[photo of Charles Baudelaire]

charles baudelaire

Going for broke
Hope I'll reach you there
I feel the people
But où est Baudelaire
—Patti Smith

[contributed by Fiona Webster, with Encyclopedia Britannica as main source for biographical material]

Born 1821 in Paris; died 1867 in Paris. French poet and translator of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Prosecuted for obscenity and blasphemy, and long after his death still identified in the public mind with depravity and vice, Baudelaire has become above all others of his age the poet of modern civilization, seeming to speak directly to the 20th century. Rejecting the posing of the Romantics, he revealed himself in his often introspective poetry as a seeker of God without religious beliefs, searching in every manifestation of life -- the colour of a flower, the frown of a prostitute -- for its true significance. Both as poet and as critic he appeals to man's condition in the modern world; and modern, too, are his refusal to admit restriction in the poet's choice of theme and his assertion of the poetic power of symbols.

Some important details about Baudelaire's life:
-- Only son of a woman who was very affectionate toward him when he was young
-- His father was a man of culture and an amateur painter of some merit, who taught his son, when only four or five, to appreciate the beauty of form and line. His father died when Charles was six.
-- His mother remarried a soldier and ambassador who was of a militaristic mindset and a stern disciplinarian. This stepfather made several efforts to curb what he felt was young Baudelaire's precocious depravity and unsuitable melancholy.
-- Passed his baccalauréat at age 18 and refused his stepfather's offer of a post in the diplomatic service, determining (to his parents' dismay) to become a writer.
-- Soon became a regular user of opium and hashish, and contracted the venereal disease from which he was eventually to die.
-- At age 20 went on a trip east, and ended up spending three weeks in Mauritius, which deepened and enriched his imagination and had given him a store of images on which he was to draw in his poetry. He never forgot this, his only experience of the East, but kept for it a nostalgic, mystical yearning that gives his poetry its characteristic quality.
-- When he turned 21, he gained control of the capital left him by his real father and, leaving home, determined to satisfy his inherited taste for luxury. He spent his money recklessly on fine clothes and on rich furnishings for his apartment at the Hôtel Lauzun, in the Île Saint-Louis and lived the life of a typical "dandy" of the period. Knowing nothing of business or finance, he regarded his inheritance as a fortune and soon fell prey to cheats and moneylenders, thus laying the foundation for the pile of debts that were to cripple him for the rest of his life.
-- By age 23 Baudelaire had formed an association with the mulatto woman Jeanne Duval, who was to bring him much unhappiness. For a time he loved her passionately, and even at the end, when her cruelty, treachery, and stupidity had driven him to attempted suicide, he still felt in some ways attached to her. She inspired his first cycle of love poems, the "Black Venus"; and these are among the finest erotic poems in the French language.
-- During those early years of leisure and freedom from anxiety, Baudelaire was composing many -- perhaps most -- of the poems that were to form Les Fleurs du mal, his one collection, which comprised the Lesbian poems, the poems of revolt and decay, and the great erotic poems.
-- At this time, too, he became acquainted with many artists, among them Delacroix and Courbet, and so acquired the knowledge of painting that was to give his art criticism much of its distinction and originality.
-- When within two years he had run through half his inheritance, his family obtained a decree by which the remainder of his capital was placed in trust, and he received the income in monthly installments. He was wounded that his mother should have consented to a step that put an end to his freedom. In attempting to secure his future, his family had misguidedly prevented him from recovering his independence; still heavily in debt, he was unable, out of the pittance a year allowed him, to clear off his debts without borrowing. This ended his period of carefree leisure and sent him on an eventual course to severe poverty.
-- He became resentful of his family and more melancholy, developing the mood he called "spleen" and based many poems on.
-- His relationship (through letters) with his mother became distressful to him, as she kept expecting him to "reform," whereas he was longing for the love he felt from her when he was a little boy.
-- Years of struggling to live by his pen. At the age 31 discovered the writing of Edgar Allan Poe. His translations of Poe and his articles about Poe, along with his brilliant art criticism, finally established his reputation.
-- On the strength of his reputation, was able to publish portions of Fleurs du mal, but his publishers were prosecuted and found guilty of obscenity and blasphemy as a result. Charles suffered from this censorious public reaction to his poems.
-- After this setback, went into his years of declining health, worsening financial straits, and eventual death, at age 46, of venereal disease. Last significant body of work was a prose poetry collection called Le Spleen de Paris.

Baudelaire died unrecognized, with many of his writings still unpublished and those that had been published out of print. Among poets, however, opinion soon began to change: the future leaders of the Symbolist movement who were at his funeral were already describing themselves as his followers. By the 20th century he had become widely recognized as one of the great French poets of the 19th century. His admirers even claimed that he revolutionized the sensibility and way of thinking and writing throughout western Europe, and that the formulation of his aesthetic theory marks a turning point in the history of poetry and, indeed, in the history of art. For it was in this theory that the Symbolist movement found its source.

Patti Smith has been greatly inspired by both the work and the life of Charles Baudelaire (along with another Symbolist poet, of course, Arthur Rimbaud). Her chosen attire in the '70s of a boy's black suit with white shirt and tie was her interpretation of Baudelaire's appearance:

A black boy's suit jacket from Saks Fifth Avenue. Once, I went to Saks and watched a 13-year-old Catholic boy and his mother choose a suit, then I bought the same one. It's my Baudelaire dress suit.
Patti's famous Horses photo has been described as a blend of "Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Frank Sinatra, and Jean-Luc Godard [into] a French Symbolist-Las Vegas-Nouvelle Vague persona." She has always nurtured her own contradictions much in the same way that Baudelaire said he nurtured his hysteria with "joy and terror." Her poetry and lyrics are sensual and at times morbid in the way that his are, and she, too, includes references to oriental exotica and decadence. And in her free-form "babelogues," she sometimes spontaneously exclaims, "oh Baudelaire!"

From Patti's poem "picasso laughing":

april is the cruelest month etc. what remains?
brian jones bones, jim morrisons friend jimi hendrix
bandana. sweatband angel. judies garland. the
starched collar of baudelaire. the sculptured cap of
voltaire. the crusaders helmet like a temple itself.
rimbaud's valise. his artificial limb genuflects. surreal
space. brancusi bird brain.
In her poem "où est baudelaire?" Patti praises the role of the critic:
In the past it has been the critic, one who could see for miles. The unfailing vision of Baudelaire. The critic who trumpeted the space and light of the future. The whirling noise that saturated the jail house walls with the rock of right.
Some links:
Charles Baudelaire, un choix culturel -- French site devoted to Baudelaire, including biography, commentary, and some of his more famous poems, such as "La charogne" and "L'invitation au voyage"

famous portrait by Courbet (94K)

complete text (in French) of 1861 edition of Les Fleurs du mal

"Invitation to the Voyage" and "To the Reader" (English translation)

two more poems translated into English

more poems translated into English

article (in English) on relationship between Poe and Baudelaire

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