Poe and Baudelaire: A Vast Ocean Apart



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Poe and Baudelaire: A Vast Ocean Apart
Amy Jo Roy
The relationship that Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Pierre Baudelaire have is definitely one of interest due to its peculiar nature. One man was a relatively well-known American author during the middle 1800s, while the other was an observant figure at the edge of French literary circles of the same time. Poe was a popular writer, yet not one that was totally accepted among America's distinguished line of authors due to his periodic gruesome subject matter. Baudelaire was considered to be an erratic, distant character who led a miserable life and who wrote morbid poems concerned with death and decay. Neither is as dark and dreary or as preoccupied with death as a reader might first imagine. Only after further thought and continued reading will an audience realize the down-to-earth subjects that both authors try to understand and explain in their individual, artistic means of expression.
Separated by the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and the cultural differences of their homelands, the two great authors never met. However, Poe and Baudelaire seem to have a "teacher-student" or "father-son" relationship that is based on one's interpretation of the other. Charles Baudelaire began his career by translating Edgar Allan Poe's works into his native French. Although a fluent English speaker, Baudelaire concentrated on Poe's short stories and longer works because poetry was rather difficult to translate within the constraints of the language. Only one poem of Poe's, "The Raven," was successfully translated into French by Charles Baudelaire (Baudelaire 32).
Charles Baudelaire was noticed for his dedication to this grand undertaking and his determination for completing as many translations as possible, at one point finishing thirty-seven works in two years (Baudelaire 32). His short life proved to be quite successful with five separate publications covering a vast number of Poe's works. Included among the more that fifteen hundred pages of Baudelaire's translations are The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym and Eureka (Baudelaire 32). Although Baudelaire's initial recognition came from his hard work at translating Poe, his later accomplishments are highlighted by his book entitled Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), published in 1857.
The influence that Edgar Allan Poe had on Charles Baudelaire can be easily witnessed in this collection of poems, the largest which Baudelaire produced. Baudelaire admitted that Poe had a significant impact upon his writings, but he did not agree with the accusation by fellow countrymen that he plagiarized Poe's works (Hyslop 25). As Baudelaire exclaimed when charged with imitating Poe, "Do you know why, with such infinite patience, I translated Poe? It was because he was like me! The first time I ever opened a book by him and discovered, with rapture and awe, not only subjects which I had dreamt, but whole phrases which I'd conceived, written by him twenty years before" (Starkie 218).
The comparison between these two writers must begin with the personal history of both. Edgar Allan Poe led a somewhat dismal, unentertaining life. Born on January 19, 1809, Poe was orphaned at the age of two, along with one sister and one brother. Poe was taken in by the John Allan family of Virginia but moved to Great Britain in 1815 when Mr Allan received a merchant's assignment overseas. Poe went to a private school in Great Britain and upon returning to the States attended the University of Virginia until December of 1826. Poe and John Allan had a disagreement about Poe's general disloyalty to the Allan family and his gambling and womanizing habits while at school, culminating in Poe's leaving the state and traveling to Massachusetts.
After settling in Boston in 1827, Edgar Allan Poe enlisted in the Army for five years and attended the United States Military Academy for a few short months. The time period between his return from Great Britain and his retirement from military service was one of Poe's most productive. It was in 1827, near the beginning of his time apart from the Allan family, that Poe witnessed his first collection of poetry (Tamerlane and Other Poems) being published by a Boston acquaintance (Buranelli 87). Later, John Allan's first wife died and he remarried. Poe was eventually accused of hating his step-mother; so once again, major conflicts arose between he and John Allan. This time however, there was no resolution to the problem and Edgar Allan Poe no longer associated with the Allan family.
Edgar Allan Poe married his cousin, Virginia Clemm in 1836. He joined his new wife and his mother-in-law in Baltimore at the time of his peak creativity and output level. However, there still remained the issue of not enough money from a writer's and editor's income to sustain a family. Poe moved from one publishing job to another in order to accommodate his wife and her mother, and to fulfill his personal enjoyment levels. Edgar Allan Poe's wife died in 1847, leaving him heartbroken. He followed her on October 7, 1849 (Bowman 18).
The upbringing of Charles Baudelaire in revolutionary France is quite different, yet at some points it almost parallels the events of Edgar Allan Poe's life. Charles Baudelaire, born on April 9, 1821, was six when his father died. Only one year after his father's death, his mother married Lieutenant Colonel Aupick and moved to Lyon where he was stationed. Young Baudelaire returned to Paris in 1839 in order to attend boarding school, but he was expelled after three years. His mother decided to send him on a merchant cruiser around the world with the hopes that he would quit associating with the Parisian artists and writers whom he had as friends (Lloyd xxvii).
After gaining his father's inheritance in 1842, Charles Baudelaire began leading an extravagant lifestyle in Paris - living with a Mulatto woman, moving from place to place, dining in fine restaurants, and experimenting with alcohol and other drugs. Participating in the June Day uprisings of 1848 helped Baudelaire to realize his standing in French culture as a writer and poet that dealt with extreme "idealistic elements, and strongly confirmed his identification with the social and spiritual distress of the human condition" (Ruff 66). Throughout his literary career, Baudelaire was inspired by Poe, whom he began translating in 1848 and continued working on for almost 16 years. His total work occupied five volumes, beginning in 1856 with Histoires Extraordinaires and ending with Histoires Grotesques Et Serieuses. On August 31, 1867, Charles Baudelaire died in his mother's arms, unable to communicate in anything other than a few mumble words.
In a letter to Armand Fraisse in February 1860, Charles Baudelaire explained his debt to Edgar Allan Poe; "I found poems and short stories that I had thought of, but in a vague, confused, disorderly way and that Poe had been able to bring together to perfection. It was that that lay behind my enthusiasm and my long years of patience [in translating]" (Lloyd 148). Baudelaire realized that he learned much after reading Poe and understood that they had similar outlooks upon art and writing. "Edgar Allan Poe's knowledge was beneficial to him [Baudelaire] because it confirmed him in the certainty of his genius, and the knowledge of his destiny" (Lloyd 75).
These two brilliant minds, kept apart by a vast body of water, created a world in which beauty was the determinating factor, even though there was plenty of evil present. Both Poe and Baudelaire were enthralled with the darkness of man and his "perpetual inclination to do evil" (Hyslop 17); however, both poets were also aware of the ability of mankind to pursue what was beautiful and magnificent in this world. Baudelaire believed that poetry was the highest form of expression and that in all his works he was striving for this simple, yet quite complex, form of perfection. To Poe and to Baudelaire "the principle of poetry is strictly and simply human aspiration toward a superior beauty, and the manifestation of this principle is in an enthusiasm, and excitement of the soul..." (Hyslop 24).
Within the short stories of Poe and the poetry of both writers, it is evident that a search for the ideal is occurring (Hyslop 80). This search echoes that of the Romantic movement; however, Poe and Baudelaire seem to stop just before reaching the climax of Romanticism. In neither poet is there a true expression of the ideal - both are much more interested in the pursuit of this ideal. Poe is described as always "yearning for unity; he combines the spiritual with the physical" (Hyslop 80). It is evident in his infatuation with the mystical side of a person's soul and his concentration on describing just what it is that that character is appearing to feel and comprehend, the primitive desires that are lurking around the outside of man's everyday life.
Another concept that is an integral aspect of Baudelaire's and Poe's writings is their use of man's imagination. Many of the characters and people mentioned within poems seem to have an avid imagination - one that can understand much more in life than the basic person. This extra ability appears to help the character at times, yet at others it's a purposeful tool to distract the reader from the true meaning of the work. For Baudelaire, "Imagination is the queen of faculties...[it] is not fantasy; nor is it sensibility...Imagination is an almost divine faculty which perceives immediately and without philosophical methods the inner and secret relations of things, the correspondences and the analogies" (Hyslop 134). As Baudelaire wrote about Poe in his preface to "The Raven," "He certainly had great genius and more inspiration than anyone else, if by inspiration is understood energy, intellectual enthusiasm, and the ability to keep one's faculties alert" (Hyslop 155). Even Poe himself stated this idea throughout many of his short stories, one of which is quite obvious in "Elenora" when he writes, "They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night" (Modern Library 649).
The overall influence of Poe on Baudelaire is not one that is completely direct. Charles Baudelaire had many other influences, but counted Poe as one of the most important in his literary style. Although there is a common bond between the two great poets, each still maintained the individual qualities that make them unforgettable. It is obvious that Poe would not have been as well known in Europe without the help of Baudelaire; however, Poe's literary accomplishments in the United States would still be recognized and widely accepted.