Self Portrait by Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire's
Fleurs du mal / Flowers of Evil


Une fois, une seule, aimable et douce femme,
À mon bras votre bras poli
S'appuya (sur le fond ténébreux de mon âme
Ce souvenir n'est point pâli);

II était tard; ainsi qu'une médaille neuve
La pleine lune s'étalait,
Et la solennité de la nuit, comme un fleuve,
Sur Paris dormant ruisselait.

Et le long des maisons, sous les portes cochères,
Des chats passaient furtivement,
L'oreille au guet, ou bien, comme des ombres chères,
Nous accompagnaient lentement.

Tout à coup, au milieu de l'intimité libre
Eclose à la pâle clarté,
De vous, riche et sonore instrument où ne vibre
Que la radieuse gaieté,

De vous, claire et joyeuse ainsi qu'une fanfare
Dans le matin étincelant,
Une note plaintive, une note bizarre
S'échappa, tout en chancelant

Comme une enfant chétive, horrible, sombre, immonde,
Dont sa famille rougirait,
Et qu'elle aurait longtemps, pour la cacher au monde,
Dans un caveau mise au secret.

Pauvre ange, elle chantait, votre note criarde:
«Que rien ici-bas n'est certain,
Et que toujours, avec quelque soin qu'il se farde,
Se trahit l'égoïsme humain;

Que c'est un dur métier que d'être belle femme,
Et que c'est le travail banal
De la danseuse folle et froide qui se pâme
Dans son sourire machinal;

Que bâtir sur les coeurs est une chose sotte;
Que tout craque, amour et beauté,
Jusqu'à ce que l'Oubli les jette dans sa hotte
Pour les rendre à l'Eternité!»

J'ai souvent évoqué cette lune enchantée,
Ce silence et cette langueur,
Et cette confidence horrible chuchotée
Au confessionnal du coeur.

Charles Baudelaire


One time, once only, sweet, amiable woman,
On my arm your smooth arm
Rested (on the tenebrous background of my soul
That memory is not faded);

It was late; like a newly struck medal
The full moon spread its rays,
And the solemnity of the night streamed
Like a river over sleeping Paris.

And along the houses, under the porte-cocheres,
Cats passed by furtively,
With ears pricked up, or else, like beloved shades,
Slowly escorted us.

Suddenly, in the midst of that frank intimacy
Born in the pale moonlight,
From you, sonorous, rich instrument which vibrates
Only with radiant gaiety,

From you, clear and joyful as a fanfare
In the glistening morning light,
A plaintive note, a bizarre note
Escaped, faltering

Like a puny, filthy, sullen, horrible child,
Who would make his family blush,
And whom they have hidden for a long time
In a secret cellar.

Poor angel, it sang, your discordant note:
"That naught is certain here below,
That always, though it paint its face with utmost care
Man's selfishness reveals itself,

That it's a hard calling to be a lovely woman,
And that it is the banal task
Of the cold and silly danseuse who faints away
With a mechanical smile,

That to build on hearts is a foolish thing,
That all things break, love, and beauty,
Till Oblivion tosses them into his dosser
To give them back to Eternity!"

I've often evoked that enchanted moon,
The silence and the languidness,
And that horrible confidence whispered
In the heart's confessional.

— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)


Once, and once only, kind and gentle lady,
Your polished arm on mine you placed
(Deep down within my spirit, dark and shady,
I keep the memory uneffaced).

A medal, newly-coined, of flashing silver,
The full moon shone. The night was old.
Its solemn grandeur, like a mighty river,
Through sleeping Paris softly rolled.

Along the streets, by courtyard doors, cats darted
And passed in furtive, noiseless flight
With cars pricked; or, like shades of friends departed,
Followed us slowly through the night.

Cutting this easy intimacy through,
That hatched from out that pearly light —
O rich resounding instrument, from you,
Who'd always thrilled with loud delight,

From you, till then as joyful as a peal
Of trumpets on a sparkling morn,
A cry so plaintive that it seemed unreal,
Was staggeringly torn.

Like some misborn, deformed, and monstrous kid
Who puts his family to the blush,
Whose presence in a cellar must be hid
And his existence in a hush!

Poor angel! that harsh note was meant to sing
"That nothing in this world is certain,
And human egotism is the thing
Which all existence serves to curtain.

That it's an irksome task to be a beauty,
A boring job one has to face —
Like frigid dancers, smiling as a duty
With hard, mechanical grimace:

That building upon hearts is idiotic:
All cracks, love, beauty, and fraternity
Until Oblivion puts them in his pocket
To pawn them on to old Eternity!"

I often have recalled that moon of magic,
That languid hush on quays and marts,
And then this confidence, so grim and tragic,
In the confessional of hearts.

— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

The Confession

Once, only once, beloved and gentle lady,
Upon my arm you leaned your arm of snow,
And on my spirit's background, dim and shady,
That memory flashes now.

The hour was late, and like a medal gleaming
The full moon showed her face,
And the night's splendour over Paris streaming
Filled every silent place.

Along the houses, in the doorways hiding,
Cats passed with stealthy tread
And listening ear, or followed, slowly gliding,
Like ghosts of dear ones dead.

Sudden, amid our frank and free relation,
Born of that limpid light,
From you, rich instrument, whose sole vibration
Was radiancy and light —

From you, joyous as bugle-call resounding
Across the woods at morn,
With sharp and faltering accent, strangely sounding,
Escaped one note forlorn.

Like some misshapen infant, dark, neglected,
Its kindred blush to own,
And long have hidden, by no eye detected,
In some dim cave unknown.

Your clashing note cried clear, poor, prisoned spirit,
That nothing in the world is sure or fast,
And that man's selfishness, though decked as merit,
Betrays itself at last.

That hard the lot to be a queen of beauty,
And all is fruitless, like the treadmill toil
Of some paid dancer, fainting at her duty,
Still with her vacant smile.

That if one build on hearts, ill shall befall it,
That all things crack, and love and beauty flee,
Until oblivion flings them in his wallet,
Spoil of eternity.

Oft have I called to mind that night enchanted,
The silence and the languor over all,
And that wild confidence, thus harshly chanted,
At the heart's confessional.

— Lois Saunders, Flowers of Evil (NY: New Directions, 1955)


Two editions of Fleurs du mal were published in Baudelaire's lifetime — one in 1857 and an expanded edition in 1861. "Scraps" and censored poems were collected in Les Épaves in 1866. After Baudelaire died the following year, a "definitive" edition appeared in 1868.