The Challenge of Baudelaire at 200

December 7, 2021   •   By Aaron Poochigian

CHARLES BAUDELAIRE WAS a formalist poet given to passé rhetorical tropes, who also used stereotypes when depicting black people. Here in the 21st century, free verse is in, and formalism and rhetorical tropes are out. Furthermore, if Baudelaire were writing today, his treatment of racial difference would hardly fly. What is a contemporary translator to do with him? In talking a bit about the challenges I had to grapple with while translating The Flowers of Evil, I hope to reveal some characteristics not just of Baudelaire but of ourselves. How much has changed in the 200 years since his birth in 1821!

What moves me most in Baudelaire’s poetry is its incantatory sound. The whole raison d’être of my translation is the recreation in English of his “trance music.” Because this music is made of words, it simultaneously calls up lush, extravagant, and even disturbing images. In “Autumn Song,” for example, the sound of men chopping wood at the end of summer evokes not just images of autumn but of siege-machines, gallows, and coffins:

I tremble listening to the thud of fuel.
Builders of gallows make no worse a sound.
My spirit, like a tower, reels to a cruel
ram’s obdurate percussion: Pound. Pound. Pound.

To me, lulled by those tiresome thuds, it seems
a coffin’s quickly being nailed. But whose?
Summer was yesterday; now autumn comes.
There is departure in that eerie noise.

I felt that, in a poetry so dependent on sound, a failure to preserve the almost mystical effect of Baudelaire’s rhymes would rob the work of an essential element. Baudelaire translated into free verse and blank verse strikes me as a magician without the magic. In one of his trippier efforts, “Parisian Dream,” he exults in creating a word-world worthy of M. C. Escher:

This Babel of stairways and colonnades
was like an endless palace filled
with water basins and cascades
flowing with dull or burnished gold.

Like curtains made of precious stones,
the intimidating waterfalls
seemed to be hanging in suspense
along the murals in the walls.

To the greatest degree in Baudelaire, sounds are images and images, sounds — which brings us to the next challenge: preserving his synesthesia.

In undergraduate school, I was in love with a girl who saw colors in the periphery of her eyes when she heard music. She had perfect pitch. I remember once strumming a chord on my guitar and asking her what chord it was. She said, “G Minor,” and she was right. When I asked how she knew, she said, “Because it is purple.” She is blessed with a neurological condition called synesthesia, in which a person perceives information from one sense (for her, the auditory) in terms of another (for her, the visual). We also use the term to refer to a writer’s description of one type of sensory information in terms of that of another: a “mute color” (auditory and visual), for example, or a “sharp taste” (tactile and gustatory). Synesthesia is also a common psychedelic experience, and Les Paradis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises), Baudelaire’s treatise on his experiences with opium and hashish, was, in fact, influential on 1950s and ’60s drug treatises such as Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Timothy Leary’s “Turn On / Tune In / Drop Out.” In many ways, he is the father of psychedelic music and imagery.

Though Baudelaire is famous for his use of synesthesia, one cannot be sure whether he was a born synesthete, elicited the experience through drugs, or was only using it as a poetic technique. In her poem “The Bight,” Elizabeth Bishop refers to this tendency of his:

the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.

Most often he processes olfactory information in terms of sights and sounds, as in his sonnet “Exotic Perfume”:

When, on a warm Fall evening, I breathe in,
eyes shut, the perfume of your balmy breast,
I see a very happy stretch of coast
lit by the fires of an unsubtle sun:

a lazy island on which Nature grows
peculiar trees and fruits that taste like bliss,
sinewy males whose limbs are vigorous,
and females flashing candor from their eyes.

Led by your fragrance to this charming place,
I see a wharf with ships and rigging still
worn out from riding on the ocean swell;

meanwhile the scent of verdant tamarind,
swelling my nostrils, riding on the breeze,
mixes with sailors’ chanteys in my mind.

Here, breathing in the scent of his mistress’s bosom, he sees a paradisical island characterized by health and innocence. He then zooms in to a harbor, and the poem concludes with the auditory — the smell of her evokes the scent of tamarind which “mixes with sailors’ chanteys.” The whole experience is brief and intense as if, by inhaling her aroma, he were huffing a household cleaner or doing what is known as a whippet. The impression I strove to preserve is that of a sensual psychedelic feast.

Against the image of Baudelaire as a degenerate and druggie we can set his ubiquitous Classicism. He was quite a Classical scholar. In fact, he won first prize for the composition of verses in Latin before being kicked out of his lycée in Paris. Though the father of Modernism, he is surprisingly fond of archaic rhetorical tropes and figures, especially allegory — the personification of an abstract idea, such as Justice, with, say, a blindfold to show impartiality and scales to show fairness. Though popular in Classical and Medieval literature, allegory could not be more out of style today. In fact, I recall being scolded in a creative writing class for using it — which made me just want to use it more. Still, translating Baudelaire’s allegories for a 21st-century audience caused me a great deal of anxiety. What I learned is that he reinvigorates this hoary rhetorical figure by presenting ambivalent portrayals of traditionally positive concepts, such as Beauty:

O Beauty, do you come from Paradise
or Hell? Your gaze, infernal and divine,
brims over with benevolence and vice,
and that’s why people liken you to wine.

Even Beauty has a dark side in Baudelaire. What’s more, he kills Hope (Emily Dickinson’s “the thing with feathers — / that perches in the soul —”): “The Hope that lights up windows at the Inn / is snuffed out now and gone for good.”

Just as often, he allegorizes negative concepts like Disease, Irony, Homicide, and Hatred. I recently discovered, to my delight, that his poem “Twilight” is quoted in Appendix B of The Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work (2006) for its allegorical representation of the world’s oldest profession. Here is his famous portrayal of Boredom:

Boredom! Moist-eyed, he dreams, while pulling on
a hookah pipe, of guillotine-cleft necks.
You, reader, know this tender freak of freaks —
hypocrite reader — mirror-man — my twin!

He even uses the word “allegory” itself in his masterpiece “The Swan”:

Though Paris changes, nothing in my sorry
state has budged. Blocks, palaces tacked on,
old districts, all to me are allegory.
My dear remembrances weigh more than stone.

After writing and rewriting my translation of this stanza many times, I decided it was essential to preserve the word allégorie as “allegory” here, so I cast about for a rhyme until I hit on “my sorry / state” for ma melancholie. In this poem, the new construction in Paris strikes Baudelaire as the personification of an abstract idea: change, and his recollection of what was there before seems to him to “weigh more than stone” — the very stone from which the new buildings are made. This poem also confronted me with another challenge: Baudelaire’s representations of black people.

Race is the third rail of contemporary literature, and Baudelaire is anything but politically correct. In “The Swan,” he uses the word “negress” (négresse) in his litany of all those “deprived of something they may not / find ever, ever again.” How does one translate it in the 21st century? Since the context is sympathetic and the usage is not pejorative, I decided to render it thus:

I think of a black girl, tubercular,
searching with tired eyes, as she slogs through mud,
for palms she knew in Africa somewhere
behind a massive barrier of cloud.

Yes, there is much in The Flowers of Evil that will offend the sensitive. Baudelaire portrays Jeanne Duval, his Haitian-born mistress of mixed French and black African ancestry, in stereotypical ways, comparing her passionate nature, for example, to that of a tiger. Here he is in the poem “Jewels” (banned in France for almost 100 years) describing Duval:

Her waist so thickened into either hip
that I observed what seemed a new design —
a buxom girl below, a boy on top.
What great artiste had daubed her outside brown?

Because the sun was fixed on going out,
we two were seeing by the hearth alone,
and, every time it sighed a sigh of light,
it flickered crimson on that amber skin.

I felt I owed it to Baudelaire never to be squeamish when it came to race issues, sexism, and disturbing themes like suicide and necrophilia. When he writes about, say, a man raping a woman’s decapitated corpse, I felt obliged not to soft-pedal or obscure the horror of that act:

Did that much cherished man, that stubborn lover
whom you could not, while living, sate,
over your passive, welcoming cadaver,
fulfill his giant appetite?

I worked hard to give the contemporary reader a defiant and unapologetic Baudelaire, a formalist poet in an age of a free verse, a rhetorician in an era of plain speaking, a deliberately offensive man in a time of political correctness. Such were my choices, my gambles, and only time will tell whether the early 21st century can stomach the Baudelaire presented, with the greatest fidelity I could muster, within the leaves of this new Flowers of Evil.

¤

Aaron Poochigian earned a PhD in Classics from the University of Minnesota and an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. His first book of poetry, The Cosmic Purr (Able Muse Press), was published in 2012, his second, Manhattanite, which won the Able Muse Poetry Prize, came out in 2017, and his third, American Divine, which won the 2020 Richard Wilbur Award, appeared in 2021 from University of Evansville Press.