“Hélas! tout est abîme, — action, désir, rêve, Parole!" - The Death of Charles Baudelaire

31 August 1867, Charles Baudelaire died in Paris.

“Hélas! tout est abîme, — action, désir, rêve,
Everything, alas, is an abyss, — actions, desires, dreams,
Words!“ (Charles Baudelaire)

Portrait of Charles Baudelaire by Gustave Courbet, 1848

When the poet lay dying at the age of 46 in Dr Duval’s hospital in the Quartier Chaillot in Paris, after a stroke he suffered the year before in Brussels that left him paralysed on one side and incapable of speech, cared for by his ageing mother, there were really few things left that he had not pursued within the framework of a stereotypical vie de la bohème. Picking up the Great Pox when he was 18, dawdling in the Parisian demi-monde while letting his law studies slide, experimenting with every type of narcotics available, drinking, of course, like a sailor on shore leave, squandering his inheritance, making several suicide attempts, living with his Haitian mistress Jeanne Duval, an actress and dancer of mixed French and black African ancestry, while declaring popular courtesans to be his muses, being always in debt and indulging in Wagner and whatnot. And, as a sideline, Baudelaire squeezing the idea, the spirit and the awareness of modernity out of the chaos of his own life and the labour pains of the industrial age and pressing it in the shape of a poetic language that was and his unheard of in its quality and depth.

Charles Baudelaire in 1855

It was arguably one of Baudelaire’s greatest innovations to integrate the urbs, the big city, as a biosphere worthy of artistic involvement in his poetry. Sparsely, though, but it is simply not possible to imagine his oeuvre without the grazing big city lights illuminating his disillusion, pessimism and melancholy in their ugly and morbid actuality. In fact, he found a way to integrate his Romantic predecessors’ otherworldly Gothic mindscapes from their fairytale-like settings of castles, mountaintops, forests and other exotic spots, rooted in history and legend, into a grim, contemporary reality. Filled to the rim with symbols, black-romantic, but present, for the time being. Literary modernity had begun with “Les Fleurs du Mal” and verses that once, in 1857, earned Baudelaire a lawsuit for offending the public moral and forced him to publish his works abroad, can now be found as “epoch-making” in school books. The poet wrote to his mother: ”You know that I have always considered that literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality. Beauty of conception and style is enough for me. But this book, whose title (Les Fleurs du Mal) says everything, is clad, as you will see, in a cold and sinister beauty. It was created with rage and patience. Besides, the proof of its positive worth is in all the ill that they speak of it. The book enrages people. Moreover, since I was terrified myself of the horror that I should inspire, I cut out a third from the proofs. They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even the knowledge of the French language. I don't care a rap about all these imbeciles, and I know that this book, with its virtues and its faults, will make its way in the memory of the lettered public, beside the best poems of V. Hugo, Th. Gautier and even Byron." He turned out to be right.

A frontispiece to “Les Fleurs du Mal” created by Eugène Decisy in 1917.

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