Poet: Charles Baudelaire
Date of Birth: 9 April 1821, Paris, France
Died: 31 August 1867, Paris, France
Baudelaire was a poet, essayist, art critic and a pioneer in the translation of Edgar Allan Poe. His most notable work, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), a book of lyric poetry in which the author expresses the changing nature of beauty in the mid -19th century Paris during a period of rapid industrialization.
Baudelaire was educated as a boarder in Lyon, he was erratic in his studies, sometimes a diligent student and sometime a lazy one. Later he studied law at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Upon gaining his degree in 1839 he chose to pursue a literary career rather than one in law or diplomacy.
In the hope of ending Baudelaire’s dissolute habits, his stepfather sent him to Calcutta, India in 1841. A trip that provided the poet with many strong impressions of sea life, sailing and exotic ports he later used in his poetry. On returning to Paris and her taverns he began working on some poems for ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’. He inherited a sizeable amount of money when he was 21, but had squandered it within a few years. His family obtained a decree to secure his property in trust which Baudelaire bitterly resented.
In Artistic circles Baudelaire was known as a dandy and free spender, going through most of his inheritance and allowance in a short time. His mistress, Jeanne Duval, was rejected by his family who saw her as a ‘Black Venus, draining Baudelaire of his money at every opportunity. During this time Baudelaire also made a suicide attempt.
Baudelaire suffered with poor health, debt, and irregular literary output during the 1850s. Moving from one lodging to another to escape creditors he undertook many projects he couldn’t complete; however, he did finish translating the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. His stepfather died in 1857 but there was no mention of Baudelaire in the will, however the poet was heartened that the divisions between himself and his mother might be repaired.
Baudelaire’s first published work the art review ‘Salon of 1945’, under the pseudonym Baudelaire Dufaÿs, attracted attention for its boldness. His novel critical opinions included his championing of Delacroix. Baudelaire wrote his second Salon review in 1846, gaining additional credibility as a critic and advocate of Romanticism. In 1947 Baudelaire published the novella La Fanfarlo.
A slow and very attentive worker, Baudelaire was often side-tracked by indolence, emotional distress, and illness, and Les Fleurs du mal was not published until 1857, his first and most renown volume of poetry. Some of the poems included in the volume had already appeared in the Revue des deux mondes in 1855, and some had appeared as fugitive verse in various French magazines during the previous decade. The principal themes of sex and death were considered scandalous at the time. He also alluded to lesbianism, sacred and profane love, melancholy, metamorphosis, lost innocence and the corruption of the city. Baudelaire’s use of imagery of the sense of smell and fragrances to evoke feelings of nostalgia and intimacy was particularly notable.
Baudelaire with his publisher and the printer were successfully prosecuted for creating an offense against public morality. They were fined and six of the poems suppressed , but printed later as Les Épaves in 1866. Many notables rallied behind Baudelaire condemning the sentence and although he didn’t appeal the sentence his fine was reduced. Some 100 years later in 1949, he was vindicated and the judgement legally reversed.
Baudelaire went on to work on a translation and adaption of Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey. Other works that followed included Petits Poèmes en prose; a series of art reviews published in Pays, Exposition universelle; studies on Gustave Flaubert; various articles contributed to Eugene Crepet’s Poètes francais; and Les Paradis artificiels: opium et haschisch.
His ill-health, long-term drug use, stress and poverty took its toll on Baudelaire and by 1859 he had noticeably aged. His mother relented and let him live with her at Honfleur. In the seaside town Baudelaire was at peace and productive, the poem Le Voyage being one example of his efforts during that time. Baudelaire became an ardent supporter of Richard Wagner in 1860.
Baudelaire financial position worsened, particularly after Poulet Malassis, his publisher, went bankrupt in 1861. He left Paris in 1864 for Belgium in hope of selling the rights to his works and to give lectures. His long-standing relationship with Jeanne Duval continued, and Baudelaire continued to help her until the end of his life. Relationships with the actress Marie Daubrun and the courtesan Apollonie Sabatier gave Baudelaire much inspiration but no lasting satisfaction. Before travelling to Brussels Baudelaire was already a regular user of opium and once in the city he began drinking to excess leading to a massive stroke in 1866 followed by paralysis. He received the last rites of the Catholic Church after a year of aphasias and the last two years of his life were spent in a semi-paralyzed state in ‘maisons de santé’ in both Brussels and Paris, where he died in August 1867. Baudelaire is interred in the Cimitière du Montparnasse, Paris, France.
The Dance of Death
Carrying bouquet, and handkerchief, and gloves,
Proud of her height as when she lived, she moves
With all the careless and high-stepping grace,
And the extravagant courtesan’s thin face.
Was slimmer waist e’er in a ball-room wooed?
Her floating robe, in royal amplitude,
Falls in deep folds around a dry foot, shod
With a bright flower-like shoe that gems the sod.
The swarms that hum about her collar-bones
As the lascivious streams caress the stones,
Conceal from every scornful jest that flies,
Her gloomy beauty; and her fathomless eyes
Are made of shade and void; with flowery sprays
Her skull is wreathed artistically, and sways,
Feeble and weak, on her frail vertebrae.
O charm of nothing decked in folly! they
Who laugh and name you a Caricature,
They see not, they whom flesh and blood allure,
The nameless grace of every bleached, bare bone,
That is most dear to me, tall skeleton!
Come you to trouble with your potent sneer
The feast of Life! or are you driven here,
To Pleasure’s Sabbath, by dead lusts that stir
And goad your moving corpse on with a spur?
Or do you hope, when sing the violins,
And the pale candle-flame lights up our sins,
To drive some mocking nightmare far apart,
And cool the flame hell lighted in your heart?
Fathomless well of fault and foolishness!
Eternal alembic of antique distress!
Still o’er the curved, white trellis of your sides
The sateless, wandering serpent curls and glides.
And truth to tell, I fear lest you should find,
Among us here, no lover to your mind;
Which of these hearts beat for the smile you gave?
The charms of horror please none but the brave.
Your eyes’ black gulf, where awful broodings stir,
Brings giddiness; the prudent reveller
Sees, while a horror grips him from beneath,
The eternal smile of thirty-two white teeth.
For he who has not folded in his arms
A skeleton, nor fed on graveyard charms,
Recks not of furbelow, or paint, or scent,
When Horror comes the way that Beauty went.
O irresistible, with fleshless face,
Say to these dancers in their dazzled race:
“Proud lovers with the paint above your bones,
Ye shall taste death, musk scented skeletons!
Withered Antinoьs, dandies with plump faces,
Ye varnished cadavers, and grey Lovelaces,
Ye go to lands unknown and void of breath,
Drawn by the rumour of the Dance of Death.
From Seine’s cold quays to Ganges’ burning stream,
The mortal troupes dance onward in a dream;
They do not see, within the opened sky,
The Angel’s sinister trumpet raised on high.
In every clime and under every sun,
Death laughs at ye, mad mortals, as ye run;
And oft perfumes herself with myrrh, like ye
And mingles with your madness, irony!”