The Poet of Modern Life

Baudelaire

by Claude Pichois, translated by Graham Robb
Viking Penguin, 430 pp., $24.95

The Parisian Prowler: Le Spleen de Paris, Petits Poèmes en prose

by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Edward K. Kaplan
University of Georgia Press, 138 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Baudelaire: Collected Essays, 1953–1988

by F.W. Leakey, edited by Eva Jacobs
Cambridge University Press, 320 pp., $54.50

A brief account of Baudelaire’s brief life would go somewhat like this. Charles Pierre Baudelaire was born in Paris on April 9, 1821. His father, a retired civil servant and amateur painter, died on February 10, 1827. The idyll the child enjoyed with his adored mother came to an end a year and a half later, when on November 8, 1828, she married an army officer, Jacques Aupick. Charles was sent to school in Lyons and later in Paris, but he was expelled for unruly conduct. At the age of eighteen he contracted gonorrhoea. In 1841, on the strength of a small inheritance from his father, he started upon a literary and bohemian life in Paris. The Aupicks, hoping to retrieve him from bad company, sent him on a long sea voyage, but he jumped ship at Saint-Denis de la Réunion and made his way back to Paris.

In 1842 he contracted syphilis. At about the same time he took up with his first mistress, a minor actress, Jeanne Duval. On November 7, 1844, in a further attempt to rescue him, the Aupicks arranged to have a lawyer, Narcisse Désiré Ancelle, appointed conseil judiciaire to him and put in charge of his financial affairs.

Constantly in debt, Baudelaire tried to elude his creditors by moving from one lodging to another. When that device failed, he appealed to his mother for money. He was a young man about town, interested in art more than in literature. The first occasion on which he made a serious attempt to gain a hearing was in a long review of the Salon of 1845. Apart from a few friends, no one paid him any attention. On June 30, 1845, he tried to kill himself, probably (as Claude Pichois suggests) because of “the relative failure of his Salon, a desire to bring pressure to bear on the family members who had humiliated him with the conseil judiciaire, or a deeper ennui, a feeling that life had lost its savor.”

When the revolution broke out in February 1848, Baudelaire got a shotgun and took to the barricades, shouting, “We must shoot General Aupick.” But his interest in revolution soon lapsed. In 1852 he tried to leave Jeanne Duval: she was far gone in drink, dissipation, and despair, and while he treated her with sympathy and consideration, he knew the affair was a disaster. He was also pursuing other women, notably Aglaé-Joséphine Sabatier, a professional model. In 1854 he entered upon a relation with Marie Daubrun, a more serious actress than Duval.

On June 25, 1857, Baudelaire published Les Fleurs du mal, and on August 20 he was fined 300 francs for its “obscene and immoral passages or expressions.” Six poems were ordered to be removed. For the second edition, issued on February 9, 1861, he added thirty-five new poems and arranged the entire collection in a more pessimistic order. On January 23, 1862, he confided to his journal that he “felt a strange warning, the wind …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.