Les Sept vieillards
À Victor Hugo
Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,
Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant!
Les mystères partout coulent comme des sèves
Dans les canaux étroits du colosse puissant.
Un matin, cependant que dans la triste rue
Les maisons, dont la brume allongeait la hauteur,
Simulaient les deux quais d'une rivière accrue,
Et que, décor semblable à l'âme de l'acteur,
Un brouillard sale et jaune inondait tout l'espace,
Je suivais, roidissant mes nerfs comme un héros
Et discutant avec mon âme déjà lasse,
Le faubourg secoué par les lourds tombereaux.
Tout à coup, un vieillard dont les guenilles jaunes
Imitaient la couleur de ce ciel pluvieux,
Et dont l'aspect aurait fait pleuvoir les aumônes,
Sans la méchanceté qui luisait dans ses yeux,
M'apparut. On eût dit sa prunelle trempée
Dans le fiel; son regard aiguisait les frimas,
Et sa barbe à longs poils, roide comme une épée,
Se projetait, pareille à celle de Judas.
II n'était pas voûté, mais cassé, son échine
Faisant avec sa jambe un parfait angle droit,
Si bien que son bâton, parachevant sa mine,
Lui donnait la tournure et le pas maladroit
D'un quadrupède infirme ou d'un juif à trois pattes.
Dans la neige et la boue il allait s'empêtrant,
Comme s'il écrasait des morts sous ses savates,
Hostile à l'univers plutôt qu'indifférent.
Son pareil le suivait: barbe, oeil, dos, bâton, loques,
Nul trait ne distinguait, du même enfer venu,
Ce jumeau centenaire, et ces spectres baroques
Marchaient du même pas vers un but inconnu.
À quel complot infâme étais-je donc en butte,
Ou quel méchant hasard ainsi m'humiliait?
Car je comptai sept fois, de minute en minute,
Ce sinistre vieillard qui se multipliait!
Que celui-là qui rit de mon inquiétude
Et qui n'est pas saisi d'un frisson fraternel
Songe bien que malgré tant de décrépitude
Ces sept monstres hideux avaient l'air éternel!
Aurais-je, sans mourir, contemplé le huitième,
Sosie inexorable, ironique et fatal
Dégoûtant Phénix, fils et père de lui-même?
— Mais je tournai le dos au cortège infernal.
Exaspéré comme un ivrogne qui voit double,
Je rentrai, je fermai ma porte, épouvanté,
Malade et morfondu, l'esprit fiévreux et trouble,
Blessé par le mystère et par l'absurdité!
Vainement ma raison voulait prendre la barre;
La tempête en jouant déroutait ses efforts,
Et mon âme dansait, dansait, vieille gabarre
Sans mâts, sur une mer monstrueuse et sans bords!
— Charles Baudelaire
The Seven Old Men
To Victor Hugo
Teeming, swarming city, city full of dreams,
Where specters in broad day accost the passer-by!
Everywhere mysteries flow like the sap in a tree
Through the narrow canals of the mighty giant.
One morning, while in a gloomy street the houses,
Whose height was increased by the mist, simulated
The quais of a swollen river, and while
— A setting that was like the actor's soul —
A dirty yellow fog inundated all space,
I was following, steeling my nerves like a hero,
Arid arguing with my already weary soul,
A squalid street shaken by the heavy dump-carts.
Suddenly an old man whose tattered yellow clothes
Were of the same color as the rainy heavens,
And whose aspect would have brought him showers of alms
If his eyes had not gleamed with so much wickedness,
Appeared to me. One would have said his eyes were drenched
With gall; his look sharpened the winter's chill,
And his long shaggy beard, like that of Judas,
Projected from his chin as stiffly as a sword.
He was not bent over, but broken; his back-bone
Made with his legs a perfect right angle,
So that his stick, completing the picture,
Gave him the appearance and clumsy gait
Of a lame quadruped or a three-legged Jew.
He went hobbling along in the snow and the mud
As if he were crushing the dead under his shoes;
Hostile, rather than indifferent to the world,
His likeness followed him: beard, eye, back, stick, tatters,
No mark distinguished this centenarian twin,
Who came from the same hell, and these baroque specters
Were walking with the same gait toward an unknown goal.
Of what infamous plot was I then the object,
Or what evil chance humiliated me thus?
For I counted seven times in as many minutes
That sinister old man who multiplied himself!
Let him who laughs at my disquietude,
And who is not seized with a fraternal shudder,
Realize that in spite of such decrepitude
Those hideous monsters had an eternal look!
Could I, without dying, have regarded the eighth,
Unrelenting Sosia, ironic and fatal,
Disgusting Phoenix, son and father of himself?
— But I turned my back on that hellish procession.
Exasperated like a drunk who sees double,
I went home; I locked the door, terrified,
Chilled to the bone and ill, my mind fevered, confused,
Hurt by that mysterious and absurd happening!
Vainly my reason tried to take the helm;
The frolicsome tempest baffled all its efforts,
And my soul, old sailing barge without masts,
Kept dancing, dancing, on a monstrous, shoreless sea!
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
The Seven Old Men
To Victor Hugo
Ant-seething city, city full of dreams,
Where ghosts by daylight tug the passer's sleeve.
Mystery, like sap, through all its conduit-streams,
Quickens the dread Colossus that they weave.
One early morning, in the street's sad mud,
Whose houses, by the fog increased in height,
Seemed wharves along a riverside in flood:
When with a scene to match the actor's plight,
Foul yellow mist had filled the whole of space:
Steeling my nerves to play a hero's part,
I coaxed my weary soul with me to pace
The backstreets shaken by each lumbering cart.
A wretch appeared whose tattered, yellow clothing,
Matching the colour of the raining skies,
Could make it shower down alms — but for the loathing
Malevolence that glittered in his eyes.
The pupils of his eyes, with bile injected,
Seemed with their glance to make the frost more raw.
Stiff as a sword, his long red beard projected,
Like that of Judas, level with his jaw.
He was not bent, but broken, with the spine
Forming a sharp right-angle to the straight,
So that his stick, to finish the design,
Gave him the stature and the crazy gait
Of a three-footed Jew, or crippled hound.
He plunged his soles into the slush as though
To crush the dead; and to the world around
Seemed less of an indifferent than a foe.
His image followed him, (back, stick, and beard
In nothing differed) spawned from the same hole,
A centenarian twin. Both spectres steered
With the same gait to the same unknown goal.
To what foul plot was I exposed? of what
Humiliating hazard made the jeer?
For seven times, (I counted) was begot
This sinister, self multiplying fear!
Let him mark well who laughs at my despair
With no fraternal shudder in reply...
Those seven loathsome monsters had the air,
Though rotting through, of what can never die.
Disgusting Phoenix, his own sire and father!
Could I have watched an eighth instalment spawn
Ironic, fateful, grim — nor perished rather?
But from that hellish cortege I'd withdrawn.
Perplexed as drunkards when their sight is doubled,
I locked my room, sick, fevered, chilled with fright:
With all my spirit sorely hurt and troubled
By so ridiculous yet strange a sight.
Vainly my reason for the helm was striving:
The tempest of my efforts made a scorn.
My soul like a dismasted wreck went driving
Over a monstrous sea without a bourn.
— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)
The Seven Old Men
City swarming with people, how full you are of dreams!
Here in broad daylight, surely, the passerby may meet
A specter, — be accosted by him! Mystery seems
To move like a thick sap through every narrow street.
I thought (daybreak, it was, in a sad part of town)
"These houses look much higher in the fog!" — they stood
Like two gray quays between which a muddy stream flows down;
The setting of the play matched well the actor's mood.
All space became a dirty yellow fog; I tried
To fight it off; I railed at my poor soul, whose feet,
Weary already, dragged and stumbled at my side.
Big wagons, bound for market, began to shake the street.
Suddenly there beside me an old man — all in holes
His garments were, and yellow, like the murky skies,
A sight to wring a rain of coins from kindly souls,
Save for a certain malice gleaming in his eyes,
Appeared. You would have said those eyeballs, without doubt,
Were steeped in bile — they sharpened the sleet they looked upon.
His beard, with its long hairs, stiff as a sword stood out
Before him, as the beard of Judas must have done.
He stooped so when he walked, his spine seemed not so much
Bending as broken, — truly, his leg with his backbone
Made a right angle; and his stick, the finishing touch,
Gave him the awkward gait — now rearing, now half-thrown —
Of a three-legged Jew, or some lame quadruped.
It crossed my mind, as through the mud and snow he went,
"He walks like someone crushing the faces of the dead.
Hostile, that's what he is; he's not indifferent."
A man exactly like him followed him. From beard
To stick they were the same, had risen from the same hell.
These centenarian twins kept step in rhythmic weird
Precision, toward some goal which doubtless they knew well.
"What ugly game is this?" I said; "what horseplay's here?
Am I the butt of knaves, or have I lost my mind?"
For seven times — I counted them — there did appear
This sinister form, which passed, yet left itself behind.
Let anyone who smiles at my distress, whose heart
No sympathetic horror grips, consider well:
Though these old monsters seemed about to fall apart,
Somehow I knew they were eternal, — l could tell!
Had I beheld one more of them, I think indeed
I should have died! — for each, in some disgusting way,
Had spawned himself, lewd Phoenix, from his own foul seed,
Was his own son and father, — I fled — I could not stay.
Angry, bewildered, like a drunken man by whom
All objects are seen double, I locked my door, and heard
My frozen heart cry out with dread in the hot room, —
That what was so mysterious should be so absurd!
My reason fought to gain the bridge and take the helm;
The tempest thrust it back; and rudderless, unrigged,
A hull which the waves wash but will not overwhelm,
My soul upon a shoreless sea of horror jigged.
— Edna St. Vincent Millay, Flowers of Evil (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936)