French poet Charles Baudelaire was born on April 9, 1821. His early life was marked by the death of his much older father, a brief time as the apple of Mommy’s eye, and his mother’s re-marriage to a diplomat.
Baudelaire was off-loaded to a boarding school in Lyon, then law school in Paris. He was a dandy and ran up huge debts for clothes. Baudelaire probably also contracted syphilis or gonorrhea from prostitutes. He completed his degree but rejected his step-father’s urging to continue in law or diplomacy. Instead, he opted for literature, to the great chagrin of his mother.
He squandered most of an inheritance and bitterly resented that his family arranged for the rest to be placed in trust. Baudelaire was constantly trying to stay one step ahead of his creditors, which negatively impacted his literary output. One of the few projects he did manage to complete was a French translation of the works of American Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe.
Baudelaire’s most famous work, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), deals with the changes brought about by industrialization. Baudelaire, his publisher, and printer were all charged with an offense to public morals. He was supported by such luminaries as Victor Hugo, but he was only cleared of indecency about 100 years later and the suppressed poems were allowed to be published in France. His poverty and abuse of laudanum and opium led to a stroke in 1866. He lived in a semi-paralyzed state until his death on August 31, 1867. His poems were set to music by Léo Ferre, among other posthumous tributes.
Today’s expression, le beau est toujours bizarre (luh bow eh toosjoor beezar) is a Baudelaire citation that means “the beautiful is always strange.” Baudelaire’s life was strange, strained, and stained by controversy, but no study of 19th century French literary would be complete without his cynical view of the world.