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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)

Voyage to Cythera

Charles Baudelaire, 1821 - 1867
Free as a bird and joyfully my heart
Soared up among the rigging, in and out;
Under a cloudless sky the ship rolled on
Like an angel drunk with brilliant sun.

"That dark, grim island there--which would that be?"
"Cythera," we're told, "the legendary isle
Old bachelors tell stories of and smile.
There's really not much to it, you can see."

O place of many a mystic sacrament!
Archaic Aphrodite's splendid shade
Lingers above your waters like a scent
Infusing spirits with an amorous mood.

Worshipped from of old by every nation,
Myrtle-green isle, where each new bud discloses
Sighs of souls in loving adoration
Breathing like incense from a bank of roses

Or like a dove roo-cooing endlessly . . . 
No; Cythera was a poor infertile rock,
A stony desert harrowed by the shriek
Of gulls. And yet there was something to see:

This was no temple deep in flowers and trees
With a young priestess moving to and fro,
Her body heated by a secret glow,
Her robe half-opening to every breeze;

But coasting nearer, close enough to land
To scatter flocks of birds as we passed by,
We saw a tall cypress-shaped thing at hand--
A triple gibbet black against the sky.

Ferocious birds, each perched on its own meal,
Were madly tearing at the thing that hung
And ripened; each, its filthy beak a drill,
Made little bleeding holes to root among.

The eyes were hollowed. Heavy guts cascading
Flowed like water halfway down the thighs;
The torturers, though gorged on these vile joys,
Had also put their beaks to use castrating

The corpse. A pack of dogs beneath its feet,
Their muzzles lifted, whirled and snapped and gnawed;
One bigger beast amidst this jealous lot
Looked like an executioner with his guard.

O Cytherean, child of this fair clime,
Silently you suffered these attacks,
Paying the penalty for whatever acts
Of infamy had kept you from a tomb.

Grotesquely dangling, somehow you brought on--
Violent as vomit rising from the chest,
Strong as a river bilious to taste--
A flow of sufferings I'd thought long gone.

Confronted with such dear remembered freight,
Poor devil, now it was my turn to feel
A panther's slavering jaws, a beak's cruel drill--
Once it was my flesh they loved to eat.

The sky was lovely, and the sea divine,
but something thick and binding like a shroud
Wrapped my heart in layers of black and blood;
Henceforth this allegory would be mine.

O Venus! On your isle what did I see
But my own image on the gallows tree?
O God, give me the strength to contemplate
My own heart, my own body without hate!

Written by Charles Baudelaire and translated by Rachel Hadas. Published in Other Worlds Than This by Rutgers University Press. © 1994 by Rachel Hadas. Originally appeared in Tennessee Quarterly (1994). Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Written by Charles Baudelaire and translated by Rachel Hadas. Published in Other Worlds Than This by Rutgers University Press. © 1994 by Rachel Hadas. Originally appeared in Tennessee Quarterly (1994). Used with permission. 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

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

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

(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