Tag Archives: French

“A Former Life” by Charles Baudelaire

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

Long since, I lived beneath vast porticoes,
By many ocean-sunsets tinged and fired,
Where mighty pillars, in majestic rows,
Seemed like basaltic caves when day expired.

The rolling surge that mirrored all the skies
Mingled its music, turbulent and rich,
Solemn and mystic, with the colours which
The setting sun reflected in my eyes.

And there I lived amid voluptuous calms,
In splendours of blue sky and wandering wave,
Tended by many a naked, perfumed slave,

Who fanned my languid brow with waving palms.
They were my slaves–the only care they had
To know what secret grief had made me sad.

(Translation: F. P. Sturm)

There are two main metaphors in this sonnet: the sky and the sea. The sky represents the real world and the sea symbolizes the poet’s memory and the source of his artistic expression.

In the second stanza, the relationship between the two is established. Baudelaire’s creative mind reflects his experiences through memory. All his thoughts and feelings swirl and undulate in the sea which is his imagination. The result is his poetry, which is a reflection of his collective experience.

The slaves in the final two stanzas can be interpreted in two ways. In his former life (the one symbolized by the sky and based upon actual experiences), they are likely prostitutes with whom Baudelaire sought solace from his loneliness and pain. But if the slaves are populating the creative and imaginative part of his psyche, then they likely represent his individual poems. Baudelaire would have viewed his poems as exotic vessels into which he could pour his “secret grief.”

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“Ill Luck” by Charles Baudelaire

The Poor Poet - Spitzweg

The Poor Poet – Spitzweg

So huge a burden to support
Your courage, Sisyphus, would ask;
Well though my heart attacks its task,
Yet Art is long and Time is short.

Far from the famed memorial arch
Towards a lonely grave I come.
My heart in its funereal march
Goes beating like a muffled drum.

— Yet many a gem lies hidden still
Of whom no pick-axe, spade, or drill
The lonely secrecy invades;

And many a flower, to heal regret,
Pours forth its fragrant secret yet
Amidst the solitary shades.

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

I really like this sonnet, and it is fairly accessible as far as poetry goes. This is essentially a poem about the “ill luck” of being born a poet or an artist.

In the first stanza, Baudelaire describes being an artist/poet as a Sisyphean task, a constant uphill struggle that will likely lead nowhere. But it is a calling and something he must heed. He also acknowledges that artistic expression often requires more time than one is allotted in life.

In the second stanza, he acknowledges his mortality and what he sees as in impending death. He realizes that with each beat of his heart, he is a moment closer to death. His heart is like a clock, ticking away the short time he has left on earth.

In the final two stanzas, he confesses that, even though he feels his death approaching, there are more poems inside him, more art that he wants to express. The hidden gems and the blossoming flowers are the unformed works of art still nestled within him. He longs to expose them, to carve and polish the gems and nurture the flowers of artistic expression.

Let this be a warning to all of us. Our time here is limited. If you have things to say, work to do, art to create, don’t procrastinate. If you do, you may awaken to the beating of your heart one day, like a metronome, and realize you don’t have time left to complete your life’s purpose.

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“The Enemy” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire

My youth was but a tempest, dark and savage,
Through which, at times, a dazzling sun would shoot
The thunder and the rain have made such ravage
My garden is nigh bare of rosy fruit.

Now I have reached the Autumn of my thought,
And spade and rake must toil the land to save,
That fragments of my flooded fields be sought
From where the water sluices out a grave.

Who knows if the new flowers my dreams prefigure,
In this washed soil should find, as by a sluit,
The mystic nourishment to give them vigour?

Time swallows up our life, O ruthless rigour!
And the dark foe that nibbles our heart’s root,
Grows on our blood the stronger and the bigger!

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

So the first thing I would like to discuss regarding this poem is the title, which in French is “L’Ennemi.” I think this is one of those times where something key is lost in translation, because the word “ennemi” seems too similar to ennui for coincidence, in my opinion, especially considering how prominent ennui is in many of Baudelaire’s poems. I should note that in my version of The Flowers of Evil, the translator, Robert Lowell, translates the title as ‘The Ruined Garden,” which I feel is a less accurate translation, at least regarding the title of the poem.

The sonnet begins with Baudelaire describing his youth, which is depicted as troubled and painful. The garden is symbolic of his mind and the source of his artistic expression. But this garden was not able to produce when he was young. It was only later in life that the “new flowers,” or poems, grew from the ailing and damaged garden bed.

It is in the last stanza that the mysterious enemy appears, described as “the dark foe that nibbles our heart’s root.” I believe that the enemy is ennui, slowly eating away at the poet’s heart. He knows he has “reached the Autumn” of his life and that he must express himself now or he never will. There is a palpable sense of urgency in his words. But ennui is ever there, gnawing at him, seeking to destroy his creative urge.

For those of you who are interested, there is a great website that has multiple translations of this poem, as well as the original French. I encourage you to read some of the other translations to get a better feel of this great sonnet. Cheers!

fleursdumal.org

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“The Wicked Monk” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire2

Old cloisters, on their mighty walls, displayed
In tableau, scenes of holy Verity
Which warmed the pious entrails and allayed
The chill of cenobite austerity.

When the seed of Christ flourished long ago,
Many a monk, of small renown today,
Using the churchyard for his studio,
Glorified Death in all simplicity.

My soul’s a tomb which, wicked cenobite,
I wander in for all eternity;
Nothing embellishes these odious walls.

O slothful monk! When shall they learn to make
Of the live pageant of my misery
My hands their labor, my eyes their delight?

(translation by Barbara Gibbs)

This is an extremely dark sonnet where Baudelaire contemplates the darkness within his own consciousness. In the first two stanzas, it sounds as if he is criticizing the Church and the monastic order; but by the time we reach the third stanza, it becomes clear that the monk is a symbol for his introspective thoughts, silently analyzing the darker aspects of his soul, or psyche. With this in mind, the first two stanzas take on a different meaning.

A tableau is “a group of models or motionless figures representing a scene from a story or from history.” Considering that this is a self-reflexive poem, the cloister then represents the poet’s memory. The scenes depicted on the walls are memories that he cannot escape, since the truth of these memories is clear to him. And these memories cause anguish, because Baudelaire cannot deny the dark aspects of his being. One must admire his level of acceptance to embrace that part of himself that he finds repulsive, “odious.”

Although the past is dead, Baudelaire is still trapped within the tomb of his memories. He continues to relive the misery of his past, forever contemplating the hidden parts of himself, silently, as a monk, pondering how his soul became so corrupt and diseased.

I cannot help but wonder if Baudelaire was going for the cathartic experience when he wrote this. I get the sense that he wants to be free of his inner monk, to step out of the dark cloister of his past and bask in the beauty of the sunlit world.

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“To Music” by Arthur Rimbaud

Rimbaud_2

I decided to read something a little different today, so I got my complete collection of works by Rimbaud, translated by Wyatt Mason down from the shelf and flipped through. It is, by the way, an excellent book and I encourage you to invest in a copy.

Because I have been thinking about music a lot lately, the poem “To Music” caught my attention. I am including Mason’s translation here for reference purposes only and to provide context for my analysis of the poem.

Pruned into stringy plots of grass, the public square,
Where trees and flowers and everything is just so,
Finds wheezy bourgeois strangling in the heat,
Trotting out petty jealousies on Thursday nights.

—The military band, in the middle of the garden,
Balance their shakos while playing the “Waltz of Fifes.”
—Around them, in the first rows, dandies strut,
The notary hangs from his own monogrammed fob.

Women wearing ruffles like advertisements
For themselves flounce like elephant wranglers
Around bloated bureaucrats and bloated wives:
Petty bourgeois with lorgnettes hang on every clinker;

On green benches, clubs of retired grocers rest
Poking the sand with knobbed canes,
Discussing treaties with great sobriety,
Taking snuff from their silver boxes, saying: And so…!”

Spreading the roundness of his rump across the bench,
A bourgeois with bright buttons and a Flemish gut
Savors his pricy Onnaing pipe overflowing with tobacco:
“This stuff’s still illegal, don’t-you-know?”

All along the green lawn, little hoodlums sneer;
Naïve young soldiers smoking roses,
Made lovesick by the sad trombones,
Pat the heads of babies to charm their nannies….

Me? Looking like a scattered student
I follow exuberant girls through the green chestnuts:
They know I’m there, and turn towards me
Laughing, eyes brimming with indiscretion.

I don’t say a word: I just stare at the flesh
Of their white necks framed by tresses:
I follow the curve of their shoulders down
Their divine backs, hidden by bodices and flimsy finery.

Soon I’m ogling their boots and socks…
Burning with fever, yearning for flesh.
They think I’m silly. They whisper to each other…
—And I feel kisses blossom on my lips…

The poem describes Rimbaud’s impression of a day at the Railway Square in his childhood home town of Charleville. While a band is playing music, Rimbaud observes and comments on the bourgeois loafing around the park. You get a sense of Rimbaud’s disdain at the superficial qualities of these people. They are almost alien to him, absorbed into their own worlds and oblivious to what is going on around them.

The tone of the poem shifts about halfway through and becomes more reflective. He begins to fantasize about the girls he sees, and I get the feeling that these fantasies are fueled by the music. It is a strange combination of lust and innocence, something that is familiar to most adolescent males.

Overall, I really liked this poem. It is a great combination of impressionism and personal reflection, and Mason does an amazing job of capturing the cadence of the language in this translation.

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“The Venal Muse” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire

Muse of my heart, lover of grand chateau,
When January unleashes storm and sleet,
Through the black dreary evenings when it snows,
Will you have coals to warm your violet feet?

With gleaming starlight that has pierced the blinds
Will you reanimate your shoulders’ cold
Marble? Your palate dry, your purse unlined,
From vaults of azure will you harvest gold?

To earn your evening bread you’ll have to swing
the censer like a choirboy, and sing
Te Deums of which you don’t believe a word,

Or, starving clown, show off your charms, your smile
Wet with tears that none see, to beguile
and cheer the sick spleen of the vulgar herd.

(Translation by C. F. MacIntyre)

I struggled with this poem, because I essentially see two interpretations, which I will explain below. But first, I want to provide the official definition of venal from Merriam-Webster: “capable of being bought or obtained for money or other valuable consideration.”

So the first impression I had of this poem was that Baudelaire was writing about a prostitute and his desire to find artistic inspiration through procured sex. The imagery of the muse being cold and poor certainly lends itself to this interpretation. But as I read it again, I became less confident about this was the only meaning of the poem.

I think it was the image of the incense censer and the singing of “Te Deum” which caused me to consider another possibility. I looked up the words to “Te Deum,” and thought the opening was relevant:

We praise thee, O God :
we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee :

As I read this, I began to envision Baudelaire supplicating to a fickle muse, making prayers and offerings in the hopes of gaining artistic inspiration. Sacrifices must be made in order to achieve artistic insight, and Baudelaire was willing to make those sacrifices to his muse as payment for the reward of inspiration.

In the end, I suspect both interpretations are valid. That’s the thing with symbols and metaphors; they lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

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“The Sick Muse” by Charles Baudelaire

The Green Muse - Albert Maignan

The Green Muse – Albert Maignan

Poor Muse, alas, what ails thee, then, today?
Thy hollow eyes with midnight visions burn,
Upon thy brow in alternation play,
Madness and Horror, cold and taciturn.

Have the green lemure and the goblin red
Poured on thee love and terror from their urn?
Or with despotic hand the nightmare dread
Deep plunged thee in some fabulous Minturne?

Would that thy breast, where so deep thoughts arise,
Breathed forth a healthful perfume with thy sighs;
Would that thy Christian blood ran wave by wave

In rhythmic sounds the antique numbers gave,
When Phoebus shared his alternating reign
With mighty Pan, lord of the ripening grain.

(F. P. Sturm translation)

In this sonnet, Baudelaire offers praise to his muse: alcohol. The main metaphors are all references to different types of alcoholic drinks. Lemure is spirit, so the “green lemure” is a reference to absinthe. Likewise, the “goblin red” is red wine. These drinks inspire both love and terror in the poet.

I had to do a little searching online to find the meaning for “Minturne.” I discovered that this is the name of a swamp. So the implication here is that although alcohol provides inspiration, there is also the real possibility that it will trap the poet in a mire of darkness and nightmare.

In the third stanza, the mention of perfumes is a reference to the vapors given off from the various drinks, and “Christian blood” is another symbol for wine.

In the final stanza, Baudelaire evokes the old pagan gods. Apollo and Pan are both gods associated with music (hence poetry). I get the sense that Baudelaire is also using alcohol as an offering, a libation, to the old gods of artistic expression.

While I cannot deny the inspirational power of alcohol, I have also witnessed its destructive power. Too many of our great artistic souls have departed us too early due to alcohol abuse. But I suppose that is a sacrifice that some must make to advance artistic expression.

Cheers.

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“I Love the Thought of Those Old Naked Days” by Charles Baudelaire

VenusDiMilo

Venus di Milo

I love the thought of those old naked days
When Phoebus gilded torsos with his rays,
When men and women sported, strong and fleet,
Without anxiety or base deceit,
And heaven caressed them, amorously keen
To prove the health of each superb machine.
Cybele then was lavish of her guerdon
And did not find her sons too gross a burden:
But, like a she-wolf, in her love great-hearted,
Her full brown teats to all the world imparted.
Bold, handsome, strong, Man, rightly, might evince
Pride in the glories that proclaimed him prince —
Fruits pure of outrage, by the blight unsmitten,
With firm, smooth flesh that cried out to be bitten.

Today the Poet, when he would assess
Those native splendours in the nakedness
Of man or woman, feels a sombre chill
Enveloping his spirit and his will.
He meets a gloomy picture, which be loathes,
Wherein deformity cries out for clothes.
Oh comic runts! Oh horror of burlesque!
Lank, flabby, skewed, pot-bellied, and grotesque!
Whom their smug god, Utility (poor brats!)
Has swaddled in his brazen clouts “ersatz”
As with cheap tinsel. Women tallow-pale,
Both gnawed and nourished by debauch, who trail
The heavy burden of maternal vice,
Or of fecundity the hideous price.

We have (corrupted nations) it is true
Beauties the ancient people never knew —
Sad faces gnawed by cancers of the heart
And charms which morbid lassitudes impart.
But these inventions of our tardy muse
Can’t force our ailing peoples to refuse
Just tribute to the holiness of youth
With its straightforward mien, its forehead couth,
The limpid gaze, like running water bright,
Diffusing, careless, through all things, like the light
Of azure skies, the birds, the winds, the flowers,
The songs, and perfumes, and heart-warming powers.

(Translation by Roy Campbell)

This is a poem of contrasts. In the opening stanza, Baudelaire describes classical Greek and Roman statuary. These statues depict the human form as it truly is—a work of divine art. These cultures believed that there is nothing obscene about the naked human form. The human body is such a thing of beauty that the ancients used it as the ideal for depicting their gods and goddesses.

In the second stanza, we are assaulted with the contrast to the human body as art. Here we are shown the exploitation of human beauty in the form of pornography and prostitution. Baudelaire presents us with a vision of a society that fails to see the beauty of the naked body from a divine perspective, but instead uses the naked human form as a focus for our baser desires. It could also be argued that in addition to this stanza being a critique on the sex trade, it is a statement about inner corruption. Our bodies often reflect our inner health and happiness. In a society plagued with vice, decadence, and ennui, it stands to reason that our physical bodies would reflect the decay that festers within us.

In the third stanza, I sense that Baudelaire is seeking to reconcile these two opposites. He concedes that modern society provides “Beauties the ancient people never knew.” It seems that Baudelaire is seeking a merging between the wonders of the modern world and the appreciation for human beauty that was the ideal of the ancient Greeks.

The last thing I want to say is that this poem stirs the emotion I felt as I watched the video clips of ISIS members destroying artwork. Throughout history, fanatics have destroyed art because it was deemed obscene or heretical. My feelings are that any work of art that portrays humanity, in any of its diverse forms, should be appreciated and preserved.

I hope you have a wonderful and artistically inspired day.

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“Destruction” by Charles Baudelaire

Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch

At my side the Demon writhes forever,
Swimming around me like impalpable air;
As I breathe, he burns my lungs like fever
And fills me with an eternal guilty desire.

Knowing my love of Art, he snares my senses,
Appearing in woman’s most seductive forms,
And, under the sneak’s plausible pretenses,
Lips grow accustomed to his lewd love-charms.

He leads me thus, far from the sight of God,
Panting and broken with fatigue into
The wilderness of Ennui, deserted and broad,

And into my bewildered eyes he throws
Visions of festering wounds and filthy clothes,
And all Destruction’s bloody retinue.

(Translated by C. F. MacIntyre)

This sonnet describes Baudelaire’s source of inspiration in the decadent and decayed. In the first stanza, he addresses his artistic desire as a demon, something that haunts him and lures him down dark pathways in search of inspiration. He continues in the second stanza, acknowledging that his love for artistic expression is what tempts him to succumb to his physical desires, seeking to capture that carnal feeling in his poetry.

In the third stanza, he describes himself as entering the “wilderness of Ennui.” I love this metaphor. Through the lens of ennui, the world around him seems bleak and deserted, void of beauty and lacking spirituality. I also see the wilderness as a symbol of our subconscious mind, or the shadow part of ourselves. Baudelaire is probing the darker regions of his psyche in search of inspiration. And he finds this in the images of decay and destruction in the final stanza.

It’s important to note that the horrific visions that Baudelaire describes are sources of beauty. Just like the Phoenix rises from the ashes, as life grows from the dead and decaying, and as the old must be destroyed to create the new, so the destruction he sees is the first stage in the birth of new artistic expression.

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“Elevation” by Charles Baudelaire

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Since there are various translations of this poem, I am including the one by Roy Campbell, which is the version in my book.

Above the valleys and the lakes: beyond
The woods, seas, clouds and mountain-ranges: far
Above the sun, the aethers silver-swanned
With nebulae, and the remotest star,

My spirit! with agility you move
Like a strong swimmer with the seas to fight,
Through the blue vastness furrowing your groove
With an ineffable and male delight.

Far from these foetid marshes, be made pure
In the pure air of the superior sky,
And drink, like some most exquisite liqueur,
The fire that fills the lucid realms on high.

Beyond where cares or boredom hold dominion,
Which charge our fogged existence with their spleen,
Happy is he who with a stalwart pinion
Can seek those fields so shining and serene:

Whose thoughts, like larks, rise on the freshening breeze
Who fans the morning with his tameless wings,
Skims over life, and understands with ease
The speech of flowers and other voiceless things.

This is a great poem and has some amazing symbolism woven in. It basically attempts to describe the ecstatic feeling associated with shifting consciousness and then drawing artistic inspiration from that experience.

In the first stanza, the spirit (consciousness) of the poet rises above the earthly confines and floats upward into the cosmos. This represents the psyche transcending its worldly bonds and being freed to explore the vast mystery of the deep subconscious.

In the second stanza, Baudelaire associates the transcendent experience with sexual ecstasy. The spirit moves like sperm toward an egg, the union being the moment of creation. Essentially, when the spirit becomes one with the ineffable form, the result is the spark of creation, just as the sperm reaching the egg is the spark of new life.

The third stanza marks the transition from spark to flame, symbolic of the illumination that one experiences during the state of heightened awareness. It is akin to feeling intoxicated, which is why Baudelaire uses fire and liqueur as metaphors.

In the fourth stanza, Baudelaire acknowledges ennui as his motivation for striving to transcend. It is his boredom and sickness that forces him to seek beyond himself and the mundane. It is his desire to escape what he sees around him that inspires him to elevate his consciousness and explore the realms beyond our everyday experience.

The last stanza is my favorite. As the poet basks in the elevated state, he understands things that are outside the comprehension of ordinary consciousness. It is effortless and it fills him with bliss. “The speech of flowers and other voiceless things” refer to symbols, archetypes, and forms, those things that exist within our subconscious. These symbols have their own language and only one who is elevated above the mundane can comprehend them. The fact that these are described as voiceless implies that Baudelaire will never be able to express them adequately, even through his most inspired verse. At best, he can offer a glimpse of the beauty that exists just past the veil of our world.

The more I think about this poem, the more inspired I feel. I hope you feel the same way. Have a blessed and inspired day!

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