Baudelaire, translator of Edgar Allan Poe

After discussing Mark Twain and Julio Cortázar, let’s talk about Charles Baudelaire. We’ll take a look at a lesser-known facet of Baudelaire’s work: in addition to authoring works such as Les Fleurs du mal (English: The Flowers of Evil), for which he is well known, Baudelaire made another important contribution to literature in translating the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

Baudelaire, the Poet of the Damned Par Excellence

Desiring to write about Beauty, he wrote nonetheless that the “ignoble borders on the infectious”. He lived the life of a dandy-about-town yet was penniless. He took laudanum for his headaches and other syphilis symptoms, ending his days an opium-eater. Condemned and in debt, he fled France for Belgium and discovered there a compendium of pet hates. In life, his extraordinary poetic genius was only recognized by a small handful of intellectuals. To despise a man throughout one’s life and yet to be buried next to him. If you ever desired to be a poet of the damned… this is the formula …

Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe, a Literary Fraternity

It is often said that Baudelaire had found in Edgar Allan Poe his “literary soul mate”, so much so that the main themes and poetic principles espoused by both men strongly resemble each other. Baudelaire said as much in a letter to Théophile Thoré in 1864: “The first time I opened a book he had written, I saw with equal measures of horror and fascination, not just the things that I had dreamed of, but actual phrases that I had designed and that he had penned twenty years earlier.”

Was Baudelaire Attempting to Impersonate Poe?

The similarities between these two men was such that Baudelaire’s detractors accused him of plagiarizing the American author. In 1865, he defended himself, not without bitterness, in a letter to Paul Meurice’s wife: “I wasted a great deal of time translating Edgar Poe and all I gained was that some people accused me of taking my poems from Poe, who had written his some ten years before I ever even came across his work.”

Baudelaire Translated and Publicized Poe

It would seem, however, that both authors gained a great deal thanks to the work carried out by the Frenchman: Baudelaire’s french translations meant that Poe’s work could be widely disseminated in France (as people were just starting to hear about him) while the poet, whose financial problems were well known, found in the texts not only a source of inspiration but also, more pragmatically, financing. Over the course of fifteen years, Baudelaire translated:

  • Three volumes of short stories: Extraordinary stories, New extraordinary stories and Grotesque and serious stories
  • A novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
  • An essay: Eureka: A Prose Poem

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