Poem a Day 2014: Charles Baudelaire “Au Lecteur” (#18)

Charles Baudelaire, fin-de-siecle decadent French poet, is often touted as the original flaneur, the author of the risque collection of poetry known as Les Fleurs du mal, the muse of the poetic likes of Rimbaud and Mallarme and Verlaine. But his importance extends even further: as the preeminent cultural historian Peter Gay put it in Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, while “no single poet…painter or composer can securely claim to have been the ‘onlie begetter’ of modernism…the most plausible candidate for that role was Charles Baudelaire” (33).

"Always be a poet, even in prose." Charles Baudelaire Street art in Zurich, Switzerland, by ORTICANOODLES. Photo by ORTICANOODLES.

“Always be a poet, even in prose.” Charles Baudelaire
Street art in Zurich, Switzerland,
by ORTICANOODLES.
Photo by ORTICANOODLES.

Today’s selection is from the very cool site fleursdumal.org, dedicated to presenting poetry from each edition of Fleurs du mal, along with various translations and their respective edits. I chose Roy Campbell’s English translation to include with the original:

Au Lecteur

La sottise, l’erreur, le péché, la lésine,
Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps,
Et nous alimentons nos aimables remords,
Comme les mendiants nourrissent leur vermine.

Nos péchés sont têtus, nos repentirs sont lâches;
Nous nous faisons payer grassement nos aveux,
Et nous rentrons gaiement dans le chemin bourbeux,
Croyant par de vils pleurs laver toutes nos taches.

Sur l’oreiller du mal c’est Satan Trismégiste
Qui berce longuement notre esprit enchanté,
Et le riche métal de notre volonté
Est tout vaporisé par ce savant chimiste.

C’est le Diable qui tient les fils qui nous remuent!
Aux objets répugnants nous trouvons des appas;
Chaque jour vers l’Enfer nous descendons d’un pas,
Sans horreur, à travers des ténèbres qui puent.

Ainsi qu’un débauché pauvre qui baise et mange
Le sein martyrisé d’une antique catin,
Nous volons au passage un plaisir clandestin
Que nous pressons bien fort comme une vieille orange.

Serré, fourmillant, comme un million d’helminthes,
Dans nos cerveaux ribote un peuple de Démons,
Et, quand nous respirons, la Mort dans nos poumons
Descend, fleuve invisible, avec de sourdes plaintes.

Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l’incendie,
N’ont pas encor brodé de leurs plaisants dessins
Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
C’est que notre âme, hélas! n’est pas assez hardie.

Mais parmi les chacals, les panthères, les lices,
Les singes, les scorpions, les vautours, les serpents,
Les monstres glapissants, hurlants, grognants, rampants,
Dans la ménagerie infâme de nos vices,

II en est un plus laid, plus méchant, plus immonde!
Quoiqu’il ne pousse ni grands gestes ni grands cris,
Il ferait volontiers de la terre un débris
Et dans un bâillement avalerait le monde;

C’est l’Ennui! L’oeil chargé d’un pleur involontaire,
II rêve d’échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!

Charles Baudelaire

To the Reader

Folly and error, avarice and vice,
Employ our souls and waste our bodies’ force.
As mangey beggars incubate their lice,
We nourish our innocuous remorse.

Our sins are stubborn, craven our repentance.
For our weak vows we ask excessive prices.
Trusting our tears will wash away the sentence,
We sneak off where the muddy road entices.

Cradled in evil, that Thrice-Great Magician,
The Devil, rocks our souls, that can’t resist;
And the rich metal of our own volition
Is vaporised by that sage alchemist.

The Devil pulls the strings by which we’re worked:
By all revolting objects lured, we slink
Hellwards; each day down one more step we’re jerked
Feeling no horror, through the shades that stink.

Just as a lustful pauper bites and kisses
The scarred and shrivelled breast of an old whore,
We steal, along the roadside, furtive blisses,
Squeezing them, like stale oranges, for more.

Packed tight, like hives of maggots, thickly seething
Within our brains a host of demons surges.
Deep down into our lungs at every breathing,
Death flows, an unseen river, moaning dirges.

If rape or arson, poison, or the knife
Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff
Of this drab canvas we accept as life —
It is because we are not bold enough!

Amongst the jackals, leopards, mongrels, apes,
Snakes, scorpions, vultures, that with hellish din,
Squeal, roar, writhe, gambol, crawl, with monstrous shapes,
In each man’s foul menagerie of sin —

There’s one more damned than all. He never gambols,
Nor crawls, nor roars, but, from the rest withdrawn,
Gladly of this whole earth would make a shambles
And swallow up existence with a yawn…

Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams
Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother.
You know this dainty monster, too, it seems —
Hypocrite reader! — You! — My twin! — My brother!

— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

NPM from feministing

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One Response to Poem a Day 2014: Charles Baudelaire “Au Lecteur” (#18)

  1. Pingback: Poem a Day: Arthur Rimbaud’s “Crows” (#19) | The Educated Procrastinator

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