Something that has struck me while putting these posts together is that poets tended to have much more colourful biographies back in the day. They also tended to be from families sufficiently aristocratic that they could enjoy the kind of leisure time necessary to make poetry their primary occupation.
Baudelaire never seemed to be occupied by anything much. His life is a pretty decent playing-out of the fantasy life many folks imagine poets enjoy – philandering, womanising, consuming unreasonable amounts of laudanum, having a rather tortured relationship with his mother, all that glamorous stuff.
He was born in 1821, the son of a successful civil servant and amateur artist who died while Charles was six years old. His mother remarried a Lieutenant-Colonel in the French army, who disapproved of Baudelaire’s idleness and habit of spending everything he had on clothes. At the age of 20 he was sent on a voyage to Calcutta, which his stepfather hoped would iron out his dissolute habits. It did not.
It did, however, provide him with some of the more memorable and passionate moments in his poetry, particularly the poem “L’Albatros’, from his much-admired and much-delayed first book Les Fleurs du Mal. It is a poet’s lament about the ill-treatment he receives from the rest of the mundane world who (for some reason) do not appreciate his genius. It’s been translated by countless poets down the years, but the original French is still matchless in its complete self-surety, its knowledge of its own station.
Baudelaire died at the age of 46, still largely unknown. His work inspired many of the great poets at the turn of the 20th century, and was responsible for bringing the work of Edgar Allen Poe into French.
Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.
A peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîer à côté d’eux.
Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!
Le Poëte est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.
Often, for pastime, mariners will ensnare
The albatross, that vast sea-bird who sweeps
On high companionable pinion where
Their vessel glides upon the bitter deeps.
Torn from his native space, this captive king
Flounders upon the deck in stricken pride,
And pitiably lets his great white wing
Drag like a heavy paddle at his side.
This rider of winds, how awkward he is, and weak!
How droll he seems, who lately was all grace!
A sailor pokes a pipestem into his beak;
Another, hobbling, mocks his trammeled pace.
The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds,
Familiar of storms, of stars, and of all high things;
Exiled on earth amidst its hooting crowds,
He cannot walk, borne down by his giant wings.
We love poetry at Calm Your Beans. Tell us your favourites in the comments section or on facebook and perhaps we will feature them in future weeks.