“I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation–or, more accurately, the history of their feelings.” So wrote Gustave Flaubert about his novel Sentimental Education, which concerns the years 1840-67. As it happens, this period spans Charles Baudelaire’s life as an artist, from the publication of his first poem in Le Corsaire to his death in 1867 at 46. But it is not simply a coincidence of years that is signal here. Consider Flaubert’s smooth and instantaneous leap from “moral history” into “feelings.” This elision offers an unintended but eloquent verdict on what is great and strange about Baudelaire’s poetry: its unmatched capacity to transmute public existence into private torments and then return them to the public sphere, through the symbolic medium of his famed “correspondences.” Had Baudelaire not existed, Flaubert might have had to invent him.
The generation in question is the workshop wherein modernity was assembled, Baudelaire its glowering emissary. This is true, in part, for his ambiguous participation in the century’s central political episode, from the February Revolution of 1848 to Louis Bonaparte’s 1851 coup d’état. As the winds turn from tragic to farcical, the poet is the weather vane of the century of revolutions–switching from the Republican barricades to the side of reaction in a single gust. If Baudelaire is a missing character in Sentimental Education, he is equally an absent presence in the other great moral history of midcentury France, Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
Even as he haunts the margins of these master texts, Baudelaire promenades center stage in others, and writes his own. He would take the role as advance man for the modern era even if some of its most powerful thinkers had not explicitly made the case on his behalf. These include Jean-Paul Sartre’s bravura psychoanalytic study and Walter Benjamin’s two epic essays, recently repackaged by Harvard University Press under the decisive title The Writer of Modern Life.
But a surprise awaits those who, knowing the book was condemned instantly on its 1857 publication, open Baudelaire’s canonical The Flowers of Evil expecting the scandalous shock of the new. That book is largely composed in traditional style, its rhythms stiff and regular, its rhymes rich and repetitive. The poem most explicitly about the matter of modernity, “The Swan,” proceeds in strict alexandrines, the twelve-syllable lines that had held sway in French poetry since the seventeenth century: