When he was 24, Charles Baudelaire wrote a letter of despair to his actress mistress, cut himself in the chest with a knife, and collapsed. The poet did not die, however, not for another 22 years.
And now, the tormented Baudelaire’s mental state at the time of his suicide attempt is open to any reader.
“I am killing myself because I can no longer live, because the exhaustion of going to sleep and the exhaustion of waking up are unbearable to me,” Baudelaire wrote in his letter to Jeanne Duval. “I am killing myself because I believe myself to be immortal, and I hope for it.”
Baudelaire’s immortality aside, the letter has great value in an earthly kingdom. It sold in a recent auction for $267,000 (234,000 euros), far more than the expected price.
The letter was sold by Osenat, a French auction house, which described the letter as being “without a doubt the most extraordinary missive of Baudelaire in private hands.”
Osenat also offered other letters by Baudelaire, some of his celebrated translations, and documents with his signature. None reached anywhere near the amount of the despairing letter in the sale.
Osenat said that at the time Baudelaire wrote the letter, he was “unloved by his stepfather … humiliated by his financial guardianship (since September 1844) and nevertheless crippled with debt” and in “doubt about his literary genius.”
After surviving his suicide attempt, Baudelaire, the Parisian son of a senior civil servant who died when he was young, went on to write the volume that established his reputation, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). His works influenced generations of poets.
When he was in his early twenties, Baudelaire had squandered his inheritance, spent a lot of time with prostitutes, and told his brother, “I don’t feel I have a vocation for anything.”
His family intervened and won a court order; a lawyer managed his money. He lived off a small allowance from that time on. To supplement his income, Baudelaire wrote art criticism, essays, and reviews for various journals. He is particularly known for his translations of the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
In 1857, Auguste Poulet-Malassis published the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal. “Baudelaire was so concerned with the quality of the printing that he took a room near the press to help supervise the book’s production,” according to Poets.
Six of the poems were condemned as obscene by the government.
Les Fleurs du mal made Baudelaire notorious. Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo praised his writing. Flaubert wrote to Baudelaire, “You have found a way to inject new life into Romanticism. You are unlike anyone else [which is the most important quality].”
Unlike some poets of the Romantic style, Baudelaire was inspired by the urban life of Paris. He believed art must strive to create beauty from even the most depraved or “non-poetic” situations.
By 1859 he was seriously ill due to his dissipation, particularly his drinking heavily and taking laudanum, and lack of money after his publisher went bankrupt.
He suffered a series strokes that left him partly paralyzed. On August 31, 1867, at the age of 46, Baudelaire died in Paris. It is likely that syphilis caused his final illness.
His reputation as a poet grew after his death. Baudelaire is considered a major influence on the Modernist movement.
“While Baudelaire’s contemporary Victor Hugo is generally — and sometimes regretfully — acknowledged as the greatest of nineteenth-century French poets, Baudelaire excels in his unprecedented expression of a complex sensibility and of modern themes within structures of classical rigor and technical artistry,” according to the Poetry Foundation.
He did not write a great many poems, but his body of work had a tremendous impact.
“More than a talent of nineteenth-century France, Baudelaire is one of the major figures in the literary history of the world.”
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers and a new novel, ‘The Blue,’ set in the 18th century art world. Her website is www.nancybilyeau.com