About this poet

The son of Joseph-Francois Baudelaire and Caroline Archimbaut Dufays, Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris on April 9, 1821. Baudelaire's father, who was thirty years older than his mother, died when the poet was six. Baudelaire was very close with his mother (much of what is known of his later life comes from the letters he wrote her), but was deeply distressed when she married Major Jacques Aupick. In 1833, the family moved to Lyons where Baudelaire attended a military boarding school. Shortly before graduation, he was kicked out for refusing to give up a note passed to him by a classmate. Baudelaire spent the next two years in Paris' Latin Quarter pursuing a career as a writer and accumulating debt. It is also believed that he contracted syphilis around this time.

In 1841 his parents sent him on ship to India, hoping the experience would help reform his bohemian urges. He left the ship, however, and returned to Paris in 1842. Upon his return, he received a large inheritance, which allowed him to live the life of a Parisian dandy. He developed a love for clothing and spent his days in the art galleries and cafes of Paris. He experimented with drugs such as hashish and opium. He fell in love with Jeanne Duval, who inspired the "Black Venus" section of Les Fleurs du mal. By 1844, he had spent nearly half of his inheritance. His family won a court order that appointed a lawyer to manage Baudelaire's fortune and pay him a small "allowance" for the rest of his life.

To supplement his income, Baudelaire wrote art criticism, essays, and reviews for various journals. His early criticism of contemporary French painters such as Eugene Delacroix and Gustave Courbet earned him a reputation as a discriminating if idiosyncratic critic. In 1847, he published the autobiographical novella La Fanfarlo. His first publications of poetry also began to appear in journals in the mid-1840s. In 1854 and 1855, he published translations of Edgar Allan Poe, whom he called a "twin soul." His translations were widely acclaimed.

In 1857, Auguste Poulet-Malassis published the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal. Baudelaire was so concerned with the quality of the printing that he took a room near the press to help supervise the book's production. Six of the poems, which described lesbian love and vampires, were condemned as obscene by the Public Safety section of the Ministry of the Interior. The ban on these poems was not lifted in France until 1949. In 1861, Baudelaire added thirty-five new poems to the collection. Les Fleurs du mal afforded Baudelaire a degree of notoriety; writers such as Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo wrote in praise of the poems. Flaubert wrote to Baudelaire claiming, "You have found a way to inject new life into Romanticism. You are unlike anyone else [which is the most important quality]." Unlike earlier Romantics, Baudelaire looked to the urban life of Paris for inspiration. He argued that art must create beauty from even the most depraved or "non-poetic" situations.

Les Fleurs du mal, with its explicit sexual content and juxtapositions of urban beauty and decay, only added to Baudelaire's reputation as a poéte maudit (cursed poet). Baudelaire enhanced this reputation by flaunting his eccentricities; for instance, he once asked a friend in the middle of a conversation "Wouldn't it be agreeable to take a bath with me?" Because of the abundance of stories about the poet, it is difficult to sort fact from fiction.

In the 1860s Baudelaire continued to write articles and essays on a wide range of subjects and figures. He was also publishing prose poems, which were posthumously collected in 1869 as Petits poémes en prose (Little Poems in Prose). By calling these non-metrical compositions poems, Baudelaire was the first poet to make a radical break with the form of verse.

In 1862, Baudelaire began to suffer nightmares and increasingly bad health. He left Paris for Brussels in 1863 to give a series of lectures, but suffered from several strokes that resulted in partial paralysis. On August 31, 1867, at the age of forty-six, Charles Baudelaire died in Paris. Although doctors at the time didn't mention it, it is likely that syphilis caused his final illness. His reputation as poet at that time was secure; writers such as Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud claimed him as a predecessor. In the 20th century, thinkers and artists as diverse as Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Benjamin, Robert Lowell and Seamus Heaney have celebrated his work.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Les fleurs du mal (1857)
Petits poèmes en prose (1869)

Fiction

La fanfarlo (1847)

Spleen

Charles Baudelaire, 1821 - 1867

(I)

February, peeved at Paris, pours 
a gloomy torrent on the pale lessees 
of the graveyard next door and a mortal chill
on tenants of the foggy suburbs too.

The tiles afford no comfort to my cat 
that cannot keep its mangy body still; 
the soul of some old poet haunts the drains 
and howls as if a ghost could hate the cold.

A churchbell grieves, a log in the fireplace smokes
and hums falsetto to the clock's catarrh, 
while in a filthy reeking deck of cards

inherited from a dropsical old maid,
the dapper Knave of Hearts and the Queen of Spades 
grimly disinter their love affairs.

(II)

Souvenirs?
More than if I had lived a thousand years!

No chest of drawers crammed with documents, 
love-letters, wedding-invitations, wills,
a lock of someone's hair rolled up in a deed, 
hides so many secrets as my brain.
This branching catacombs, this pyramid 
contains more corpses than the potter's field:
I am a graveyard that the moon abhors,
where long worms like regrets come out to feed
most ravenously on my dearest dead.
I am an old boudoir where a rack of gowns, 
perfumed by withered roses, rots to dust; 
where only faint pastels and pale Bouchers 
inhale the scent of long-unstoppered flasks.

Nothing is slower than the limping days 
when under the heavy weather of the years
Boredom, the fruit of glum indifference, 
gains the dimension of eternity . . . 
Hereafter, mortal clay, you are no more
than a rock encircled by a nameless dread,
an ancient sphinx omitted from the map, 
forgotten by the world, and whose fierce moods 
sing only to the rays of setting suns.

(III)

I'm like the king of a rainy country, rich 
but helpless, decrepit though still a young man 
who scorns his fawning tutors, wastes his time 
on dogs and other animals, and has no fun; 
nothing distracts him, neither hawk nor hound 
nor subjects starving at the palace gate. 
His favorite fool's obscenities fall flat
--the royal invalid is not amused--
and ladies in waiting for a princely nod 
no longer dress indecently enough 
to win a smile from this young skeleton.
The bed of state becomes a stately tomb. 
The alchemist who brews him gold has failed 
to purge the impure substance from his soul, 
and baths of blood, Rome's legacy recalled 
by certain barons in their failing days, 
are useless to revive this sickly flesh 
through which no blood but brackish Lethe seeps.

(IV)

When skies are low and heavy as a lid
over the mind tormented by disgust,
and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down 
on us a daylight dingier than the dark;

when earth becomes a trickling dungeon where 
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
beating tentative wings along the walls 
and bumping its head against the rotten beams;

when rain falls straight from unrelenting clouds, 
forging the bars of some enormous jail, 
and silent hordes of obscene spiders spin 
their webs across the basements of our brains;

then all at once the raging bells break loose,
hurling to heaven their awful caterwaul, 
like homeless ghosts with no one left to haunt 
whimpering their endless grievances.

--And giant hearses, without dirge or drums, 
parade at half-step in my soul, where Hope, 
defeated, weeps, and the oppressor Dread 
plants his black flag on my assenting skull.

Originally appeared in Les Fleurs du Mal, translated by Richard Howard and published by David R. Godine. © 1982 by Richard Howard. Reprinted in Other Worlds Than This, published by Rutgers University Press, 1994. Used with permission of Rutgers University Press. All rights reserved.

Originally appeared in Les Fleurs du Mal, translated by Richard Howard and published by David R. Godine. © 1982 by Richard Howard. Reprinted in Other Worlds Than This, published by Rutgers University Press, 1994. Used with permission of Rutgers University Press. All rights reserved.

Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire

The son of Joseph-Francois Baudelaire and Caroline Archimbaut Dufays, Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821.

by this poet

poem

Child, Sister, think how sweet to go out there and live together! To love at leisure, love and die in that land that resembles you! For me, damp suns in disturbed skies share mysterious charms with your treacherous eyes as they shine through tears.

     There, there’s only order, beauty: abundant, calm,

poem

When you go to sleep, my gloomy beauty, below a black marble monument, when from alcove and manor you are reduced to damp vault and hollow grave;

     when the stone—pressing on your timorous chest and sides already lulled by a charmed indifference—halts your heart from beating, from willing, your feet from

poem

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a