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Creator / Charles Baudelaire

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Photographed by Nadar in 1855
Cloud-sovereign himself, the Poet seems
To rule the storm and taunt the crossbows' strings,
But exiled on the earth in scornful times,
Can never walk for such outlandish wings.
Charles Baudelaire, The Albatross (Walter Martin translation)

Charles Pierre Baudelaire (9 April 1821 – 31 August 1867) was a French poet, translator, and literary and art critic whose reputation rests primarily on his poetry collection The Flowers of Evil, which was perhaps the most important and influential poetry collection published in Europe in the 19th century. He is seen as one of the leading figures of the Symbolist movement (a late-19th-century art movement with origins in France that sought to express absolute truths using metaphorical and highly symbolic language, usually eschewing direct communication) and the Decadent movement (a late-19th-century art movement that followed an aesthetic ideology of excess, artificiality, and a generally bohemian way of life).

He was born on 9 April 1821 in Paris to Joseph-François Baudelaire (1759-1827), a former seminarian who became a civil servant and a poet and artist of modest talent, and Caroline (née Dufaÿs) (1794-1871), who was 34 years younger, and was baptised two months later at Saint-Sulpice Catholic Church. François introduced Charles to art, which eventually became his greatest, most consuming, and earliest of passions, "the cult of images."

François died when Baudelaire was five, and Caroline remarried to Col. Jacques Aupick, a career soldier who rose to the rank of general and became a prominent ambassador. Baudelaire did not take the remarriage well; he saw that he was no longer the sole focus of his mother's affection and deemed Col. Aupick an interloper and enemy. As a young man, Baudelaire studied law at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, even obtaining a degree in 1839, but dissatisfied with his profession of choice, he drank daily, hired prostitutes, and acquired massive amounts of debt. He opted not to pursue law—to his mother's chagrin—and sought a literary career instead.

In 1841, Aupick, alarmed by Baudelaire's reckless lifestyle, sent Baudelaire on a voyage that was meant to take him to Kolkata, but the homesick and rebellious Baudelaire insisted on leaving the ship after visiting Reunion and Mauritius and returned to France; the voyage nevertheless made a great impact on his life and art, and he even began a lifelong relationship with Jeanne Duval, a Haitian-born actress and dancer of mixed French and black African ancestry; his family frowned on the relationship, nearly driving Baudelaire into killing himself.

In 1842, Baudelaire inherited 100,000 francs, but he spent the money so recklessly that his family had to intervene and transfer control of the finances to the notary Ancelle. Baudelaire would be surrounded by debts for the remainder of his life and would lead a life of poverty, disorder, and illness, although he remained something of a dandy; his friends know him for his elegance of taste, dress, and expression.

Baudelaire was an active, discerning critic of contemporary painting and promoter of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, translating a number of his works into French. He eventually published The Flowers of Evil in 1857, which caused a lot of controversy due to its obscenity; he had to suppress six of its poems, but he revised and enlarged the collection and republished it in 1861. In the meantime, he wrote some ironic prose poems that were posthumously gathered as Paris Spleen.

In 1864, Baudelaire travelled to Belgium and gave a series of lectures in the vain hopes of earning money and establishing fame. In 1866 he suffered a massive stroke, leading to paralysis and aphasia, and was brought back to Paris, where he eventually died on 31 August 1867. Before dying, he received the last rites of the Catholic Church.

Many of Baudelaire's works were published posthumously, and they soon established him as one of the leading figures of the Decadent and Symbolist movements of literature. His mother found his emerging posthumous fame rather comforting, saying: "I see that my son, for all his faults, has his place in literature." She then made use of his fame to pay off his substantial debts.

Major Works:

  • The Flowers of Evil (1857): Baudelaire's collection of poetry, containing nearly all the poems he wrote from 1840 to 1867, when he died. A second edition was published 1861, removing six immoral poems but adding thirty-five others. A posthumous third edition, with a preface by Théophile Gautier and including fourteen previously unpublished poems, was issued in 1868.
  • Paris Spleen (1869): A collection of short prose poems, which he describes as essentially The Flowers of Evil, but presented much more sardonically in prose.