Biography of Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire is considered the first, and perhaps the most influential, modernist poet. His embrace of the everyday and the vicissitudes of urban life; his fascination with the forbidden, such as the dark, seamy parts of 19th-century Paris; his spare, bold images; and his pervasive irony moved poetry away from Romantic concerns, and firmly into the realm of the modern. He did not shy away from topics that made his readers uncomfortable, dwelling on scenes of sex, death, and psychological trauma. Religion makes fitful appearances, but transcendence, if it occurs, seems to stem instead from the poet’s own inner ruminations. Macabre but amusing, beguiling but repulsive, Baudelaire’s poetry indicated the shape of poetry to come.

Baudelaire was born to François Baudelaire and Caroline Dufayis on April 9, 1821. François was thirty-four years older than his wife and an ordained priest until 1793’s Reign of Terror, when pressures on the clergy, and persecution of priests, were at their height. François was also a painter and an administrator in the French Senate. He died in 1827, and Caroline married Jacques Aupick the next year. Baudelaire initially had a fine relationship with his stepfather, a career military man.

As a young man Baudelaire attended the College Louis-le-Grand and did well, especially in Latin, but was dismissed for disciplinary issues. He moved to Paris and began living an ostentatious and bohemian lifestyle, and although he worked on attaining his baccalauréat during this time he was more dedicated to his leisure pursuits. It is likely that around this time he contracted syphilis, a disease that would cause much discomfort and pain for the rest of his life.

Over time the relationship with Aupick soured and Baudelaire quarreled frequently with his mother over this fracture. His inheritance from his father was set to be released when Baudelaire turned twenty-one in 1842 and his family worried that he would squander it. They forced him to embark for India in May of 1841 in order to keep him out of France. As the ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope bad weather forced it to stop, and there Baudelaire embarked at Mauritania. He stayed there for two months and then found passage back to France.

Once back in his home country he began to engage in the sort of behavior his family had feared. He incurred numerous debts, and his family stepped in and had him declared a minor so they could control his finances. He resented this intensely and struggled to maintain the lifestyle he preferred. In 1845 he attempted suicide, and upon his recovery decided to dedicate himself to writing; he did this copiously and intensely. He was friendly with the poets, novelists, critics, and painters of modernist Paris, and was occasionally politically active, such as in 1848 when he briefly manned the barricades during the Revolution and worked on a short-lived revolutionary newspaper. He was known for his perambulations around Paris as a “flaneur” and his fashionable dress.

He had numerous relationships, including a tempestuous one with Jeanne Duval, a mulatto actress from the Caribbean. They could not marry due to Baudelaire’s mother’s disapproval, but lived together. Marie Dabrun was a later affair, and both women inspired numerous poems.

Baudelaire sold some of his writing but never managed to live comfortably due to his extravagances. He had to move about frequently—once six times in a month—to avoid creditors in Paris. He often lacked money for firewood and could not get out of bed for the cold. He wrote prolifically, though, beginning to compose what would become Les Fleurs du Mal in the 1840s.

Baudelaire’s first published poems, printed in 1844 and 1847, were under the name of one of his friends. The first to bear his name came out in 1845—“À Une Dame Creole” in L’Artiste. Throughout the 1850s, Baudelaire’s reputation continued to grow, though he did not publish many poems; his natural charisma and eccentricity pulled people to him.

The first edition of Fleurs came out in 1857 with revised editions published in 1861 and 1868. The 1857 edition resulted in a trial for immorality, and six of the poems could not be included in the 1861 edition. Baudelaire became even more infamous for his work and his scandalous, eccentric behavior following the trial; he was even referred to as a poète maudit, a cursed poet.

Much of the fame Baudelaire enjoyed during his own lifetime was based on his art criticism on the yearly "Salons," exhibitions of recent artworks. He published one novella, La Fanfarlo, and wrote for multiple literary journals. One of his most notable literary contributions was a translation of the works of Edgar Allen Poe, a writer who was phenomenally impactful for Baudelaire.

In 1866, while visiting Brussels for a lecture series he hoped would make him money, he experienced partial paralysis due to his lingering syphilis. He died at age forty-six on August 31st, 1867. At the time of his death his reputation had grown, with writer Arthur Rimbaud eulogizing him as a genius and a visionary.

Study Guides on Works by Charles Baudelaire

It is hard to overstate the impact of Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. It is a canonical text not only in French literature and modernism, but in the history of European art. It influenced innumerable poets, novelists, artists, and critics in...