The Life and Literature of Charles Baudelaire

The Life and Literature of Charles Baudelaire

by Debaduti Dey

Charles Baudelaire was one of the greatest French poets of the 19th century, even though he is not given as much recognition as his contemporary Victor Hugo. Baudelaire ushered modernity in poetry and rebelled against French normativity. One of the proponents of French symbolism, though he himself never associated with it, Baudelaire led a colourful, decadent life. The origin of the word ‘modernity’ is often attributed to him, which for him was art and expression which captured the transient experiences of urban life.

On his 200th birth anniversary, we remember the renowned poet, essayist, critic, and translator of the 19th century.

The Early Life of Charles Baudelaire:

The French poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire was born on 9th April in 1821 to Joseph-François Baudelaire and Caroline (née Dufaÿs). His father died in 1827, when Baudelaire was still a child. His mother remarried the next year, to  Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Aupick, his stepfather, who would later become an important French ambassador.

This perceived abandonment by his mother has been cited as a cause for trauma suffered by Baudelaire. His relationship with Caroline would change. In the future, he would frequently ask for financial help from her. In one letter Baudelaire once wrote,

“There was in my childhood a period of passionate love for you.”

Baudelaire received his education at Lyons and was described by a pupil, at the age of 14: “much more refined and distinguished than any of our fellow pupils...we are bound to one another...by shared tastes and sympathies, the precocious love of fine works of literature.”

Baudelaire went on to study law at Lycée Louis-le-Grand. During his college years, Baudelaire was living the decadent life, by indulging in alcohol and hiring prostitutes. He also incurred debt, largely owing to his sartorial choices. After graduating from Lycée in 1839, he complained to his brother:

“I don't feel I have a vocation for anything.”

Baudelaire shared an affectionate but tumultuous relationship with his stepfather. Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Aupick had some strong opinions on what Baudelaire’s career should be and that did not sit well with the young man. So, he was sent to Calcutta, India, in 1841, by Aupick, hoping that his stepson would get rid of his foibles.

That was not to be. Baudelaire returned after having ‘jumped ship’ to Mauritius and his poems would now bear testimony to the influence of his ‘exotic’ voyage. (Of course, to the regular white man, the East has always been ‘exotic.’)

In 1842, Baudelaire received his inheritance, as he was the sole heir of the family. Baudelaire, however, would go through his inheritance faster than you could spell his same, and in an act to prevent him from squandering his money any further, his family would keep the property in a trust.

Baudelaire’s reputation in the literary circles became that of a ‘dandy’, one who would splurge on clothes, books, expensive food, and more.

He, however, was also prone to intense melancholy and probably suffered from some mental health problems which were duly ignored in 19th-century France. Baudelaire had a mistress, Jeanne Duval, an actress and a dancer of Haitian-French ancestry. She was described as “Black Venus” by Baudelaire’s mother Caroline who claimed that Duval had “tortured him in every way” and provoked him to spend more. Baudelaire allegedly tried to commit suicide during this period. However, it must be noted that often women were blamed for a man’s illness or failings (they still are) especially as Duval was his mistress.

Whatever the truth might be, it cannot be denied that Duval inspired Baudelaire to write several erotic poems. These poems had exotic undertones, which, from a postcolonial perspective, one might question; especially when France was already establishing colonies in several parts of the world during the time of their creation.

Baudelaire’s family would become a distinct influence on his poems. His financial problems would make him more dependent on his mother and incite feelings of hatred and envy towards his stepfather.

Literary Career of Charles Baudelaire:

After his return from the South Seas, in 1842, Baudelaire was determined to be a poet. From 1842 to 1846, he was engrossed in composing poems, the majority of which are included in Les Fleurs du mal. The poems were shocking, and were meant to “represent the agitations and melancholies of modern youth.”

In Paris, Baudelaire was first established as an art critic. His poetry was developed and received by Parisian readers by the 1850s, as his career as a poet had several distractions in between. Though he had begun writing early in his career as a baccalauréat, it was in 1857 that the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal would be published.

Les Fleurs du mal, translated to ‘The Flowers of Evil’ in English, was received by contemporaries with “immense, prodigious, unexpected, mingled with admiration and with some indefinable anxious fear.” Gustave Flaubert, the writer of Madame Bovary, however, came to his defence and wrote to him:

"You have found a way to rejuvenate Romanticism...You are as unyielding as marble, and as penetrating as an English mist."

Charles Baudelaire wrote about several themes, which were scandalous and controversial for 19th century french society. His poems were sensual, modern and reflected the complexities of urban lives. It dealt with the complex emotions of Baudelaire himself, hidden behind symbolism and metaphors. Though he never claimed to be a part of the French Symbolist Movement, his name is included in the canon of work along with Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud, among others.

“By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable… This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with. By neglecting it, you cannot fail to tumble into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty, like that of the time the first woman before the fall of man”

- ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, Baudelaire

Baudelaire was also a translator and charmed by the works of American poet Edgar Allan Poe, he was able to translate his writings for French readers. Both writers had a strange fascination with morbidity which was reflected in their literary works. For instance, Baudelaire wrote of a woman whose body is infested with maggots in Une Charogne (A Carcass, 1857), as he went on to describe in graphic detail the body to his lover.

“Life is a hospital,” he wrote, “in which all the patients are obsessed with changing their beds. One would prefer to suffer beside the fire, another thinks he’d recover sooner if placed by the window.”

Baudelaire’s poems marked a change in French literature. The poems were now focused more on the internal conflicts of being human, deriving inspiration from the emotional turmoils within. His poems may not have been very popular in his lifetime, but the modern reader is quite taken with the themes of his works like lesbianism, ennui, and melancholy.

“When a heavy lid of low sky

covers a soul moaning with ennui and fright,

and the whole horizon is rounded by a black day pouring down,

sadder than any night;”

- ‘Spleen: When a Heavy Lid of Low Sky…’

T.S Eliot borrowed from him to describe the interwar period in ‘The Wasteland’ as: “Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère!” (Hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother). Angela Carter’s Black Venus gives a feminist portrayal of his mistress, Jeanne Duval. He has also influenced the German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, with his concept of the ‘flaneur’ – a decidedly urban person idling about town. Lemony Snicket alluded to him in A Series of Unfortunate Events with the Baudelaire children being named after him.

Baudelaire’s diction is encapsulated in this quote:

“Always be a poet, even in prose.”

He was also in sympathy with the Revolution, as Richard Burton notes in his book, Baudelaire and the Second Republic: Writing and Revolution (1988). Thinkers like François Marie Charles Fourier, Félicité Lamennais, and Emanuel Swedenborg influenced him greatly. He founded a short-lived French Revolutionary newspaper and also participated in the revolutions in February and June, “fighting on a barricade,” as testified by some of his contemporaries.

Il faut aller fusiller le général Aupick” (We must go shoot General Aupick) shouted Baudelaire at the barricades, thus proving that his hatred for his stepfather was in fact one of his motivations to protest.

“It is the hour to be drunken! to escape being the martyred slaves of time, be ceaselessly drunk. On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, as you wish.”

Charles Baudelaire was a teenager rebelling against the authoritative figures in his life, and he went against the wishes of his stepfather to pursue literature as a career. While that may not have made his parents very happy (“Oh, what grief! If Charles had let himself be guided by his stepfather, his career would have been very different...He would not have left a name in literature, it is true, but we should have been happier, all three of us,” said his mother), for the literature enthusiasts following him, he made a fortunate choice, gifting them the gift of his poems. Except for a complaint or two from some readers, it is safe to say, Baudelaire’s ideas and poems have stood the test of time.

- Debaduti Dey

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