Charles Baudelaire was a mama’s boy and a decadent ne’er-do-well, who wrote a group of poems known as The Flowers of Evil that profoundly influenced generations of future poets--even though many of the poems were denounced as obscene and six of them were banned in France until 1949. Poor Baudelaire also had gonorrhea and syphilis (acquired in the usual disreputable manner) and a fondness for opium, laudanum, and cognac, which conspired to snuff out his life at the age of forty-six.
Born in Paris April 9, 1821, Baudelaire was always close to his mother, a relationship that deepened after his father died when Charles was six. But the following year, she remarried a French diplomat and military officer named Jacques Aupick, whom Charles regarded as a rival for his mother’s affection. In a letter written to her years later he spoke of his “passionate love” for her as a child. After his stepfather’s death, when Charles was thirty-six, he wrote to his mother: “I believe that I belong to you absolutely, and that I belong only to you.”
Young Charles was sent to boarding school in Lyon and then studied law at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where he spent much of his time running up expenses for dandified clothes, liquor, and prostitutes. Throughout his life Baudelaire wheedled money out of his mother to cover his debts. In desperation his stepfather shipped him out as a crewman on a freighter to India, but he jumped ship and returned to Paris, where, lo and behold!, having reached the age of twenty-one, he inherited a small fortune of 99,568 francs from his late father’s estate. That would probably be something in excess of half a million dollars in today’s buying power, and it enabled Baudelaire to live a playboy’s life—until he had spent almost half the inheritance and his parents managed to put the remainder in trust, granting him only a small monthly allowance.
During this period, Baudelaire became involved with Jeanne Duval, a Haitian-born sometime actress and the inspiration for a series of “Black Venus” poems. Baudelaire’s family vehemently rejected his relationship with her, whether because of her ethnicity or her profession is not clear. Jeanne and Charles remained off-and-on lovers for the rest of his life, although he also engaged in dalliances with a voluptuous blonde actress named Marie Daubrun and a demimondaine named Apolonie Sabatier, who conducted a salon that attracted the likes of Gustave Flaubert, Théophile Gautier, and Ernest Feydeau.
In 1857 Baudelaire published his chief (and practically his only) poetic work, Les Fleurs du Mal, which launched the French symbolist movement in poetry, deeply affecting such followers as Paul Verlaine, Artur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and many later poets. Baudelaire’s poems deal with taboo subjects like death and sexual activity of many varieties, which he treated in sensual detail. Six poems deal with lesbian love, and he and his publisher were tried and convicted of an offense against public morals, barely escaping prison time. The six poems were were banned from publication in France, a prohibition not lifted until 1949.
Always strapped for cash, Baudelaire saw his financial position worsen when his publisher went bankrupt in 1861. Belgium offered the prospect of income from lectures and the sale of his books, so Baudelaire moved there in 1863. But his lifelong indulgence in drugs and alcohol, combined with the continuing symptoms of venereal diseases, resulted in his collapse in the Church of Saint-Loup in Namur in 1866. This was followed by a series of strokes in which he suffered loss of speech and partial paralysis. He returned to Paris and entered a nursing home, where, after a year’s confinement, he died on August 31, 1867, at the age of forty-six. He was buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery.
During his final days, Baudelaire was given the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church, but whether he was actually a religious believer is a subject of great speculation. Certainly his poems are filled with Christian symbolism, but there are also references to Satanism. There is a famous story of Baudelaire’s close friend, the one-named photographer Nadar, a free thinker who often visited Baudelaire in the nursing home. One day Nadar asked Baudelaire, “How can you possibly believe in God and an afterlife?” Unable to speak, Baudelaire smiled and gestured toward a glorious sunset over the Arc de Triomphe. Most likely Baudelaire remained an unwilling agnostic until the end of his life, for as he wrote in a letter to his mother in 1861: “I desire with all my heart—and with a sincerity which no one except myself will ever understand—to believe that an external invisible being is interested in my fate; but what must one do to believe it?”