Baudelaire, Correspondences

Long before I could read him in French, Baudelaire was one of the essential writers for me, but rather as a horizon than an actuality: a bit like a drunk friend destined, you think, for wonders, if only he would sober up, Baudelaire seemed to hold hidden a trove of enticements and lugubrious arcana at which the not quite sensible, singsong English barely hinted with its blanched diction. I first read Flowers of Evil in the Arthur Symons version; later, when I’d had enough French to peck through the poems with a dictionary, I cribbed from the rather better Wallace Fowlie. Richard Howard’s translation is highly praised, and his qualifications are unquestionable; for me, however, their want of rhyme and, often, meter, makes them deeply dissimilar to the originals. I have long nourished, in the back of my head, the idea of translating Baudelaire’s masterpiece whole; I doubt I will, there must be little demand for it, and Englishing rhymed poetry is a time-consuming task; but since I’m not overwhelmed with paying work right now and life is too harried to dedicate myself to anything ambitious, and since I don’t know enough about movies anymore to solve a proper crossword puzzle, I’m playing around with poems like the following. I don’t like the hyperbaton in line 4 of the first stanza, but I haven’t found a way around it.


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.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
— Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.


In nature’s shrine, where pillars quick
Perchance let mingled words emerge,
Man wends through symbol-forests thick,
Whose knowing gazes him observe.

Like echoes mingled from afar
In deep and tenebrous unity,
As vast as night, as clarity,
The perfumes, sounds, and colors hark.

Those perfumes cool like children’s skin,
Some oboe-sweet and prairie green
–– and others, rich, and rank with sin

And pungent of infinity
Like amber, resin, musk, incense
Intone the bliss of soul and sense.


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