A century of French poets: Charles Baudelaire, Page 1|
by Francis Yvon Eccles (1909).
His father was over sixty when Charles Baudelaire was born — the only child of a disproportionate second marriage. The elder Baudelaire, who was the son of a small farmer in Champagne, had been well educated with a view to ordination and, after a short experience as an usher, had filled the post of tutor in a great family, where he was liberally treated and acquired fine manners and the doctrine of the Encyclopaedists. During the Terror he lived and supported his ruined patrons by giving lessons in drawing, and is said to have saved Condorcet from execution. He held a place in the administration of the Senate under the Consulate and the Empire; had painters and men of letters for his friends; and died not quite six years after the poet's birth.
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Charles was only seven when his mother, still quite a young woman, married an officer, Major (afterwards General) Aupick. He seems to have taken real interest in his stepson; but besides the natural difficulties of such a situation — for the boy had a lively remembrance of his own father — an insurmountable antagonism was bound in time to show itself between a dreamer, impatient of control and disdainful of success, and a man of action, ambitious, a disciplinarian by temper and professional habit. At two public schools, in Lyons and Paris, young Baudelaire won prizes and a reputation for general ability: he left Louis-le-Grand abruptly and scandalously. His stepfather wished him to enter the diplomatic service: Baudelaire refused to do anything but write; and from 1839 to 1841 he led a somewhat riotous (and outwardly fruitless) life in Paris, indulging a hundred curiosities, among a crew of Bohemians more or less intellectual; until at last, after an open quarrel with General Aupick, his family, in alarm at his spendthrift idleness and the queer company he kept, put him on board a merchantman sailing from Bordeaux for the Indies under the charge of a friendly captain. It was hoped he might be attracted to commerce, or at least come home with a taste for some regular way of life; but the ten months spent at sea and in some fortunate island of the tropics only dazzled and hypnotised his senses, and provided his enchanted memory with a refuge from the real. He returned to Paris on the eve of his majority and, possessed of material independence, began that life of studious dissipation, of feverish labour without fruition, joyless vice, discontent and remorse and vagabondage and exasperated idealism, of which the history or the legend has been used too often to supply an unedifying commentary on his writings.
Between 1842 and 1857 — the great landmark in Baudelaire's career — his most notable work was done in art criticism: his Salons of 1845 and 1846 made some stir by their qualities of definiteness, absolute candour, technical competence, and by their vehement praise of Delacroix and Haussoullier. Here and there he contributed also a few poems, weird Hoffmannesque tales and literary articles to the reviews. A conscientious study on the 'philosophy of love' and several dramas (among which L'Ivrogne promised to be the most characteristic) never got beyond the stage of fragments. From 1852 onwards he devoted much time to the interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe. But before the publication of Les Fleurs du Mal Baudelaire was better known than his writings to literary Paris — known as a dandy of immaculate and imperturbable exterior, an ironist and mystifier in his talk, a night-bird insatiable in the pursuit of singular experiences, — and as the lover of a worthless and crapulous woman of colour, Jeanne Duval, who made him wretched and to whom he showed inexhaustible kindness. In 1848 he had thrown himself blindly into politics and started a 'Christian democratic' sheet which lasted for a few weeks; but a little later he accepted the management of a conservative paper in the provinces! He was soon discharged, and from the Coup d'État onwards took no more interest in public affairs.
In 1853 Baudelaire published his translation of The Raven, which had been heralded by a remarkable article on Poe's life and writings in La Revue de Paris; two volumes of Poe's Tales, turned into a French prose which is allowed to surpass the original, were brought out in 1856 and 1857. In this latter year, a friend who had set up a publishing business in a provincial town produced Les Fleurs du Mal. A collection of Baudelaire's poems had been curiously expected by a small number of intellectual men; the book drew praise, not unreserved, but warm and candid, from Hugo and Gautier, Sainte-Beuve and Barbey d'Aurevilly, E. Deschamps and Flaubert and other writers of worth: the public would probably have ignored it but for the prosecution of the author. The government of December had recently shown its solicitude for propriety in print in the matter of Madame Bovary: its action in Baudelaire's case was more successful and assuredly better grounded; the six pieces ordered to be suppressed are by no means among the best in the volume, and the lubricity of two or three at least (though manifestly not of a marketable variety) throws their other qualities into the shade.
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