Charles BaudelaireIntroduction

Charles Baudelaire (1821-66) took his themes from city life and introduced many of the preoccupations of Modernism. Charles was born the son of François Baudelaire, an ex-priest who was 60 and a widower when he married Caroline Dufaÿs, a penniless orphan of 26. His father died in 1827, and Charles was brought up by his stepfather, Major Jacques Aupick, a brilliant, forceful man who eventually became a general and senator. Relations were initially cordial but Charles worshiped his mother, and relied on her help throughout his life. Charles was packed off to boarding school, expelled, enrolled at the École de Droit, became addicted to opium, contracted syphilis, and fell into debt.

Law studies were terminated and in 1841 Charles was propelled on a voyage to India, towards which he got as far as Mauritius. He returned to Paris, took up with Jeanne Duval, possibly between other relationships, and lived precariously on his father's inheritance. In 1847 he published an autobiographical novel, and spent the following years translating Edgar Allan Poe.

Les Fleurs du Mal appeared in 1857, and resulted in prosecution for obscenity and blasphemy for all involved. A second edition appeared in 1861, and Baudelaire also became known as a art critic, supporting Delacroix, Daumier, Manet and others. In 1862 he suffered a minor stroke, and the excesses began to take their toll. He was harassed by financial troubles, spent an unhappy period in Belgium and in 1866 returned, seriously ill, to Paris and a sanatorium. Baudelaire died, his mother at the bedside, in a Paris clinic of aphasia and hemiplegia on August 31, 1867.

Baudelaire posed, as far as finances permitted, as an aesthete and the dandy, opposed to conventional morality and the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie. Life was purposeless. He equate the modern with the artificial, even decadent, and shocked his contemporaries with his views of the loneliness, immorality and heartlessness of the modern city. Much of that now seems unexceptional, or has passed into history, and Baudelaire is today read for his originality and sheer poetry. He distrusted the Romantic's practice of spontaneity, and indeed their faith in the innate goodness of man and nature, but thickened the texture of his work with dreams, myths and symbolism and imposed a stern discipline of verse perfection.

Baudelaire was an incessant reviser. He loved the city and its artificiality, being fascinated by perfume, jewels and bought sex, but his thought also lingered on childhood and exotic, faraway places. Poetry had to have an element of strangeness, even horror, which was not contrived: all imaginings should be accompanied by sensory recall: a view that developed into Symbolism, with its correspondences between the visible and non-visible.

Though he championed Delacroix, Baudelaire's art criticism also stressed the need to represent the contemporary and the heroism of everyday life. His critical writing, much of it still readable, extended to music and literature, and he was especially fond of Chateaubriand, Balzac, and Stendhal.

Baudelaire shares his nineteenth century celebrity with several French poets of the first rank: Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Stephane Mallarmé and, above all, Victor Hugo. Common to all but the last (and arguably the greatest) poet is the Modernist flight from realism, and its cult of alienation and social failure. The subtle beauty, intelligence, and linguistic complexity were not for the profane majority. Baudelaire's poetry explored symbols selected for their tendency to evoke one sensory experience through another, so elevating experience to the level of intellect. Mallarmé populated a universe with symbols lacking obvious referents. Postmodernist theory, with its reification of language, has moved beyond such symbols to the analysis of linguistic signs and their signification. Deconstruction refuses to accept any reality outside words, and the avant-garde in its turn has moved from the bohemian world of Baudelaire to academia and the small presses.

For the structure of French verse try On Reading French Verse by R. Lewis (1982) or French Verse-Art A Study by C. Scott (1980), Introduction to French Poetry (Dual-Language) by Stanley Appelbaum (1991) or Poesie Francaise: Premiers Exercices d'Analyse by Jean-Paul Carton (1998). Readable books on Charles Baudelaire and his work include P. Quennell's Baudelaire and the Symbolists (1970), M. Gilman's The Idea of Poetry in France: From Houdar de la Motte to Baudelaire (1958) and J. A. Hiddleston's Baudelaire and the Art of Memory (1999).

Suggestion: Baudelaire: Poems. Everyman's Library Pocket Poets. 2000. $10.

An excellent hardcover edition of everyone's favourites: translation by Richard Howard and selections from Michael Hamburger's versions of the prose poems.

Learning French

You will need first to develop an ear for the syllabic nature of French verse. Try On Reading French Verse by R. Lewis (1982) or French Verse-Art A Study by C. Scott (1980), Introduction to French Poetry (Dual-Language) by Stanley Appelbaum (1991) or Poesie Francaise: Premiers Exercices d'Analyse by Jean-Paul Carton (1998). If you've forgotten your school French, then enroll on courses: french classes or work through books, tapes and CDs (language quest, or pimsleur. These free sites will help: resources for learning French, French tutorial, guardian and bbc.

English-French-English dictionaries can be found at: wordreference, french linguistics, ultralingua, lookwayup,, prompt online and lexilogos.

Machine translation can be helpful, though you will need some grammar to correct the rendering: omnilang, free translation, , google, babelfish, worldlingo, and reverso.

Some useful language exchanges: friends abroad, xlingo, mylanguage exchange, polyglot learn language, and lingozone.

French Poetry

You can buy French poetry on CD at a la page, audio-roots, and mots et merveilles. The following offer a good selection of French poetry online: poetry international, french surrealist poetry, bartleby, and (in French only) toute la poesie, poesie webnet, club des poètes, poesie de marie, cedille, litterature francophone virtuelle, xxix century poets, and athena .


I. Silver's Ronsard and the Hellenic Renaissance in France (2 vols, 1961 & 1987) is more for specialists. Ronsard's poetry can be found at poésie française, and extensive resources (in French) at calliope.


Internet sources include abu-auteur, and Useful books: P. Butler's Racine: A Study (1974), G. Brereton's Racine: A Critical Biography (1973) and J. Lapp's Aspects of Racinian Tragedy (1955).

Paul Valéry

Sites featuring Valéry include island of xiphos, @lalettre, cloutier, l'agora and garp.

Recommended books: W.N. Ince's The Poetic Theory of Paul Valéry (1961), C.M. Crow's Paul Valéry (1982), M. Philippon's Paul Valéry: une poétique en poèmes (1993), W. Putman's Paul Valéry Revisited (1995), W. Kluback's Paul Valéry: A Philosopher for Philosophers (1999) and P. Gifford's (ed.) Reading Paul Valéry ((1999).

Saint-John Perse

Sites featuring Saint John Perse include noiraude.patoche, saint-john perse and lehman.cluny — but the best is (in French, as most are). Useful books: R. Little's Saint-John Perse (1973), R.M. Galand's Saint-John Perse (1972), A Knodel's Saint-John Perse: A Study of his Poetry (1962) C. Rigolot's Forged Genealogies: Saint-John Perse's Conversations with Culture (2002) and R.L. Sterling's The Prose Works by Saint-John Perse (1994).


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.