Twilight to Dawn: Charles Baudelaire

By | 1 September 2013

Charles Baudelaire is, of course, 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; it is formally close to the contemporary Parnassians, but is psychologically and sexually complex.

‘Dawn’ and ‘Twilight’ are from the ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ section of Les Fleurs du mal; this particular group of poems established Baudelaire as the poet of modernism, of the flux of urban life with its milling crowds and solitary individuals. I was intrigued to find out recently that the 1957 Chinese translation by Chen Jinrong of ‘Le Crépuscule du matin’ as ‘Shadowy Dawn’ suggested the obscuring of understanding and of the sun, Mao Tse-tung’s symbol, and so challenged the Chinese idealogy of the time. Her so-called ‘translation style’, existing as it were between two languages, was able to bypass the censor, and as a result Baudelaire’s poetry had a strong influence on 1970’s Chinese modernist poets such as Duoduo and Yang Lian.


Sweet evening’s come, the criminal’s disguise
and quiet accomplice, stealing over the skies
slowly closing down their vault of light
as mankind eagerly reverts to brute.

Dear evening, so desired by all who say
without a lie, ‘These arms have worked today!’
It’s evening which consoles and brings relief
to desperate spirits gnawed by pain and grief,
to dogged scholars pressing their heavy heads,
and stooped workmen glad to regain their beds.
But the noxious demons of the air wake late
like sluggish businessmen, and in their flight
clatter against the shutters and the blinds.
Across the background glimmer shaken by wind,
prostitution lights up down each street
like a termite nest opening its holes; to right
and left it clears a way, underhand,
an enemy who greets you as a friend.
Like the quiet worm stealing as it eats,
it shifts across the filthy city’s heart.
You hear the hiss of kitchens here and there,
the yap of theatre crowds, an orchestra’s blare;
the cheap cafés, cover for cards and bets,
are filling up with con men, pimps and sluts;
and pitiless burglars, never known to shirk
their nightly task, will soon be starting work,
smoothly forcing cashboxes and drawers
to buy a few days’ food or clothe their whores.

This is the solemn turning-point, my soul,
close your ears to the manic city’s howl.
Now, the sufferers’ pain becomes acute,
and shadowy night takes them by the throat.
The end is our shared void, all destiny done.
The hospital fills with sighs—many a one
won’t be going back to the fragrant broth
supped with loved ones round a cosy hearth.

And many more have never even known
a loving home, nor called their life their own.


Reveille is sounding now in the barracks court
and gusts of wind are blowing the lanterns out.

This is the hour bad dreams swarm into the heads
of tanned boys tossing and turning on their beds;
the lamp, that blood-red palpitating eye,
throws a reddening blotch against the sky,
and the soul under the body’s surly weight
vies with it as the lamp does with first light.
The air is shuddering with things that flee,
like a tearful face the breeze is wiping dry,
and he is tired of writing, she, of sex.

From houses here and there, the chimney stacks’
thin smoke drifts up. The street girls snore away,
mouths wide open, eyelids heavy and grey;
pauper women dragging cold thin paps
blow on their embers and icy fingertips.
This is the hour caught between cold and dearth
when women in labour agonise to give birth,
when a rooster’s cry rips over the foggy earth
like a sob cut off, choked in blood and froth.
A tide of mist still bathes the chilly town,
and deep in the hospices the dying strain
towards their final rattling, hiccupping breath.
Worn-out womanisers hit the home path.

The dawn, shivering in gauzy pink and green,
is stepping slowly over the vacant Seine,
and sombre Paris, hard-working old man,
rubs his eyes and takes up his tools again.


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