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By Barry Wayne Veinotte

Charles-Pierre Baudelaire

1821 - 1867
Place of Birth: Paris, France
Mother: Caroline Defayis
Father: François Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire was a 19th century French poet, translator, and literary and art critic whose reputation rests primarily on Les Fleurs du mal; (1857;The Flowers of Evil) which was perhaps the most important and 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, be it in the leaves of a tree or a prostitutes frown. His refusal to admit restriction in the poets 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."


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Baudelaire's father died in February of 1827. Baudelaire and his mother lived together on the outskirts of Paris 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 the Second Empire.

He began his education at the Collège Royal in Lyons when Aupick was posted there, transferring to the prestigious Lacèe Louis-le-grand when the family returned to Paris 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.


Conceive me as a dream of stone:
my breast, where mortals come to grief,
is made to prompt all poets' love,
mute and noble as matter itself.

With snow for flesh, with ice for heart,
I sit on high, an unguessed sphinx
begrudging acts that alter forms;
I never laugh, I never weep.

In studious awe the poets brood
before my monumental pose
aped from the proudest pedestal,
and to bind these docile lovers fast
I freeze the world in a perfect mirror:

The timeless light of my wide eyes.

Eventually Baudelaire became a nominal student of law at the École 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.

Baudelaire received his inheritance in April 1842 and rapidly proceeded to dissipate it on the lifestyle of a dandified man of letters, spending freely on clothes, books, paintings, expensive food and wines, and, not least, hashish and opium, which he first experimented with in his Paris apartment at the Hôtel Pimodan (now the Hôtel Lauzun) on the Île Saint-Louis between 1843 and 1845. It was shortly after returning from the South Seas that Baudelaire met the mulatto woman known as Jeanne Duval, who, first as his mistress and then, after the mid-1850s, as his financial charge, was to dominate his life for the next 20 years. Jeanne would inspire Baudelaire's most anguished and sensual love poetry, her perfume and, above all, her magnificent flowing black hair provoking such masterpieces of the exotic-erotic imagination as "La Chevelure" ("The Head of Hair").

Baudelaire's continuing extravagance exhausted half his fortune in two years, and he also fell prey to cheats and moneylenders, thus laying the foundation for an accumulation of debt that would cripple him for the rest of his life. In September 1844 his family imposed on him a legal arrangement that restricted his access to his inheritance and effectively made of him a legal minor. The modest annual allowance henceforth granted him was insufficient to clear his debts, and the resulting state of permanently straitened finances led him to still greater emotional and financial dependence on his mother and also exacerbated his growing detestation of his
stepfather. The agonizing moods of isolation and despair that Baudelaire had known in adolescence, and which he called his moods of "spleen," returned and became more frequent.

[Credit: Herman Post]

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