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How Charles Baudelaire Changed My Life

05/08/2013 11:47 am ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013
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Charles Baudelaire entered my life in a dusty classroom through whose windows a group of sixteen year old boys could have marvelled at the grandeur of Westminster Abbey had they been so inclined.

But we were no more interested in the spectacle outside than we were in learning about an unknown and long dead French poet. Most of us were half asleep that Monday morning and anxious to get through the French lesson and enjoy a coffee in the mid morning break.

Our teacher, Mr Geoffrey Shepherd, was, as usual, up to the challenge presented by his sullen, slumbering class.

"Today we are going to learn about a French poet of good birth and wealth who was ruined by drink and drugs, a man who would leave the company of the greatest literary figures of his age to consort with the lowest prostitutes in the sewer that was Paris in the mid nineteenth century," he began.

A few heads came up.

"Charles Baudelaire was a mother's boy; he loved her jewellery, her perfume, the fur stoles she wore in the evening and above all the way she would envelop him in her magnificent breasts as she kissed him goodnight before going out to the Opera."

The entire class shook off their sleep and sat up.

Mr Shepherd said, "Baudelaire created high art out of his own moral corruption. He was a reckless spendthrift, an alcoholic, a drug addict and suffered from syphilis from an early age."

Our teacher spoke softly raising his voice only to emphasise words such as alcoholic and syphilis.

"Little wonder he was devoured by despair, and became the victim of incurable melancholia. As he looked around the world, he saw universal failure, his own and that of humanity in general. Baudelaire would say that his life was dammed from the start and dammed for ever "

"That is what drove him to become the greatest of French poets. He sought redemption from the squalor of his own life in the pursuit of beauty, the beauty of great poetry, fine painting, and beautiful women ."

"Are you following me?" Mr Shepherd had wheeled around, looking at us.

We were indeed following him and we were beginning to form a few ideas of our own about this doomed French poet.

That is how I first heard of Baudelaire some 50 years ago. And I am prepared to wager that those of my class who are still with us will remember those French lessons.

As we toiled our way toward exams Mr Shepherd left us with a crucial question about Charles Baudelaire that had remained unanswered since the poet's death in 1867. He challenged us to find the answer.

By way of background he told us that the poet had many women in his life. There were his mistresses: the Creole beauty from the Caribbean, Jeanne Duval whom he called his Black Venus to whom he dedicated much of his master work Les Fleurs du Mal.

Then there was Apollonie Sabatier, the White Venus of his poetry, a lady with a milk and roses complexion who moved with ease in high society. Above all there was his mother, Caroline, a woman he adored but disappointed, and who never stopped loving him despite his endless requests for money and his dissolute lifestyle. When he died it was in her arms and with a smile on his face.

But Mr Shepherd told us that only one woman was central to the enduring and unsolved mystery of the poet's life.

Why did Baudelaire alienate his mother, turn his back on a respectable mistress, enrage his publisher and become the despair of his friends by pursuing a relationship with his Creole mistress Jeanne Duval?

Baudelaire's biographers and literary historians have condemned her as a slut, a drunk and a drug addict who slept with his friends and stole all his money.

Yet at the end of his life he said that he had only two responsibilities in his life: to his art and to his black Venus.

Why? How could such a woman have been his muse?

His mother and his friends hated her. She was scarcely literate and cared nothing for his poetry. So what extraordinary attraction did she have for a man possessed of the greatest gift of all, the gift of creating lasting beauty?

This is the secret at the heart of Baudelaire's life, Mr Shepherd told us: Why did Baudelaire do it? I hope I have revealed the secret in my book Black Venus. The book is a novel of course but the account of the lacerating love affair between the poet and his mistress is based very much on the wealth of facts about Baudelaire's life.

A novel can hardly claim to break new historical ground but I hope I have shown Jeanne Duval in a new light. Suffice to say I do not believe that the woman who has so long been vilified by the critics was either as stupid or as evil as she has been portrayed.

She had the charm and the cunning to unlock within Baudelaire emotions and memories that became the wellspring of his poetry. She stirred within him a painful recognition of his own failings and a hopeless longing for the innocence of childhood. The secrets she uncovered in his dark soul, and the way she used them to sustain their relationship, lie at the heart of Black Venus.

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