Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Charles Baudelaire: Poète Maudit (The Cursed Poet)

Created September 10, 2010

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The Lesson

Introduction

Charles Baudelaire: Poète Maudit (The Cursed Poet)

Emile Deroy, Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, 1844, Versailles.

Credit: Photo © Réunion des musées nationaux.

Any healthy man can go without food for two days — but not without poetry.

— Charles Baudelaire

Most high school students are fascinated by the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe, especially his morbid exploration of the human mind and madness. The worldwide popularity of the human-vampire love match in literature, film, television, and music attests to the appeal of the "goth" movement with its themes of horror and the occult to today's teens.

This lesson introduces students of French and World Literature to the life and works of Charles Baudelaire, a 19th-century French Symbolist poet who was a fervent admirer of Poe. Though Baudelaire's greatest literary success during his life was a translation of Poe, the depths of despair and horror he achieves in his poetry far outdistances Poe's investigations into the macabre. Twenty-first-century students will be intrigued to discover they have a mid-19th-century kindred spirit in Baudelaire, the most prominent member of the Symbolist movement. Students will relate to the Symbolist penchant for wallowing in themes of death and depravity as well as share the Symbolist view that no one understands the torture of what it is to be alone against the universe. None of the Symbolists more thoroughly depict the bohemian side of life or elevate the morbid more effectively than Baudelaire in his scandalous masterwork, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil).

Guiding Questions

  • How did Baudelaire and his fellow Symbolists use themes of horror and darkness in their poetry to celebrate and depict life in 19th-century France?
  • What connections are there between Symbolist themes and 21st-century popular culture?

Learning Objectives

  • To give students practice reading, hearing, and translating French poetry
  • To encounter firsthand the work of 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire as a Decadent poet and the leading influence of the Symbolist movement
  • To identify universal themes prevalent in the 21st-century popular culture as depicted in Baudelaire's poetry

Background

Baudelaire within the 19th century

Much has been written on the checkered life and background of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Biographical information can be found on Literary Metamorphoses as well as on American Academy of Poets Web site. The influence of his bohemian life style on other poets as well as leading artists of his day may be traced in these and other references throughout this lesson. For French language students a timeline of Baudelaire's life Biographie de Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) is available for translation.

This broad cultural movement of the 19th century celebrated the spirit of the eccentric and the individual and developed as a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which promoted the head over the heart, logic over emotion. The Romantics prized the imagination as the supreme faculty and championed the use of intuition as well as emotion. They railed against the imperatives of a society they saw as corrupt and deceitful. This spirit permeated not just poetry but all of the arts, from music to painting, from sculpture to architecture.

Baudelaire's life and works are fundamentally influenced by Romanticism, and his works are part of the Symbolist movement in literature and the arts. Symbolism, a literary permutation of Romanticism, held that art should apprehend absolute truths, which could only be accessed indirectly. (See the Metropolitan Museum, Heilbrunn Timeline, for a contextual view of this movement in the arts and letters.) Thus, they drew their images from nature and real world phenomena in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner. Some writers and artists interpreted Symbolism, with its focus on the inner self and authenticity, as a call to rebel against social conformities, including those of accepted behavior. They rejected bourgeois values, challenged the establishment, and refused to conform to accepted standards, living what was termed la vie bohème. These bohemians, called "Decadents" and "libertines" by critics, received artistic pleasure in shocking their audiences, risking censure and even imprisonment for indecency. See British and European Aesthetes, Decadents and Symbolists from Victorian Web an EDSITEment-reviewed resource. Charles Baudelaire was the premier Symbolist poet. He was fascinated by the darker side of nature and captured the decadence of his age through poetic rendering of Paris, the leading center for 19th-century avant-garde art and culture.

Baudelaire, like Edgar Allen Poe, examined nature's unseemly aspects such as death, decay, and carrion and was fascinated with the demons that emanate from the depths of the human psyche. Unleashing a wildly vivid imagination, his poetry explores the extreme situations he encountered and the marginal characters of society he associated with -- from criminals to acrobats to prostitutes to madmen -- as well as all kinds of old, poor, sick, or dying people. These were subjects that fascinated artists of this period as well as writers and poets. See Baudelaire and the Arts and Translations: Baudelaire at the Brown University Library site, and an online exhibit, The Darker Side of Light, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Baudelaire's Poetry: Les Fleurs du mal

Though Baudelaire employed the standard poetic forms of his day (such as sonnets or quatrains) and traditional rhetorical figures (such as metaphors and allegories), he radically altered them with utterly new representations of the grotesque. His topics focused on the dark underbelly of human nature in its contemporary manifestation, especially the decay of life in the large, impersonal, and amoral city. His book of poetry Les Fleurs du mal, which can be translated as "flowers of evil" or "flowers of sickness," was censored for sexual explicitness and obscenity and six poems were banned from the original publication by the French courts. The EDSITEment website Victorian Web's Introduction to Charles Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil sets this work in its literary and social context and captures the swirl of controversy its publication created. Students may also link to several of poems in Les Fleurs du mal with excellent dual French-English translations on Victorian Web's Aesthetes and Decadents and Symbolists.

Les Fleurs afforded Baudelaire a great degree of notoriety; writers such as Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo wrote in praise of the poems. Flaubert wrote to Baudelaire claiming, "You have found a way to inject new life into Romanticism. You are unlike anyone else [which is the most important quality]." Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantics who followed him and condemned life in the city, Baudelaire turned to the seamy side of life in the streets of Paris for inspiration. He argued that art may create beauty even from the most depraved or 'non-poetic' situations. Students may find evidence of how Les Fleurs du mal celebrates this decadence. See Yale University's Modernism Lab site, Les Fleurs du Mal Baudelaire published Fleurs du mal in 1857. Though critics now regard it as one of the most important and influential collections of 19th-century lyric poetry, newspapers of the day defied it as full of "all the putrescence of the human heart." The courts found six of the poems included unfit to print, stating they were "in contempt of the laws which safeguard religion and morality." Baudelaire was labeled "poète maudit" (cursed poet) and imprisoned at one point for immorality.

Les Fleurs du mal is an exercise in polarities. By juxtaposing opposites, Baudelaire transposed beauty against horror, light against darkness, ideals against cynicism, female against male, God against Satan, love against depravity. Through his rich, evocative imagery, however, the reader moves past this tension between these opposing forces that operate in the human spirit and the Parisian cityscape. Baudelaire himself was perhaps seeking such redemption amid and beyond his dark sometimes brutal, and often horrific metaphors. See Baudelaire Bound by Naturalism in "Metamorphoses of the Vampire" for a detailed analysis of one such paradox articulated in the Les Fleurs, poem, "The Vampire."

Baudelaire's Fleurs influenced a whole generation of 19th-century European writers and its effect has been felt well into the 20th century. Among the many greats it helped shape were French poets Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud, as well as the French novelist Marcel Proust. Across the English Channel and Irish Sea, Baudelaire profoundly influenced the work of Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne, and William Butler Yeats. Baudelaire is often considered the founder of modernist poetry due to his influence on Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Baudelaire also paved the way for Americans William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, and Allen Ginsberg.

Preparation Instructions

In exploring the 21st-century connection to these Symbolist themes and imagery, teachers may also want retrieve visuals online and/or ask students to bring in illustrations or advertisements from movie clips of Twilight, television programs such as Buffy, the Vampire Slayer or Angel, or from album covers of heavy metal bands Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, or Marilyn Manson.

Show students this video clip from the American Film Institute tribute to Jack Nicholson as he received their Lifetime Achievement Award in which Dustin Hoffman reads Baudelaire's poem "Be Drunken." For the students who may not be familiar with these actors, offer some background into the work they have done and ask why Hoffman might have selected that particular poem for the tribute to Nicholson.

Discussion may be spurred by posing the following questions based on Baudelaire's metaphoric use of words in this poem:

  • How can one be "drunk" on poetry or virtue?
  • Why would one want to be intoxicated in this way?
  • How can it prevent one from becoming one of the "martyred slaves of time?"

To elicit connections between Baudelaire and 21st-century popular culture you might ask:

  • Why do you think the Twilight series and other vampire stories are so popular?
  • What other areas of popular culture deal with these themes?
  • How do other authors and/or poets that we have read and analyzed in class treat these themes?

A discussion of the abiding significance of Romantic-Symbolist poets such as Baudelaire might be started by asking:

  • How do such classic themes and images themes transcend Baudelaire's 19th-century bohemian world view and speak to the universal human condition?

Print out and make copies for students of the graphic organizers provided in pdf format for the following activities: Activity 2. Graphic Organizer for Analysis (or send students to the Interactive Version) and Activity 3. World Literature Graphic Organizer.

Students working in French may be interested in retrieving primary source material by and about Charles Baudelaire including articles, essays, correspondence and other documents to better understand the individual behind the poetry at this French language Web site.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Reading and Translating Baudelaire

Give students an opportunity to explore some background information on the Decadent movement in Romanticism. Distribute text or direct students to the noted links for Web sites where the poems may be read in the original French and/or in translations. Teachers of French should read the poems aloud or ask advanced students to read them. Ask students to comment on the poetic forms; students should recognize sonnets, rhyme scheme, and quatrains. You may need to point out certain French punctuation conventions: << represent quotation marks and a long dash — indicates someone is speaking, as opposed to narration.

Put students in groups of three, and assign each group a poem to read and "translate." Using cognates and basic knowledge of etymology, all students should be able to recognize basic horror words such as "vampire," "woman," "death," "poison," "pus," etc. Ask World Literature classes and lower level French classes to guess at the meanings of the poems. Remind them of basic vocabulary roots, or allow the use of French dictionaries. Upper levels of French should be able to translate more accurately. Allow fifteen minutes for translation activity. Have each group read their translations aloud. Distribute accurate English translations and ask groups to read each aloud. This French language Web site devoted to Charles Baudelaire offers students an opportunity to retrieve the poems as well as other pertinent information on his life and times. Primary sources for students to translate include Charles Baudelaire's letters, articles, essays as well as poems.

Activity 2. What's so Romantic?

Distribute the Graphic Organizer for Analysis (or send students to the Interactive Version) and ask students identify at least three elements of Romantic poetry from the columns then analyze the poems for the selected elements. At the end of each row, have students summarize Baudelaire's view of these elements: For example, what does he say about nature? About the supernatural? What makes his Romantic "hero" an outcast?

At the bottom of each column, have students summarize the main theme of the poem itself. Students may use the graphic organizer as a foundation for an essay on the topic of Baudelaire's Romantic view or as the basis for an oral class delivery. This may take the form of an oral report or it may utilize Web 2.0 digital media (if available) by engaging students to demonstrate their knowledge by creating a blog review of the poetry or collaborate on a group presentation through a Wiki. Student oral project may want to incorporate digital media such as music, video or podcasts to illustrate the themes in their presentations.

Activity 3. Baudelaire vs. the World!

Distribute the World Literature Graphic Organizer. [Note: Must have this resource also linked on right margin of lesson with the other organizer!] Students of World Literature classes may use this organizer as a touchstone to select at least two other Romantic texts from their experience to compare/contrast with Baudelaire's works. They are encouraged to expand the chart to include a number of additional poets and poetic forms they have studied over the course of the year. This may work well in small groups of three students. Some examples of additional World Literature to expand this comparison include Shakespeare's love sonnets, Marvell's To His Coy Mistress, Artur Rimbaud's The Sleeper in the Valle, Dante's Divine Comedy. Beyond these poets, additional works of fiction that lend themselves to such comparison may be Goethe's Faust, Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Kubla Khan.

Extending The Lesson

  • Have students explore the French text and translation sites such as litteratura.com; see also Les Fleurs du mal from Brown University Digital Library exhibit to select other poems by Baudelaire on their own.
  • Ask them to look for other poems by Baudelaire which do not have the themes of death or horror. Then identify what themes they might assign to them.
  • Ask them to clip or create illustrations for the poems they select and present them as a poster for the class, also may use other digital media of available.
  • Have them report their findings to the class and comment on the scope of Baudelaire's interests and obsessions.
  • Ask students to compose a sonnet of their own in the style of Baudelaire or on any of the themes they have identified from Baudelaire and the Decadent era.
  • All students can compare works of Baudelaire to any modern artist from the music, art, or fiction industries in terms of attitude toward women, despair and nihilism, restlessness and dissatisfaction with life.
  • Students may be challenged by writing up an epitaph for Baudelaire that might be etched on his grave and perhaps expanding that tribute into a eulogy. Direct students to the images of the Baudelaire's actual grave for inspiration.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Foreign Language > Modern > French
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Modern World
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Poetry analysis
  • Research
Authors
  • Etheljean Deal (Washington, DC)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media