January 16, 2018

Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal

On this day in 1857, Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal was published. Critics now regard it as one of the most important and influential collection of poetry to come out of the 19th century, and an essential bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, but contemporary newspapers like Figaro would have no part of it:
    Never in the space of so few pages have I seen so many breasts bitten, nay even chewed; never did I see such a procession of devils, of foetus, of demons, of cats, and vermin. The book is a hospital full of all the insanities of the human mind, of all the putresence of the human heart; if only this were done to cure them it would be permissible, but they are incurable.
This sort of reaction soon had the watchdogs in the Public Safety office on the case, eager to win back whatever moral ground had been lost through the acquittal of Flaubert at the Madame Bovary trial earlier in the year. Baudelaire thought his poems to be a shock, and surely knew his title to be a red flag; on the other hand, he had sent presentation copies to such Establishment poets as Longfellow and Tennyson, and felt that, in any case, the government had better things to do than "prosecute a lunatic." When news leaked otherwise, he tried to alert his publisher -- "Quick, hide the whole edition, and hide it well" -- and to rally whatever influence he could to stop the preliminary investigation from becoming a full-blown trial. This he could not do, and thirteen of his 100 poems were cited for being "in contempt of the laws which safeguard religion and morality." The trial brought notoriety to a lifestyle already headed that way, and a conviction on the morals charge, though not on the charge of irreligion. The poetic upshot was that six poems were excised from the first edition: "Lethe," "Les Femmes Damnees," "Les Bijoux," "A Celle Qui Est Trop Gaie," "Lesbos," and "Les Metamorphoses du Vampire."

Baudelaire's poems are notoriously difficult to translate. Norman Shapiro's 1998 edition is highly-praised; among earlier English editions is one co-translated by George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet almost as notorious as Baudelaire in lifestyle. In her introductory essay Millay hopes that "these French poems, shipwrecked into English and fitted out with borrowed clothes, have nevertheless not lost entirely their identity." The following are the final stanzas from one of the sinful six, "The Girl Too Gay" ("A Celle Qui Est Trop Gaie"):
    ...Likewise, some evening, I would creep,
    When midnight sounds, and everywhere
    The sighing of lovers fills the air,
    To the hushed alcove where you sleep,

    And waken you by violent storm,
    And beat you coldly till you swooned,
    And carve upon your perfect form,
    With care, a deep seductive wound-

    And (joy delirious and complete!)
    Through those bright novel lips, through this
    Gaudy and virgin orifice,
    Infuse you with my venom, sweet.

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