Friday, June 12, 2009

The Prince of Clouds

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The best translation of Les Fleurs du Mal is not the best known and certainly not the most widely read (it's currently out of print!). I'm referring to the 1936 translation by Edna St. Vincent Millay and George Dillon. What's astonishing to me about this collection is that it manages to change languages while still preserving the rhyme, meaning, and personality of Baudelaire. Millay and Dillon transform the poems so beautifully that it's as if they spent their time forging a pair of magic glasses for their readers! The translations are so artfully done that Paul Valéry remarked: "The quality of this is such that it would require the existence of another Baudelaire to convey an idea of it to the French reading public."

I have taken the time to type up a good chunk of Miss Millay's insightful Preface to the translation in THIS companion post. Here is an excerpt:

"When George Dillon wrote me that he was translating some of Les Fleurs du Mal into English verse, and that he was using in every instance the meter and the form used by Baudelaire in the original poem, I was very much interested; this had always seemed to me the only way to go about such a task. It is true that the translator, who is hard put to it enough in any case to transpose a poem from one language into another without strangling it in the process, here takes upon himself an added burden; but he is more than rewarded when he finds that his translation, when read aloud directly after the original, echoes the original, that it is still, in some miraculous way, the same poem, although its words are in a different language. One impertinence at least, of the many impertinences almost necessarily involved in re-writing another person's poem, has not been committed: the poem has been pretty roughly handled, possibly, but its anatomy at least is still intact."

But of course I am not making this post solely to praise a translation; I am making it to praise an extraordinary poem by Charles Baudelaire called Le Voyage/Travel. It's a long poem, yes, but one of the best. Enjoy!

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The child, in love with globes and maps of foreign parts,
Finds in the universe no dearth and no defect.
How big the world is, seen by lamplight on his charts!
How very small the world is, viewed in retrospect.

Some morning we start out; we have a grudge, we itch
To hurt someone, get even, — whatever the cause may be,
Here we are, leaning to the vessel's roll and pitch,
Cradling our infinite upon the finite sea:

People who think their country shameful, who despise
Its politics, are here; and men who hate their home;
Astrologers, who read the stars in women's eyes
Till nearly drowned, stand by the rail and watch the foam;

Men who must run from Circe, or be changed to swine,
Go tramping round the deck, drunken with light and air,
Thinking that wind and sun and spray that tastes of brine
Can clean the lips of kisses, blow perfume from the hair.

But the true travelers are those who leave a port
Just to be leaving; hearts light as balloons, they cry,
"Come on! There's a ship sailing! Hurry! Time's getting short!"
And pack a bag and board her, — and could not tell you why.

Those whose desires assume the shape of mist or cloud;
Who long for, as the raw recruit longs for his gun,
Voluptuousness immense and changing, by the crowd
Unguessed, and never known by name to anyone.


So, like a top, spinning and waltzing horribly,
Or bouncing like a ball, we go, — even in profound
Slumber tormented, rolled by Curiosity
Like hoops, as some hard Angel whips the suns around.

Bizarre phenomenon, this goal that changes place! —
And, being nowhere, can be any port of call!
Where Man, whose hope is never out of breath, will race
Madly, to find repose, just anywhere at all!

Our soul before the wind sails on, Utopia-bound;
A voice calls from the deck, "What's that ahead there? — land?"
A voice from the dark crow's-nest — wild, fanatic sound —
Shouts "Happiness! Glory! Love!" — it's just a bank of sand!

Each little island sighted by the watch at night
Becomes an Eldorado, is in his belief
The Promised Land; Imagination soars; despite
The fact that every dawn reveals a barren reef.

Poor fellow, sick with love for that which never was!
Put him in irons — must we? — throw him overboard?
Mad, drunken tar, inventor of Americas...
Which, fading, make the void more bitter, more abhorred.

So the old trudging tramp, befouled by muck and mud,
Ever before his eyes keeps Paradise in sight,
And sniffs with nose in air a steaming Lotus bud,
Wherever humble people sup by candlelight.


Astonishing, you are, you travelers, — your eyes
Are deep as the sea's self; what stories they withhold!
Open for us the chest of your rich memories!
Show us those treasures, wrought of meteoric gold!

We'd like, though not by steam or sail, to travel, too!
Brighten our prisons, please! Our days are all the same!
Paint on our spirits, stretched like canvases for you,
Your memories, that have horizons for their frame!

Tell us, what have you seen?


"What have we seen? — oh, well,
We have seen waves, seen stars, seen quite a bit of sand;
We have been shipwrecked once or twice; but, truth to tell,
It's just as dull as here in any foreign land.

The glory of the sun upon the violet sea,
The glory of the castles in the setting sun,
Saddened us, made us restless, made us long to be
Under some magic sky, some unfamiliar one.

Truly, the finest cities, the most famous views,
Were never so attractive or mysterious
As those we saw in clouds. But it was all no use,
We had to keep on going — that's the way with us.

— Fulfillment only adds fresh fuel to the blaze.
(Desire! — old tree that pasture on pleasure and grow fat,
Your bark grows harder, thicker, with the passing days,
But you are set to reach the sun, for all of that!

Shall you grow on for ever, tall tree — must you outdo
The cypress?) Still, we have collected, we may say,
For your voracious album, with care, a sketch or two,
Brothers, to whom all's fine that comes from far away.

We have bowed down to bestial idols; we have seen
Baldaquined thrones inlaid with every kind of gem;
Palaces, silver pillars with marble lace between —
Ruinous for your bankers even to dream of them — ;

Processions, coronations, — such costumes as we lack
Tongue to describe — seen cobras dance, and watched them kiss
The juggler's mouth; seen women with nails and teeth stained black."


And then? — and then?


"You childrenI! Do you want more of this?

Well, then, and most impressive of all: you cannot go
Anywhere, and not witness — it's thrust before your eyes —
On every rung of the ladder, the high as well as the low,
The tedious spectacle of sin-that-never-dies.

Woman, vile slave, adoring herself, ridiculous
And unaware of it, too stupid and too vain;
And man, the pompous tyrant, greedy, cupidinous
And hard, slave of a slave, and gutter into the drain.

The headsman happy in his work, the victim's shriek;
Banquets where blood has peppered the pot, perfumed the fruits;
Poison of too much power making the despot weak;
The people all in love with the whip which keeps them brutes;

Divers religions, all quite similar to ours,
Each promising salvation and life; Saints everywhere,
Who might as well be wallowing on feather beds and flowers
As getting so much pleasure from those hair shirts they wear.

Humanity, still talking too much, drunken and proud
As ever of its talents, to mighty God on high
In anguish and in furious wrath shouting aloud,
'Master, made in my image! I curse Thee! Mayst Thou die!'

Not all, of course, are quite such nit-wits; there are some
Who, sickened by the norm, and paying serious court
To Madness, seeking refuge, turn to opium.
We've been around the world; and this is our report."


Bitter the knowledge gained from travel... What am I?
The small monotonous world reflects me everywhere:
Yesterday, now, tomorrow, for ever — in a dry
Desert of boredom, an oasis of despair!

Shall I go on? — stay here? Stay here, exhausted man!
Yet, if you must, go on — keep under cover — flee —
Try to outwit the watchful enemy if you can —
Sepulchral Time! Alas, how many there must be

Constrained like the apostles, like the wandering Jew,
To journey without respite over dust and foam
To dodge the net of Time! — and there are others, who
Have quietly killed him, never having stirred from home.

Yet, when his foot is on our spine, one hope at least
Remains: wriggle from under! Onward! The untrod track!
Just as we once set forth for China and points east,
Wide eyes on the wide sea, and hair blown stiffly back,

We shall embark upon the Sea of Shadows, gay
As a young passenger on his first voyage out...
What are those sweet, funereal voices? "Come this way,
All ye that are in trouble! — all ye that are in doubt!

"Ye that would drink of Lethe and eat of Lotus-flowers,
Here are miraculous fruits! — here, harvested, are piled
All things the heart has missed! Drink, through the long, sweet hours
Of that clear afternoon never by dusk defiled!"

We know this ghost — those accents! — Pylades! comforter
And friend! — his arms outstretched! — ah, and this ghost we know,
That calls, "I am Electra! Come! — the voice of her
Whose lost, belovèd knees we kissed so long ago.


Oh, Death, old captain, hoist the anchor! Come, cast off!
We've seen this country, Death! We're sick of it! Let's go!
The sky is black; black is the curling crest, the trough
Of the deep wave; yet crowd the sail on, even so!

Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods!
Our brains are burning up! — there's nothing left to do
But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what's the odds?
We're bound for the Unknown, in search of something new!


Hectocotylus said...

The pictures are variations of a painting I did about 4 years ago; my 5th or 6th oil painting (which also turned out to be my last). It's not a very good likeness, but as a cartoon or caricature I like it.

A few more variations can be found HERE .

Hectocotylus said...

Wow. I just caught sight of these photos of my painting again, and I can't believe I liked them at the time! Hideous.