Charles-Pierre Baudelaire was born into a comfortable middle-class family in Paris, France on April 9, 1821. The story of his life apparently hinges on a trauma he suffered as a young boy, according to his own description (later commentators, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, would agree with this self-analysis).
His father died when he was five. He was an only child, and he and his mother banded together and became very close in the year that followed. This closeness was suddenly shattered when his attractive young mother met and married a French soldier.
Apparently the arrival of his new stepfather planted the seeds of perversity, anger and desperation he would go on to express in both his writing and in his life decisions. He nurtured a Hamlet-like, deliciously rich self-hatred that would energize his poems at the same time that it sabotaged his career. He was a great poet but never a successful one, and his frustrated life expresses the same philosophy of eternal spiritual conflict that emerges from his words.
As an adolescent his poetry experiments were derided as overly weird, and he attempted to study law until, at the age of twenty-one, he received a large inheritance that promised to make him financially independent. He entered Paris party life with a vengeance, spending a tremendous amount of money on various indulgences from fine clothing (he was a fastidious dresser, in certain moods) to opium and prostitutes.
Soon he had spent so much of the inheritance that his mother and stepfather sued to remove his control over his own finances, putting him on a small monthly retainer that destroyed his spirited party routine.
His poetic abilities sprung to life when he discovered the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was the greatest influence on Baudelaire, and Baudelaire translated his works into French and worked hard to promote his reputation (which, to this day, like that of Jerry Lewis, remains higher in France than elsewhere).
The radical politics of mid-19th Century Europe excited him, but conviction was impossible to sustain. In 1865 he wrote: “Yes! Hurrah for the Revolution! Always! In spite of all! But me, I am no dupe, I have never been a dupe. I cry Hurrah for the Republic the way I would cry Hurrah for Destruction! Hurrah for Expiation! Hurrah for Punishment! Hurrah for Death!“.
His most important work of poetry was a sprawling volume called “The Flowers of Evil”, originally published in 1857. These poems are as sinister and chillingly gothic as Poe’s, but they have the added subliminal power of free verse poetry. He writes alarmingly of the Satanic underpinnings of everyday life, and posits boredom as an evil more monstrous than any other. “The Flowers of Evil” was immediately banned, but unlike later writers who cleverly spun their censorship battles into greater fame (like Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg), Baudelaire seemed to crumble and give up.
It was not easy being a “Goth” in the mid 19th Century. Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor have recording contracts, and Yizrael Abyss at least has friends and a video camera. Their 19th Century predecessors had nothing but their own dark visions to subsist on. In America, Edgar Allen Poe died a lonely death, impoverished and diseased. In Europe, his greatest fan Charles Baudelaire died in the same fashion. Briefly staying in Brussels, he was hospitalized for paralysis and other complications of syphilis, and died on August 31, 1867.
Neither Poe nor Baudelaire had any reason to expect to be appreciated by future generations at the times of their deaths. Baudelaire would be immediately celebrated by the next generation of poets, the Symbolists like Rimbaud and Verlaine.
When I read Baudelaire for the first time, my first surprise was that T. S. Eliot had so obviously borrowed his poetic voice directly from this source. I’d known that Eliot was inspired by the Symbolists, but I hadn’t realized the extent of the influence, especially on Eliot’s phrasing. But Eliot lived the comfortable life of a successful literary master. Baudelaire, the original hypocrite lecteur, had no comfort except that of revenge. He’d promised himself a miserable life at the age of seven, and he kept the promise.