Friday, February 19, 2010

Baudelaire and Rilke

In honor of the vacation that I’m on, I thought I’d post some French and German (language) poetry. The first is a poem by Baudelaire translated by Donald Justice. As you may recall, Justice is one of my favorite poets, and I think his translations are as delightful as his own compositions.

I’m not a huge fan of Baudelaire – I missed that 15-year-old goth phase that generally precipitates slavish devotion to his ouvre – but when I’m feeling campy and/or melodramatic, he does have a certain appeal.

The foregoing isn’t meant as an insult. I appreciate Baudelaire’s work without feeling terribly excited about it because his sensibility is so alien to mine, but that’s more my issue than his.

Rilke is pretty hard to write about for altogether different reasons. He strikes me as both a towering and puny figure. The poetry is superficially vast in scope, but even at its most expansive, I read at its core a certain reticence and smallness that makes me feel a bit cool toward it. I feel as if he was a great poet who was ironically and cripplingly lacking in spirit.

Of course, he was also kind an asshole. I might just be glossing my feelings about his personal attributes onto his work. That would be unfair, but I would hardly be the first reader to confuse biography with literature. Rilke wasn’t actually German, but he’s the towering figure in 20th Century German-language poetics.  "Tombs of the Hetaerae," which follows the Baudelaire poem, is a poem I admire without qualifications.

Two poems are below the jump.
The Metamorphosis of a Vampire (Baudelaire, translated by Donald Justice)

The woman, meanwhile, from her strawberry mouth--
Twisting and turning like a snake on coals,
And kneading her breasts against her corset-stays--
Let flow these words,a ll interfused with must:
"My lips are moist; and I know how to make
A man forget all consicence deep in bed.
I dry all tears on my triumphant breasts
And set old men to laughing like young boys.
For those who see me naked and unveiled,
I take the place of sun, and moon, and stars!
I am, dear scholar, so well schooled in pleasure
That when I smother a man in my smooth arms
Or when I abandon to his teeth my bosom--
Shy and voluptuous, tender and robust--
Upon these cushions groaning with delight,
The impotent angels would damn themselves for me!"

When she had sucked the marrow from my bones,
And, languidly, I turned toward her intending
A love-kiss in return, I saw there only
A sort of leathery wineskin filled with pus!
I shut my eyes in a cold fright, and when
I opened them again to the good day,
Beside me lay no mannequin whose power
Seemed to have come from drinking human blood:
there trembled a confusion of old bones
Which creaked in turning like a weathervane
Or like a signboard on an iron pole
Swung by the wind through the long winter nights.

Baudelaire on Wikipedia

Baudelaire on

Tombs of the Hetaerae (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

They lie in their long hair, and the brown faces
have long ago withdrawn into themselves.
Eyes shut, as though before too great a distance.
Skeletons, mouths, flowers. Inside the mouths,
the shiny teeth like rows of pocket chessmen.
And flowers, yellow pearls, slender bones,
hands and tunics, woven cloth decaying
over the shriveled heart. But there, beneath
those rings, beneath the talismans and gems
and precious stones like blue eyes (lovers' keepsakes),
there still remains the silent crypt of sex,
filled to its vaulted roof with flower-petals.
And yellow pearls again, unstrung and scattered,
vessels of fired clay on which their own
portraits once were painted, the green fragments
of perfume jars that smelled like flowers, and images
of little household gods upon their altars:
courtesan-heavens with enraptured gods.
Broken waistbands, scarabs carved in jade,
small statues with enormous genitals,
a laughing mouth, dancing-girls, runners,
golden clasps that look like tiny bows
for shooting bird- and beast-shaped amulets,
ornamented knives and spoons, long needles,
a roundish light-red potsherd upon which
the stiff legs of a team of horses stand
like the dark inscription above an entryway.
And flowers again, pearls that have rolled apart,
the shining flanks of a little gilded lyre;
and in between the veils that fall like mist,
as though it had crept out from the shoe's chrysalis:
the delicate pale butterfly of the ankle.

And so they lie, filled to the brim with Things,
expensive Things, jewels, toys, utensils,
broken trinkets (how much fell into them!)
and they darken as a river's bottom darkens.
For they were riverbeds once,
and over them in brief, impetuous waves
(each wanting to prolong itself, forever)
the bodies of countless adolescents surged;
and in them roared the currents of grown men.
And sometimes boys would burst forth from the mountains
of childhood, would descend in timid streams
and play with what they found on the river's bottom,
until the steep slope gripped their consciousness:

Then they filled, with clear, shallow water,
the whole breadth of this broad canal, and set
little whirlpools turning in the depths,
and for the first time mirrored the green banks
and distant calls of birds—, while in the sky
the starry nights of another, sweeter country
blossomed above them and would never close.

I really don't know who the superior translator of Baudelaire would be, but the Stephen Mitchell translation of Rilke seems to be the standard one (and I think it's quite good).

Rilke on Wikipedia

Rilke on


  1. I remember reading Dante once, I looked at the original and the translation didn't seem right. I found out that translations are wildly different and personal... you get 2 visions in one.

    I am really rusty on my Baudelaire but you are right to ask about translations... a good one must be out there... for some the rhythm of the words is part of the art... and French and English are tough playmates.
    It is good to be reminded of poetry, Becky. Thanks so much for doing it. One of my favorites is: "It is difficult to get the news from poems but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there" WCWilliams...

  2. That is very true. The French say that "traduire c'est trahir" (to translate is to betray), and while I'm sure there's always some truth to that, I think the process can also enrich and illuminate under-appreicated aspects of some works.

    Love the Williams quote.