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Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire was a 19th century French poet, translator, and literary and art critic whose reputation rests primarily on Les Fleurs du mal; which was perhaps the most importantand influential poetry collection published in Europe in the 19th century. Similarly, his Petits poèmes en prose (1868; "Little Prose Poems") was the most successful and innovative early experiment in prose poetry of the time.

Known for his highly controversial, and often dark poetry, as well as his translation of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe Baudelaire's life was filled with drama and strife, from financial disaster to being prosecuted for obscenity and blasphemy. Long after his death many look upon his name as representing depravity and vice: Others see him as being the poet of modern civilization, seeming to speak directly to the 20th century.

In his often introspective poetry, Baudelaire revealed himself as a seeker of God without religious beliefs, searching in every manifestation of life for its true significance. His refusal to admit restriction in the poet's choice of theme and his assertion of the poetic power of symbols makes Baudelaire appealing to modern man, as a poet and a critic.

Baudelaire was an only child of François Baudelaire and his younger second wife whom he had married in 1819, Caroline Defayis. François had begun a career as a priest, but left the holy orders in 1793 to become a prosperous middle-ranking civil servant. Being a modestly talented poet and painter, he instilled an appreciation for the arts in his son. The younger Baudelaire would later refer to as "the cult of images."

Baudelaire's father died in February of 1827. Baudelaire and his mother lived together on the outskirts ofParis from this point. In writing to her in 1861, referring to this time, he wrote "I was forever alive in you; you were solely and completely mine." This time together ended when Caroline married a career soldier named Jacques Aspic, who rose to the position of General and later served as French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and Spain before becoming a senator under theSecond Empire.

He began his education at the Collège Royal in Lyons when Aupick was posted there, transferring to the prestigious Lycèe Louis-le-grand when the family returned toParis in 1836. It was during this time that Baudelaire began to show promise as a student and a writer. He began to write poems, which were not well received by his masters, who felt that was an example of precocious depravity, adopting affections that they deemed unsuited to his age. Moods of intense melancholy also developed and Baudelaire began to see himself as being solitary by nature. In April 1839 he was expelled from school due to his consistent acts of indiscipline.

Eventually Baudelaire became a nominal student of law at the Ecole de Droit. In reality, he was actually living a "free life" in the Lattin Quarter. Here he made his first contacts in the literary world, and also contracted the venereal disease that eventually took his life. In an attempt to draw his stepson away from the company he was keeping, Aupick sent him on a voyage to India in June of 1841. Baudelaire jumped ship in Mauritius and eventually made his way back to France in February of 1842. The voyage and his exploits after jumping ship enriched his imagination, and brought a rich mixture of exotic images to his work.

As time went on, Baudelaire grew more and more despondent. In 1845 he attempted suicide, though he probably did so just to get the attention of his mother and stepfather. They took him to live with them in Paris, but he moved out a few months later. Soon afterwards he published his autobiographical novelLa Fanfarlo in 1847. He later became involved in the Revolution of 1848, a brief uprising by the workers against social injustice. Baudelaire played a relatively minor role in the revolution, only firing a few shots at the barricades, marching through the streets, and helping with the publication of a few radical newspapers.

Baudelaire published his first essay on the great American poet Edgar Allen Poe in 1852. He had first been introduced to Poe’s writings in 1847, and he began to translate them into French just a short while later. He was greatly influenced by the writings of Poe, and he incorporated many of Poe's ideas into his own work. He published five volumes of Poe translations between 1856 and 1865. The introductory essays to these books are often considered to be some of his most important critical studies.

In 1857, the first edition ofLes Fleurs du mal was published by one of Baudelaire’s old friends named Poulet-Malassis. It was not well-favored by the public. Less than a month after the book was put on sale, theFigaro published a scathing review that had devastating effects on Baudelaire’s writing career. After the appearance of another biting review, Baudelaire and his publisher were both prosecuted for offending public morality. He was fined three hundred francs, while his publisher was fined two hundred. In addition to this, six of the poems in the book were banned because they were considered to be too radical for publication.

Such a disappointment, coupled with the death of his stepfather the same year, launched Baudelaire deeper into pessimism and despondency. His mother leftParis and moved to Honfleur, where she invited him to come live with her. It was not until 1859 that he could finally accept her offer. While there, he wroteLe Salon de 1859, a book discussing the works of different artists. He also composed more poems for the second edition ofLes Fleurs du mal, including “Le Voyage,” which is considered to be one of his greatest poems. In 1860, he publishedLes Paradis artificiels, a book consisting of two essays that had been previously published in French magazines. Baudelaire’s primary purpose in writing this book was to condemn the use of drugs. Throughout his lifetime, he had often resorted to drugs in order to stimulate inspiration, but he realized the danger of such a habit. He concluded that there was some sort of “evil spirit” that accounted for man’s drive to commit sudden acts and thoughts. This concept of evil forces surrounding mankind reappeared in several of Baudelaire’s other works.

OnApril 24, 1863, Baudelaire left Paris and moved to Brussels in the hopes of finding a publisher for his writings. While there his health considerably worsened, and in 1865 he suffered from a stroke of apoplexy. He continued to suffer from a series of attacks, including another stroke resulting in aphasia and partial paralysis. After staying at a Catholic nursing home for a couple of months, he returned toParis on July 2. On August 31, 1867, he died quietly in his mother’s arms at the age of forty-six.

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