch and smell, forbidden sensual desires and fantasies; he celebrated exotic but voraciously consuming women, cats and tigresses who clawed their way to his heart. By flaunting such forbidden flights of fancy in an age of bourgeois respectability and hypocritical religiosity, Baudelaire was updating the liberating imperative of Romanticism.
He adopted the macabre from Edgar Allan Poe--a writer he introduced to his native France and whose influence on French literature has been immense--sexualized it, and then grafted it to the hauteur and defiance of Byronic independence.
Baudelaire was not merely glorifying art in the manner of the aestheticists who followed him later in the 19th century. His unique manipulations of Romantic ideas and attitudes broke important ground in the historical development of literary modernism. It is Baudelaire who must receive credit for much of what we have come to take for granted in modern poetry: stark and bold images sharply contrasted, richly textured lines that reward close reading with symbolic discovery, and a sense of form and control that seems to validate the modern artist’s right to deal with matters usually considered too unconventional for public discourse.
The impact of Baudelaire’s art has been immense; his...
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