Charles Baudelaire, Poet of Corruption

Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821, the son of a senior civil servant in his sixties. His mother Caroline was much younger than her husband, and had only been twenty-six when she married his father, Francois, two years earlier. She was an orphan with no prospects, which may explain why she married a much older man, and Charles was their only child. Charles seems to have been severely spoilt by his mother in his youth, something which only intensified in 1827 when Francois died at the age of 68. In 1828 Caroline remarried to Jacques Aupick, a half-Irish military officer. Like Caroline he was an orphan, but his evident talent meant that his lack of family support was little hindrance to his military progression. By 1839 he would have achieved the rank of general, a momentous achievement for one from such a humble background.

Charles was a smart and gifted student, though given to contrariness and laziness. He generally did well at school in Lyons and Paris, with his natural intelligence helping to counteract this lack of dedication. Despite this, at the age of 17 he was expelled from school for insolence after he refused to give the teacher a note that he had been passed by a classmate. He had been studying law, as his step-father hoped for him to become a lawyer. Despite his expulsion, he still took and passed the baccalauréat the same year. However he ignored his stepfather’s wishes, and instead decided to become a writer. To his step-father’s view this seemed to consist mostly of sleeping with prostitutes (probably getting the gonorrhea and syphilis he suffered later in life) and running up debts. In 1841 the General tried to have him sent to India, in the hope of settling him down by broadening his horizons. However Baudelaire had no wish to go, and jumped ship at the French colony of St Denis (on the island of Reunion off the coast of Madagascar) in order to make his own way back to Paris. He never forgave his stepfather for forcing him into the trip.

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Baudelaire in 1844, aged 23, painted by Emile Deroy.

Relations between the two worsened in 1842 when Baudelaire inherited his dead father’s fortune – just under a hundred thousand francs. In today’s money that would be around $14 million (as closely as can be calculated, anyway). That was a lot of money for a young man, but by 1844 he had already managed to spend half of his capital. His stepfather decided he could not stand by and let this happen, so he went to court and had a trustee appointed to manage Baudelaire’s fortune. The young man received a generous allowance from the interest, enough to ensure he never needed to work for a living. Still, he deeply resented the interference in his life, and later lamented that he would have been a better person if he had been allowed to fail on his own terms.

The brakes that the (relative) lack of funds put on his dissolution does seem to have helped jumpstart his writing career, and in 1845 he published his first work, a review of the works exhibited at the 1845 Paris Salon. The sharp analysis and insights he showed brought him a great deal of attention, and his followup review in 1846 established him as one of the foremost critical minds of the time. In a characteristic fashion, after following up this success with a novella in 1847 he then failed to publish anything more for several years. He participated in the revolution of 1848 against the constitutional monarchy, reportedly fighting on a barricade. In true Baudelaire fashion, he even tried to organise a squad of revolutionaries to go and shoot his step-father.

Jeanne Duval -
A sketch of Jeanne by Baudelaire.

Her complexion is pale and warm; the dark enchantress
Affects a noble air with the movements of her neck.
Tall and slender, she walks like a huntress;
Her smile is calm and her eye confident.

The subject of his 1847 novella was the great love of Baudelaire’s life, the dancer Jeanne Duval. She was born in Haiti, a former French colony that had declared its independence from France forty years before. Like many on that island, she had an uncertain mix of European and African ancestry. She moved to France in 1842, [1] and met Baudelaire soon after. The two began a stormy and passionate romance that would continue on and off again for the the next twenty years, and would inspire a great deal of Baudelaire’s poetry. This was not an unalloyed homage – to him his “Black Venus” represented corruption and danger as much as romantic ideals. She was not the only woman in his life, of course. He had other mistresses, most notably the courtesan and artist Aglaé “Apollonie” Sabatier, and the actress Marie Daubrun. Still, the only woman who as much influence on him than Jeanne was his beloved mother. She, of course, hated Jeanne. That and Baudelaire’s feud with his stepfather caused a rift between them, but when General Aupick died in 1857 the two reconciled.

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The author’s portrait in Les Fleurs de Mal

1857 was also the year that Baudelair published his most famous work, Fleurs de Mal – “Flowers of Evil”. It was a collection of the poetry he had been writing for the last fifteen years. The main themes of the poems were sex, death, murder and corruption. Reaction was decidedly mixed. Some, such as Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo, declared them works of genius. Others saw them as nothing but obscenity, and Baudelaire was prosecuted for the content of thirteen of the poems under the censorship laws of the day. He fought the censorship in court, offering three justifications for his poems. The first was that he presented vices as repellent, rather than attractive. The second was that the poems in context were less jarring than individually. The third was that other writers had gotten away with worse. While this was not the most convincing of defences, it does seem to have been at least partially successful. He was fined 300 francs, and six of the thirteen poems (one a sexually explicit lesbian love poem, another evincing a desire to murder a woman and commit necrophilia) were banned. Of course, the publicity of the trial helped to raise the profile of the book, and the same public that had lionised the Marquis de Sade the previous century helped to make the book a great success. Baudelaire himself had predicted exactly this outcome in the introduction to the book:

The Devil holds the strings which move us!
In repugnant things we discover charms;
Every day we descend a step further toward Hell,
Without horror, through gloom that stinks.

 An illustration by Carlo Farneti for the 1935 edition of Fleurs de Mall -
An illustration by Carlo Farneti for the 1935 edition of Fleurs de Mal. Source

The book was reissued with more poems in 1861, but not the banned poems. These were published in Les Epaves (”Scraps”), a collection of these six poems and several new works printed in Belgium in 1866. Most modern versions now combine the 1861 version with the “Scraps”. Baudelaire had moved to Brussels in 1864 to escape his creditors. Despite his allowance and the success of Fleurs de Mal, he still lived well beyond his means. His work during this period consisted mostly of translations, but he would often accept the advance and then abandon the work before it was complete. His drinking and opium habits had severe impacts on his health, as did the ongoing ravages of syphilis. The only translation work he completed was of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, a writer he greatly admired. This translation was what made the work available to the vast majority of French readers, and Poe’s work (which had itself been highly influenced by French writings) would go on to inspire many French writers in the years to come.

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Baudelaire in 1862. While he was a great admirer of photography, he refused to grant it credit as an artform in itself.

Apart from the publication of Les Epaves, Baudelaire’s stay in Brussels was a disaster. He had planned a series of lectures, but suffered from severe stage fright that left him unable to complete them. In 1866 Baudelaire suffered a severe stroke. His abuse of alcohol and opium had left his immune system unable to resist the ravages of syphilis any more. While he survived the immediate attack, he was left paralysed and incapable of speech. His mother came to Brussels to collect him and take him home to Paris, where he went into a care home. On August 31st 1867 he died.

In a rich, heavy soil, infested with snails,
I wish to dig my own grave, wide and deep,
Where I can at leisure stretch out my old bones
And sleep in oblivion like a shark in the wave.

It’s unclear whether Jeanne Duval predeceased him – the most common year given for her death is 1862, but the cartoonist Nadar writes of meeting her in 1870, ravaged by disease but hanging on. Biographies of Baudelaire following his death (such as by Charles Baudelaire, sa vie et son oeuvre by Charles Asselineau) tended to play up his eccentric reputation, and his name became a byword for the shocking and strange. His influence was undeniable, and writers such as the great French poet Rimbaud cited him as an inspiration for their work. His greatest legacy in the English-speaking world was his influence on TS Elliot, whose symbolism and bleakness owe a great deal to Baudelaire’s style. In his seminal work The Waste Land Elliot quotes from the introduction to Fleurs de Mal. The line sums up Baudelaire’s feeling on those who read his works and claim to feel disgust, but who keep reading regardless.

You! Hypocrite reader – my double – my brother!

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[1] She lived in Rue de la Femme-sans-tete, or the Street of the Headless Woman.