Charles Baudelaire

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Charles Baudelaire, photograph taken by Nadar.
Charles Baudelaire, photograph taken by Nadar.

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Charles Pierre Baudelaire (April 9, 1821August 31, 1867) was one of the most influential French poets of the nineteenth Century. He was also an important critic and translator.


Life and work

Baudelaire was born in Paris. His father, who was a senior civil servant and an amateur artist, died in 1827, and in the following year his mother married a lieutenant colonel named Aupick, who later became a French ambassador to various courts. Baudelaire was educated in Lyon and at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris. On gaining his degree in 1839 he decided to embark upon a literary career, and for the next two years led a somewhat irregular life. It is believed he contracted syphilis about this time. To straighten him out, his guardians, in 1841, sent him on a voyage to India. When he returned to Paris, after less than a year's absence, he was of age; but in a year or two his extravagance threatened to exhaust his small inheritance, and his family obtained a decree to place his property in trust. It is in this period that he meets Jeanne Duval, who was to be his life long romantic association.

Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1848.
Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1848.

His art reviews of 1845 and 1846 attracted immediate attention for the boldness with which he propounded his views: many of his critical opinions were novel in their time, but have since been generally accepted. He took part with the revolutionaries in 1848, and for some years was interested in republican politics, but his permanent convictions were aristocratic and Catholic. Baudelaire was a slow and fastidious worker, and it was not until 1857 that he produced his first and most famous volume of poems, Les fleurs du mal ("The Flowers of Evil"). Some of these had already appeared in the Revue des deux mondes ("Review of the two worlds"), when they were published by Baudelaire's friend Auguste Poulet Malassis, who had inherited a printing business at Alencon. The poems found a small but appreciative audience, but greater public attention was given to their subject matter. The principal themes of sex and death were considered scandalous, and the book became a by-word for unwholesomeness among mainstream critics of the day. Baudelaire, his publisher, and the printer were successfully prosecuted for creating an offense against public morals. In the poem "Au lecteur" ("To the Reader") that prefaces Les fleurs du mal, Baudelaire accuses his readers of hypocrisy and of being as guilty of sins and lies as the poet:

... If rape or arson, poison, or the knife
Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff
Of this drab canvas we accept as life—
It is because we are not bold enough!
(Roy Campbell's translation)

Six of the poems were suppressed, but printed later as Les Epaves ("The Wrecks") (Brussels, 1866). Another edition of Les fleurs du mal, without these poems, but with considerable additions, appeared in 1861.

His other works include Petits Poèmes en prose ("Small Prose poems"); a series of art reviews published in the Pays, Exposition universelle ("Country, World Fair"); studies on Gustave Flaubert (in Lartisge, October 18, 1857); on Théophile Gautier (Revue contemporaine, September, 1858); various articles contributed to Eugene Crepet's Poètes francais; Les Paradis artificiels: opium et haschisch ("French poets; Artificial Paradises: opium and hashish") (1860); and Un Dernier Chapitre de l'histoire des oeuvres de Balzac ("A Final Chapter of the history of works of Balzac") (1880), originally an article entitled "Comment on paye ses dettes quand on a du génie" ("How his debts are paid when one has genius"), in which his criticism turns against his friends Honoré de Balzac, Théophile Gautier, and Gerard de Nerval.

Baudelaire had learned English in his childhood, and Gothic novels, such as Lewis's The Monk, became some of his favorite reading matter. In 1846 and 1847 he became acquainted with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, in which he found tales and poems which had, he claimed, long existed in his own brain, but had never taken shape. From this time till 1865 he was largely occupied with his translated versions of Poe's works, which were widely praised. These were published as Histoires extraordinaires ("Extraordinary stories") (1852), Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires ("New extraordinary stories") (1857), Aventures d'Arthur Gordon Pym (see The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym), Eureka, and Histoires grotesques et sérieuses ("Grotesque and serious stories") (1865). Two essays on Poe are to be found in his Oeuvres complètes ("Complete works") (vols. v. and vi.).

Meanwhile his financial difficulties increased, particularly after his publisher Poulet Malassis went bankrupt in 1861, and in 1864 he left Paris for Belgium, partly in the hope of selling the rights to his works. For many years he had a long-standing relationship with a Mulatto woman, whom he helped to the end of his life. He had recourse to opium, and in Brussels he began to drink to excess. Paralysis followed, and the last two years of his life were spent in "maisons de santé" in Brussels and in Paris, where he died on August 31, 1867. Many of his works were published posthumously.

He is buried in the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris.


Baudelaire is one of the most famous decadent poets, but before the 20th century, when his work underwent considerable re-evaluation, he was generally considered by many to be merely a drug addict and a very vulgar author.


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This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.

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