Book Review

“Terrible Baudelaire”

In 1917, a little less than a year before he died, the French composer Claude Debussy wrote a brief letter to his friend, André Caplet, to thank him for a photograph that had been sent to him with a warm inscription (“À mon bon maître Claude Debussy”). The photograph, Debussy assured his friend, had found a place on a small “Anglo-Viennese” piece of furniture beside Debussy’s piano, where it shared space with “good old Mussorgsky” and “terrible Baudelaire.” Debussy had never met the poet, of course—he was just six years old when he died in 1867—but he admired him deeply and was one of the first French composers to set Baudelaire’s poems to music. His Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire was published in a limited edition of 150 copies in 1890, and the settings remain among the most beautiful of all musical reworkings of Baudelaire’s poetry despite stiff competition from Henri Duparc and other composers. The five poems that Debussy chose to set contain little of Baudelaire’s infamous descriptions of degradation and are indeed famous for their beauty of both subject matter and technique. Yet almost thirty years after their composition, Debussy nevertheless still thought of Baudelaire as “terrible.” In that characterization he was not alone, in the nineteenth century at any rate. Henry James in an essay published in 1878 complained of his “dulness and permanent immaturity of vision” and of the way he dragged “a great deal of lurid landscape and unclean furniture” into poetry. Max Nordau, unsurprisingly, emphasized Baudelaire’s fascination with “the frightful and the loathsome . . . the morbid, the criminal and the lewd” in Degeneration (1892). The French poets who came after Baudelaire felt differently. At just seventeen years old, Rimbaud was already making himself over in the Baudelairean mold. The famous “Lettre d’un voyant,” which he sent to his former high school teacher in the spring of 1871, begins, “These days I am debauching myself as much as I can. Why? I want to be a poet . . .” Baudelaire, he continued later in the same letter, was the king of poets, a true god.

While it seems frankly weird, Baudelaire’s influence among English-speaking poets began with Swinburne but really took hold with T. S. Eliot. That an American-born, English-adopted, Anglican and Royalist poet should have been so deeply influenced by a poet whose hand he would likely have hesitated to shake for fear of moral infection is one of the stranger truths of literary history. The Eliot self-portrayed in his French poem “Mélange adultère de tout” as wearing a “casque noir de jemenfoutiste” while in Paris suggests the Baudelairean model, while the closing line of Section 1 of “The Waste Land,” borrowed directly from Baudelaire’s “Au lecteur,” the prefatory poem to Les Fleurs du mal, documents the influence indisputably.

In general, twentieth-century writers have treated Baudelaire far more reverently than their nineteenth-century forebears, French poets like Rimbaud and Mallarmé aside. Walter Benjamin, who wrote extensively on Baudelaire, was perhaps the first to see him more as a representative or witness than as an advocate for his frequently disquieting subjects, including prostitution, drugs, disease, corpses, etc.—as a reporter on modernity and not necessarily an apostle, a victim and not a champion. As one commentator has put it, in explaining Benjamin’s position, Baudelaire “was in possession not of genius, but of an extraordinarily ‘sensitive disposition’ that enabled him to perceive, through a painful empathy, the character of an age.”[1] This has the benefit of modifying prejudiced opinions like that of Nordau, though the view itself needs modifying too if one thinks about Baudelaire’s art criticism, for example, in which he really was an advocate for modernity in art. “That indefinable something” and “the ephemeral, the fleeting forms of beauty in the life of our day” are how he characterized the idea of modernity in his essay about Constantin Guys, “The Painter of Modern Life.”[2] Art, as Baudelaire interpreted it in painters like Guy, Delacroix, Manet and others, was documentary rather than sacralizing, revelatory of the personality of the painter rather than metaphysical. “Those who have no imagination,” Baudelaire wrote in his essay “The Salon of 1859,” “copy the dictionary [i.e., Nature], from which arises a very great vice, the vice of banality.”[3] Drugs, sex, Satanism—these were not the principal vices in Baudelaire’s categorization as such, but rather boredom, banality, and lack of originality.

There have been many translations of Baudelaire’s poems into English since the oddly titled Translations from Charles Baudelaire, with a Few Original Poems of 1869, which appeared only two years after the poet’s death. The translator, Richard Herne Shepherd, was better known as an anthologist and bibliographer, and the title is odd because, while the book in fact does contain a number of original poems, it includes translations of just three Baudelaire pieces, “Une Charogne,” “Moesta et Errabunda,” and “Lesbos.” A larger selection of Baudelaire’s poems appeared in 1906, translated by F. P. Sturm, a poet who was later an acquaintance of W. B. Yeats. The last of the early translations was made by the English composer Cyril Scott who, like Sturm, had occultist interests. Piano recital enthusiasts of half a century ago still occasionally heard Scott’s “Lotus-Land,” a bonbon often played as an encore. Scott was also a health nut before the term existed. He published pamphlets on the benefits of cider vinegar and molasses, among other such books. His Baudelaire translations appeared in 1909, the same year as versions by the anti-modernist poet and writer J. C. Squire, then the editor of The London Mercury. Since then, many poets have tried their hands at Baudelaire: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Roy Campbell, Robert Lowell (fourteen poems in his book Imitations), Richard Howard, and Keith Waldrop among others.

A new translation by the poet Aaron Poochigian, published to coincide with Baudelaire’s bicentenary, includes all the poems from the second edition of 1861 as well as the poems that were censored by the authorities and ordered cut from the book, but excludes the “Nouvelles Fleurs du mal.”[4] Poochigian was trained as a classicist and is better known as a translator of ancient Greek writers, including Sappho, whose poems and fragments he published under the title Stung with Love. Sappho, who never rhymed a line in her life, became a kind of Neo-Formalist in Poochigian’s version, in which all the poems rhyme and have a regular meter more characteristic of English than of ancient Greek. Baudelaire, by contrast, does not need to be conscripted into the Formalist army. Apart from his later influential experiments with the prose poem, the poems in Les Fleurs du mal are all metered and rhyme. Indeed that is one of their challenges to English translators. Poets have been complaining about the paucity of English rhyming words since Chaucer’s time; as every enterprising sonneteer knows, rhyme often forces a poet into unbecoming calisthenics that can mar a poem’s diction and syntax. Even Byron, a master of rhyme, is sometimes guilty of padding for the sake of it. The hilarious dedication to Don Juan, for example, is rollicking largely because of rhyme. But Byron fudges it occasionally, as in these lines from the third stanza:

And be the only blackbird in the dish.
And then you overstrain yourself, or so,
And tumble downward like the flying fish . . .

That “or so” is present purely for the sake of rhyming with previous lines and adds nothing to the sentence otherwise, apart from the fifth beat metrically. Poochigian is very aware of the challenge of translating rhyming poetry. In his brief “A Note on the Translation,” he explains the problem and states his solution to it:

Since it is easier to rhyme in French than it is in English, I decided not to go for true rhymes in my translation, but a mixture of true and off rhymes that would replicate the original schemes. The license of off-rhyming allowed me to avoid contorting syntax in order to achieve true rhymes.

This seems like a very reasonable approach to take. Off-rhyme—better known as slant rhyme or half-rhyme or part-rhyme—gives the translator a great deal more leeway and helps, as Poochigian points out, to avoid pretzel-like syntactical constructions.

The results of Poochigian’s decision concerning Baudelaire’s rhymes are everywhere to be found. Here, for example, is the opening stanza of the sonnet “La Mort des amants,” the last of the poems set by Debussy in his Baudelaire cycle:

Nous aurons des lits pleins d’odeurs légères,
Des divans profronds comme des tombeaux,
Et d’étranges fleurs sur des étagères,
Écloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux.

It is notable here that Baudelaire’s word order is entirely normal, without inversions or syntactical complications. Cyril Scott’s translation resorts to several inversions to make the rhyme work:

We will have beds which exhale odours soft,
We will have divans profound as the tomb,
And delicate plants on the ledges aloft,
Which under the bluest of skies for us bloom.

Poochigian, released from the need to find perfect rhymes, is able to keep the sentence structures closer to the original, though he does invert the third and fourth lines and the flowers have migrated from the opening line to the last, perfectly acceptable alterations:

Our mattress will exude seductive scents.
Our ottoman will hold us like a tomb.
For our delight, beneath the finest suns,
Flower buds on ledges will unfold and bloom.

“Tomb” and “bloom” are irresistible rhymes in this stanza—several other translators use that pairing—and “scents” and “suns” certainly qualify as cousins as far as rhyme goes. (“Ottoman” may perhaps be the wrong word here, since we usually think of it as a footstool rather than as a divan or couch. “Unfold and bloom” are perhaps unnecessarily repetitive.) A second example is provided by the famous poem “Correspondances,” which had a wide aesthetic influence on later French poetry. Here is the first stanza of the opening octet:

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Roy Campbell’s translation hews to an eleven-syllable line and manages the rhymes quite dextrously:

Nature’s a temple where each living column,
At times, gives forth vague words. There Man advances
Through forest-groves of symbols, strange and solemn,
Who follow him with their familiar glances.

Poochigian again chooses a sentence structure that is natural and combines perfect rhyme (in lines two and three) with part-rhyme (in the outer lines):

Nature, a temple in which porticoes
are growing, gives at times confounding talks.
The figurative groves through which man walks
Look back at him with understanding eyes.

I emphasize the technical element of rhyme, since it is at the technical level that translations of poetry define themselves either as poems or as more modest ponies or trots, i.e., as helps for readers who do not have the original language or otherwise need a leg up in reading a foreign text. Poochigian clearly intends his English versions of Baudelaire to be poems in their own right. As a book, The Flowers of Evil is impressive. It contains not just the translations, but the original French poems (from an unacknowledged French edition), a long Introduction by Dana Gioia, and an Afterword by Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, whose multivolume A Series of Unfortunate Events features the Baudelaire family. (Handler claims to have first read Baudelaire as a twelve-year-old, which is impressive, to say the least. On the whole, however, his remarks really do not add much of significance to Baudelaire’s and Poochigian’s book. When he writes, for example, that “Baudelaire was one of the first Western poets to show us injustice and ignorance, ugly tumult and fervent wickedness, as the truest state of the world,” one wants to ask, well, what about Homer? Virgil? Dante? Villon?) Gioia’s Introduction covers the poet’s life and works with aplomb. He rightly notes that music “was central to Baudelaire’s method,” helpfully states the influence of Balzac (“Baudelaire took the prose content of Realism and cast it into verse”), and astutely balances Baudelaire’s devotion to the dark and the light: “He believes that art needs to embody and express both the divine and demonic sides of human nature without entirely separating them.” Yet Gioia is somewhat schoolmasterish about Baudelaire’s indulgences, calling even his pipe smoking a “mundane habit”; and his rejection of Baudelaire’s emphasis on “his own damnation” as “a perverse and sardonic delecta­tion” strikes one as unnecessarily moralistic. Such a subject really did represent something new in European poetry, even if it seems more commonplace now, after a century and a half of Baudelaire’s successors, including writers as diverse as Dowson, Artaud, Rimbaud, Wilde, and the Sartre of the plays and the novels.

Poetic translation, just as much as politics, is the art of the possible. Languages, even those related historically, have too few one-to-one verbal relationships at any level—lexical or musical—to make the parallel word or phrase or sentence obvious, inevitable, and perfect. Poetry, especially lyric poetry, lives and thrives on the plain of the syllable—its vowels and consonants, the presence or absence of stress—before meaning and the flow of thought and emotion can begin to be taken into account. As a result, poems need not so much to be translated (literally carried across) but transmogrified to exist as equal or at least similar objects in a second language. When that occurs, it is something of a miracle. Aaron Poochigian’s version of this high bar is to suggest that the translator needs to be a “medium, a vessel to be possessed by the original author’s spirit,” as he says in his “Note.” He adds that he translated Baudelaire’s book in a period of just four months during some of the worst days of the pandemic.

A few examples will demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of Poochigian’s versions. Les Fleurs du mal begins with the well-known address “To the Reader” (“Au lecteur”), the last line of which Eliot borrowed for “The Waste Land” (“You! Hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”). Its opening quatrain sticks closely to the standard alexandrine line of French poetry, with an ABBA rhyme scheme:

La sottise, l’erreur, le péché, la lésine,
Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps,
Et nous alimentons nos aimables remords,
Comme les mendiants nourrisent leur vermine.

Poochigian choses to reduce the typical French line to a more usual English one of ten syllables, while hewing to Baudelaire’s rhyme scheme:

For all of us, greed, folly, error, vice,
exhaust the body and obsess the soul,
and we keep feeding our congenial
remorse the same way vagrants nurse their lice.

This seems to me quite good. Baudelaire writes of “our bodies” and “our minds/spirits,” and Poochigian simply transmutes the possessive adjectives into the opening phrase, “For all of us.” What a good way to open a poem directed at readers and intended to create a feeling of mutual interest. The remainder of the stanza is well rendered, though the image of vagrants “nursing” their lice seems unfortunate to me. Baudelaire says “feed,” which make good sense; and although “nurse” has the aural benefit of contributing to a line full of sibilants, the line ends up sounding unconvincing because of the image. The choice of “congenial” also makes me hesitate, since normally people are congen­ial, but feelings are not. On this occasion the direct equivalent of Baudelaire’s word, “amiable,” might have been better and is metrically just as expedient.

A second example is perhaps less successful. This is the wonderful “Invitation to the Voyage,” a poem later set to music by Henri Duparc that is one of the glories of the French mélodie repertoire. (Music is not translation, but it does constitute a kind of parallel aesthetic experience to a poem. Duparc’s setting of “L’Invitation au voyage” is magnificent, and his other Baudelaire setting, “La Vie antérieure,” is almost equally wonderful.) Here is the opening stanza:

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

English readers, beginning Baudelaire’s poem, will inevitably think of Christopher Marlowe’s pastoral that commences “Come live with me and be my love,” and so it is a bit of a shock to learn that the French poet’s hedonistic utopia is modeled on the Netherlands, of all places, rather than, say, a Greek isle or some happy corner of Italy. The poem is closely structured, with the shorter lines all having five syllables and the longer ones seven, and with a recurring rhyme scheme. The refrain is repeated after each of the poem’s three stanzas. Poochigian’s version uses lines of varying length, from four to seven syllables:

Dream of the joy
of living with me,
my child, my dear. We two
will love all day,
love and then die,
in a land that looks like you.
To me at least,
the overcast
and sweet sun there appears
as mysterious
as your lying eyes
shining through your tears.

There will be nothing but beauty and leisure,
harmony, calm, and pleasure.

Apart from the refrain, there are twelve lines here, as there are in Baudelaire, though they are not so markedly divided into four sub-stanzas or tercets as in the original. Several word choices seem less than perfect: “joy” for “douceur” (sweetness), “all day” for “à loisir” (whenever we want), “sweet sun” for “soleils mouillés” (moist suns), and even “lying” for “traîtres” (faithless, two-timing). The English version of the refrain seems driven by the rhyme—“leisure” and “pleasure”—and is not exactly right. The literal meaning is “There, everything is order and beauty, / extravagance, calm, and sensual indulgence.” “Luxe” could be taken to mean “leisure,” but that word now sounds rather bland—one thinks of leisure time, a leisure suit, a leisurely pace, etc. It scarcely has the force of “luxury” or of an over-the-top lifestyle, as Baudelaire surely intended it.

A final example shows Baudelaire in a more playful mood. Like all great poets he loved cats, and there are three poems in Les Fleurs du mal on the animal he calls “beau, fort, doux, et charmant” in one of them—handsome, strong, sweet, and charming. His sonnet “Le Chat” begins in this way:

Viens, mon beau chat, sur mon coeur amoureux;
Retiens les griffes de ta patte,
Et laisse-moi plonger dans tes beaux yeux,
Mêlés de métal et d’agate.

Poochigian changes and supplements Baudelaire’s words substantially in his version:

Come to my lovesick lap, my cat, my dear.
Retract the talons of your paws
and please, please drown me in that gorgeous stare
made out of steel and glass.

Baudelaire does not address the cat as “my dear,” and he asks it to come to his “loving heart” rather than his “lovesick lap.” There is no pleading in the original (“please, please”), and kitty’s stare is made of “metal and agate,” not “steel and glass.” But the English version, though it may not match perfectly with the French, certainly works on its own and carries enough of Baudelaire’s feelings along to qualify as a translation as well as a good poem in the target language.

The first edition of Baudelaire’s book famously concluded with “Le Voyage,” a long poem in eight parts that Poochigian entitles “Voyaging.” It was dedicated to Maxime Du Camp, Flaubert’s closest friend, who was an incessant traveller. The poem could be called simply “Life,” for it is the poet’s summary imaginative statement about being alive. “Man, in his tireless yearning, never rests / from scrambling in circles like a dunce,” as Poochigian translates two lines from the poem. There is a strong whiff of Poe in “Le Voyage,” but also, at least as Poochigian frames the language, of Wallace Stevens (“the transcendental charm / of what pure chance arranges in the clouds”), and that seems entirely appropriate. Like it is in D. H. Lawrence’s great late poem, the ship in Baudelaire’s is captained by Death (“old skipper”), and Baudelaire’s charge to Him is to set sail “into the magnitude of Heaven or Hell, / to fathom the unknown, to find what’s new.” The translator has abandoned the real meaning of “gouffre”—the abyss, rather than the “magnitude”—but has cleverly chosen “fathom” as the verb, with its overtone of the depths of the ocean. Every translator makes trade-offs. It’s in the nature of the art.
[1] Michael W. Jennings, “Introduction,” in Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, 2006), p. 15.

[2] Charles Baudelaire, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, ed. and trans. by P. E. Charvet (London, 1972), pp. 402 and 435.

[3] Ibid., p. 304.

[4] FLOWERS OF EVIL, by Charles Baudelaire, trans. by Aaron Poochigian, introduction by Dana Gioia, afterword by Daniel Handler. Liveright Publishing. $27.95. The first edition had 100 poems, the second 126, and the third, published in 1868, a year after Baudelaire’s death, 151.