T.S. Eliot spoke of seeing Baudelaire as “something more than the author of the Fleurs du Mal.” “He is in fact a greater man than was imagined, though perhaps not such a perfect poet.” This is an odd view, but Eliot was, by 1930, tired of what he called Baudelaire’s machinery (“prostitutes, mulattoes, Jewesses, serpents, cats, corpses”) and anxious to register signs of spiritual struggle wherever he could find them. Baudelaire “attracted pain to himself,” was able to “study his suffering.”
Some seventeen years later Sartre made a passing reference to “Baudelaire’s greatness as a man” but generally saw him as something less than the author of the Fleurs du Mal, as someone who hid in the skirts of a religion he might have rejected, who chose not to choose his vertiginous freedom and converted his life into a lingering figurative suicide. “A hundred removals and not a single voyage”; “he elected to confuse the satisfaction of desire with its unsatisfied exasperation.”
Of course there is no great distance between these pictures of the poet. Only the evaluations differ. What is greatness for Eliot is evasion for Sartre. And the pictures are curiously alike in their unwillingness to focus on Baudelaire’s masterpiece. Les Fleurs du Mal is so disturbing a book, so spectacular and so patchy, so atrocious as Baudelaire himself said, that readers have always been tempted to avert their eyes from it—to prefer the prose poems, for example, or the intimate journals, or to bury themselves in the wretched, posturing letters in which Baudelaire, early and late, tried to persuade his mother that he really was the little boy she had always wanted, “that he was working hard,” as F. W. J. Hemmings nicely puts it, “and would shortly be at the top of the class.”
To give in to this temptation, though, whatever the charms or virtues of the work it leads to, is to miss the one thing that matters about Baudelaire. He was not a perfect poet—only lesser writers are that, and Les Fleurs du Mal is dedicated to one such “perfect magician,” Théophile Gautier—but a great one. He was not a great man, but a difficult and unhappy one, racked by disease and poverty and the sudden twists of his own temperament. He was neither more nor less than the author of Les Fleurs du Mal.
The three books under review—a biography, a study of Baudelaire’s literary criticism, and a deft and patient new translation of Les Fleurs du Mal—combine to bring out another aspect of the positions of Eliot and Sartre: their striking assurance, their certainty about who and what Baudelaire was. Hemmings has a fine sense of what Baudelaire was not—he was not, for example, a morbid reactionary or a despiser of the people; Rosemary Lloyd has an unusually quick eye for the note of pastiche in his writings, the almost imperceptible grin in the prose; and Richard Howard has sought, he says, “a certain private register.” The Baudelaire who emerges, or rather who hides, in these books, is a mysterious, sardonic figure who points us to the quieter moments in his poems, to the wheezing clock and whispering playing cards of “Spleen I,” say, rather than the grand romantic allegory of a funeral in the soul in “Spleen IV.” And when the poet, in “Carrion,” pulls out his machinery, shows to his love a hideous, stinking corpse, with an angry dog, disturbed by the visitors and waiting to get back to its meal, we may want to remember chiefly not the anecdote or the threat (“Yes, you will come to this, my queen”), but the poem’s promise of a weird fidelity to a “decomposed love.” This piece both outdoes Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” in ferocity, and subtly inverts its meaning.
Surely Baudelaire is the most elusive, the most masked of poets, sarcastic when he seems sorrowful and tender even in his hatred. It was Proust who noted the cruelty in the beautiful line “Le violon frémit comme un coeur qu’on afflige,” the trembling music derived from hurting someone; and it was Proust too who suggested that an affection for these “pitiful and human poems” was not necessarily a sign of great sensibility. They may even have a special appeal to the heartless. It is not that one doubts the depth of Baudelaire’s feelings, it is that one perceives the pressure he has put on them, the distance he has found, the work of concealment. He seems to try, Proust said, not to feel the emotions he names. “I understand,” Baudelaire once wrote, “how a man can desert a cause in order to experience the sensation of serving another,” and in Les Fleurs du Mal he deserts cause after cause, has always deserted by the time we catch up with him. This may have been what he had in mind when he welcomed the suggestion that the book had a “secret architecture.” The poems color each other with qualifications, whole sections retract what is offered in other parts of the volume.
Baudelaire prized in Poe, among other things, the element of mystification, the role of the joker. The supreme thing in art, Baudelaire said later, is “to remain glacial and closed, and to leave all the merit of indignation to the reader.” This is an expression of a widely held doctrine about the ideally impervious artist, echoed in Flaubert, Joyce, Gautier, and others, but Baudelaire’s tone gives it the flavor of a quiet prank. What he says is that the reader must think for himself; what he implies is a lightning sketch of the aesthete facing the spluttering rage of the bourgeois.
Sartre speaks solemnly of the “fundamental impossibility of taking oneself completely seriously which usually goes with bad faith.” This makes me want to talk in return about the fundamental falsehood involved in the notion of complete seriousness, but I don’t doubt that Baudelaire’s elusiveness was the tactic of a desperate man, or that his wit was the weapon of a person who can laugh, as he says in one poem, but no longer smile. Certainly the following statement, fictive or otherwise, suggests a habit bordering on the pathological: “I boasted (why?) of several ugly things that I have never done, and weakly denied a few other misdeeds that I thoroughly enjoyed doing.” Hemmings records a real-life instance of similar behavior. Sent on a sea voyage at the age of twenty, Baudelaire came back with various tall tales about his erotic adventures, but made no mention of his actual heroism during a typhoon.
Disguise was a reflex with him, then, but we need to add that it was a reflex that became a wonderful, shifting style, a language full of reticences. Pace Sartre, Baudelaire seems to have taken himself very seriously, although not in a way most serious people would commend. He saw the seriousness of apparent frivolity—this was part of what he meant by his praise of the dandy. He was faithful to the truths of change, “avid,” as he put it in less complimentary terms, for “the obscure and the uncertain.” He made himself, to use a figure much in fashion these days, into a text, a set of signs strung over a series of secrets, and this was how contemporaries saw him. “One could almost hear,” Gautier said, “the italics and capital letters in the modulations of his voice.” His politeness, Hemmings says, was always slightly overdone, possibly a delicate form of insult.
Hemmings takes his title and some of its implications from a remark by Baudelaire and a gloss by Sartre. “I believe that my life has been damned from the beginning,” the poet wrote to his mother, “and that it is damned for ever.” Yet in spite of the for ever this damnation, as Sartre said, “was of this world and it was never final.” Or as Hemmings even more succinctly puts it, “Baudelaire does not call himself damned, but only his life.” Hemmings takes a far more lenient line than Sartre, seeing Baudelaire’s eager diagnosis of his doom not as an abdication but as a cruel, possibly enabling fiction. Damnation for Baudelaire was at times simply bad luck seen romantically; at others it was the very name of his vocation.
If Hemmings’s biography is not powerful or probing, it is subtle, intelligent, and admirably balanced. We see the alert, troublesome child, expelled from school because his “disposition” was said to have “a deleterious effect” on the discipline of the place, turn into the debt-ridden dandy. He has love affairs, acrid and lengthy or illusory and short, he writes art criticism, fights in the February Revolution of 1848. Les Fleurs du Mal is published and prosecuted, partly, rumor has it, because the government had failed to obtain a judgment against Madame Bovary earlier in the year. Baudelaire acquires a sort of shabby fame, and is overtaken by the consequences of syphilis contracted in youth. “Today, 23rd of January, 1862,” he writes, “I have received a singular warning, I have felt the wind of the wing of madness pass over me.” Four years later he is paralyzed, and five years later he is dead, at forty-six.
Baudelaire’s mother was a major ingredient in his damnation, and it is one of Hemmings’s chief virtues that he brings their distressing relationship into sharp and accurate focus. Caroline Baudelaire’s second husband, Captain, and then General Aupick, whom she married when Charles was seven, was not an ogre, not “a kind of military Mr. Murdstone,” as Hemmings wryly phrases it, and even Baudelaire didn’t think he was. Baudelaire later made Aupick into an ogre, when the story of his damnation called for such casting. Caroline on the other hand, in her quiet, respectable way, does seem to have been a monster of cowardice and thrift, measuring out her stilted affection in tiny, qualified doses. “My mother is a fanciful creature,” Baudelaire wrote in the last years of his life, “to be feared and to be courted.” And Caroline herself, less than two years before the poet’s end, could write:
I cling stupidly, obstinately to the idea that I am surely owed a little satisfaction from him before I die…. He has very little time to give me the satisfaction I want, and I fear I shall never have it. It would have been some consolation if he had attained great literary celebrity….
It wouldn’t; it wasn’t.
Rosemary Lloyd has undertaken a thoroughgoing reexamination of Baudelaire’s literary essays, which she sees as neglected or undervalued in comparison with his art criticism. This is not an adventurous or theoretical book, does not pursue very far the implications of Baudelaire’s critical practice, and it occasionally strikes a faintly schoolmistressy note: “he conveys his central points with increasing conviction and skill.” But the work has the great merit of situating Baudelaire precisely in his literary setting, and of shrewdly understanding what censorship, of the kind exercised in the France of Napoleon III, may do to style.
Baudelaire was a reviewer, and Lloyd has looked scrupulously at the books he reviewed and at what other reviewers were saying about them. Baudelaire is seen as more interested in history than most, able to evoke a whole era in a brief phrase, and as more sensitive to the needs and moods and possible talents of his reader, “who may often be teased, shocked and provoked, but who is always respected.” Baudelaire is master of a remarkably supple and variegated prose, and he is extremely funny, evoking contemporary sphinxes bereft of their riddles, and classical lyres being carted off to the pawnshop. He considers Hugo, Flaubert, Gautier, Balzac, Poe, and a cluster of minor French writers. And if these essays do not have the force of his art criticism, they have plenty of presence, are full of the passionate predilection which Baudelaire required of critical writing.
Above all, as Lloyd has seen perhaps better than anyone else, Baudelaire can create extraordinary ranges and recesses of meaning by parodying the figures he is discussing (or the audience he is addressing). Of the poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore he says that she knew how to suffer, “elle savait si bien souffrir,” which must have seemed innocent enough to most readers. Lloyd finds here, I’m sure correctly, “a hint that she knew the poetic worth of her grief and cultivated it as substance for her verses.” In his essay on Madame Bovary, Baudelaire imitates sympathetically what he takes to have been the movements of Flaubert’s mind, and parodies, not the author, but one of the speechmakers at the agricultural fair: “If I may, I shall permit myself the pleasure of thanking the French magistrature for the striking example of impartiality and good taste which it offered in this instance….”
I would take Lloyd’s argument one stage further. When Baudelaire mimes a point of view, the practice may be neither ironic nor sympathetic but speculative, the (temporary) desertion of one cause for another, an account of the possible, even if it is not possible for him. (“The possible,” he wrote, “is one of the provinces of truth.”) I am thinking particularly of Baudelaire’s eloquent defense of joy in an early review—“Nature is so beautiful, man is so great, that it is difficult, from a higher point of view, to grasp the meaning of the word: irreparable.” Baudelaire is certainly not deluded, as Claude Pichois suggests he is, but the sarcasm may not be as thick as it looks in the light of Baudelaire’s later remarks about the love of joy being “disgusting.” Surely there is a wish here too, a (none too convincing) impersonation of serenity, a flight into a world where that remorseless word would have no hold.
The word is the title of a poem which contains just such a flickering, and vanquished, wish. The Irreparable gnaws at us, Baudelaire says, but occasionally, in a cheap theater, a creature of light and gauze has been known to illuminate the infernal sky and even to defeat Satan. Only in the theater, though. “On my heart’s stage,” Richard Howard’s translation runs, “occurs / no transformation scene.” It is worth noting that in Baudelaire’s arrangement of the contents of Les Fleurs du Mal, this poem immediately follows his most famous dream of escape, “L’Invitation au voyage.” Howard’s translation is at its best here:
Imagine the magic of living together
there, with all the time in the world for loving each other, for loving and dying
where even the landscape resembles you: the suns dissolved in overcast skies
have the same mysterious charm for me as your wayward eyes through crystal tears, my sister, my child!
All is order there, and elegance, pleasure, peace, and opulence.
The “wayward eyes” are a little slack, perhaps, and “even the landscape” mistakes Baudelaire’s meaning. The resemblance of the landscape to the girl is not casual, they exist only as mirrors of each other, scarcely separate faces of a single fantasy. But “Imagine the magic” is a splendid version of the difficult “Songe à la douceur.” Howard’s rhythms perfectly capture the hypnotic lilt of the original, and the beautiful, deceptively flat refrain—
Là tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté
could not be better rendered.
But if Baudelaire’s eloquence on the subject of joy is not all irony, this poem is not all dream—or rather, it is so filled with the act of dreaming, of imagining the magic, that it surreptitiously tugs us back to the place where all is not order and elegance, the untransformed stage of the following piece. Les Fleurs du Mal is littered with failed escapes, and one of the most moving things about the book is its curious resilience, the way in which what Baudelaire calls his “voracious irony,” so debilitating in other respects, loses ground before his recurring longing—the tropical paradise, which is above all an image of an unreachable ease of mind, keeps coming up in all its lyrical helplessness. The real travelers, he says, are those who leave for the sake of leaving; who keep on leaving, or dreaming of leaving, even when they know there is nowhere to go and nothing to see.
But of course the overwhelming mood of Les Fleurs du Mal is not that of travel but of enclosure. The book is full of dungeons and cellars and tombs, boudoirs and lowering ceilings, and the resident spirit is rancid melancholy or gloating Ennui, that “fastidious monster” which threatens to swallow the world in a yawn. The sequence of poems called “Spleen” tries out metaphor after brilliant metaphor for this constricting condition, rain, spiders, bats, clanging bells, a mangy cat, and most memorably:
No chest of drawers crammed with documents,
love-letters, wedding-invitations, wills,
a lock of someone’s hair rolled up in a deed,
hides so many secrets as my brain.
This branching catacombs, this pyramid
contains more corpses than the potter’s field:
I am a graveyard that the moon abhors….
I am an old boudoir where a rack of gowns,
perfumed by withered roses, rots to dust….
“The Irreparable” is echoed by a poem called “The Irremediable,” which evokes the poet’s only consolation and pride in all this disarray: “consciousness in Evil.”
Evil for Baudelaire is not a theological term, not even a moral term except in a distended sense. It is a name for the profoundly perverse, an impulse toward what you know is ruin, and Baudelaire’s greatest, most painfully earned insight is his understanding of our intolerable enjoyment of this. “The sole and supreme pleasure of love lies in the certainty of doing evil.” This devastating epigram does not say, as Eliot cheerfully thought, that the sexual act is evil. It says that evil is our only source of pleasure, that that is what pleasure is, in love or in anything else. When Les Fleurs du Mal was brought to trial, Baudelaire rustled up multiple, indignant arguments for his defense. He was attacking the “abominable hypocrisy” of the belief that man is good and men are happy, portraying “the agitation of the mind caught up in evil,” in a book “where breathes only the terror and the horror of evil.” His accusers had failed to read the book as a whole, had missed its “terrible morality.”
The odd thing is that all these claims are true. They are only silent about one unmistakable meaning of the book, and of its title. These are flowers of evil, cultivated blossoms of the irreparable. The crime of Les Fleurs du Mal was not its immorality, its sexual explicitness, or its depiction of unhappy lesbians, it was its active relish for what Baudelaire called the immemorial reality of original sin, “l’Enfer où mon coeur se plaît,” which Howard renders perhaps a touch too musically as “the Hell where my heart’s at home.”
Flaubert once wondered whether Baudelaire, in his book on De Quincey and opium and hashish, had not “insisted too much on the Spirit of Evil.” Baudelaire replied firmly:
As far back as I can remember, I have been obsessed by the impossibility of accounting for certain sudden acts or thoughts in man save on the hypothesis that there is an evil power external to him. [Hemmings’s translation]
Both Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann, if they had seen this letter, would have understood Baudelaire perfectly. The “hypothesis” is not the defection Sartre saw in it, not a bit of “the old leaven of Catholicism” as Flaubert suggested. It is not an explanation; it is an image of everything that baffles hope and reason, the expression of a radical and prophetic perception about the extent of our appetite for damage—to ourselves and to others.
Our appetite. Les Fleurs du Mal counts on our complicity, which is why Eliot, in a mood different from that of his 1930 essay, borrowed the line “Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!” for The Waste Land, and why Baudelaire’s admirers and detractors both tend to hold the book at more than arm’s length—like his mother, who quivered at the thought that he might come and live with her. Baudelaire is often seen as drastically different from what Sartre modestly calls “the rest of us,” and this strategy was a favorite with Baudelaire’s contemporaries: “Vivid expression…of certain forms of moral suffering…however little the reader may participate in them”—François Buloz, editor of the Revue des Deux Mondes, quoted in Hemmings.
Of course, kinship with Baudelaire may be denied because it seems sinister and plausible rather than because it seems false, but it is surprising, and in its way a sign of the disquieting authority of Les Fleurs du Mal, to find Richard Howard taking a similar tack: “Baudelaire’s poetry concerns us much more…by its strangeness than by its familiarity: its authentic relation to us is its remoteness.” Hypocrite traducteur. It is distinctly eerie to turn from this foreword to the fine first lines of Howard’s version of the opening poem:
Stupidity, delusion, selfishness and lust
torment our bodies and possess our minds,
and we sustain our affable remorse
the way a beggar nourishes his lice.
It is not that we should rush to embrace these accusations, or to wallow in vices we may not actually have. It is that no clear and comfortable separation between ourselves and these miseries is possible. We know what Baudelaire is talking about, and he knows we know. But of course Howard doesn’t mean to disassociate us so thoroughly from Les Fleurs du Mal, but only to suggest that neither he nor we are called upon to love the book, any more, to paraphrase Catherine Earnshaw on the subject of Heathcliff, than we can always love ourselves.
The importance of Howard’s translation lies not only in its tact and accuracy, but in the fact that it is a version of the book Les Fleurs du Mal. This, as Howard says, is “a different enterprise” from rendering individual poems, and it is what Marthiel and Jackson Mathews, editors of the New Directions 1955 Flowers of Evil declared to be impossible:
No one can translate all of the poems of a great poet. A translator’s range, even if he is a better poet than the one he is translating, will not coincide with the range of his model…
Their solution was to pick what they regarded as the best translation of each poem, and their contributors, old and new, alive and dead, included James Elroy Flecker, Aldous Huxley, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T. Sturge Moore, Karl Shapiro, Sir John Squire, Allen Tate, and Richard Wilbur. The snag with this arrangement is that we get Baudelaire’s poems, but not Baudelaire, nothing like a coherent sense of his style, or styles.
Roy Campbell published a translation of the complete Fleurs du Mal in 1952, and he is Howard’s principal forerunner. Not that there is much resemblance between their versions. Campbell is always fluent, and quite often firmer than Howard. But he chooses to rhyme throughout, as Baudelaire did, and rhyme is a terrible tyrant in translation. It has a way of bending syntax and blurring meaning, and of calling up words a modern writer would not otherwise use, like plume and parch and clime and bourn. It prompts Campbell to translate le soir as “dying rays”—although he does have a leaning toward this sort of diction anyway.
Howard has decided not to rhyme often but to try “other tactics for keeping the poem suspended”—assonance, alliteration, repetition of words, puns, allusions. There are, as I have hinted, notable successes in this book, and Howard, it seems to me, has done what he set out to do, has given us, in English and in verse, a Baudelaire who is both immediately recognizable and impressively varied. At times the vocabulary seems a little Edwardian, and moves close to Campbell’s—there are “sconces,” “brimming eyes,” and a “starry vault”—but only at times, and it would be unfair to insist on this aspect of the work. It is a considerable achievement.
“The things we loathed become the things we love,” has more of Baudelaire’s customary elegance than his own “Aux objets répugnants nous trouvons des appas.” “And shadows poured out of the sky / upon a sluggish world” is both literal and eloquent. “Longtemps! Toujours!” Baudelaire writes: two exclamations: Howard inventively translates “For hours? Forever!”—a liberty worth taking. The following examples give some sense of his range:
Mother of memories, absolute mis- tress,
in you my pleasure is my only task:
not to forget the form of a caress,
the dying fire and the alluring dark—mother of memories, absolute mistress!
‘Nothing!’ it sobbed, that sudden note of yours, ‘nothing on earth is sure,
and all our human masks cannot disguise our human selfishness;
Beauty is merely woman’s liveli- hood, a well-rehearsed routine—
the flagging dancer’s discipline: to please with automatic smiles;
hearts are not to be depended on, they fail—like beauty and love,
until Oblivion gathers up the lot for good, all over again!’
Under black yews that protect them the owls perch in a row
like alien gods whose red eyes glitter. They meditate.
Petrified, they will perch there till the melancholy hour
when the slanting sun is ousted, and darkness settles down.
Surely some night will be dark enough for a kindly Christian soul
to dump your gorgeous body, now deceased, where the other garbage goes.
On the other hand I am a bit puzzled by Howard’s promotion of Death from the rank of captain to admiral. I suppose it makes the old fellow seem more nautical. This particular line is a very good test of tone:
O Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! levons l’ancre.
Campbell translates closely:
O Death, old Captain, it is time. Weigh anchor!
Robert Lowell adds a bit of sinking because he wants a rhyme with ink:
It’s time. Old Captain, Death, lift anchor, sink!
And Howard has:
Death, old admiral, up anchor now.
Both Howard and Lowell get a flavor of intimacy which may be a shade stronger than Baudelaire wanted but is very effective anyway. But then—such is the shifting luck of translators—neither of them has anything like Campbell’s brilliant find for the next line:
Ce pays nous ennuie, Oac Mort! Appareillons!
To sail beyond the doldrums of our days,
while Howard can only manage
this country wearies us. Put out to sea!
and Lowell finds a better line by only letting go of Baudelaire completely:
The land rots; we shall sail into the night.
There are, I think, three main difficulties in translating Baudelaire into English, and Howard is rarely defeated by any of them. They are: catching the stateliness of the verse without making Baudelaire sound like an imitator of Tennyson; coping with particular, unexpected words which will not cross over literally; and evoking the bravura of the poems, the zest which informs even the gloomiest of them, lending them an irony which keeps placing invisible quotation marks throughout. As Leo Bersani says of the opening poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, the “panorama of human vice is so extreme, so provokingly unqualified, that we may find something unserious in it.”
First, then, how is one to translate an extemely formal line like “L’empire familier des ténèbres futures“? Noun, adjective, noun, adjective; alliteration, various echoes in the vowels. Campbell fiddles with it and arrives at
Familiar futures open realms of shade.
—which is graceful, but doesn’t, as far as I can see, make any sense. Howard has
familiar empires of oncoming night.
—which is stately enough, and certainly offers nothing to complain about. It even gets the contrast between singular and plural nouns. We do miss the wit, though, the play in ténèbres futures, which suggests both an approaching dark age and a future which is dark to us but not to the gypsies the poem is about. Perhaps we cannot expect to find this sort of thing in a translation, but then it may not hurt to remind ourselves of the limits that hedge the job.
Second, how does one render a word like hume in “je hume à longs traits le vin du souvenir“? “Humer” is to take in through the nose or the mouth, as when one sniffs a wine or a perfume, or sips tea. Campbell decides on
Deep-draughted wines of memory will flow
which is merely banal, but Howard has the lovely gulp,
I gulp the wine of memory.
The notion of scent is gone, and the action is more violent, but the life of the line has been kept. Or how to translate versait (poured) in “leur versait parfois quelque sale caresse“? Howard and Campbell settle for the unremarkable giving (“giving them now and then a filthy kiss,” “giving them, at times, some lewd caress”) while Lowell wonderfully matches Baudelaire’s verb:
and sometimes tossing them a stale caress.
Lowell’s stale, incidentally, actually looks like Baudelaire’s sale, although it means something different. Lowell likes the effect, and pulls it off smartly in his mischievous translation of rester, to remain, as rest:
Shall we move or rest? Rest, if you can rest;
move if you must….
Third, there is the bravura, and the best instance perhaps is the opening poem that Barsani alluded to and I have already mentioned more than once. I think the translations here comment quite forcefully on each other, so I shall just give the text and three versions, those of Campbell, Lowell, and Howard, saying only that Lowell’s seems to me the best poem, and Howard’s the best translation, and leaving the rest to my critical but not hypocritical readers. These are the last three stanzas of the poem, and Lowell’s mischief is in evidence again. “Les lices” are not lice but hound bitches.
Mais parmis les chacals, les pan- thères, les lices,
Les singes, les scorpions, les vautours, les serpents,
Les monstres glapissants, hurlants, grognants, rampants,
Dans le ménagerie infâme de nos vices,
Il en est un plus laid, plus méchant, plus immonde!
Quoiqu’il ne pousse ni grands gestes ni grands cris,
Il ferait volontiers de la terre un débris
Et dans un bâillement avalerait le monde;
C’est l’Ennui!—l’oeil chargé d’un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d’échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
—Hypocrite lecteur,—mon sem- blable,—mon frère!
Amongst the jackals, leopards, mongrels, apes,
Snakes, scorpions, vultures, that with hellish din,
Squeal, roar, writhe, gambol, crawl, with monstrous shapes,
In each man’s foul menagerie of sin—
There’s one more damned than all. He never gambols,
Nor crawls, nor roars, but, from the rest withdrawn,
Gladly of this whole earth would make a shambles
And swallow up existence with a yawn…
Boredom! He smokes his hookah, while he dreams
Of gibbets, weeping tears he cannot smother.
You know this dainty monster, too, it seems—
Hypocrite reader!—You!—My twin!—My brother!
Among the vermin, jackals, pan- thers, lice,
gorillas and tarantullas that suck
and snatch and scratch and defecate and fuck
in the disorderly circus of our vice,
there’s one more ugly and abortive birth.
It makes no gestures, never beats its breast,
yet it would murder for a moment’s rest,
and willingly annihilate the earth.
It’s BOREDOM. Tears have glued its eyes together.
You know it well, my Reader. This obscene
beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine—
you—hypocrite Reader—my dou- ble—my brother!
But here among the scorpions and the hounds,
the jackals, apes and vultures, snakes and wolves,
monsters that howl and growl and squeal and crawl,
in all the squalid zoo of vices, one
is even uglier and fouler than the rest,
although the least flamboyant of the lot;
this beast would gladly undermine the earth
and swallow all creation in a yawn;
I speak of Boredom which with ready tears
dreams of hangings as it puffs its pipe.
Reader, you know this squeamish monster well,
—hypocrite reader,—my alias,—my twin!
December 2, 1982