Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Les Petites Vieilles’

1 February 2015

Charles Baudelaire, born in Paris in 1821, was one of the greatest nineteenth-century French poets. He is a key figure in European literature, with a far-reaching influence – an example, in his life and in his poetry, of what it means to be modern. Les Fleurs du mal, his major work, was influenced by the French romantic poets of the early nineteenth century, but is formally classical, though Baudelaire dispensed with some of the rigidities of French versification. He brought an intimate and sometimes shocking note into poetry through his confessionalism, his preoccupation with sin, sex, Satanism, suffering and subversion. His feeling for the transience and beauty of the city included its squalor and poverty and its most humble street people. He was an inspired art critic, a forerunner of the symbolists, and a progenitor of the prose poem; his translations of Edgar Allen Poe have had a profound effect on French writers and literary theorists. Baudelaire was perhaps his own worst enemy, a proud, intense, passionate, charismatic, wretched, impoverished, inspired poète maudit, beloved by loyal, long-suffering friends such as Théodore de Banville who spoke at his funeral: ‘the man has just died; the lasting triumph has begun.’

Translating the tone of ‘Les Petites Vieilles’ was challenging: Baudelaire’s urban sensibility, his fascination with horror, death and decay is balanced by a certain tenderness tinged with malice, which invests the poem with a subversive spirituality. Baudelaire can say of these octogenarians that they are ‘curious beings of decrepit charm’ with ‘the heavenly eyes of little girls,’ that they are ‘human debris, ripe for the afterlife’, and then end by calling them kindred spirits, family. Like the poem ‘Une Charogne’, the ambivalent, shifting tone leads to a surprising turn in the last two lines. So although this is a somewhat mocking memento mori for the old women of Paris, for the old everywhere, perhaps for Baudelaire himself, it is also a celebration of fortitude and survival, a playful elegy that grieves over the inevitable obsolescence of each human being.



The Little Old Women
To Victor Hugo

I

Through the old town’s labyrinthine heart
where even horror can enthral, I roam
in a fatalistic mood, searching out
curious beings of decrepit charm.

Bent and broken freaks, these frail old dolls
were women once, Laïs or Eponine!
Let’s love them—hunched or twisted, they’re still souls.
Decked out in threadbare silk, skirts holed and torn,

and whipped by an icy wind, they hobble past,
trembling at the omnibuses’ noise;
each clutches like a relic to her chest.
a small bag stitched with rebuses or flowers.

They trot along like marionettes in shawls;
like wounded animals, they drag their feet;
they dance despite themselves, poor little bells
pulled by a pitiless demon. For all that,

they look at you with eyes as sharp as drills,
lustrous as pools of water in the night;
these are the heavenly eyes of little girls
who laugh at all that shines, surprised by light.

And notice how their caskets are so often
almost miniature, as children’s are.
Canny Death has made these matching coffins
a touchstone of his taste for the bizarre,

so as some feeble ghost I’m overseeing
crosses through the swarming Paris scene,
it always seems to me the fragile being
is toddling to her last crib, quite serene.

Unless, given all those limbs bent contrary,
I question the geometry of it,
and how many times a workman needs to vary
the shape of the box so all the bodies fit.

A million tears have filled these eyes like wells,
a quenched metal spangles their deep hollows . . .
and these mysterious eyes can cast a spell
irresistible to those whom ill luck follows.

II

A vestal lauded by the Frascati crowds;
one-time priestess of Thalia whose name
was buried with her prompter—glory fades;
she whom the Tivoli sheltered in her prime,

all enrapture me! Especially those old things
who make from pain a sort of honeyed leaven,
and tell Self-Sacrifice who lends them wings,
‘Great Hippogriff, let me rise up to heaven!’

This one whose country drove her to despair,
that one whose husband beat her up for years,
a Mary whose son pierced her to the core,
all could have wept a river with their tears.

III

How many I have watched or tracked behind!
One, I remember well. In the dying light
that slashed the sky with long magenta wounds,
she was resting on a park bench, lost in thought,

listening to a concert, all brass power,
the sort that military bands will blazon out
over the gardens through the golden hour
to pump some valour into the citizen’s heart.

Sitting upright, marking time with pride,
she avidly breathed in the warlike tune;
her eagle eyes would suddenly open wide,
her marble brow seemed made for a laurel crown.

IV

Stoically you keep on, with no complaints,
braving the city chaos, trundling along,
suffering mothers, courtesans or saints
whose names were once on everybody’s tongue.

You who were lovely once, or full of grace,
now pass unrecognized, ignored, reviled;
a drunkard mouths obscenities to your face
while round your heels cavorts a spiteful child.

Shrunken shadows ashamed to even be,
you creep by, close to the walls to feel you’re safe,
and no-one greets you. What a destiny!
You’re human debris ripe for the afterlife.

But I, from a distance, watch you tenderly,
fixed on your faltering steps. My anxious eyes
are almost like a father’s—can that be!
I taste, without your knowing, secret joys:

I feel your youthful passions blossom out,
I live the light and shade of your lost days;
your vices lift and magnify my heart;
my soul’s lit up by all your virtuous ways.

Old ruins, kindred spirits, family,
I bid you every night a grave adieu!
Tomorrow, ancient Eves, where will you be,
pinned, as you are, under God’s dreadful claw?


Les Petites Vieilles
À Victor Hugo

I

Dans les plis sinueux des vieilles capitales,
Où tout, même l’horreur, tourne aux enchantements,
Je guette, obéissant à mes humeurs fatales,
Des êtres singuliers, décrépits et charmants.

Ces monstres disloqués furent jadis des femmes,
Eponine ou Laïs! Monstres brisés, bossus
Ou tordus, aimons-les! ce sont encor des âmes.
Sous des jupons troués et sous de froids tissus

Ils rampent, flagellés par les bises iniques,
Frémissant au fracas roulant des omnibus,
Et serrant sur leur flanc, ainsi que des reliques,
Un petit sac brodé de fleurs ou de rébus;

Ils trottent, tout pareils à des marionnettes;
Se traînent, comme font les animaux blessés,
Ou dansent, sans vouloir danser, pauvres sonnettes
Où se pend un Démon sans pitié! Tout cassés

Qu’ils sont, ils ont des yeux perçants comme une vrille,
Luisants comme ces trous où l’eau dort dans la nuit;
Ils ont les yeux divins de la petite fille
Qui s’étonne et qui rit à tout ce qui reluit.

— Avez-vous observé que maints cercueils de vieilles
Sont presque aussi petits que celui d’un enfant?
La Mort savante met dans ces bières pareilles
Un symbole d’un goût bizarre et captivant,

Et lorsque j’entrevois un fantôme débile
Traversant de Paris le fourmillant tableau,
Il me semble toujours que cet être fragile
S’en va tout doucement vers un nouveau berceau;

À moins que, méditant sur la géométrie,
Je ne cherche, à l’aspect de ces membres discords,
Combien de fois il faut que l’ouvrier varie
La forme de la boîte où l’on met tous ces corps.

— Ces yeux sont des puits faits d’un million de larmes,
Des creusets qu’un métal refroidi pailleta…
Ces yeux mystérieux ont d’invincibles charmes
Pour celui que l’austère Infortune allaita!

II

De Frascati défunt Vestale enamourée;
Prêtresse de Thalie, hélas! dont le souffleur
Enterré sait le nom; célèbre évaporée
Que Tivoli jadis ombragea dans sa fleur,

Toutes m’enivrent; mais parmi ces êtres frêles
Il en est qui, faisant de la douleur un miel,
Ont dit au Dévouement qui leur prêtait ses ailes:
Hippogriffe puissant, mène-moi jusqu’au ciel!

L’une, par sa patrie au malheur exercée,
L’autre, que son époux surchargea de douleurs,
L’autre, par son enfant Madone transpercée,
Toutes auraient pu faire un fleuve avec leurs pleurs!

III

Ah! que j’en ai suivi de ces petites vieilles!
Une, entre autres, à l’heure où le soleil tombant
Ensanglante le ciel de blessures vermeilles,
Pensive, s’asseyait à l’écart sur un banc,

Pour entendre un de ces concerts, riches de cuivre,
Dont les soldats parfois inondent nos jardins,
Et qui, dans ces soirs d’or où l’on se sent revivre,
Versent quelque héroïsme au coeur des citadins.

Celle-là, droite encor, fière et sentant la règle,
Humait avidement ce chant vif et guerrier;
Son oeil parfois s’ouvrait comme l’oeil d’un vieil aigle;
Son front de marbre avait l’air fait pour le laurier!

IV

Telles vous cheminez, stoïques et sans plaintes,
À travers le chaos des vivantes cités,
Mères au coeur saignant, courtisanes ou saintes,
Dont autrefois les noms par tous étaient cités.

Vous qui fûtes la grâce ou qui fûtes la gloires,
Nul ne vous reconnaît! un ivrogne incivil
Vous insulte en passant d’un amour dérisoire;
Sur vos talons gambade un enfant lâche et vil.

Honteuses d’exister, ombres ratatinées,
Peureuses, le dos bas, vous côtoyez les murs;
Et nul ne vous salue, étranges destinées!
Débris d’humanité pour l’éternité mûrs!

Mais moi, moi qui de loin tendrement vous surveille,
L’oeil inquiet, fixé sur vos pas incertains,
Tout comme si j’étais votre père, ô merveille!
Je goûte à votre insu des plaisirs clandestins:

Je vois s’épanouir vos passions novices;
Sombres ou lumineux, je vis vos jours perdus;
Mon coeur multiplié jouit de tous vos vices!
Mon âme resplendit de toutes vos vertus!

Ruines! ma famille! ô cerveaux congénères!
Je vous fais chaque soir un solennel adieu!
Où serez-vous demain, Eves octogénaires,
Sur qui pèse la griffe effroyable de Dieu?






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