Charles-Pierre Baudelaire

In an age when Romantic poets celebrated the countryside and pristine, pastoral nature, Charles-Pierre Baudelaire was the first urban poet, celebrating Paris in all its gritty, run-down glory. His poems celebrate not lords, knights and classical heroes, but derelicts, madmen, and broken-down street acrobats and peddlers. Attacked upon publication as a threat to religion and public morality, his Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) is arguably the most important poetry collection of the 19th century. Baudelaire combined the beautiful language and grandeur of the best Romantic artists with the unflinching eye of the Naturalists; his efforts to express "the heroism of modern life" were a major influence on artists as diverse as Rilke, Joyce and T.S. Eliot.

Baudelaire's poems describe a cycle which leads from intoxication through conflict and revulsion and, finally, an ultimate ambivalent tranquility born of memory and of the transmutation of suffering into art. Throughout there is an essential dissatisfaction and melancholy, a Weltschmertz which would later become a hallmark of the Gothic pose. Like Goths, Baudelaire also combines images of beauty with decay and urban blight; one of his best-known poems, "Le Cygne (The Swan)", describes an injured swan stranded in desolation amidst the grime and bustle surrounding the Louvre.

Baudelaire is also one of the first major artists of transgression; his poetry deals frankly with rape, sexual deviance, and Satanism (although Baudelaire considered himself a Roman Catholic, he was far more fascinated by the devil and by original sin than by Christian ideals or standards of conduct). He wished to escape all boundaries; the boundaries of religion, of social propriety, and, ultimately, of the self. He experimented with hashish and opium and wrote about the results, although later he would decry drugs in his translation of DeQuincy's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. In the Preface to Les Fleurs de mal, he informs the reader:

Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l'incendie,
N'ont pas encor brode de leurs plaisants dessins
Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
C'est que notre ame, helas! N'es pas assez hardie.

If rape and poison, arson and the knife
Have not yet woven their pleasant designs
On the dull canvas of our lonely destinies
It is because our soul, alas, is not yet bold enough!

These sentiments would lead to several poems in Les Fleurs du mal being banned as obscene; not until 1949 could the unexpurgated version be published legally in France. They would also cement Baudelaire's reputation as a poet of the depraved and decadent, a reputation which has ensured his popularity in Gothic and Industrial culture.

Baudelaire was also the first person to translate Edgar Allen Poe's work into French, in what must surely be one of the most fortuitous author/translator combinations of all time. Poe's fascination with madness and crime struck a resonant chord with Baudelaire; Poe's lyricism and beauty of language was matched by Baudelaire's. Considered classics of French literature, Baudelaire's translations helped cement Poe's reputation among the Gauls as one of the greatest writers in the English language.


Commentary by Kevin Filan, Thursday, July 7, 1998.

Photo: Rachel / Models: Carol, Anna, Kerry, Sue