Charles Baudelaire: French poet. April 9, 1821- August 31, 1867
“A frenzied passion for art is a canker that devours everything else.”- Charles Baudelaire
When Charles Baudelaire was only six, his father passed away. A year later, his mother wed the future French ambassador, Lieutenant Colonel Jaques Aupick. While the sensitive and artistic child was extremely close to his mother, he found himself constantly at odds with his rigid stepfather. Sent away to a boarding school in Lyons, Charles later described that time as, ” the unease of wretched and abandoned childhood, the hatred of tyrannical schoolfellows, and the solitude of the heart.”
Upon finishing his education, while his stepfather wished him to enter law, Charles decided to pursue a literary career and began associating with fellow bohemians. By 1843, he’d become known as a dandy- living off of credit and the goodwill of others. Around this time he began a lifelong romance with the Hatian-born actress and dancer, Jeanne Duval. Born of French and black African ancestry, she became his muse, his “Vénus Noire”.
One of the poems he dedicated to her was The Balcony, in which he declared:
- “MOTHER of memories, mistress of mistresses,
- O thou, my pleasure, thou, all my desire,
- Thou shalt recall the beauty of caresses,
- The charm of evenings by the gentle fire,
- Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses!
- The eves illumined by the burning coal,
- The balcony where veiled rose-vapour clings–
- How soft your breast was then, how sweet your soul!
- Ah, and we said imperishable things,
- Those eves illumined by the burning coal.
- Lovely the suns were in those twilights warm,
- And space profound, and strong life’s pulsing flood,
- In bending o’er you, queen of every charm,
- I thought I breathed the perfume in your blood.
- The suns were beauteous in those twilights warm.
- The film of night flowed round and over us,
- And my eyes in the dark did your eyes meet;
- I drank your breath, ah! sweet and poisonous,
- And in my hands fraternal slept your feet–
- Night, like a film, flowed round and over us.
- I can recall those happy days forgot,
- And see, with head bowed on your knees, my past.
- Your languid beauties now would move me not
- Did not your gentle heart and body cast
- The old spell of those happy days forgot.
- Can vows and perfumes, kisses infinite,
- Be reborn from the gulf we cannot sound;
- As rise to heaven suns once again made bright
- After being plunged in deep seas and profound?
- Ah, vows and perfumes, kisses infinite!”
- portrait of Jeanne Duval by Manet
Although Baudelaire became a highly respected art and literary critic, his own work did not appear until the publication of Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du mal) in 1857. While such lofty figures as Flaubert and Victor Hugo praised the book, the sexual and macabre themes caused much consternation and Charles, his publisher, and the printer, were fined for offenses against public morals.
The accusations meant little to Charles. He wrote to his mother: “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.”
“One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters… But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.”
“Always be a poet, even in prose.”
“There is a word, in a verb, something sacred which forbids us from using it recklessly. To handle a language cunningly is to practice a kind of evocative sorcery.”