Little Poems in Prose
Charles Baudelaire
Keith Waldrop, Translator

You can say that again. I mean, about the spleen. There's plenty of that here for aperitifs with lunch. Midnight snacks, too.

As far as the idea of creating "Poems in Prose" ... who knows? Does the lack of an end-stop turn poetry into prose? Is "poetical language" all you need to build a poem. Baudelaire said about Le Spleen de Paris, "I send you a work no one can claim not to make head or tail of, since, on the contrary, there is at once both tail and head, alternating and reciprocal." As you can see, he was a philosopher with the heart of a poet. Or maybe a poet with the heart of a philosopher. Or both. Or neither.

The secret of Baudelaire is, I suspect, neither head nor tails, but a profound sense of the bleak, the sullen, and the sordid ... mixed with occasional whiffs of sublime beauty. Not only is he a phrase-splitter, he's also a soup-spitter: everything is tainted, nothing pure.

A beautiful woman is "a black sun." The moon is "a luminous poison." A woman can be "delicious," but she is also "a spider." Every flower has its proper worm. In "Mistresses Portrayed," four men speak of their four perfect women. The last narrator tells us, "For some years I admired her with a heart full of hatred."

    "After a melancholy walk, while as to her, her eyes reflected the softness of the sky, with me, my heart tightened hellishly."



    "What are you saying?"

    "It was inevitable."

§     §     §

Some may find pleasure in this contrarian with his brief tales disguised as poems. Two beggar boys fighting over a loaf of bread, destroying the bread. A man shooting a doll in the head, in front of "his darling, his delightful, his execrable wife." A ragged man begging, then attacked: "With a single blow of my fist I took care of one eye ... I broke one of my fingernails in cracking two of his teeth."

It may be beguiling to be such a contrarian but there also may be too much of an easy brutality. I have the same reaction to Baudelaire as I do in watching one of those late night television movies in which someone gets it in the gut with a gun, a screwdriver, or an electric drill. Usually I am able to reach the remote in time to turn it off before the coup de main. But it is harder to turn off Baudelaire as easily. He is powerful.

§     §     §

If such a visceral reaction is the sign of a good translator, we have to say that Waldrop has done a nice job, but it could have served the reader better to have had a face-en-face edition. With such, we would not have had to go online to find the original of the "Joker," Paris in a "chaos of mud and snow, criss-crossed by a thousand carriages, sparkling with toys and toffee, crawling with greed and despair, standard of delirium of a metropolis, made to disturb the brain of the sturdiest solitary."

    In the midst of bohu and din, a donkey trotted briskly, hard pressed by a rascal with a whip.

In my dictionary, between "Bohr theory" and "bohunk," there is no "bohu." The original reads,

    C'était l'explosion du nouvel an: chaos de boue et de neige, traversé de mille carrosses, étincelant de joujoux et de bonbons, grouillant de cupidités et de désespoirs, délire officiel d'une grande ville fait pour troubler le cerveau du solitaire le plus fort.

    Au milieu de ce tohu-bohu et de ce vacarme, un âne trottait vivement, harcelé par un malotru armé d'un fouet.

§     §     §

Baudelaire was dying of syphilis when he composed Le Spleen de Paris. Perhaps this fact gave him the inalienable right to be a spoil-sport. Such tragedy, this dying young ... no?

Dying too soon. The booby prize of life; the price of having lived: John Keats, Henry Purcell, Wilfred Owen; Mozart, Marlowe, Schubert. It's too sad.

But syphilis had a strange affect on Franz Schubert. Though, apparently, it made him infinitely sad, it also made him even more poetic. Forget the "Unfinished" Symphony. Listen to "Death and the Maiden," or, oh me, the very last of the Winterreise song cycle --- "Der Leiermann."

An old organ-grinder, barefoot, alone with his empty plate, there in the winter's snow, a pack of testy dogs nipping at his heels:

    Drüben hinterm Dorfe
    Steht ein Leiermann
    Und mit starren Fingern
    Dreht er, was er kann.

    Barfuß auf dem Eise
    Wankt er hin und her
    Und sein kleiner Teller
    Bleibt ihm immer leer.

    Keiner mag ihn hören,
    Keiner sieht ihn an,
    Und die Hunde knurren
    Um den alten Mann.

    Und er läßt es gehen
    Alles, wie es will,
    Dreht und seine Leier
    Steht ihm nimmer still.

    Wunderlicher Alter,
    Soll ich mit dir geh'n?
    Willst zu meinen Liedern
    Deine Leier dreh'n?

["There, behind the village,
stands a hurdy-gurdy man,
And with numb fingers
he plays the best he can.

Barefoot on the ice,
he staggers back and forth,
And his little plate
remains ever empty.

No one wants to hear him,
no one looks at him,
And the hounds snarl
at the old man.

And he lets it all go by,
everything as it will,
He plays, and his hurdy-gurdy
is never still.

Strange old man,
shall I go with you?
Will you play your hurdy-gurdy
to my songs?"]

§     §     §

The Bohr theory, by-the-bye, is an early quantum theory "having to do with the construction of an atom." A "bohunk" is a guy from Central Europe, "usu. used disparagingly," says my bohu-infested Webster's Third. God knows what "ce tohu-bohu" means.

From the photographs we have of Baudelaire, and from his disposition as reflected in these poems, and from his dying fall, he probably had the right to turn bitter and sullen; to see the moon as the "luminous poison ... the poisonous nurse of all lunatics."


But still.

    La Lune remplissait toute la chambre comme une atmosphère phosphorique, comme un poison lumineux ... cherchant dans toute ta personne le reflet de la redoutable Divinité, de la fatidique marraine, de la nourrice empoisonneuse de tous les lunatiques.

--- Jean-Louis Parmentier
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