Bard of the Boulevards – Frank McNally on poet Charles Baudelaire, born 200 years ago on this day
An Irishman’s Diary
“Charles Baudelaire spent 44,500 gold francs in two years. His mother turned off the money tap, or at least fitted a meter.” Photograph: Etienne Carjat/Getty Images
If you have ever gone strolling in Paris, the central part of it anyway, there is a good chance you were following the footsteps of Charles Baudelaire, who was born 200 years ago today (April 9th). For one thing, he is considered the original flâneur, who loved to walk the Parisian streets aimlessly, immersing himself in the sights, sounds, and smells. For another, he lived in at least 40 different addresses there, moving ever more frequently in later years, to stay ahead of his creditors.
Apart from the fact that he also died in Paris, he has striking similarities with the later Oscar Wilde. They were both, in their prime, dandies: young men who dressed and performed the part of artists.
As Edmund White notes in his book The Flâneur, Baudelaire also managed simultaneously, as Wilde would, to be “a socialist and […] snob”. And although their lives only briefly overlapped, they had near identical spans. Both men died, in greatly reduced circumstances, aged 46.
Baudelaire was born into comfortable circumstances in 1821. But his father, a senior civil servant, was already in his 60s by then, 34 years older than the future poet’s mother. When he died a few years later, and she quickly remarried, Baudelaire had a childhood version of Hamlet’s crisis, the displacement of maternal affections haunting him for years.
His step-father was an army officer and diplomat who encouraged the boy to study law, which he did for a time. Less promisingly, the student also developed a fondness for alcohol, expensive clothes, and prostitutes. He was sent to India for a time, in the hope it would cure his dissolute habits. But it didn’t. When he returned, he threw himself with renewed vigour into spending his inheritance on wine, women, and other things he considered beautiful.
During his glory years, circa 1843-4, he lived in the Hôtel Pimodan (now the Hôtel de Lauzun although in neither case a hotel as we understand it, more a private mansion), on Île-St-Louis. It was there he wrote most of the poems that become his most infamous book, Les Fleurs du Mal (“The Flowers of Evil”).
It was also there he joined the Club des Hachichins, a group of artists named for their use the drug hashish, which – like the Count of Monte Cristo – they ate in the form of a greenish jelly.
The painters Manet and Daumier were also members. So was the novelist Balzac, who took careful notes but didn’t indulge himself. Even Baudelaire, by his own account, quickly abandoned the experiment, which as an aid to art he compared unfavourably to wine. “Wine exalts the will,” he wrote, “hashish annihilates it.”
A visitor reported that his rented rooms were full of exotic decor but that his small collection of books and writing equipment was kept hidden, as something in bad taste. Also, his fondness for immersing himself in the streets did not extend to looking at them. He had scratched the lower windowpanes to obscure his expensive view over the Seine. Only the sky was visible.
Baudelaire spent 44,500 gold francs in two years. But by late 1844, White writes, “the party was over”. His mother turned off the money tap, or at least fitted a meter. Humiliated by his miserly new budget, the poet attempted suicide and failed. He was nursed back to health by his lover, then “limped home to his mother” for a time before embarking on a more peripatetic lifestyle.
He was briefly involved in the revolutionary events of 1848, which among other things led to the obliteration of much of the old Paris he had so loved. Haussmann’s great boulevards would be deliberately less friendly to barricade construction. But by the time Les Fleurs du Mal was published in 1857, to lasting notoriety, Baudelaire was already in failing health.
Like many of his era, he had syphilis. It was so common in creative circles then that Renoir once joked about his own feelings of inadequacy in not having it, alone among his friends. Still running from the creditors, Baudelaire lived in Brussels for a time. Then in 1866, he suffered a major stroke that left him part-paralysed for the rest of his days. He died in August 1867.
Almost 90 years later, adopted Parisian Samuel Beckett would write Endgame while reading “Baudelaire and the Bible”. It’s worth noting, given that censorship was so rife in Beckett’s homeland, that some of the original Fleurs du Mal had only recently been unbanned in France then. Six of the 1857 collection were censored for “excessive realism”, so that an expurgated edition quickly followed. The forbidden poems could not be published again until 1949.