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Baudelaire, Charles (1821-1867)  

A central figure in nineteenth-century French literature, Charles Baudelaire was born on April 9, 1821, in Paris, and died on August 31, 1867. Two collections of Baudelaire's poetry continue to intrigue and influence writers: Les fleurs du mal (Flowers Of Evil, 1857) and Le spleen de Paris (Paris Spleen, 1869). In the latter collection, published posthumously, he essentially invented the "prose poem."

Had he written only poetry, Baudelaire's reputation would be secure; however, he is also an important art and literary critic. His defense of painters not recognized by the artistic establishment of his time, especially the Impressionists, helped gain them an audience and respect. Likewise, his translations of Poe's work established Poe in France as a major literary talent.

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Speculation continues about his personal life. Some early writers suggested that he died a virgin; many others now believe that he died of syphilis acquired in 1841. He had complicated relations with Jeanne Duvall, a prostitute; Madame Sabatier, a courtesan for the wealthy and socially prominent; and Marie Daubrun, an actress. The poems Duvall inspired portray her as both the apex of beauty and the nadir of evil.

Lesbianism fascinated Baudelaire. He even considered naming his first book of poems Les lesbiennes. "Lesbos," from Les fleurs du mal, celebrates lesbian love and evokes Sappho, who is described as both "mannish" and "beautiful." Further, the speaker challenges the authorities who would "dare" judge those who inhabit Lesbos. Even the gods would not dare to judge these women, he asserts.

Two other poems called "Femmes damnées" also explore lesbianism. Here the lovers, with their disordered souls, must suffer in a world wound tight with rules. The bourgeois considers such women demonic; that alone makes them fascinating to Baudelaire.

Male homosexuality does not receive this kind of direct treatment; gay men can find no equivalent "Lesbos" in his work.

Baudelaire's best poetry evokes both sensuality and sensuousness. For him, the world is never rational; our attempt to build systems out of chaos leads to madness. Many of his poems target the middle class with its fatuous love of respectability. The more they demand laws to restrict behavior, the sillier and more hypocritical they appear. His solution to middle-class boredom? Shake it off by becoming drunk--on wine, virtue, or poetry--as he suggests in "Intoxication," a poem from Le spleen de Paris.

Baudelaire's poetry has deep roots in Romanticism, but it is often bleak and ultimately urban. The city, Paris, replaces the countryside as the principal roost of poetry. Baudelaire prefers the city's hothouse flowers to the real ones found in the country. The lesbians in his work may be associated with distant island-havens such as "Lesbos," but they are Parisians. What he romanticizes is their outlaw status, their preference for sensuality over respectability.

The French Symboliste writers, including Rimbaud and Verlaine, followed Baudelaire and continued to examine and highlight the themes and issues that surface in his poetry. Baudelaire was among the first French poets to include lesbians as subjects. By doing so, he did much to widen the scope of what is acceptable content in poetry.

Kenneth Pobo

     

 
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    Bibliography
   

Carter, A. E. Charles Baudelaire. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1987.

Peyre, Henri, ed. Baudelaire: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Raser, Timothy. "Language and the Erotic in Two Poems by Baudelaire." Romantic Review 79 (1988): 443-451.

Sieburth, Richard. "Poetry and Obscenity: Baudelaire and Swinburne." Comparative Literature 36 (1984): 343-353.

Van Nortwick, Thomas. "Flores Mali: Catullus and Baudelaire." Kenyon Review 11:1 (1989): 67-77.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Pobo, Kenneth  
    Entry Title: Baudelaire, Charles  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 26, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/baudelaire_c.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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