Judith Bishop reviews “Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal” by Charles Baudelaire (trans. Jan Owen)
by Charles Baudelaire (trans. Jan Owen)
Reviewed by JUDITH BISHOP
‘– Hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frère!’ With these halting, celebrated lines, Baudelaire most hauntingly begs the reader to look inside herself, and to recognize there what he has seen in himself: ennui, avarice, vice, disgust and death; but also, in quite other moods, the dancing chimeras of escape from all that, portals to a half-glimpsed and brilliant immensity of existence.
Baudelaire today still seems our semblable—our counterpart, despite the distances any comparison must acknowledge: the intervals of sensibility as much as time. Exclamatory and forceful, vitriolic and ecstatic, poems such as ‘I worship you’ (‘Je t’adore à l’égal de la voûte nocturne’) bring to their subject matter, an unsatisfied lover’s complaint, an existential intensity often absent from contemporary poetry[i]:
I worship you as I do the midnight sky’s
majestic vault, O silent brooding vase
of sadness, and all the more as you take flight
and I cherish, cruel, unyielding creature, even
the icy air by which you are my heaven!
The intensity that writes each image on a far larger canvas than a personal experience (here, the immensity of the night sky) is arguably the poems’ true subject, as Gaston Bachelard suggested half a century ago:
‘Baudelaire says […] at such moments ‘the sense of existence is immensely increased.’ Here we discover that immensity in the intimate domain is intensity, an intensity of being […]’ (The Poetics of Space, 1958: 193).
Through work such as Baudelaire’s, the reader is invited to share in the (re-)discovery of the intensity of existence—to read her own experience writ large.
Baudelaire lived between the waning of the first and the onset of the second Industrial Revolution. For the mass of those not fortunate enough to lead or to profit from those enormous innovations, the lack of control entailed by the changes could be crushing. Many of Baudelaire’s images and metaphors circle like vultures around an absence of control—in his amorous relations, unable to restrain the desires that he curses; the omnipresence of death; even in his joy and exaltation, when a beloved perfume transports him, half-dreaming, to some distant, voluptuous realm of inner experience. In all of this, Baudelaire seems rarely, if ever, the master of his vessel, and his personal life holds a mirror to his contemporary situation.
Should the revolutions of Baudelaire’s time seem far distant, we might recall that we are, some argue, on the cusp of a fourth technological upheaval or revolution, following on closely from the third, the so-called digital revolution, just as the second industrial revolution built upon and radicalised the work done by the first. A convergence of new materials technologies, biotechnologies, robotics and artificial intelligence, vast data sources and data processing capacities – not to mention the impacts of climate change—may soon overhaul aspects of existence we currently take for granted, and concomitant social changes may knock us out of our own familiar orbits, in ways similar to the existential blows experienced by Baudelaire and others in his time.
In proposing these new translations of selected poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, Jan Owen has risen to the challenge of bringing us a Baudelaire who remains our brother, despite the intervals in time and conventions of emotional tenor: reminding us of an intensity of living which is also ours, even when we choose to look away from it. The resultant poems are a marvel, both technically and in the empathy for their content demonstrated by each choice of word and phrase. The extent to which they succeed underlines the necessary kinship, also, between the translator and the poet she renders.
Jan Owen’s own poems, as illustrated in her most recent new and selected, The Offhand Angel (Eyewear Publishing: 2015), are gentle and ludic—at times delightfully impish—in their tone. They are a deft and melodious tissue of inhabited places from around the globe, people known, birds, insects and flowers, lost times and lost objects, woven together with questions and philosophical asides that open like windows onto gravity and silence. They are, at first, no obvious kin for Baudelaire’s, aside from a certain thread of melancholic memory. Yet our kin are often those who, like ourselves in certain ways, differ in others that we yearn for.
Owen’s musicality, technical facility and her sheer inventiveness in finding ways to echo, if not to mirror, Baudelaire’s content and form in sonnets and other taut forms are one sure sign of her kinship. Take, for example, the transformations in this stanza from Hymn to Beauty (Hymne à la beauté), which, choosing a colloquial music over literal correspondence, result in a poem that, more muted in its energy than the original, is nonetheless in harmony with it. Note in particular the felicitous choice of ‘seraph’ in place of ‘angel’, the ‘velvet eyes’ of the fay rendered as ‘doe-eyed’, the deft half-rhyme of siren/lessen; and the introduced, but apt, ‘dead’ of ‘dead weight’:
Are you from God or Satan – seraph or siren –
you doe-eyed fay of rhythm, scent and light?
Who cares, my queen, since only you can lessen
this world’s ugliness, this hour’s dead weight?
De Satan ou de Dieu, qu’importe? Ange ou Sirène,
Qu’importe, si tu rends, – fée aux yeux de velours,
Rythme, parfum, lueur, ô mon unique reine! –
L’univers moins hideux et les instants moins lourds?
The success of these translations may be judged by their rendering of the most celebrated poems, such as The Albatross, Correspondences, The Voyage, Meditation: Owen does not falter on any of these poems. Her Correspondences is the most delightful translation of that poem I have read; she is bold, here also, leaning on her affinity with the poet to judge when a changed expression is nonetheless a fine equivalent:
All nature is a temple. Words and cries
drift from her living pillars and arcades;
a thousand symbols throng those woods and glades
and watch us pass, with long-familiar eyes.
La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des fôrets de symboles
Qui l’observe avec des regards familiers.
Where others have wrestled with the literal meaning of ‘confuses paroles’ (literally, ‘confused words’), Owen translates the emotional element of confuses with the addition of ‘cries’. For the sake of mellifluous rhythm—a key element in the pleasure of Baudelaire’s poems—she adds ‘and arcades’ to ‘pillars’ and ‘and glades’ to ‘woods’, choosing, in each case, a word that recalls the mythological world of ancient Greece, present in so many of the poems. The forest of symbols through which men pass becomes a more active presence in Owen’s version, multiplied to ‘thousands’ that ‘throng’ about the passer-by; yet again, one suspects Baudelaire would have approved, sensitive as he was to all that may impinge on the solitary wanderer: city crowds, perfumes, the sunlit clarity of day. The poem’s final line is likewise a departure from other English versions, yet has a resonance that other versions lack; I will not cite it, but only urge the reader to look it up and judge for himself.
Read these translations for their boldness, yet affinity with a great poet; and read them for the impish joy that here and there comes through in a slangy choice of words, which, perfectly musical, gives the poems a new and contemporary voice.
[i] Though in Sylvia Plath’s work there is many such a moment; and Plath, of course, had been a close reader of Baudelaire, as Harold Bloom reminds us (Sylvia Plath, Bloom’s Literary Criticism: 2007). Meanwhile, advertising has tried to co-opt exclamatory language and existential intensity, cf.: Toyota’s ‘Oh what a feeling!’ and Coca Cola’s synaesthesic ‘Taste the feeling’ campaign, not to mention the exhortation to drink ‘Life’.
JUDITH BISHOP is a poet and professional linguist. Her first book, Event (Salt Publishing, 2007), won the Anne Elder award. Aftermarks appeared in the Rare Object Series from Vagabond Press in 2012. Interval (poems) will be completed this year. Judith lives with her family in Melbourne, Australia.