Monday, September 1, 2014

Charles Baudelaire

You'd Sleep With Anyone

From "Les Fleurs Du Mal"

Tu mettrais l’univers entier dans ta ruelle,
Femme impure! L’ennui rend ton âme cruelle.
Pour exercer tes dents à ce jeu singulier,
Il te faut chaque jour un cœur au râtelier.
Tes yeux, illuminés ainsi que des boutiques
Et des ifs flamboyants dans les fêtes publiques,
Usent insolemment d’un pouvoir emprunté,
Sans connaître jamais la loi de leur beauté.

Machine aveugle et sourd, en cruautés féconde!
Salutaire instrument, buveur du sang du monde,
Comment n’as-tu pas honte et comment n’as-tu pas
Devant tous les miroirs vu pâlir tes appas?
La grandeur de ce mal où tu te crois savante
Ne t’a donc jamais fait reculer d’épouvante,
Quand la nature, grande en ses desseins cachés,
De toi se sert, ô femme, ô reine des péchés
- De toi, vil animal, - pour pétrir un génie?
O fangeuse grandeur! sublime ignominie!

You’d sleep with anyone at all, you slut!
(A clue to just how bored you are and just
how brutal boredom makes your soul.) To keep
your teeth incisive for this singular sport,
you claim a daily ration of… fresh hearts!
Your eyes, lit up like shops to lure their trade
or fireworks in the park on holidays,
insolently make use of borrowed power
and never learn (you might say “in the dark”)
what law it is that governs their good looks.

Blind and unfeeling instrument of pain,
my salutary leech, how could you fail
to see in every mirror that you pass
your “charms” go pale if not quite blank with shame…
How could you help wincing at the scope
of all the knowing harm you perpetrate
when Nature, noted for her mighty subterfuge,
avails herself of you, My Queen of Sins
- of you, vile animal! – to breed a genius?
O squalid dignity… Sublime disgrace.

Ah, if only poetry could be "nice". If the poets would just stick to their God-and-Muse appointed task, which is to describe the hosts of golden daffodils, and not to try to pluck one perfect rose. That lovely Mr Keats told us so beautifully, and yes we know it isn't true, but we do so want it to be true, that Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth, and that is all that poets need to know on earth, or at least all they need to put into their poems. Whereas that horrible Monsieur Baudelaire (mind you, we should have expected it from the French!), all he can write about is sex and death, the book's very section titles tell you why not to buy a copy: Spleen and Ideal, for pity's sake; Revolt; Wine; Death. And you barely get past the Prologue before the sordid, ugly world is there, confronting you like a would-be mugger in the street outside The Ritz: "If rape and poison, dagger and burning,/ Have still not embroidered their pleasant designs/On the banal canvas of our pitiable destinies,/It's because our souls, alas, are not bold enough!"

Oh, my dear, no one can suggest that my soul lacks boldness – did I not try that new Green Tea your uncle brought back with him from Rajapur? – but this, for a Christian, is just, well, going too far. And the drugs! What did they call it when they sentenced him: "an insult to public decency"? Quite right too. Now I have some charming verses here, by that delightful Mr Bitumen, you know the one I mean, the one who mows the lines of his stanzas neatly up and down, just like suburban lawns; Sir John he is now: "Oh! Fuller's angel-cake, oh Robertson's marmalade, oh Liberty lampshades, come shine on us all. Would you like another scone?"

The translation belongs to Richard Howard, who has made a good fist of an impossible hand. Baudelaire works precisely because it is in French; English may have equivalent terms, but not equivalent cadences, nor the cultural semiotics of those terms. An Anglo-Saxon visiting a brothel (sorry, I meant an artist's model on the 3rd floor in a dark alleyway; we don't allow brothels in England - or the curtained booth of a Gentleman's Club, if you're with Edgar Allen Poe in America) does so with an entirely different psychological and emotional attitude than his French counterpart, and does so furtively, hoping nobody has seen him; whereas the Frenchman goes with several of his best friends, may even take his teenage son to introduce him to this great delight, salivates the prospects publicly, and reviews the highlights after with the other girls as much as with the men, exactly as he would a soccer game. An Anglo-Saxon is likely to perceive a hint of sado-masochism in this poem – a flavour of whips and spanking that creates a rather pleasant frisson (but not at all the "nouveau frisson" that Victor Hugo meant when he first read the "Flowers") - a hint of prep school headmasters who allow the boy to decide whether it will be the slipper or the cane - whereas Baudelaire was speaking of something entirely different: at once hatred and contempt, but also, and especially, idolatry.

The form, because we English teachers can never stop at meaning but feel a burning need to touch on technical matters too, the form is heroic couplets, pairs of rhyming lines, strictly ten-syllable lines of fastidious iambic pentameter, which we English would associate especially with Pope and Byron, both of whom Baudelaire admired enormously. Today, in the Anglo-Saxon world anyway, this kind of poem is considered old-fashioned, an establishment anachronism of the boring middle classes, and no one in their right mind uses rhyme at all, let alone strict metre - which of course is wonderfully ironic, given that no poet at work today can do more than dream of rivaling Baudelaire when it comes to being anti-establishment, anti-middle class, ultra-modern, while it is perfectly possible, and commonly achieved, to be dull, old-fashioned and boring when using concrete and blank verse.

The translation at the hyperlink (click here) is interestingly different, and a useful link because it takes you to an online shrine to Baudelaire (he would have hated it), containing every poem from every edition of "Les Fleurs du Mal", each one translated, and often with alternative translations. I would suggest that "Les Fleurs du Mal" (click here for the complete volume in French) is the greatest and most important work of poetry to come out of the human mind, ever, but not only would that insult about ten thousand other poets, all of whom (un)equally deserve the same praise, but, as CB would tell you, it would also exemplify idolatry; and so I can't, and shan't.

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