Happy birthday to Charles Baudelaire, who was born April 9, 1821. Baudelaire, who went on to become an important poet in France, was also among the earliest to translate Poe's works into French. Poe remains a huge influence in France today and is, arguably, more respected there than anywhere in the world — including the United States.
Baudelaire first ran into the work of Poe in French translations of "The Black Cat" and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in the 1840s. Baudelaire was instantly smitten.
The (weak) biography of Poe by Jeffrey Meyers notes that the similarly oversized foreheads in both Baudelaire and Poe made their writings destined to be thematically-linked. I'm neither a phrenologist nor an aficionado of foreheads but Baudelaire certainly saw a kindred spirit in Poe. "The first time I opened one of his books," Baudelaire wrote, "I saw, to my amazement and delight, not simply certain subjects which I had dreamed of, but sentences which I had thought out, written by him twenty years before." He also notes, "believe me or not as you like." Perhaps shockingly, Baudelaire's works were so similar to Poe's that people were suspicious. "People accuse me of imitating Edgar Poe!"* he told painter Édouard Manet. "Do you know why I translate Poe so patiently? Because he resembled me."
And translate is what Baudelaire did. His first seems to be "Révélation magnetique" ("Mesmeric Revelation"), published in July 1848. Over 16 years, he translated enough of Poe's works into French that they make up some five books out of Baudelaire's 12-volume collected works. It is worth noting that Baudelaire did more than translate: he actually altered Poe's works. He simplified Poe's wording, removed some of the stereotypical decadence of 19th-century American writing, and left a stream-lined version which still resonates with French readers. Many of these translations are considered the definitive versions of Poe in Europe. As an aside, Baudelaire emphasized the entirety of Poe's ouvre, not just horror — I have learned firsthand that telling a Frenchman that Poe was "a horror writer" is considered confusing, if not insulting.
Yet, Baudelaire also contributed to the "myth of Poe" which emphasized the author as dark, depressed, disturbed — and nothing else. As a drinker, Baudelaire wrote, Poe "did not drink like an ordinary toper, but like a savage, with an altogether American energy and fear of wasting a minute, as though he was accomplishing an act of murder, as though there was something inside him that he had to kill." Baudelaire also helped in intermingling Poe's fiction with Poe's life story such that boundaries were not easily defined. As for Poe's death, Baudelaire wrote, it was "almost a suicide... a suicide prepared for a long time." I might argue that these assessments were more reflective of Baudelaire than of Poe.
Nevertheless, to Baudelaire, we owe something of the French fascination with our humble American writer. Happy birthday, Baudelaire — and thank you.
*Baudelaire's critics were quite right. He ripped off part of "The Fall of the House of Usher" in a story called "Spleen" and paraphrased part of "To Helen" in his poem "The Living Flame." He also rewrote a scene from Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as a poem, "Voyage to Cythera." These should be considered homages, however, and not plagiarism.