Charles Baudelaire Electronic Library

Free etexts by 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire.

Recently discovered self-portrait by Charles Baudelaire

Recently discovered self-portrait by Charles Baudelaire

As a man, Charles Baudelaire (1821 - 1867) is difficult to sum up. Sartre claimed that Baudelaire's unique character trait — his fatal flaw — was to have cultivated his own failure, though what he really seems to have cultivated was a failure to be understood. The man was a charged particle of incompatible impulses and irreconcilable contradictions. He was a dandy by inclination but ran with girls from the gutter. He wrote of exotic lands but seems to have hated the one real trip he ever took. He was thought to be a satanist but privately maintained the ambivalent faith of a lapsed Catholic. He was thought to be sexually perverse, and yet really he seems to have been rather frigid. (His friend Nadar, the photographer, claimed that Baudelaire died a virgin.) "I have one of those happy characters," Baudelaire wrote in an abandoned preface for the Fleurs du mal, "that enjoy hatred and feel glorified by contempt. My diabolically passionate taste for stupidity makes me take peculiar pleasure in the falsifications of calumny. Being as chaste as paper, as sober as water, as devout as a woman at communion, as harmless as a sacrificial lamb, it would not displease me to be taken for a debauchee, a drunkard, an infidel, a murderer."

If Baudelaire is hard to define as a man, however, as a writer he is easily summed up by one book: Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). Yes, he wrote a book on drugs — but much of that was plagiarized from Thomas De Quincey. Yes, he wrote a volume of prose poems — but those were left unfinished at his death. Yes, he made fine translations of Edgar Allan Poe — but in itself that wouldn't have earned him much regard from posterity. Yes, he was a perceptive art critic — but how many men have gone down in history for their art criticism? Without Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire would have been a footnote to the cultural history of 19th century France. With Les Fleurs du mal, he became "the king of poets, a real God," as Arthur Rimbaud said of him.


Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

Supervert created a separate web site for the Flowers of Evil and it has quickly become the definitive online presentation of Baudelaire's masterwork. Go to to read and compare multiple English translations of Les Fleurs du mal.

Paul Valéry, The Position of Baudelaire

Paul Valéry was one of the greatest French writers of the first half of the twentieth century. He was known in particular for his poetry and his criticism, which becomes readily apparent in this sensitive appraisal of Baudelaire. Valéry's concern in this text is to situate Baudelaire — in respect to Romanticism, to Edgar Allan Poe, and also to contemporaneity. It's an excellent text.

Recommended Reading

Lois Boe Hyslop, Charles Baudelaire Revisited

Written by a noted scholar, this book is a handy overview of Baudelaire and his work. It's a good book to read if you just want a light, concise, but authoritative introduction to Baudelaire.

Raymond P. Poggenburg, Charles Baudelaire: Une Micro-Histoire

This microhistory (written in French) is an incredibly minute day-by-day account of Baudelaire's life. It's not a biography exactly, because you lose sight of Baudelaire the man in the wash of details. But it's still an astonishing read precisely for its comprehensiveness, over seven hundred pages of "CB wrote a letter" and "CB borrowed money" and "CB promised himself to work but didn't."

Jean-Paul Sartre, Baudelaire

This is Sartre's attempt to perform an existentialist psychoanalysis of Baudelaire. Scholars uniformly agree that the book says more about Sartre than Baudelaire, and yet for all that the book still contains some stunning insights. (In other words, you get what you always get from Sartre: part windbag, part genius.)

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