Monday, April 09, 2007


Charles Baudelaire was born on this day in 1821 in Paris.

Rebelling against his stepfather, Baudelaire briefly lived the luxurious life of a dandy on the money left to him by his father, but soon found himself overwhelmed by debt. He began his freelance writing career at age 24, and while his earliest writing showed enthusiasm for revolutionary principles, it soon came to expose his disillusionment. He achieved fame as a critic, taking as his causes the music of Wagner and the painting of Delacroix.

In 1844, he withdrew from Paris society, exiling himself to a somewhat tragic relationship with the treacherous Jeanne Duval, a mulatto, for 14 years. In his apartment-outpost on the Ile St-Louis, he experimented with drugs (the experiences with which he described in Les Paradis Artificels, 1861), shunned the literary fraternity, considering authors like Victor Hugo to be second-rate, and refused all attempts at help or sponsorship. By 1857, he was already a notorious character in Paris artistic circles, suspected of all sorts of personal depravity, when the French government took him to court over his verse collection, Les Fleurs du Mal, which the government called immoral. He was ultimately convicted of obscenity and blasphemy, was fined, and had six of his poems banned in France until 1949.

While he produced a large and accomplished body of prose, he is remembered for his poems, the small sum total of which appeared in Les Fleurs du Mal. When the collection first appeared, the typical subject matter of his poems -- ranging from erotic love poems to Duval, his "Black Venus," and to Mme Sabatier, his "White Venus," to lesbianism, revolt and decay -- was considered to be lurid; by way of contrast, his style in the treatment of such themes was cool and balanced. After his death, in the 1880s, Symbolist poets such as Stephen Mallarme identified Baudelaire as their ancestor.

From 1856 to 1865, Baudelaire translated the works of Edgar Allan Poe into French (he had spoken English since he was a child, his mother having been born in England), launching Poe's great popularity in France during the 1870s and 1880s. Shortly before his death from a paralytic stroke at age 47, Baudelaire was engaged in a prolonged diatribe against all things Belgian, having recently returned from an unsuccessful lecture engagement there.



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