NO ONE surpasses Baudelaire in portraying spiritual desolation. He is the Ancient Mariner of poetry; when those eyes fix you from the photographs of Nadar or Carjat, when the hypnotic voice rises from his stanzas--the reader, like Coleridge's Wedding Guest, cannot choose but hear. "Souvenirs? More than if I had lived a thousand years! . . ." In Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) Baudelaire ponders his wretched past and broods--on the flight of time, the shocks of city living, the clamorings of desire, all the desperate ways of forgetting that "soon cold shadows will close over us/ and summer's transitory gold be gone. . . ."
Baudelaire's own story is one of a slow grinding down by disease and despair. As a young dandy in his early twenties he became saddled with life-long debts that were impossible to throw off, caught the syphilis that was to kill him, became enthralled by a mulatto actress-prostitute who soaked him for money and probably betrayed him with the postman. Later, he was laughed at as a buffoon by the literary giants of the day, found his poems condemned, then suppressed, as obscene, his art and music criticism relatively ignored, and nonentities elected to positions he dreamed of. In his last illness he became paralyzed and aphasic, capable of uttering only two words, "Sacr,e nom." When he died in 1867 at the age of 46 all his work was out of print.
Yet even then Baudelaire's rejection was slowly giving way to recognition, even renown. In 1866 the 23-year-old Mallarm,e and the 21-year-old Verlaine each wrote tributes to his genius. In Britain Swinburne composed his greatest elegy, Ave Atque Vale. And, a generation later, Arthur Symons provided a seemingly extravagant summary of his achievement, but one that nobody today would disagree with:
"Of the men of letters of our age he was the most scrupulous. He spent his whole life in writing one book of verse (out of which all French poetry has come since his time), one book of prose in which prose becomes a fine art, some criticism which is the sanest, subtlest, and surest which his generation produced, and a translation which is better than a marvellous original."
That translation is of Poe (whom Baudelaire idolized, promoted, and partly emulated). The criticism includes dazzling reviews of three Salons shows, studies of Delacroix and Constantin Guys, advocacy of Wagnerian opera. The art-prose appears in Le Spleen de Paris, the collection that established the "poMeme en prose" as an artistic form. But above them all, of course, is that pilgrimage through the soul's dark night, a journey of Dantesque visionary power and Racinian elegance: Les Fleurs du Mal.
Such a legendary book--a Sacred Text of modern poetry--has naturally been much translated: in part by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Roy Campbell, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Lowell, among others. Now Richard Howard, generally esteemed as the finest American translator from the French of the postwar era, offers a new version of this masterpiece. Let me hasten to say, before a few cavils, that it is indubitably the English edition to acquire (although it might be supplemented with Marthiel and Jackson Matthews' selection from the best translations of the past). Howard deftly captures the modal music, the sickly-sweet fragrance, the startling modernity of Baudelaire; and being a poet, as well as a translator, he also manages to come up with English phrases comparable in power to the originals. Even those who know the French will be able to read Howard with pleasure: these are poems, not ponies.
What's more, Howard hopes that his translation, being the work of a single intelligence, will convey some of the "hidden architecture" of Les Fleurs (which Baudelaire always claimed was a unity). So the first half of the book presents the translations only; the second half provides the French originals. Unlike Baudelaire, Howard chooses to forgo rhyme, successfully using assonance, alliteration and other prosodic effects to make up for its lack. Literalists, however, will notice that absolute fidelity is sometimes sacrificed for poetic ends: Howard misses important effects, at times leaves out an image or allusion, occasionally rearranges the order of lines, inserts extraneous names or figures, switches tenses or person, alters titles. With a bit more ingenuity and care these misjudgments might have been avoided. Still, they only mar an otherwise brilliant job.
Although the individual poems were written at various times, Les Fleurs du Mal is so organized that it traces the life of the poet--and, by extension, that of our old friend alienated modern man--in an unstable, unhappy world. Reviled by family, society, and lovers, the poet undergoes spiritual and sexual crises, searching in vain for serenity. ("All is order there, and elegance/ pleasure, peace, and opulence.") Along the way, he describes city life, teeming, refuse-laden, horrible, seductive; an artist, he naturally identifies with other outsiders--especially criminals and sexual outcasts. In periodic despondency he seeks relief in wine, debauchery, travel, and opium, though nothing helps for long. The passage of Time permits no permanence--except that of the torment within: "I am the knife and the wound it deals." Finally, only death awaits.
Howard's mastery of this familiar urban universe is evident from the very first poem, "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 are 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! 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 squalid 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!
In this proem Howard captures just the right tone of dry, slightly mocking self-dramatization mingled with genuine horror. He fails only in the beginning of the last stanza. Baudelaire leads up to the revelation of his ultimate monster quietly, gradually, and then screams its name: "C'est l'Ennui!" Howard's "I speak of Boredom" is slack by comparison, far too polite.
This occasional limpness appears as Howard's most common fault. Take the lines "L'amoureux pantelant inclin,e sur sa belle/ A l'air d'un moribond caressant son tombeau." This becomes "The pining lover for his lady swoons/ like a dying man adoring his own tomb." This is not bad; the "l" alliteration and the "i" and "o" assonance make for tightly knit lines, but Howard sacrifices a highly charged image for one that seems almost statue-like or allegorical. "Pining" suggests unfulfillment, "swoons" the epicene rather than the ecstatic, and "adoring his tomb" a prayer in a graveyard. The whole effect seems rather feminine, languid. In fact, the French is more graphic, sexual and macabre. "Pantelant" means panting or shuddering; this becomes precise with the next phrase, "inclin,e sur sa belle," imaging the lover stretched out on top of his mistress. Then, as is typical with Baudelaire, the following line transforms the woman from sexual icon to object of disgust (cf. "Carrion," "To a Madonna"): The ecstatic sighs become a dying man's gasp, the woman beneath the man becomes his own sarcophagus. Love and death blur.
It is easy to pick holes in any translation; the best the translator can achieve is a selection from the effects inherent in the original. Not too surprisingly then, Howard proves least satisfying in transposing Baudelaire's richest, most atmospheric phrases. "La langoureuse Asie et la br.ulante Afrique" becomes "torpid Asia, torrid Africa"-- nice alliteration, but the short line and clipped adjectives lose the languorous liquids and open vowels of the French.
But Howard can be terrific on less familiar verses: "My heart! that palace ransacked by a mob/ of drunken maenads at each other's throats . . . " Or "And thighs that once were lithe with unconcern" (a particularly nice effect there: thighs and lithe being near aural anagrams). He achieves delightful effects too with emjambement: Tonight the moon dreams still more languidly: as if some beauty on her pillowed couch were brushing with a half-conscious hand the contour of her breasts before she fell asleep. . . .
In another vein, Howard expertly captures the city's mysteriousness in the quietly evocative openings of "The Seven Old Men" and "The Little Old Women": Swarming city--city gorged with dreams, where ghosts by day accost the passer-by . . . In murky corners of old cities where everything--horror too--is magical . . .
Baudelaire originally intended to call his book Les Lesbiennes--Lesbians--and it is the sexual aspect of his poetry that caused early readers such consternation. The hothouse flavor of the three lesbian poems especially requires just the right mixture of sympathy and sadness. In Lesbos the women are Warhol-like groupies: Lesbos, where on suffocating nights before their mirrors, girls with hollow eyes caress their ripened limbs in sterile joy and taste the fruit of their nubility . . . "
But Damned Women: Delphine and Hippolyta takes a more chilling view of sexuality: "I cringe each time you call me 'angel,' yet/ I feel my mouth long for you." (The French is more active: "Je frissone de peur quand tu me dis: 'Mon Ange'/ Et cependant je sens ma bouche aller vers toi"--the girl's mouth instinctively, involuntarily, moves toward her lover.) Such vampirism prevails in nearly all sexual relations; Woman may offer the poet temporary self-forgetfulness, but she is voracious, merciless, terrible: The woman, meanwhile, writhing like a snake across hot coals and hiking up her breasts over her corset-stays, began to speak as if her mouth had steeped each word in musk: 'My lips are smooth, and with them I know how to smother conscience somewhere in these sheets. I make the old men laugh like little boys. . . .
But, of course, no person, no drug, can dissipate life's relentless actuality: "oases of fear in the wasteland of ennui." Though Baudelaire may dream of "days where it is always afternoon," he still knows that "each instant snatches from you what you had, the crumb of happiness within your grasp," that "Paris changes . . . But in sadness like mine/ nothing stirs." Finally all that remains is to embark on the last, the greatest adventure: Death, old admiral, up anchor now, this country wearies us. Put out to sea! What if the waves and winds are black as ink, our hearts are filled with light. You know our hearts! Pour us your poison, let us be comforted! Once we have burned our brains out, we can plunge to Hell or Heaven--any abyss will do-- deep in the Unknown to find the new!
There is more, much more, to Baudelaire's poetic universe--evocations of autumn days, sunlit memories, dejection alternating with ecstasy, complex literary structures (especially in "The Swan" and "The Voyage"), satire and black humor, jagged surreal imagery, Debussy-like musical effects. Whether mirroring a fallen world or sounding the soul's depths, Les Fleurs du Mal remains an incomparable yet very human masterpiece.