Self Portrait by Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire's
Fleurs du mal / Flowers of Evil

La Béatrice

Dans des terrains cendreux, calcinés, sans verdure,
Comme je me plaignais un jour à la nature,
Et que de ma pensée, en vaguant au hasard,
J'aiguisais lentement sur mon coeur le poignard,
Je vis en plein midi descendre sur ma tête
Un nuage funèbre et gros d'une tempête,
Qui portait un troupeau de démons vicieux,
Semblables à des nains cruels et curieux.
À me considérer froidement ils se mirent,
Et, comme des passants sur un fou qu'ils admirent,
Je les entendis rire et chuchoter entre eux,
En échangeant maint signe et maint clignement d'yeux:

— «Contemplons à loisir cette caricature
Et cette ombre d'Hamlet imitant sa posture,
Le regard indécis et les cheveux au vent.
N'est-ce pas grand'pitié de voir ce bon vivant,
Ce gueux, cet histrion en vacances, ce drôle,
Parce qu'il sait jouer artistement son rôle,
Vouloir intéresser au chant de ses douleurs
Les aigles, les grillons, les ruisseaux et les fleurs,
Et même à nous, auteurs de ces vieilles rubriques,
Réciter en hurlant ses tirades publiques?»

J'aurais pu (mon orgueil aussi haut que les monts
Domine la nuée et le cri des démons)
Détourner simplement ma tête souveraine,
Si je n'eusse pas vu parmi leur troupe obscène,
Crime qui n'a pas fait chanceler le soleil!
La reine de mon coeur au regard nonpareil
Qui riait avec eux de ma sombre détresse
Et leur versait parfois quelque sale caresse.

Charles Baudelaire


One day as I was making complaint to nature
In a burnt, ash-gray land without vegetation,
And as I wandered aimlessly, slowly whetting
Upon my heart the dagger of my thought,
I saw in broad daylight descending on my head
A leaden cloud, pregnant with a tempest,
That carried a herd of vicious demons
Who resembled curious, cruel dwarfs.
They began to look at me coldly,
And I heard them laugh and whisper to each other,
Exchanging many a sign and many a wink
Like passers-by who discuss a fool they admire:

— "Let us look leisurely at this caricature,
This shade of Hamlet who imitates his posture
With indecisive look, hair streaming in the wind.
Is it not a pity to see this bon vivant,
This tramp, this queer fish, this actor without a job,
Because he knows how to play skillfully his role,
Wish to interest in the song of his woes
The eagles, the crickets, the brooks, and the flowers,
And even to us, authors of that hackneyed drivel,
Bellow the recital of his public tirades?"

I could have (my pride as high as mountains
Dominates the clouds and the cries of the demons)
Simply turned away my sovereign head
If I had not seen in that obscene troop
A crime which did not make the sun reel in its course!
The queen of my heart with the peerless gaze
Laughing with them at my somber distress
And giving them at times a lewd caress.

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


In charred and ashen fields without a leaf,
While I alone to Nature told my grief,
I sharpened, as I went, like any dart,
My thought upon the grindstone of my heart —
When by a troop of vicious demons led,
A great black cloud rushed down towards my head.
As loafers at a lunatic they leered
And in my face inquisitively peered.
With nods and signs, like dwarfed and apish elves,
They laughed, and winked, and spoke among themselves.

"This parody of Hamlet, take his measure,
And contemplate the travesty at leisure.
Is it not sad to see the puzzled stare,
The halting gait, and the dishevelled hair
With which this clownish actor, on half-pay,
Because he is an artist in his way,
Attempts to interest, in the griefs he sings,
Eagles, and crickets, flowers, and running springs,
And even us, the authors of his woe,
Howling his sorrows as a public show?"

I could have dominated with my pride
That horde of demons and the taunts they cried,
Just by the mere aversion of my face —
Had I not seen, amongst that evil race,
(A crime that did not even daze the sun!)
Queen of my heart, the peerless, only one,
Laughing with them to see my dark distress,
And giving them, at times, some lewd caress.

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

My Beatrice

While I was walking in a pitted place,
crying aloud against the human race,
letting thoughts ramble here and there apart —
knives singing on the whetstones in my heart —
I saw a cloud descending on my head
in the full noon, a cloud inhabited
by black devils, sharp, humped, inquisitive
as dwarfs. They knew where I was sensitive,
now idling there, and looked me up and down,
as cool delinquents watch a madman clown.
I heard them laugh and snicker blasphemies,
while swapping signs and blinking with their eyes.

"Let's stop and watch this creature at our leisure —
all sighs and sweaty hair. We'll take his measure.
It's a great pity that this mountebank
and ghost of Hamlet strutting on his plank
should think he's such an artist at his role
he has to rip the lining from his soul
and paralyze the butterflies and bees
with a peepshow of his indecencies —
and even we, who gave him his education,
must listen to his schoolboy declamation."

Wishing to play a part (my pride was high
above the mountains and the devil's cry)
like Hamlet now, I would have turned my back,
had I not seen among the filthy pack
(Oh crime that should have made the sun drop dead!)
my heart's queen and the mistress of my bed
there purring with the rest at my distress,
and sometimes tossing them a stale caress.

— Robert Lowell, from Marthiel & Jackson Matthews, eds., The Flowers of Evil (NY: New Directions, 1963)


In a burned-over land, where not a blade or leaf
Showed green, through a charred world, whetting my ancient grief
Slowly upon my heart, and making sad lament
To Nature, at broad noon, not knowing where I went,
I walked... and saw above me a big cloud — which at first
I took to be a storm — blacken, and swell and burst,
And pour upon my head instead of rain a rout
Of demons, dwarfed and cruel, which ringed me all about.
As passersby, no matter upon what errands bent,
Will always stop and stare with cold astonishment
At some poor man gone mad, then bait him wittily,
Just so they gaped and nudged, and jeered aloud at me.

— "Come! Have a look at this! What is it, should you say?
The shade of Hamlet — why, of course! — look at the way
He stands! — that undecided eye! — the wild hair, too!
Come here! Do look! Oh, wouldn't it wring a tear from you!
This shabby bon-vivant, this pompous tramp, this ham-
Actor out of a job, thinking that he can cram,
By ranting, stale gesticulations, crocodile-tears,
His tragic fate into the ears of crickets, into the ears
Of eagles! — yes, who knows? — along with brooks and flowers
Forgetting we invented these tricks, even into ours!"

But for one thing — no mountain is taller than my pride;
No demon horde can scale me — I could have turned aside
My sovereign thought, and stood alone... had I not seen
Suddenly, amongst this loathsome troupe, her, my heart's queen —
And the sun did not reel, it stood unmoved above! —
Her of the pure deep gaze, my life, my peerless love,
Mocking and pointing, laughing at my acute distress;
Or fondling some foul dwarf in an obscene caress.

— Edna St. Vincent Millay, Flowers of Evil (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936)

La Beatrice

In a burnt, ashen land, where no herb grew,
I to the winds my cries of anguish threw;
And in my thoughts, in that sad place apart,
Pricked gently with the poignard o'er my heart.
Then in full noon above my head a cloud
Descended tempest-swollen, and a crowd
Of wild, lascivious spirits huddled there,
The cruel and curious demons of the air,
Who coldly to consider me began;
Then, as a crowd jeers some unhappy man,
Exchanging gestures, winking with their eyes —
I heard a laughing and a whispering rise:

"Let us at leisure contemplate this clown,
This shadow of Hamlet aping Hamlet's frown,
With wandering eyes and hair upon the wind.
Is't not a pity that this empty mind,
This tramp, this actor out of work, this droll,
Because he knows how to assume a rĂ´le
Should dream that eagles and insects, streams and woods,
Stand still to hear him chaunt his dolorous moods?
Even unto us, who made these ancient things,
The fool his public lamentation sings."
With pride as lofty as the towering cloud,
I would have stilled these clamouring demons loud,
And turned in scorn my sovereign head away
Had I not seen — O sight to dim the day! —
There in the middle of the troupe obscene
The proud and peerless beauty of my Queen!
She laughed with them at all my dark distress,
And gave to each in turn a vile caress.

— F.P. Sturm, from Baudelaire: His Prose and Poetry, edited by Thomas Robert Smith (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919)


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.