Self Portrait by Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire's
Fleurs du mal / Flowers of Evil

Un Voyage à Cythère

Mon coeur, comme un oiseau, voltigeait tout joyeux
Et planait librement à l'entour des cordages;
Le navire roulait sous un ciel sans nuages;
Comme un ange enivré d'un soleil radieux.

Quelle est cette île triste et noire? — C'est Cythère,
Nous dit-on, un pays fameux dans les chansons
Eldorado banal de tous les vieux garçons.
Regardez, après tout, c'est une pauvre terre.

— Île des doux secrets et des fêtes du coeur!
De l'antique Vénus le superbe fantôme
Au-dessus de tes mers plane comme un arôme
Et charge les esprits d'amour et de langueur.

Belle île aux myrtes verts, pleine de fleurs écloses,
Vénérée à jamais par toute nation,
Où les soupirs des coeurs en adoration
Roulent comme l'encens sur un jardin de roses

Ou le roucoulement éternel d'un ramier!
— Cythère n'était plus qu'un terrain des plus maigres,
Un désert rocailleux troublé par des cris aigres.
J'entrevoyais pourtant un objet singulier!

Ce n'était pas un temple aux ombres bocagères,
Où la jeune prêtresse, amoureuse des fleurs,
Allait, le corps brûlé de secrètes chaleurs,
Entrebâillant sa robe aux brises passagères;

Mais voilà qu'en rasant la côte d'assez près
Pour troubler les oiseaux avec nos voiles blanches,
Nous vîmes que c'était un gibet à trois branches,
Du ciel se détachant en noir, comme un cyprès.

De féroces oiseaux perchés sur leur pâture
Détruisaient avec rage un pendu déjà mûr,
Chacun plantant, comme un outil, son bec impur
Dans tous les coins saignants de cette pourriture;

Les yeux étaient deux trous, et du ventre effondré
Les intestins pesants lui coulaient sur les cuisses,
Et ses bourreaux, gorgés de hideuses délices,
L'avaient à coups de bec absolument châtré.

Sous les pieds, un troupeau de jaloux quadrupèdes,
Le museau relevé, tournoyait et rôdait;
Une plus grande bête au milieu s'agitait
Comme un exécuteur entouré de ses aides.

Habitant de Cythère, enfant d'un ciel si beau,
Silencieusement tu souffrais ces insultes
En expiation de tes infâmes cultes
Et des péchés qui t'ont interdit le tombeau.

Ridicule pendu, tes douleurs sont les miennes!
Je sentis, à l'aspect de tes membres flottants,
Comme un vomissement, remonter vers mes dents
Le long fleuve de fiel des douleurs anciennes;

Devant toi, pauvre diable au souvenir si cher,
J'ai senti tous les becs et toutes les mâchoires
Des corbeaux lancinants et des panthères noires
Qui jadis aimaient tant à triturer ma chair.

— Le ciel était charmant, la mer était unie;
Pour moi tout était noir et sanglant désormais,
Hélas! et j'avais, comme en un suaire épais,
Le coeur enseveli dans cette allégorie.

Dans ton île, ô Vénus! je n'ai trouvé debout
Qu'un gibet symbolique où pendait mon image...
— Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon coeur et mon corps sans dégoût!

Charles Baudelaire

A Voyage to Cythera

My heart like a bird was fluttering joyously
And soaring freely around the rigging;
Beneath a cloudless sky the ship was rolling
Like an angel drunken with the radiant sun.

What is this black, gloomy island? — It's Cythera,
They tell us, a country celebrated in song,
The banal Eldorado of old bachelors.
Look at it; after all, it is a wretched land.

— Island of sweet secrets, of the heart's festivals!
The beautiful shade of ancient Venus
Hovers above your seas like a perfume
And fills all minds with love and languidness.

Fair isle of green myrtle filled with full-blown flowers
Ever venerated by all nations,
Where the sighs of hearts in adoration
Roll like incense over a garden of roses

Or like the eternal cooing of wood-pigeons!
— Cythera was now no more than the barrenest land,
A rocky desert disturbed by shrill cries.
But I caught a glimpse of a singular object!

It was not a temple in the shade of a grove
Where the youthful priestess, amorous of flowers,
Was walking, her body hot with hidden passion,
Half-opening her robe to the passing breezes;

But behold! as we passed, hugging the shore
So that we disturbed the sea-birds with our white sails,
We saw it was a gallows with three arms
Outlined in black like a cypress against the sky.

Ferocious birds perched on their feast were savagely
Destroying the ripe corpse of a hanged man;
Each plunged his filthy beak as though it were a tool
Into every corner of that bloody putrescence;

The eyes were two holes and from the gutted belly
The heavy intestines hung down along his thighs
And his torturers, gorged with hideous delights,
Had completely castrated him with their sharp beaks.

Below his feet a pack of jealous quadrupeds
Prowled with upraised muzzles and circled round and round;
One beast, larger than the others, moved in their midst
Like a hangman surrounded by his aides.

Cytherean, child of a sky so beautiful,
You endured those insults in silence
To expiate your infamous adorations
And the sins which denied to you a grave.

Ridiculous hanged man, your sufferings are mine!
I felt at the sight of your dangling limbs
The long, bitter river of my ancient sorrows
Rise up once more like vomit to my teeth;

Before you, poor devil of such dear memory
I felt all the stabbing beaks of the crows
And the jaws of the black panthers who loved so much
In other days to tear my flesh to shreds.

— The sky was charming and the sea was smooth;
For me thenceforth all was black and bloody,
Alas! and I had in that allegory
Wrapped up my heart as in a heavy shroud.

On your isle, O Venus! I found upright only
A symbolic gallows from which hung my image...
O! Lord! give me the strength and the courage
To contemplate my body and soul without loathing!

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

Voyage to Cytherea

My heart, a bird, seemed joyfully to fly
And round the rigging cruised with nimble gyre.
The vessel rolled beneath the cloudless sky
Like a white angel, drunk with solar fire.

What is that sad, black island like a pall?
Why, Cytherea, famed in many a book,
The Eldorado of old-stagers. Look:
It's but a damned poor country after all!

Isle of sweet secrets and heart-feasting fire!
Of antique Venus the majestic ghost
Rolls like a storm of fragrance from your coast
Filling our souls with languor and desire!

Isle of green myrtles, where each flower uncloses,
Adored by nations till the end of time:
Sighs of adoring hearts, like incense, climb.
And pour their perfume over sheaves of roses,

Or groves of turtles in an endless coo!
But no! it was a waste where nothing grows,
Torn only by the raucous cries of crows:
Yet there a curious object rose in view.

This was no temple hid in bosky trees,
Where the young priestess, amorous of flowers,
Whom secretly a loving flame devours,
Walks with her robe half-open to the breeze.

For as we moved inshore to coast the shallows
And our white canvas scared the crows to fly,
Like a tall cypress, blackened on the sky,
We saw it was a gaunt three-forking gallows.

Fierce birds, perched on their meal, began to slash
And rip with rage a rotten corpse that swung.
Each screwed and chiselled with its beak among
The crisp and bleeding crannies of the hash.

His eyes were holes: from open stomach direly
His heavy tripes cascaded to his thighs.
Gorged with such ghastly dainties to the eyes,
His torturers had gelded him entirely.

Beneath, some jealous prowling quadrupeds,
With lifted muzzles, for the leavings scrambled.
The largest seemed, as in the midst he gambolled,
An executioner among his aides.

Native of Cytherea's cloudless clime
In silent suffering you paid the price,
And expiated ancient cults of vice
With generations of forbidden crime.

Ridiculous hanged man! Your griefs I know.
I felt, to see you swing above the heath,
Like nausea slowly rising to my teeth,
The bilious stream of ancient human woe.

Poor devil, dear to memory! before me
I seemed to feel each talon, fang, and beak
Of all the stinking crows and panthers sleek
That in my lifetime ever chewed and tore me.

The sky was charming and the sea unclouded,
But all was black and bloody to my mind.
As in a dismal winding-sheet entwined,
My heart was in this allegory shrouded.

A gallows where my image hung apart
Was all I found on Venus' isle of sighs.
O God, give me the strength to scrutinise,
Without disgust, my body and my heart!

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

A Voyage to Cythera

My heart, that seemed a bird, was flying in the sun
Before the mast — was flying joyously ahead:
The ship, too, like an angel, all her sails outspread,
Calmly beneath the unclouded sky flew on and on.

What is that somber island? what dreary port of call?
"Cythera," someone laughs — "the legend of the seas,
Time-honoured Eldorado of aging debauchees.
Look! It is only a poor, bleak country, after all."

— O island of sweet revels and the sounding lyre!
O shore of unimaginable secrets, where
The shade of Venus walks upon the twilight air,
Drugging the very soul with languor and desire!

O island of green myrtles never withering!
Thy long renown, by every human tongue confessed,
To the far-scattered nations of the east and west
Is wafted, like the perfume of an endless spring

Or like a dove's nostalgic and eternal moan!
— Cythera had become, in truth, a wretched land,
A sullen desert glittering with rock and sand:
I saw along those shores one sign of life alone.

It was no antique temple nor the ruin thereof,
Where a young priestess wanders, her light robes unpent,
Confusing with the scent of flowers the virgin scent
Of her slim body secretly aflame for love.

No; but we could see clearly, having come so nigh
That the shore-birds were scolding and beating upon our sails,
A solitary gibbet constructed of three rails,
Funereal as a tall dead cypress against the sky.

Some vultures were destroying with energy and address
A hanged man, ripe already by perhaps a week —
Each planting carefully, like a sharp tool, his beak
In every comer of that dangling rottenness.

The eyes were holes; from the torn groin meandering
On to the thighs, streamed down the intestines blue and bright;
Not to be cheated of any possible delight,
Those birds had absolutely castrated the poor thing.

Below, a pack of jealous wolves, impatient for
The still suspended, speedily diminishing feast,
Wove round with lifted muzzles. One gigantic beast
Was like an executioner among his corps.

Son of Cythera! remnant of a world so brave!
How silently, with thy black hollow eyes of woe,
Didst thou hang there, in payment for I do not know
What desperate crime forbidding thee an honest grave.

Helpless and abject creature! Who art thou but I?
Beholding thee, I could feel rise into my breast,
Like a long bitter vomit, all the sick repressed
Griefs and humiliations of the years gone by.

At sight of thee, poor devil, I could feel the whole
Rage of the past upon me — every beak and tooth
Of those wild birds and animals that in my youth
Loved tirelessly to lacerate my flesh and soul.

— The sea was calm and beautiful, the sky was clear:
What shadow covered them and hid them from my eyes?
The shadow cast by that symbolic tree! It lies
Upon my heart like a black pall for ever, I fear.

Naught else, O Venus, in thy whole dominion — just
That mournful allegory to greet me, in my hour.
Almighty God! Give me the courage and the power
To contemplate my own true image without disgust!

— George Dillon, Flowers of Evil (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936)

A Voyage to Cythera

If my heart was alive
Switched to excitement
As I felt the sea spray
Hitting the flesh
Then it weakened when told "The island we're passing is Cythera,
Stockyard of the unarousable, Eldorado of the miserably fuckless
Who now extract their pleasures
from fantasy and pain!"

But you were once the island of triumphant sensuality,
Yes! Venus landed here on her hydrophonic seashell to
Pour the perfume of love into the world. Now it's anguish
A wet Iliad lotus of mental war and kids perpetually excited
In the radioactive summer heat.

Cythera, you're a shale and sandstone rock pulverized
By excessive demands and impossible infatuations. The
Priestesses you would expect have been ravished by working feverishly
On their backs there, do not exist. Some different existence
Decants itself: something for the sighs of the blasted
And the ravings of those who have forgotten how to take it.

As we rounded the headland
The isle's central scene slid into view.
A man hung on a gibbet engulfed by a cluster of
Screeching ravens that were plunging their diseased
Scalpels into every part of the anatomy, fighting for
The tastier and choicer organs and flesh. His
Intestines drooped out of the stomach coiled like
Purple/grey colored sausages. The birds attacked,
Popped the membranes, causing the intestinal fluid
To run over the castrated groin and serrated thighs.
The arms, dangling from only a few tissues of muscle,
Swayed circularly in the wind until pecked off by
Smallish, intellectual members of the flock.

A stream of vomit cruised back and forth behind my clenched teeth.
The shore scene washed around in my throat and head. The sea and sky
Remained entangled in their uncaring dream while
My heart flopped in my hands, stinging and hurting like a spiny fish.

I realized that I would be sleeping in no more Augustinian nights,
That I could look forward to never finding a satisfiable lover.
Each of my sins and thoughts had become one of those birds
Groping its way through my flesh in search of my shuddering soul.

— Will Schmitz

A Voyage to Cythera

My heart was like a bird and took to flight,
Around the rigging circling joyously;
The ship rolled on beneath a cloudless sky
Like a great angel drunken with the light.

"What is yon isle, sad and funereal?"
"Cythera, famed in deathless song," say they,
"The gay old bachelors' Eldorado — Nay,
Look! 'tis a poor bare country after all!"

Isle of sweet secrets and heart banquetings!
The queenly shade of antique Venus thrills
Scentlike above thy level seas and fills
Our souls with languor and all amorous things.

Fair island of green myrtles and blown flowers
Held holy by all men for evermore.
Where the faint sighs of spirits that adore
Float like rose-incense through the quiet hours,

And dovelike sounds each murmured orison: —
Cythera lay there barren 'neath bright skies,
A rocky waste rent by discordant cries:
Natheless I saw a curious thing thereon.

No shady temple was it, close enshrined
I' the trees; no flower-crowned priestess hither came
With her young body burnt by secret flame,
Baring her breast to the caressing wind;

But when so close to the land's edge we drew
Our canvas scared the sea-fowl — gradually
We knew it for a three-branched gallows tree
Like a black cypress stark against the blue.

A rotten carcase hung, whereon did sit
A swarm of foul black birds; with writhe and shriek
Each sought to pierce and plunge his knife-like beak
Deep in the bleeding trunk and limbs of it.

The eyes were holes; the belly opened wide,
Streaming its heavy entrails on the thighs;
The grim birds, gorged with dreadful delicacies.
Had dug and furrowed it on every side.

Beneath the blackened feet there strove and pressed
A herd of jealous beasts with upward snout,
And in the midst of these there turned about
One, the chief hangman, larger than the rest...

Lone Cytherean! now all silently
Thou sufferest these insults to atone
For those old infamous sins that thou hast known,
The sins that locked the gate o' the grave to thee.

Mine are thy sorrows, ludicrous corse; yea, all
Are mine! I stood thy swaying limbs beneath,
And, like a bitter vomit, to my teeth
There rose old sorrows in a stream of gall.

O thou unhappy devil, I felt afresh,
Gazing at thee, the beaks and jaws of those
Black savage panthers and those ruthless crows,
Who loved of old to macerate my flesh.

The sea was calm, the sky without a cloud;
Henceforth for me all things that came to pass
Were blood and darkness, — round my heart, alas!
There clung that allegory, like a shroud.

Naught save mine image on a gibbet thrust
Found I on Venus island desolate...
Ah, God! the courage and strength to contemplate
My body and my heart without disgust!

— Jack Collings Squire, Poems and Baudelaire Flowers (London: The New Age Press, Ltd, 1909)


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.