Dominique Hecq Reviews Charles Baudelaire: Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal

7 April 2016

Particular care has been given to Baudelaire’s most famous poems. ‘The Albatros’, ‘Correspondences’, ‘Hymn to Beauty’, ‘Your Hair’, ‘Evening Harmony’, ‘Cats’ and ‘Owls’, ‘Invitation to the Voyage’, ‘A Voyage to Cythera’ and ‘Meditation’ really stand out. The three poems that directly address the theme of ‘spleen’ in opposition to the ‘ideal’ are particularly accomplished re-creations. Owen’s sense of rhythm and choice of images wonderfully convey the death, despair, solitude, squalor, murder, and disease evoked in Baudelaire’s world. The oft-quoted ‘J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais mille ans’, transposed as ‘Memories … if I’d lived a thousand years’, and ‘Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux’ as ‘I’m like the rich young king of a land of rain’, are especially memorable lines in the translation. I admired the choice of the phrase ‘of rain’ instead of the obvious ‘rainy’ in the translation of ‘pluvieux.’ The short lyrics ‘A Carcass’ and ‘The Vampire’, though differing in texture from the originals, are gorgeous recreations.

However, some poems stray from the originals not only in texture, but also in cultural and aesthetic concerns. It is the case of ‘Les bijoux’, which misses the political undercurrent of the poem. Baudelaire’s first stanza, for instance, alludes not only to the master-slave relationship between the speaker and his ‘dearest’, as is rendered in English by the use of the adjective ‘haughty’, but also to the French colonialist impulse:

La très chère était nue, et, connaissant mon coeur,
Elle n’avait gardé que ses bijoux sonores,
Dont le riche attirail lui donnait l’air vainqueur
Qu’ont dans leurs jours heureux les esclaves des Mores.

My dearest, understanding my desire,
was decked with sonorous jewels. Naked save 
for these embellishments, she wore the air
of a haughty favoured Moorish slave.

Perhaps this is fair enough, as the point of Baudelaire’s poem is not essentially about French cultural memory. Thus, Owen’s translation does lend credence to her own poetic credo, one that involves a searching dialogue between one text and an Other. And it’s a labour of love. For the reader, it is certainly a wonderful experience to have the original text and its translation on opposite pages.

‘It is not every day that the world arranges itself in a poem’, wrote Wallace Stevens in his book of aphorisms. Today it does, as Jan Owen’s rhythms and cadences and images playfully redress my delicate memory of Baudelaire’s verses, and ‘You, / dear reader, know this delicate monster too – hypocrite reader – my counterpart – my twin!’

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About Dominique Hecq

Dominique Hecq is a Belgian-born poet, fiction writer and scholar living in Melbourne. Her published works include a novel, three collections of stories, and eight books of poetry. After Cage (2019) is her latest poetry collection in English. Kaosmos is forthcoming. She has been awarded the Martha Richardson Medal for Poetry, the New England Poetry Prize, the inaugural AALITRA Prize for literary translation for poetry (Spanish to English), and the 2018 International Best Poets Prize.

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