Five Poems by Baudelaire

Spleen:  When a Heavy Lid of Low Sky…

When a heavy lid of low sky
covers a soul moaning with ennui and fright,
and the whole horizon is rounded by
a black day pouring down, sadder than any night;

When the earth is turned to a muggy dungeon
where Hope is the shadow of a bat, feeling
with feeble, flapping wings along the grunge on
walls and bumping its head against a putrid ceiling;

When the crawling spiders of scattershot rains
drop cold bars that imprison us,
water trickles along the channels in our brains,
and the people around us feel poisonous—

the bells speak out suddenly with fury
and lance the sky with dreadful howls,
and frightened strays and exiles, sorry
and homeless, rage from deep within their bowels.

Long hearses roll, slow, silent, hypnotic,
through my soul. Hope, defeated, cries
out its atrocious anguish—despotic.
A black hood slides over my ferocious eyes.

Spleen:  I am like the King of a Rainy Country

I am like the King of a Rainy Country,
Rich, but powerless; young, yet feeling wintry;
no longer flattered by the obsequious bow;
Bored by my dogs and by every other creature now,
Nothing brightens my day, not the Hunt, not falconry,
Not the dying people below my balcony.
My fool’s grotesque ballading
does not distract me from my malady.
Carved with fleur-de-lys, my bed is a tomb
while sequestered ladies who think every prince a bloom
hope by their impudent dress to make me their own;
they will never coax a mouse out of this young skeleton.
Shall we turn to those who claim they turn lead
to gold though they and we remain the living dead?
I bathe in the baths of blood the Romans brought us
back in the days of great power and purpose.
Even they cannot warm this dazed cadaver
slipping into the place where the salt has lost its savor.

Landscape

I would be chaste as I compose my verses
so I sleep up high, near starry courses.
Bells sail through my dreams where they find
their solemn hymns singing in the wind.
From workshops below, I hear men’s jibes and banter.
The masts of the city—chimneys and steeples—splinter
the sky’s eternal immensity into streaming reveries.

How sweet to watch the night open its eyes—
first lamp light, first star born in the azure deep.
The dark river of coal smoke begins to creep
up, painting the moon with a sallow charm.
My head on my hands, I watch from my lofty home
spring, summer, autumn, and then, with winter’s monotone
of snow, I close my shutters—a time to be alone:
I dream my way into flowery, rural labyrinths
where jets of water weep on alabaster plinths—
a world all kisses, and birds singing above a brook,
or anything else you might discover in a children’s book.
No matter what storms in the street may command,
nothing draws me away from my homeland.
Plunging ever more deeply into winter and night,
I wander through my faery palaces of light.
Another sun rising in my heart, I awaken a spring within,
warming the world with the fires of imagination.

The Albatross

Often, to amuse themselves, sailors
snare that great seabird, the albatross,
that flies with these indolent companions as their ship
glides over the depths of boredom and despair.

Once they have set their captive on the deck,
the king of the sky, awkward and in shame,
piteously drags along his great white wings,
like idle oars bouncing useless on the foam.

The winged voyager looks foolish now and weak—
yesterday he was beautiful; today, ugly and ridiculous.
One tries to force a burning pipe into his beak.
Another mimes the limp of one that used to fly.

The Poet resembles this prince from the clouds:
Each hangs in the tempest and laughs at the archer,
and finds his exile in a circle of hooting humans
where his wide wings are impediments.

Meditation

Wise up, Sorrow. Calm down.
You always lay claim to twilight. Well, here it is, brother,
It descends. Obscurity settles over the town,
bringing peace to one, worry to another.

The restless crowd, whipped on by pleasure—
our dogged torturer—carry their hearts’ raw
remorse with them as they serve their vapid leisure,
while you, my Sorrow, drop by here, take my hand, and draw

me apart from them. We watch the dying years
in faded gowns lean out from heaven’s balconies, as Regret rears,
smiling, out of the deep dark where the dead ones march.

Dragging its long train—now a shroud—from its early light
in the East, the sun goes to sleep under an arch.
Listen, Sorrow, beloved, to the soft approach of Night.

Bios

Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821. His early childhood, an idyllic time with elegant parents in a prosperous, old-world environment that sometimes reappeared later in his verses, came to a close when his aging father died in 1827 and his mother remarried. His schooling was full of struggles with teachers and students, and fits of melancholy (“the feeling,” as he wrote later, “of an eternally lonely destiny”). While an intelligent student, he was dismissed for his bad influence on school discipline. A trip to India in 1841 did not have the desired effect of freeing him from his introspective solitude, but it left him with an exotic reverie. When he returned to Paris, while dedicated to his writing, he led a bohemian life, smoking hashish and opium with friends, frequenting prostitutes, and squandering his money. The extravagant ways of his young years eventually led to the poverty from which he never escaped.

In 1845, he revealed with a note that he was considering suicide: “I am killing myself because I am immortal and because I hope.” Initially drawn into the revolutionary period of 1848-51, he briefly was at the barricades, gun in hand, but he soon tired of the political intrigue among his friends, and the need to compromise. It was a disillusioning period that resulted in some of his great “Spleen” poems, written then, perhaps, but published in 1857: “Spleen: When a Heavy Lid of Low Sky (Spleen: Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle)” and “Spleen: I am like the King of a Rainy Country (Spleen: Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux),” the latter perhaps about the period of childhood when he lived like a young prince. In “Paysage (Landscape),” also published in 1857, he seems ready to settle into the routine, seasonal, introverted life of the poet where his only riches lay.

The most important event in his life may have been the publication in 1855 of eighteen poems, the first manifestation of “Les Fleurs du mal,” in the respected Revue des deux mondes. But in 1856, the Ministry of Justice, having just prosecuted Flaubert and his publisher for the novel Madame Bovary, confiscated all sheets of the expanded “Les Fleurs du mal,” which went to trial. He continued to struggle to publish successive editions of “Les Fleurs.” While it seems to describe the self-pity of the young poet when it was begun in 1842, “The Albatross (L’Albatros),” when it was completed with a final stanza in 1859, describes precisely the painful truth of Baudelaire’s life. “Meditation (Recueillement),” in 1861, seems a peaceful readiness for death and release, which finally came in 1867. He died disconsolate and impoverished, deaf to the praise from younger writers who were hailing him as the greatest of French poets.

James McColley Eilers

James McColley Eilers has published verses, essays, and photographs in various literary magazines, including San Francisco Reader, Modern Words, Estero, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Mouth of the Dragon, and Gay & Lesbian Review. Another translation of Baudelaire was published in the June 2009 issue of Subtropics. His play Turning was presented in San Francisco in 2001. He may be reached at JTEilers@mac.com and http://bluele.blogspot.com.

English translation copyright (c) James McColley Eilers, 2010.