The Flowers of Evil
Charles Baudelaire, translated by Keith Waldrop
Wesleyan University Press, $24.95 (cloth)

“By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable,” wrote Charles Baudelaire in 1863. Formally diverse, tonally various, full of shifts in pacing and musical shading, Baudelaire’s near lifelong poetic opus Les Fleurs du Mal is a dauntingly complex book of poems that “follow each other,” wrote Théophile Gautier, to whom the book is dedicated, “rather like the vertebrae of a serpent.” First published in 1857, embroiled in a disastrous obscenity suit, and summarily banned (later to be reissued with six “condemned” poems excised, numerous additions, and an agonized restructuring of vertebrae), the book is a pivotal work of French poetry and, more broadly, of literary modernism—Baudelaire is often cited as the first truly modern poet, though his fascination with allegory and (as T.S. Eliot remarks) profound belief in the reality of evil jostle strangely with his urban disdain and dandyism.

In the numerous translations of all or part of this voluminous work, approaches are accordingly diverse. Some privilege formal structures, others emphasize Baudelaire’s voice and persona—splenetic, riven, ravished, appalled. Keith Waldrop’s new translation, rendering highly formal verse structures into cadenced prose, seems at first a provocation of Baudelairean proportion—in his introduction, Waldrop makes a tenuous case for the “verset” (“a measured prose that allows the sentence to dominate, as in prose, checked by a sense of line that restricts it”) as a prosodic unit, citing the King James Bible as precedent; it functions essentially as a prose stanza, marking the original poems’ stanzaic divisions. Waldrop also remarks, somewhat disingenuously, that Baudelaire’s prosody offers nothing new (a claim that scholars of the sonnet, among others, might dispute). He does not, thankfully, offer hectoring claims of the translation as a Baudelaire for the 21st century (that privilege is left to the publisher’s jacket copy).

What Waldrop does offer, in effect, is a book-length argument, on Baudelaire in particular but also on the nature of translation, or on what we might call propositional translation—that is, one that distances itself from the idea of line-by-line rendering as the translator’s primary task and repositions itself as an argument regarding the poet’s larger project and aesthetic contexts. For a poet so diversely claimed as Baudelaire (by Romanticism, Symbolism, Decadence, and Modernism, by Catholicism and existentialism, by a glittering roster of French writers and thinkers as guiding spirits, including Valery, Proust, Gide, Sartre, and Bataille, to name a few) and so diverse in his own preoccupations and fidelities (to poetry and prose, lyric and theory, “art for art’s sake” and scientific analysis, flâneurie and “the forest of symbols”), a radical shift in regard is an approach more appropriate than expressive fidelity, which in its concern for an accurate rendering falls prey to the simplistic claims of realism the poet so despised.

Waldrop’s approach acknowledges the impossibility of seeing the book outside its historical and literary status, the web of claims and conjectures that have built up around it. His freshening of the poems involves both an emphasis on tone—mediating “the idiomatic beauty peculiar to each age,” as Baudelaire wrote regarding the painter Constantin Guys—and, again, a shift in the angle of regard. Rather than recasting the poems in terms of their formal constraint—foregrounding Baudelaire’s radicalism by, say, fragmentation, Waldrop recontextualizes Les Fleurs in relation to Baudelaire’s long and artful engagement with prose. Any handler of the fetishistically beautiful Pléiade two-volume edition of the poet’s collected works knows to what degree he explored the spectrum of prose: it includes an abandoned early novel, articles and essays, journal entries, the Paradis Artificiel, and an account of his experiences with opium and hashish, culminating in his final work in the very new form that was the prose poem.

Baudelaire’s shifts in mode sometimes seem like the permutations of “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness,” as he described Guys, refiguring impressions and sensations in varying degrees of “forced idealization” and testing contexts allowable within self-prescribed boundaries. In Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, Giorgio Agamben notes the transmogrification of the opening of Baudelaire’s article on the 1855 Paris Universal Exposition into one of his most famous and aesthetically crucial poems, “Correspondances”:

The entire sonnet “Correspondances” can be read as a transcription of the estrangement produced by impressions of the Universal Exhibition. In the cited article, Baudelaire evokes, with regard to the impressions of the visitor before the exotic commodity, ‘ces odeurs qui ne sont plus celles du boudoir, ces fleurs mystérieuses dont la couleur profonde entre dans l’oeil despotiquement, pendant qui leur forme taquine le régard, ces fruits dont le goût trompe et déplace les sens . . . tout ce monde d’harmonies nouvelles entrera lentement en lui . . .’

In the poem, severed from context, the sensations become abstracted, symbolic presences, a far different category of detachment from common use:

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent

Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,

Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,

Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

[Like long echoes which from far off grow confused

in a shadowy and profound unity

vast like night and like clarity,

the scents, colors, and sounds answer each other.]

While Baudelaire’s critical prose and journal and memoir writing pressed against his lyric stagings in one direction, another important contributing factor to Baudelaire’s poetic development—and one to which Waldrop glancingly gestures—is his passionate engagement with the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whom he extensively translated. His first encounter with Poe’s work was in 1847, in a translation by Isabelle Meunier—he famously remarked that the stories seemed like finished versions of stories he’d imagined. His first translated story, “Mesmeric Revelation,” appeared in 1848; in 1852 a long essay, “Edgar Allan Poe: Sa Vie et Ses Oeuvres,” appeared in two installments (it appears to have been more than partially plagiarized from an American article), to be expanded as an introduction to the 1856 Histoires Extraordinaires, his first volume of translations. A fifth and final volume would appear in 1865, two years before his death. (They are still standard editions in France—a random browse through an outdoor stall of used paperbacks in Paris this fall yielded a battered copy of Nouvelles Histoires Extraodinaires, and a visit to the mega-bookstore La Procure revealed a burgeoning shelf.) Spanning nearly 20 years, Baudelaire’s preoccupation with Poe focused almost exclusively on his prose (he even tackled the unclassifiable and outlandish Eureka!). Only four poems were attempted, including “The Raven”—which he adapted into prose.

In Gautier’s reading, Baudelaire was mesmerized by Poe’s “strange, divinatory lucidity.” By his own account, the intrigue lay in the American’s uncanny craft of “conjecture and probabilism,” his understanding of the human perverse, and articulation of the “genus irritabile” that constitutes the poet. Whatever the precise reason, the identification was profound, tied to his deepest commitments of art and faith, and lifelong—in his final journal entry, Baudelaire vowed to pray daily to Poe as “intercessor.”

In more practical terms, the extensive apprenticeship was a dense and wild immersion in Poe’s genre deformation and shocked psychic terrain. One of the stories Baudelaire translated for his second volume of tales (which he claimed to find an artistically superior selection to the more sensational first volume) was “The Man of the Crowd,” an astonishing prose poem–like whirl of urban phantasmagoria. In the frequently quoted introduction to Petits poèmes en prose [Spleen de Paris], his posthumously published collection of prose poems, Baudelaire writes, “Which one of us . . . has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?”

As if to test his own theories on poetry as a “higher art” than prose, and to create a laboratory to experiment with differences between prosodic and prose potentialities, Baudelaire in effect translated a handful of the Fleurs poems into prose cousins. The three closest “corresponding” versions are “Invitation to the Voyage,” “Evening Twilight,” and “Hair.” In light of Baudelaire’s concern with “the mathematical and musical pleasure the mind derives from rime,” the transformations are remarkable and seem deliberately, almost perversely, enacted on poems of particularly dense rhyme schemes—“Invitation” is structured on a pattern of AACBBC, with alternating syllable counts, while “Le Crépuscule du Soir” (“Evening Twilight”) bounds along on determinedly uncrepuscular rhyming couplets:

Voici le soir charmant, ami du criminel;

Il vient comme un complice, à pas de loup; le ciel

Se ferme lentement comme une grande alcôve,

Et l’homme impatient se change en bête fauve.

[Here is charming evening, the criminal’s friend;

it comes like an accomplice, with a wolf’s step; the sky

slowly closes itself like a great alcove,

and impatient man changes into wild beast.]

In contrast, the beginning of the prose poem, also titled “Le Crépuscule du Soir”:

Le jour tombe. Un grand apaisement se fait dans les pauvres esprits fatigués du labeur de la journée; et leurs pensées prennent maintenant les couleurs tendres et indécises du crépuscule.

[Day falls. A great easing spreads in the poor spirits weary from the day’s labor; and their thoughts now take the tender and indecisive colors of twilight.]

Now the first verset of Waldrop’s translation of the Fleurs poem:

Enchanting evening has come, friend of criminals; it approaches as accomplice, stealthily; the sky draws curtains as if around a gross bedchamber and impatient man changes into wild animal.

In playing on nuanced sound and cadenced clauses, Waldrop gestures toward both versions, with the weighty musicality of the couplets tempered to internal echo. At its best, his translation achieves that difficult dual facing, inscribing a space between the poet’s not entirely compatible “dreams” of formal expression. As Waldrop remarks, the prose poems are indeed prose, even narrative prose—the latter “Crepuscule” goes on to recount the (strikingly Poe-like) cases of two men of the speaker’s acquaintance driven mad by twilight (resulting in one assaulting a waiter with a roast chicken), while the lineated poem continues to inhabit the general and symbolic. Walter Benjamin comments on the invisibility of the crowd in most of Fleurs (apart from the “Tableaux Parisiens” section, carefully compartmentalized from the book’s greater body); in Le Spleen de Paris, in contrast, Baudelaire’s prose permutations bring the invisible crowd to the foreground, cloud distilled into context.

“Each flower evanesces like incense from a censer; the violin quivers like a heart aggrieved; melancholy waltz, vertiginous languor! The sky is sad and beautiful as an extreme shelter,” goes the second verset of Waldrop’s translation of “Evening’s Harmony,” and the modern torque of “extreme shelter” is what tips the passage into a fresh and rending gorgeousness. While the losses of his chosen mode are apparent—the poems’ compressed musicality, the sense of an artist working within the constraints of form, and of an innovator resisting and transgressing the tradition he springs from—the work invites the reader to a different experience of ivresse, the continuous “pure perception” of Baudelaire’s idealized dandy, an unbroken saunter through fluid structures.

Summoning the ghost of poetic cadence in prose, and of prose surrounding the poetic line, this reframing is a radical haunting, with traces of contemporary “idiomatic beauty” awakening a new startled strangeness. “Almost all our originality comes from the seal which Time imprints on our sensations,” wrote the poet in the same essay in which he praises as exemplary artist “the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity that it contains.” He was dead at 46.