“Always be a poet, even in prose.” – Charles Baudelaire
He was young and wealthy. Only 21, and the inheritor of large fortune, the young man lived in opulence on the Isle St. Louis in France. He was ready to find his place in the world, and become a proud member of the elite. And then he met a women.
Her name was Jeanne. He was also young, but not nearly so naive. She’d just arrived from Haiti, and had started work as a cabaret girl. In a smoke filled club at the seedy end of the Champs Elysees, she sang a song, risque in nature. In the audience sat young Charles. He was smitten with her.
She was nothing like the kind of woman he was supposed to fall in love with. She was not of a landed family, she did not care for equestrian sports. She possibly did not know the proper order of eating utensils on a table setting. But no matter, she was ravishing. The next day, Charles sat in his carriage and watched the delivery boy give her a bouquet of red roses. This was their beginning.
His friends were horrified. Many pleaded with him for reason, no doubt, but he could find nothing better to invest his fortune in than her happiness. He was prepared to give her anything she could ever want, as any love-stuck man would do. And so he began to frequent this dark part of the city, the brothels and opium dens that lines streets filled with scoundrels and harlots.
He stood out like the proverbial sore thumb – a well-dressed and well-heeled man cavorting with patrons of back street bars. Instead of trying to elevate his dear love’s state, he preferred to meet her down at her own.
His poetry, already sentimentally dark, began to turn like a decaying flower into something much more striking. And like that flower that withers and dies, his poetry kept its beauty, even magnified it. He found the beauty in sorry and death, He once said “I can barely conceive of a beauty in which there is no melancholy.” That melancholy, that realization that beauty has a darker nature, helped him to pen Les Fleurs du Mal, widely known as one of the greatest works of poetry ever written.
And of Jeanne? She was his constant companion, his ravenous, biting muse. Illiterate though she was, she would sit and listen as he read his poetry for her, then yawn and raise a foot for him to kiss. He would often position her in the sunlight, and draw every curve of her body, his pencil practicing in place of his hands. Below one of his most intricate sketchings of her, he wrote the following inscription, “Quaerens quem devouret.” It translates as “Seeking whom to devour.”
Jeanne introduced him to opium. They tore their lives down together, each needing the other to pull their meaning apart. They fought. She spent his money with abandon. And yet, he needed her. When his money was gone, she sold every last thing he owned. She began having affairs with his friends, and even sold herself on the street. But Charles couldn’t get out of her spell.
At last she left him, a broken, drug afflicted man. He lived out his life in the shadow of her absence. He even paid her expenses as she was sick and dying. He never got that first taste of bitter, anguishing, delusional love out of his heart.
Some say she introduced Baudelaire to the animistic and pagan religions of her native Haiti. There are rumors that she was some kind of enchantress, casting a spell on the good looking man in the back row, damning him to a life in her hold. But in the end, whether enchanted by spells or by beauty, the addiction is the same, is it not?
”The man who, from the beginning of his life, has been bathed at length in the soft atmosphere of a woman, in the smell of her hands, of her bosom, of her knees, of her hair, of her supple and floating clothes, … has contracted from this contact a tender skin and a distinct accent, a kind of androgyny without which the harshest and most masculine genius remains, as far as perfection in art is concerned, an incomplete being.”
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), French poet, critic. Artificial Paradise, An Opium-eater, VII. Childhood Sorrows (1860). On men who have been raised by women.