This volume includes a new translation of Les fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire (1921 -1967 ), often considered to be France's foremost poet and the first modern one. "Flowers of Evil" was Baudelaire's major work; he worked on it all his adult life, until aphasia robbed him of the use of language. Counting the unnumbered introductory poem "To the Reader", but not the unnumbered and incomplete final "Sketch of an Epilogue for the 2nd Edition", there are 160 poems in the definitive edition published in 1948 by the Club Fran?ais du livre. All are included in this volume in both French and English, except for one written in Latin.
Les fleurs du mal has seen numerous translations of all or part of the original into English, some in rhyme and meter, others in free verse or prose, some that are close to the French text, others straying far afield. An incomplete one is by Edna St. Vincent Millay, published in 1936. It is the one best known, and rightly so, even though, as has been said, that twentieth century poet tended to employ a nineteenth century vocabulary (whereas that nineteenth century poet, Charles Baudelaire, seems to belong, in thought, emotion and language, squarely in our time.)
When the current translator, Robert Scholten, discovered Les fleurs du mal, he fell instantly under its spell, not only of its poetry, but of the truthfulness and courage with which the poet had looked at both the good and the evil in his heart, the light and the dark present in all of us, if not usually in such extremes as in Baudelaire. The events in Scholten's youth in Europe during the nineteen thirties and forties brought into stark vision the reality that love and hatred co-exist in man with more ease than we like to think. So do anxiety and peace, prejudice and tolerance, courage and fear, the joy of living and the fear of death, and a host of other contradictory thoughts and feelings. He learned he was not exempt from such counter-currents.
So it was that, many years later, Scholten was struck by the conflicts the poet expressed when he wrote about his long-time and only true love, Jeanne Duval in his suicide letter of 1845) such lines as, in this translation:
Mistress of mistresses, memory's mother,
Oh you, my devotion and source of delight!
Recall how we gently caressed one another,
How sweet was the home and how charming the night,
Mistress of mistresses, memory's mother!
(from "The balcony")
--but also, in rebellion against her dominion over him:
(You) Who humbled my spirit and dared
To make it your bed and domain;
To you, infamous one am I paired,
Like a galley slave held by a chain...
(from "The vampire")
--after which it gets worse. Elsewhere, with the raw nerves of anxiety:
My reason in vain tried to master the rudder,
But, against all my efforts the storm toyed with me,
And caused the old wreck of my soul to shudder,
As, mastless, it danced on a limitless sea!
(from 'The seven old men")
--but then, hoping for a moment of calm (while still conscious of pain and fear):
Be good, o my Pain, stay calm and have pity,
You asked for the Evening; it falls; it is here:
A dark atmosphere now envelops the city
With its peace, but to some it brings worry and fear
Many more examples of such opposite feelings could be given, but, of course, not all of Baudelaire's poems are about the conflicts in our hearts: their range is far and wide. Some are rather philosophical or visionary in nature, some touch upon religion, whether of the American Indian or the Christian, as he felt it:
Ah! Jesus, recall how you knelt on the ground
In the Garden of Olives, abandoned, alone,
And without art prayed to Him on his throne,
Who will laugh at the sound of each nail they will pound.
(from "Peter's denial")
Several poems find wisdom , magic, or human qualities (as well as humor) in inanimate things (his pipe), or in animals (his cat, owls), as when he writes:
In a yew tree, their home, without blinking,
Like deities from far, foreign parts,
Sits a long row of owls, throwing darts
With red eyes. They seem to be thinking.
(from "The owls")
A number speak of, or hint at , the pleasures of opium or wine:
We may find an old flask from which memory surges,
And, given new life, a locked soul emerges.
Thousands of thoughts that had slept in the gloom,
Gently trembling in a funereal doom,
Now spread their wings and take off in flight
Glazed pink and azure and stitched golden bright.
(from "The flask")
Time and again, poems bear witness to Baudelaire's empathy with the suffering : the poor and dispossessed, abandoned women :
You, whom my soul has pursued in your hell,
Poor sisters, with pity and love I take part
In your sorrowful pains and the thirst you can't quell
With he urns of compassion contained in your heart.
(from "Women condemned")
Several poems express Baudelaire's admiration of a fellow poet or of a woman other than Jeanne, even if only fleetingly glimpsed :
A flash... then no more! - Yet your look full of pain
Caused, fugitive beauty, my sudden rebirth!
Will eternity come ere I see you again?
Perhaps somewhere far! no, too late! not on earth!
You know not where I go, nor I where you flew,
O you whom I might have loved, o you who knew!
(from "To one who passed by")
Baudelaire's subjects, indeed, are too numerous to list. Still, the title, "Flowers of Evil", speaks for itself: the overriding theme of the collection is that of the turmoil in his soul--- in the soul of man.
As those who have done so know: translating poetry in rhyme and meter can never be completely satisfactory. Something has to give, whether it be style, form, or the precise meaning of certain words, in order to preserve overall meaning in what one hopes will be a poetic way To come as close to Millay may be a vain goal, but it is possible for a translator to find a language different from hers and to to hope that, after an endeavor that was a pleasure to himself, the outcome will be so to others. It is in that spirit that the fruit of a decade-long labor of love is presented to an English-speaking audience.
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July 05, 2011
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