Lecture notes: Baudelaire

Petra Dierkes-Thrun

Stanford University


Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821-67)


  • French poet, critic, translator and essayist, among the most influential poets of the 19th century. Later began to write poems in prose, producing some of the earliest important examples of the form. (Oscar Wilde also tried his hadn at these; see “The Artist”)
  • Powerful approach to unorthodox subjects such as vice, boredom, sexuality, depravity, and unique reshaping of such classical poetic subjects as beauty, the poetic muse, or the poet’s role, formed foundation of Symbolism and Decadence, and still made itself felt in styles and themes of early Modernism
  • Some biographical milestones: born in Paris, where he spent most of his life (and became a poet of the city); difficult relationship with unsympathetic stepfather; briefly attended law school but dropped out; increasingly dissipated lifestyle (not even long sea voyage to the Indian Ocean his family sent him on in 1841 changed his ways). 1842 received inheritance, started to live the life of a Parisian dandy squandering his money, drinking excessively, experimenting with drugs, and writing poetry. Contracted syphilis, accumulated debts, difficulties with publishers and printers, forever moving. His family assigned him financial guardian in 1844. After the remainder of his father’s money was put into a trust, Baudelaire found himself forced to seek a means of earning additional income, and his literary career took off—he wrote critical essays, art criticism and poetry.
  • In addition to his works of poetry and criticism, Baudelaire also authored a short novel, La fanfarlo, which was based largely on his experiences as a young artist living in Paris.
  • Love life: liaison with mixed-race mistress Jeanne Duval, to whom he was devoted over many years. Many of his poems were inspired by her. Two other mistresses also inspired poems (Mme Sabatier, and the actress Marie Daubrun).
  • 1847: discovered Edgar Allan Poe, became a chief translator and literary advocate; powerful influence on Baudelaire’s own emerging aesthetic theories.
  • During this time, Baudelaire also discovered the ideas of Joseph de Maistre, from which he adopted his philosophy of providentialism and belief in original sin and evil (background for Les Fleurs du Mal, published 1857)
  • 1861 applied unsuccessfully for admission to the Académie Française. 1864 moved to Belgium, was paralyzed in 1866. Brought back to Paris, where he died on August 31, 1867.




Les Fleurs du mal (1857; Eng. tr., Flowers of Evil, 1909—Oscar Wilde would only have read this in French!) collected many of Baudelaire’s previously published poems; originally to be titled The Lesbians (even though it only contained three lesbian-themed poems: “Lesbos” and two “Condemned Women” poems).  In this landmark work, Baudelaire brought together many of his previous poems, many of which had already been previously published. Jonathan Culler (introduction to our edition) says that Baudelaire conceived of lesbian love as never satisfied, always burning, and therefore as torture (idea that without a man there cannot be fulfillment…), and saw Sappho [with Ovid] as a tragic figure; hence for Baudelaire, “the lesbians would have been the central and representative figures for a book of poems about the impossible structure of desire, its diverse dramas, and the poet’s relation to infinite longings.”  (This is a debatable, problematic interpretation, of course.)

Les fleurs du mal created an immediate scandal because of its frank sexuality, conflicted or spirituality, and confrontational, blatantly immoral (or amoral) attitudes à public trial for obscenity and blasphemy in Paris; both Baudelaire and his publisher convicted and fined on morality charges, ordered suppression of six of the originally 100 poems, still banned in France until 1949: “Lesbos”, “Women Doomed,” “Lethe”, “To Her Who Is Too Gay,” “The Jewels,” “The Vampire’s Metamorphoses.”

Reissued twice (without those poems) in the 1860s, however; secured Baudelaire’s reputation as one of the most daring poets of his generation. Complex publication history: The second edition (1861) added more than 35 new poems (but didn’t restore the censored ones which remained banned until 1949 (!); the posthumous edition of 1868 added more than 25.

The initial publication was arranged in six thematically segregated sections:

  • Spleen et Idéal
  • Tableaux parisiens
  • Le Vin
  • Fleurs du mal
  • Révolte
  • La Mort

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