August 24, 2006


The Flowers of Evil. By Charles Baudelaire. Translated by Keith Waldrop. Wesleyan University Press. $24.95.

     There is something almost unseemly in enjoying a translation of a classic work nearly as much for the translator’s discussion as for the work itself.  But if this is a guilty pleasure (admittedly a rarefied one), what better book to elicit it than Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal?

     Baudelaire (1821-1867) was dogged by ill luck all his life.  When his book of poetic reminiscences and dark thoughts was published in 1857, it earned official condemnation, and six of its poems were banned from further printing.  The next edition (1861) omitted those poems but included 32 new ones.  The outstanding new Wesleyan University Press edition includes the entire 1861 version plus the six banned poems of 1857.

     What makes this edition so wonderful is Keith Waldrop, a poet himself as well as a translator.  Waldrop’s “Translator’s Introduction” is a model of its kind: plainspoken, clever, chatty and unselfconsciously erudite.  Waldrop tells of Baudelaire’s life and loves, to which many mysteries are attached, and of his death, itself a mystery: “What Baudelaire died of, the thirty-first of August 1867 (he was forty-six), is impossible to say with any precision.  Probably it’s best to leave it that he died of complications.”

     Waldrop cheerily (and rather cheekily) asserts that while we know some things about Baudelaire’s life (“as a hack, he was a flop”), we just don’t know a lot about what made him tick – and it doesn’t really matter.  One section of Waldrop’s introduction is headlined, “Did Baudelaire Believe in God?”  The first sentence is: “I don’t know.”

     What Waldrop does know is what and who influenced Baudelaire’s work: Edgar Allan Poe’s dark tales and poems (of which Baudelaire was an early translator), several lovers of various pedigrees, and Baudelaire’s own “spleen,” defined for the purpose of Les Fleurs du Mal as “ennui of all things; disgust with life.”  In the 126 poems of the 1861 edition, there are four in a row (numbers 75-78) that are all called “Spleen.”

     Waldrop’s deep understanding of Baudelaire and high-level sensitivity to poetic nuance lead him to a rather surprising approach to structuring his translation of Les Fleurs du Mal.  Waldrop explains other attempts at creating an English-language The Flowers of Evil, says they all have merit, and notes that “the choice that is not available is ‘in the original meters,’ French and English meters being incommensurable.”  Waldrop’s choice is “the verset, a measured prose that allows the sentence to dominate, as in prose, checked by a sense of line that restricts it.”  Waldrop knows Baudelaire never used versets, but this translator is looking not for formal equivalence but for “the thought and feeling that Baudelaire put into his poems, coming as close as I can to his tone.”

     In this, Waldrop succeeds brilliantly.  The verset form looks odd at first, and the pacing of the translation takes some getting used to; but accept Waldrop’s approach once, and his verbal skill will capture you throughout this volume.  Baudelaire saw his collection of poems not as a collection but as an entire book, so it can be dangerous to take any of these pieces out of context.  Nevertheless, it is tempting to point out a few standouts.  No. 116, “A Voyage to Cythera,” offers self-loathing in the mode of Jonathan Swift, and a particularly striking phallic metaphor followed immediately by a poetic ellipsis: “In your isle, O Venus! All I found erect was a symbolic gibbet hung with my image…–Ah, Lord! Give me the strength, the courage, to contemplate my heart and body without disgust!”  No. 33, “Posthumous Remorse,” is a Poe-esque meditation on “damp vault and hollow grave,” ending with the barbed line, “And the worm will gnaw at your hide like remorse.”  No. 83, “Heautontimoroumenos,” has a title that sounds like something out of Poe – it means, roughly, “the self-tormented” – and reflects Baudelaire’s unique melancholy through words reminiscent of Poe’s in “The Haunted Castle”: “I am the vampire of my own heart, one of the great abandoned—condemned to eternal laughter, never to smile again!”

     If you cannot experience Baudelaire in the original French, you cannot do better than read him in Waldrop’s lucid, empathetic translation.  This is not a book to be perused in bright midday sunlight, but one to be pored over as a chill rain falls, portending colder days to come.  The Flowers of Evil offers introspective pleasure of a very rare kind.  Waldrop’s translation is the one to turn to, if you choose to turn in this direction at all.

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