Thursday, February 29, 2024

Spleen and Ideal by Charles Baudelaire


Source of book: I own this


One of the books I found at Powell’s on our trip to the Portland area was a translation of The Flowers of Evil. This version contains both the original French and the English translation by Richard Howard. As I also discovered, it contains additional poems, so essentially the complete poems of Baudelaire.


In light of this, and the fact that The Flowers of Evil was meant to be Baudelaire’s version of his collected poems, I decided not to read the entire thing at once, but in pieces, so that I can enjoy it over time. 


The first and largest section of the work is entitled Spleen and Ideal, and contains 87 poems, which is plenty to digest at a time. Supposedly, it is meant to be a cycle of erotic ecstasy and anguish, but I found its topics to be too varied to neatly fit in that category. 


The art of translation is a tricky one, and compromises have to be made, unfortunately. (See my discussion of Inferno for more on the various approaches.) Although I do not know French pronunciation much at all, I at least parsed the French versions of some of the poems to compare form. They clearly have rhymes and a rhythm of sorts. It is my understanding that French isn’t accented the same way English is, so syllables are more important than lining up the accents into feet. 


Howard does his best to preserve the lines intact, and preserve the syllable counts. He does not attempt to rhyme, however. This gives the poems a certain feel that definitely is not that of free verse, but not quite the normal cadence of formal rhymed poetry. A little research revealed that Howard’s own poetry uses this technique - that of using syllable counts rather than accents for his metre. 


Thus, there is no exact equivalent to the original feel of the poems, as good as they are. Such is the nature of translation, unfortunately. Despite the necessary compromises, I found Howard’s translation to be delightfully musical and free-flowing. 


The poems are mostly shorter, and many appear to be sonnets, although the rhyme schemes vary, and are rarely identifiable as either Petrarchan or Shakespearean in form. For example, the two quatrains would be rhymed ABAB as in a Shakespearean sonnet, but instead of the third quatrain and couplet, there is a pair of tercets rhymed in one of the accepted Petrarchan schemes. 


The Flowers of Evil caused a huge scandal at the time, due to its overt sexuality, irreverent approach to death, and references to lesbianism. I didn’t get to any of the lesbian poems - those are in a different section - but I did read several of the poems that were censored. 


What is kind of weird is that I didn’t think that the censored ones were any more racy than others which were permitted. And certainly nothing in them is any naughtier than the stuff John Donne wrote two centuries earlier, and they do not even approach the bawdiness of Shakespeare, let alone Chaucer. 


There are a lot of other themes in the work, not just love and sex. Baudelaire explores what he felt was the corruption of the industrial revolution and the rise of urbanism. He muses on the changing roles of women, with some poems sounding quite progressive, and others pretty misogynistic, unfortunately. Like so many poets before and since, he contrasts sacred and profane love, considers death, and glorifies wine and song. 


One of the fascinating and unique characteristics of the poems is that, while most poets focus on the senses of sight, hearing, and touch, Baudelaire features the sense of smell. Everything from perfume to flowers to body odor make it into his lyrics, and he shows the same ability to find unexpected and evocative words to bring those smells to life that other poets have for scenes. 


Also interesting about this collection is that Baudelaire apparently adored cats. There are numerous poems about cats, a few of which I will feature in this post. As a lifelong cat lover myself, I can tell that he had a fondness and fascination with them - and a keen eye for their quirks. 


It was very difficult to choose which poems to feature because so many of them spoke to me, but I have done my best to cull them to a reasonable number. I would definitely recommend getting this book, and spending some leisurely time reading and re-reading each poem.  


I had to quote the opening poem, “To the Reader,” because it captures the wry, pessimistic, and scandalous tone of the work so well. 


To the Reader


Stupidity, delusion, selfishness and lust

Torment our bodies and possess our minds

And we sustain our affable remorse

The way a beggar nourishes his lice.


Our sins our stubborn, our contrition lame;

We want our scruples to be worth our while -

How cheerfully we crawl back to the mire:

A few cheap tears will wash our stains away!


Satan Trismegistus subtly rocks

Our ravished spirits on his wicked bed

Until the precious metal of our will

Is leached out by this cunning alchemist


The Devil’s hand directs our every move -

The things we loathed become the things we love;

Day by day we drop through stinking shades

Quite undeterred on our descent to Hell.


Like a poor profligate who sucks and bites

The withered breast of some well-seasoned trull,

We snatch in passing at clandestine joys

And squeeze the oldest orange harder yet.


Wriggling in our brains like a million worms,

A demon demos holds its revels there,

And when we breathe, the Lethe in our lungs

Trickles sighing on its secret course.


If rape and arson, poison and the knife

Have not yet stitched their ludicrous designs

Onto the banal buckram of our fates,

It is because our souls lack enterprise!


But here among the scorpions and the hounds,

The jackals, apes and vultures, snakes and wolves,

Monsters that howl and growl and squeal and crawl,

In all the squallid zoo of vices, one


Is even uglier and fouler than the rest,

Although the least flamboyant of the lot;

This beast would gladly undermine the earth

And swallow all creation in a yawn;


I speak of Boredom which with ready tears

Dreams of hangings as it puffs its pipe.

Reader, you know this squeamish monster well,

Hypocrite reader, - my alias, - my twin!


Perhaps a warning shot across the bow of the reader’s skiff: you may look down your nose at the vice portrayed in this collection, but you know it is in your heart too. 


I also loved seeing “Trismegistus” on a page again. For those of us who loved Tristram Shandy, we recall that the narrator of that book was supposed to be named Trismegistus (meaning “thrice-greatest” and applied to Hermes), but mistakes were made, and he had to settle for being the namesake of a knight of the Round Table instead. 


Next up is a more conventional lyrical poem, but with a definite undertone of existential dread. As one who loves to escape the city and hike up mountains, I agree with Baudelaire here - while I prefer to live in the city for a variety of reasons, my heart is in the mountains, with the clean air and flowers and the feeling you can touch the sky. 




Above the lake in the valley and the grove

Along the hillside, high over the sea

And the passing clouds, and even past the sun!

To the farthest confines of the starry vault


Mount, my spirit, wander at your ease

And range exultant through transparent space

Like a rugged swimmer reveling in the waves

With an unutterable male delight


Ascend beyond the sickly atmosphere

To a higher plane, and purify yourself

By drinking as if it were ambrosia

The file that fills and fuels Emptiness.


Free from the futile strivings and the cares

Which dim existence to a realm of mist,

Happy is he who wings in an upward way

On mighty pinions to the fields of light;


Whose thoughts like larks spontaneously rise

Into the morning sky; whose flight, unchecked,

Outreaches life and readily comprehends 

The language of flowers and of all mute things.


I decided I wanted to mention one of the longer poems, “Guiding Lights,” which is mostly a set of four-line tributes to various painters, from Rubens to Goya. Three closing quatrains offer paeans to art, describing it as humankind’s offering to the Divine. 


I’ll quote the one to Delacroix, one of my favorite artists, and often underrated - they are best seen in person, in my opinion, where the careful use of color draws the eye around the narrative contained on the canvas. 




Evil angels haunt this lake of blood

Darkened by the green shade of the firs,

Where under a stricken sky the trumpet-calls

Like a fanfare by Weber fade away…


Next up is one of the sonnets, rather dark, but with incredible imagery. 


The Enemy


My youth was nothing but a lowering storm

Occasionally lanced by sudden suns;

Torrential rains have done their work so well

That no fruit ripens in my garden now.


Already the autumn of ideas has come,

And I must dig and rake and dig again

If I am to reclaim the flooded soil

Collapsing into holes the size of graves.


I dream of new flowers, but who can tell

If this eroded swamp of mine affords

The mystic nourishment on which they thrive…


Time consumes existence pain by pain

And the hidden enemy that gnaws our heart

Feeds on the blood we lose, and flourishes!


I particularly love how he flips the images of sun and rain. Sun lances suddenly (like a rainstorm), while the usual nourishing rain has desiccated his garden. 


This next one expresses the truth that, while some art endures, there must be so much more that never saw the light, whether because it was not recognized, or because the artist never had the time or support to create it at all. 


Artist Unknown


Flesh is willing, but the Soul requires

            Sisyphean patience for its song.

Time, Hippocrates remarked, is short

            And Art is long.


No illustrious tombstones ornament

            The lonely churchyard where I often go

To hear my heart, a muffled drum, parade



‘Many a gem,’ the poet mourns, abides

            Forgotten in the dust

                        Unnoticed there;


‘Many a rose’ regretfully confides 

            The secret of its scent

                                    To empty air.


There is a sequence of poems (17-20) that muse on love and female beauty. These are, shall we say, not the most conventional. This one is my favorite. 


The Ideal


My heart is closed to belles in curlicues,

Those worshipped beauties of a shopworn age

When fingers were for spinets and when feet

Wore out six pairs of silver-buckled shoes.


I leave to Gavarni, anemia’s laureate,

His twittering flock of insubstantial girls - 

In all those sallow blossoms who could find

One rose to reconcile my read ideal?


This heart is cavernous and it requires

Lady Macbeth and an aptitude for crime,

Some Aeschylean flower of the South,


Or Michelangelo’s great daughter, Night,

Who slumbrously contorts the marble charms

He carved to satiate a titan’s mouth.


So far, these are not too far out there. This next one definitely is. Baudelaire combines young love and rotting flesh, throwing in stink, flowers, prostitution, sunshine, and death. 




Remember, my soul, the thing we saw

            That lovely summer day?

On a pile of stones where the path turned off,

            The hideous carrion -


Legs in the air, like a whore - displayed

            Indifferent to the last,

A belly slick with lethal sweat

            And swollen with foul gas.


The sun lit up that rottenness 

            As though to roast it through,

Restoring to Nature a hundredfold

            What she had here made one.


And heaven watched the splendid corpse

            Like a flower open wide -

You nearly fainted dead away

            At the perfume it gave off


Flies kept humming over the guts

            From which a gleaming clot

Of maggots poured to finish off

            What scraps of flesh remained.


The tide of trembling vermin sank,

            Then bubbled up afresh

As if the carcass, drawing breath,

            By their lives lived again


And made a curious music there -

            Like running water, or wind,

Or the rattle of chaff the winnower

            Loosens in his fan.


Shapeless - nothing was left but a dream

            The artist had sketched in,

Forgotten, and only later on

            Finished from memory.


Behind the rocks an anxious bitch

            Eyed us reproachfully,

Waiting for the chance to resume

            Her interrupted feast.


- Yet you will come to this offense,

            This horrible decay,

You, the light of my life, the sun

            And moon and stars of my love!


Yes, you will come to this, my queen,

            After the sacraments,

When you rot underground among

            The bones already there.


But as their kisses eat you up,

            My Beauty, tell the worms

I’ve kept the sacred essence, saved

            The form of my rotted loves!


This next poem takes its name from a motto of Queen Elizabeth I - “Semper Eadem” - always the same (with a feminine word gender.) There is a bit of irony in the title considering the content of the poem.


Semper Eadem


‘You’re like some rock the sea is swallowing -

What is it that brings on these moods of yours?’

Nothing mysterious: the ordinary pain

Of being alive. You wouldn’t understand,


Though it’s as obvious as that smile of yours:

An open secret. Nothing ever grows,

Once the heart is harvested . . . You ask

Too many questions. No more talking now,


My prying ignoramus, no more words,

However sweet your voice. You call it Life,

But Death is what binds us, and by subtler bonds…


Come here. The only lie that comforts me

Is the refuge of those lashes - let me sink

Into the silent fiction of your eyes!


While there is often a thorn hidden in every rose, there are a few that are just sweet. I think this one expresses how I feel about my wife pretty well. Okay, except for the part about the Devil, because he has never popped in to ask that question. 




The Devil it must have been

Why came to my room this morning

And, trying to catch me out,

Insisted I answer his question:


‘Among the miracles

Her spell over you comprises -

Among the black or pink

Objects composing her body -


Which is dearest?’ My soul 

Responded thus to the Demon:

‘No single part is best,

For each in its way is a solace,


And if the Whole enthralls,

Is any detail the seducer?

She dazzles like the dawn

And like the darkness consoles me;


Too close the harmony 

That governs her lovely body

For reason to divide 

One rapture from another;


My senses all are fused

By subtle transformation -

Her breathing makes a song,

As her voice emits a fragrance!’


If that one is a bit too full of treacle for you, balance it with this gem.




Eyes glowing like an angel’s

I’ll come back to your bed

And reach for you from the shadows:

You won’t hear a thing.


On your dark skin my kisses 

Will be colder than moonlight:

Caresses of a snake crawling

Round an open grave.


When the morning whitens

You find no one beside you:

The place cold all day.


Others by fondness prevail 

Over your life, your youth:

I leave it to fear. 


The caress of a snake crawling round an open grave. That’s delicious. 


To end this post, I figured I would feature some cat poems. 


The Cat


Come here, kitty - sheathe your claws!

Lie on my loving heart

And let me sink into your eyes

Of agate fused with steel. 


When my fingers freely caress 

Your head and supple spine

And my hand thrills to the touch

Of your electric fur,


My mistress comes to mind. Her gaze -

Cold and deep as yours,

My pet - is like a stab of pain,


And from head to heels 

A subtle scent, a dangerous perfume,

Rises from her brown flesh. 


The details are the key to this poem - he knows cats. As a sonnet, it is fascinating too: you can see the parallels between the first part (the cat) and the second (the woman) - eyes, sensation, for or flesh, and the threat of a stabbing. 




As if he owned the place, a cat

Meanders through my mind,

Sleek and proud, yet so discrete

In making known his will


That I hear music when he mews,

And even when he purrs

A tender timbre in the sound

Compels my consciousness - 


A secret rhythm penetrates

To unsuspected depths,

Obsessive as a line of verse

And potent as a drug:


All woes are spirited away,

I hear ecstatic news -

It seems a telling language has

No need of words at all.


My heart, assenting instrument,

Is masterfully played;

No other bow across its strings

Can draw such music out


The way this cat’s uncanny voice

- seraphic, alien -

Can reconcile discordant strains

Into close harmony!


One night his brindled fur gave off

A perfume so intense

I seemed to be embalmed because

(just once) I fondled him…


Familiar spirit, genius, judge,

The cat presides - inspires

Events that he appears to spurn,

Half goblin and half god! 


And when my spellbound eyes at last

Relinquish worship of 

This cat they love to contemplate

And look inside myself,


I find to my astonishment

Like living opals there

His fiery pupils, embers which

Observe me fixedly. 


Yeah, he is a bit besotted, I would say. But cats are, as Death said, nice, and one of the reasons to keep living. Finally, let’s end with this sonnet. 




Lovers, scholars - the fervent, the austere -

Grow equally fond of cats, their household pride.

As sensitive as either to the cold,

As sedentary, though so strong and sleek,


Your cat, a friend to learning and to love,

Seeks out both silence and the awesome dark…

Hell would have made the cat its courier 

Could it have controverted feline pride!


Dozing, all cats assume the svelte design

Of desert sphinxes sprawled in solitude,

Apparently transfixed by endless dreams;


Their teeming loins are rich in magic sparks,

And golden specks like infinitesimal sand

Glisten in those enigmatic eyes. 


There you have it - clearly a cat lover. I often have a cat cuddling me when I read in the evenings - we have three indoor cats that vie for my attention, so it depends on who gets there first. The others will drape themselves about the bed, or go find one of the kids to snuggle.

Here is our half-grown kitten (rescued from an engine compartment at WalMart, of all places...):


I look forward to reading the rest of the collection in the future.