This Day In Literary History
On April 9th, 1821, the legendary French poet Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris, France. His father Francois was a civil servant and amateur artist 34 years older than his wife, Baudelaire's mother Caroline. He died when Charles was six years old.
The following year, Caroline remarried. The young Baudelaire hated his stepfather Jacques Aupick, who was a lieutenant colonel in the army and a fierce disciplinarian at home. Aupick later sent his young stepson to boarding school in Lyon.
Recalling his boyhood, Baudelaire said, "I was a precocious dandy." As such, he was greatly disliked by most of his classmates. One of his few friends at school agreed with this assessment.
His friend would later say of the then 14-year-old Baudelaire, "He was much more refined and distinguished than any of our fellow pupils... [we] shared tastes and sympathies, the precocious love of fine works of literature."
While attending the Lycee Louis-le-Grand - the famous and demanding secondary school in Paris - Baudelaire's academic performance was erratic. Sometimes he was extremely diligent in his studies, while at other times, he was prone to periods of idleness.
He graduated in 1839 at the age of eighteen. At that time, he was described as "an exalted character, sometimes full of mysticism, and sometimes full of immorality and cynicism, which were excessive, but only verbal."
Baudelaire told his brother, "I don't feel I have a vocation for anything." His stepfather wanted him to pursue a career in law or diplomacy. Instead, he decided to become a writer. He spent the next two years living a bohemian life and socializing with other writers and artists.
He frequented prostitutes, and as a result, visited a pharmacist who specialized in the treatment of venereal disease. He took one prostitute, a girl named Sara, as his live-in lover.
In order to keep him under control, Baudelaire's stepfather kept him on a strict allowance, which he often spent immediately, mostly on clothes. When the money ran out, he bought on credit and ran up debts.
His stepfather decided to send him to Calcutta, to be supervised by an ex-naval captain. The arduous experience failed to dissuade Baudelaire from pursuing a literary career or change his laid-back nature.
The captain let Baudelaire go home to France. He did gain something from his year of travels - strong impressions of the sea, the sailing life, and exotic ports of call, all of which would have an effect on his poetry. Back in Paris, he began his literary career by reading his poems in taverns.
At the age of 21, Baudelaire inherited over 100,000 francs and several parcels of land. He squandered most of his new found wealth, and his family obtained a decree placing the rest of his assets in trust. Around this time, he met Jeanne Duval, the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute.
Their love affair would be the longest relationship he would have in his short life. His mother thought she was a "Black Venus" who "tortured [my son] in every way" and drained him of his money. By 1845, at the age of 24, Baudelaire was broke and eating on credit.
He began writing the poems that would appear in his classic first poetry collection, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) which would be published twelve years later. His first published work was an art review titled "Salon of 1845."
He gained a reputation as a passionate and well-informed art critic. Unfortunately, his debts were rising and his future was doubtful, so he attempted suicide by stabbing himself. He lost his nerve and ended up with a superficial wound.
Baudelaire wrote to his mother, begging her to visit him, but she ignored his pleas under orders from his stepfather. After being homeless for a time, he resolved to improve his situation. He continued his work as an art critic.
In 1846, he published a novella, La Fanfarlo. Being fluent in English since childhood, he earned extra money as a translator. He translated English language works of literature into French - including some of his favorite works.
His translations included Matthew Lewis' notorious and classic Gothic novel The Monk, the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and other classic works.
In 1857, Baudelaire's stepfather died. Although he had been disinherited, he did gain something from Jacques Aupick's death - he reconciled with his mother, to whom he had become estranged. As a boy, he had been very close to her, but he never forgave her for marrying Jacques Aupick.
1857 was a good year for Baudelaire. Not only did he reconcile with his mother, his first and most famous poetry collection was finally published. It had taken him twelve years to complete, as he had been sidetracked by indolence, emotional distress, and physical illness.
Les Fleurs du Mal established Baudelaire as one of the greatest French poets of all time. Some of the poems in it had been previously published in the Revue des Deux Mondes (Review of Two Worlds) magazine.
Sex and death were the main themes of the poems collected in Les Fleurs du Mal, which touched on taboo subjects such as lesbianism. Critics offered high praise for some of his poems; for others, they demanded he be arrested for obscenity.
In a letter to his mother, Baudelaire addressed the outcry over the alleged obscenity in his poems:
You know that I have always considered that literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality. Beauty of conception and style is enough for me. But this book, whose title Fleurs du Mal says everything, is clad, as you will see, in a cold and sinister beauty. It was created with rage and patience. Besides, the proof of its positive worth is in all the ill that they speak of it. The book enrages people.
Moreover, since I was terrified myself of the horror that I should inspire, I cut out a third from the proofs. They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even the knowledge of the French language. I don't care a rap about all these imbeciles, and I know that this book, with its virtues and its faults, will make its way in the memory of the lettered public, beside the best poems of V. Hugo, Th. Gautier, and even Byron.
Baudelaire, his publisher, and the book printer had all been charged with obscenity. None were imprisoned - they were fined instead. Baudelaire's fine was 300 francs. The French literati condemned the author's conviction and offered him their support.
Legendary novelist Victor Hugo wrote to Baudelaire, telling him "Your Fleurs du Mal shine and dazzle like stars... I applaud your vigorous spirit with all my might." As a result of the obscenity conviction, Fleurs du Mal was republished in a censored version with six poems deleted.
These poems would be published uncensored in Belgium as Les Epaves (The Wrecks) in 1866. In 1949 - nearly a hundred years after its first publication - the original, unexpurgated version of Fleurs du Mal would finally be published in France.
Baudelaire continued to write. In addition to his own works, he translated more English works into French, including Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821).
Baudelaire wrote a book about his own experiences with opium and hashish, titled Les Paradis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises), which was published in 1860. He believed that these substances could help mankind create an ideal world.
In 1861, Baudelaire's publisher went bankrupt. At the time, he had been living a peaceful and productive life with his mother in the seaside town of Honfleur. The stress and poverty of his earlier life, along with his chronic illnesses and use of laudanum (tincture of opium) had taken a toll on his health.
Just as he was starting to recover his health, his publisher's bankruptcy added new stress to his life, as once again he faced the prospect of poverty. In 1864, Baudelaire went to Belgium, hoping to have his works published there and to give lectures.
In addition to his on and off relationship with Jeanne Duval, he took actress Marie Daubrun and courtesan Allonie Sabatier as his lovers. None of his relationships ever blossomed into true love.
Unsatisfied in his personal life and fearful of poverty, Baudelaire smoked opium and drank to excess. In 1866, he suffered a massive stroke that left him half-paralyzed. For the remainder of his life, he lived in sanitariums in Brussels and Paris.
Charles Baudelaire died in August of 1867 at the age of 46. Many of his unpublished works were published posthumously, and his previously published works were republished.
The proceeds enabled his mother to pay off his substantial debts. She found comfort in his fame, saying "I see that my son, for all his faults, has his place in literature."
Quote Of The Day
"Always be a poet, even in prose." - Charles Baudelaire
Today's video features a reading of selected poems from Charles Baudelaire's classic poetry collection, Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil). Enjoy!