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Charles Baudelaire: The Dark Genius of the City of Light

One of the greatest French poets of the 19th century, often called “the father of modern criticism,” who shocked his contemporaries with his visions of lust and decay. In his own time Baudelaire was largely ignored. With Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine he formed the so-called Decadents. Baudelaire argued in LE PEINTRE DE LA VIE MODERNE (1863, The Painter of Modern Life) in favor of artificiality, stating that vice is natural in that it is selfish, while virtue is artificial because we must restrain our natural impulses in order to be good. The snobbish aesthete, the dandy, was for Baudelaire the ultimate hero and the best proof of an absolutely purposeless existence: he is a gentleman who never becomes vulgar and always preserves the cool smile of the stoic.

“There can be no progress (real, that is, moral) except in the individual and by the individual himself.” (from Mon Coeur Mis À Nu, 1897)

Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris, where he lived most of his life. His father, François, was a sixty-year-old ex-priest and widower when he married Caroline Dufaÿs, a penniless orphan, who was twenty-six. François died in 1827. For some years Baudelaire was on good terms with his stepfather, Major Jacques Aupick, but in the late 1830s they started to have difficulties. Aupick, who became a senator, died in 1857. Baudelaire worshipped his mother and could not accept her second marriage. In ON COEUR MIS À NU (1897) he wrote: “Sense of solitude from childhood. In spite of the family – and above all when surrounded by children of my own age – I had a sense of being destined to eternal solitude.” Jean-Paul Sartre has argued in Baudelaire (1947), that due to the sudden break with his mother and the grief it caused, Baudelaire “made the mortifying discovery that he was a single person, that his life had been given him for nothing.”

Baudelaire was sent to boarding school. He studied at the Collège Royal, Lyon (1832-36), and Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Paris (1936-39), from where he was expelled. His intention from an early age was to live by writing, but still he enrolled as a law student in 1840 at the École de Droit. Probably at this time he became addicted to opium. He also contracted syphilis, which turned out to be lethal. During this period Baudelaire fell heavily into debt; he never finished his law studies.

In 1841, Baudelaire was sent on a voyage to India, but he stopped off at Maurius. On his return to Paris in 1842, Baudelaire met Jeanne Duval, a woman of mixed race, who became his mistress and inspiration for his poem ‘Black Venus’. Other women, who inspired his poems, were Mme Sabatier, and the actress Marie Daubrun, but for most of his life Baudelaire maintained a relationship with Jeanne. Baudelaire lived some years on his inheritance from his father. Two years later Baudelaire was deprived, by law, of control over this income by the Counseil Judicaire. After the decision, Baudelaire constantly turned to his mother when he needed money or worried about his health or was bored – and he was always burdened with debts, partly because he tried to keep up the extravagant lifestyle of a dandy.

In the late 1840s, Baudelaire became involved in politics. He fought at the barricades during the revolution of 1848 and in the same year he also cofounded the journal Le Salut Public. He was associated with Proudhon and opposed the coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in December 1851. After this tumultuous period, Baudelaire remained aloof from politics and adopted an increasingly reactionary attitude. In the 1850s he was involved with Marie Daubrun (1854-55) and Apollonie Sabatier (1857).

Baudelaire published his first novel, the autobiographical LA FANFARIO, in 1847. From 1852 to 1865 he was occupied in translating Edgar Allan Poe’s writings. Especially the essays of the American writer influnced his aesthetic principles. In Poe, Baudelaire found a kindred spirit, whose concept of beauty was closely connected with melanchly, lost happiness, and regret. Baudelaire said, that “every lyric poet by virtue of his nature inevitably effects a return to the lost Eden.”

LES FLEURS DU MAL (The Flowers of Evil) appeared on June 1857, and in July the Ministry of the Interior banned the volume, accusing the author of “outrage to public decency”. All involved – author, publisher, and printer – were prosecuted and found guilty of obscenity and blasphemy. “You – hypocrite Reader – my double – my brother!” Six poems were deleted from the work: ‘Lesbos’, ‘Femmes damnées – Delphine et Hippolyte’, ‘Le léthé’, ‘À celle qui est trop gaie’, ‘Les Bijoux’, and ‘Les Métamorphoses du vampire’. In the prefatory poem of The Flowers of Evil Baudelaire makes his reader as guilty of sins and lies as the poet: “If poison, arson, sex, narcotics, knives / have not yet ruined us and stitched their quick, / loud patterns on the canvas of our lives, / it is because our souls are still too sick.” As a contrast to his morbid images of perils of modern city the poem ‘Invitation to the Voyage’ calls to a distant land, where is nothing but “grace and measure, / richness, quietness, and pleasure.”

Baudelaire was the first to equate modern, artificial, and decadent. Himself he saw as a fallen angel. Love meant the loss of innocence – “faire l’amour, c’est faire le mal,” he wrote. But love is also the highest pleasure, doing evil intentionally is a source of lust. He felt sympathy for the prostitute, who revolts against the bourgeois family. Baudelaire once stated that “after examining scrupulously the depths of my past reveries, I realized that I have always been obsessed by the impossibility of understanding some of man’s actions or thoughts save by the hypothesis of the intervention of some exterior evil force.”

The second edition of The Flowers of Evil, lacking the condemned pieces but with new poems was published in 1861. At that time Baudelaire was also known as a critic. Among his friends was Édouard Manet (1832-83), whose works were frequently rejected by the salon jury. After the Salon of 1845, Baudelaire prohesized: “He shall be the true painter who can pull out of everyday life its epic side and make us understand just how great and poetic we are in our neckties and polished boots.” Manet also found a defender from his friend Émile Zola. “Goya,” Baudelaire wrote in The Painter of Modern Life (1863), “is always a great and often a terrifying artists.” Goya’s etchings also inspired some of his poems in Les fleurs du mal.

In 1862 a minor stroke or some other sudden sign of deteriorating health gave him a “warning” of the consequences of alcohol, opium, and hashish. In the same year Manet painted Jeanne’s portrait, ‘La Maïtresse de Baudelaire’.The remaining years of Baudelaire’s life were darkened by despair and financial difficulties. He returned to Paris in 1866 from an extended stay in Brussels, where he had lived at a hotel called Le Grand Miroir. From a graveyard he captured a bat, which he kept in his room, feeding it bread and milk. During this miserable period he also visited Mechelen, Antwerp, Ghent, and Liège. Baudelaire was already seriously ill and he stayed in a sanatorium. His hatred against the Belgians Baudelaire poured in a pamphlet or travel book entitled PAUVRE BELGIQUE! He condemned the whole nation and especially the city of Brussels, its men, women, children, streets, food, customs, journalism, and politics. Baudelaire did not finish his book, an unique collection of insults, but its material has been printed in different editions. It was not until the birth of the EU, when Brussels started to provoke similar reactions.

Baudelaire died in his mother’s arms on August 31, 1867, in a Paris clinic. “We’re obviously destined to love one another, to end our lives as honestly and gently as possible,” Baudelaire had written in a letter to her. “And yet, in the awful circumstances in which I find myself, I’m convinced that one of us will kill the other.” The posthumous edition of Flowers of Evil appeared in 1868, and added more than 25 new poems. Baudelaire had a deep influence on a generation of poets in the late 19th century, coming into vogue at a time when “art for art’s sake” was a dogma. In England he was advertised by Swinburne (1837-1909). In his essay T.S. Eliot, a religious person himself, sees that Baudelaire’s Satanism was the product of partial belief. “What is significant about Baudelaire is his theological innocence. He is discovering Christianity for himself; he is not assuming it as a fashion or weighing social or political reasons, or any other accidents. He is beginning, in a way, at the beginning; and being a discoverer, is not altogether certain what he is exploring and to what it leads…” (Eliot in Selected Essays, new edition, 1960)

Although Baudelaire is chiefly known from his poems, his critical essays have also gained attention of researchers. His essays on art have been published under the collective title CURIOSITÉS ESTHÉTIQUES, and those on literature and music under the title L’ART ROMANTIQUE. Baudelaire’s starting point for his aesthetic analysis was the lived experience, not principles of aesthetics or abstract preconceptions about the beautiful. In 1846 he condemned philosophical poetry as “a false genre” and saw that art has its value in itself. “In recent years we have heard it said in thousand different ways, ‘Copy nature; just copy nature.’ … And this doctrine (the enemy of art) was alleged to apply not only to painting but to all the arts.” He was impressed by Wagner’s music, enthusiastic of Poe, fascinated by the suggestiveness of caricatures, but unsympathetic to Courbet and realism. In an article he noted the emergence of photography with disdain. Realism was for Baudelaire a “disgusting insult thrown into the face of all analysts” and photography continued this belief in Nature: “A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude, Daguerre was his Messiah.”


Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre,

Et mon sein, où chacun s’est meurtri tour à tour,

Est fait pour inspirer au poète un amour

Eternel et muet ainsi que la matière.

Je trône dans l’azur comme un sphinx incompris;

J’unis un cœur de neige à la blancheur des cygnes;

Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes;

Et jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris.

Les poètes, devant mes grandes attitudes,

Que j’ai, pour fasciner ces dociles amant,

De purs miroirs qui font toutes choses plus belles:

Mes yeux, mes larges yeux aux clartés éternelles!

Translated into English …


I am beautiful, O mortals! as a dream stone

And my breast, where everyone was bruised in turn,

Is to inspire a love of the poet

Lord and dumb as well as the subject.

I sit in the sky like a sphinx misunderstood;

I add a heart of snow to the whiteness of swans;

I hate the movement that moves the lines;

And I never cry and I never laugh.

Poets, to my great attitudes,

I have, to fascinate these docile lover

Pure mirrors that make everything more beautiful:

My eyes, my wide eyes by the light eternal!


– Reprinted by Literary Weekly for Daily Literary Quote


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