Who among us has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and sudden leaps of consciousness. This obsessive idea is above all a child of giant cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations.
– Charles Baudelaire, from his dedication of Le Spleen de Paris, a collection of prose poems published after his death
April 9, 1821 – Charles Baudelaire born in Paris; French poet, art critic, essayist, and translator; best known for his book of lyric poetry, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), he was a major innovator in French literature, with far-reaching influence over future French writers. Most of his life he was deeply unhappy. His father, who was 62 when Charles was born, died when he was only six years old. His mother was 34 years younger than his father, and as a widow, she soon remarried. Baudelaire was deeply attached to his mother, and he grew to dislike and resent his stepfather. By age 23, Baudelaire had wasted much of his inheritance, so his family went to court and had a lawyer put legally in charge of his remaining funds, which were doled out to him in an allowance. He deeply resented this intervention, and blamed it on his stepfather’s influence. It was one of the major causes of an estrangement from his mother for many years. It wasn’t until after his stepfather’s death that he was able to reconcile with his mother. He had expensive tastes, and was often so deeply in debt that he had to move frequently to escape his creditors.
It wasn’t until the 1850s that he began to be recognized as a writer and poet, and his translations of Edgar Allen Poe into French also brought him acclaim. But a month after Les Fleurs du mal went on sale in July 1857, a report was drawn up by the Sûreté Publique (Public Safety) section of the Ministry of the Interior stating that the collection was in contempt of the laws that safeguard religion and morality. Thirteen poems were singled out and put on trial. Baudelaire’s defense at the trial was threefold: that he had presented vice in such a way as to render it repellent to the reader; that if the poems are read as part of the larger collection, in a certain order, their moral context is revealed; and that his predecessors—Alfred de Musset, Pierre-Jean Béranger, George Sand, Honoré de Balzac—had written far more scandalously and gotten away with it. Baudelaire’s lawyer unwisely emphasized the last point, which was easily dismissed: that others have gotten away with transgression does not justify one’s own. Six of the poems were condemned—the ban on them was not lifted until after World War II, on 31 May 1949—and both Baudelaire and his editors were fined. The condemned poems were excised, and the book went back on sale. Baudelaire subsequently achieved a certain notoriety, for better and for worse. For the better, Les Fleurs du mal got good reviews from critics that counted. For the worse, Baudelaire’s legend as a poète maudit (cursed poet) exploded at this time, and Baudelaire greatly contributed to this reputation by going out of his way to shock people with deliberately cultivated eccentricities. He smoked opium, and drank to excess. Baudelaire suffered a massive stroke in 1866, and went through over a year of aphasia (inability to comprehend or formulate language), and was semi-paralyzed. He died in 1867 at age 46. His mother paid off his substantial debts.
When Baudelaire lived in Paris, like many other parts of the world, France was undergoing rapid industrialization, and his work captures the constant change of his city, the ending of an old way of life, and the beginning of modernité, a word he coined to describe the times.
The Ruined Garden (L’Ennemi)
by Charles Baudelaire
My childhood was only a menacing shower,
cut now and then by hours of brilliant heat.
All the top soil was killed by rain and sleet,
my garden hardly bore a standing flower.
From now on, my mind’s autumn! I must take
the field and dress my beds with spade and rake
and restore order to my flooded grounds.
There the rain raised mountains like burial mounds.
I throw fresh seeds out. Who knows what survives?
What elements will give us life and food?
This soil is irrigated by the tides.
Time and nature sluice away our lives.
A virus eats the heart out of our sides,
digs in and multiplies on our lost blood.
“The Ruined Garden” – translation from Imitations, © 1961 by Robert Lowell – Farrar. Straus and Giroux