by Joseph Charles MacKenzie

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Two arts are beautifully displayed in Helen Palma’s Selected Poems from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (Pivot Press, New York, 2014). The first and most obvious is that of translation, but also an art rarely considered in our day, the art of selection.

Selective translation, as differentiated from the comprehensive translation of an entire work or oeuvre, belongs to the poet for whom translation is an occasion for magnificent poetry offering at the same time a solid idea of the original poet’s true spirit. Selection is therefore an auxiliary art to that of translation. In this case, Helen Palma has not only translated well, she has also selected well. Her chief aim is to give us perfectly crafted English verse through a well-chosen échantillon of Baudelaire’s original collection (as republished in Yves Gérard Le Dantec’s authoritative edition in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade series). Palma’s selection is far from thin, however, as it gives us a full third of the original opus. For readers of French, the original texts of the poems have been generously included on facing pages.

The ampleness of Helen Palma’s selection is calculated to give the reader a just picture of the emotional breadth of Baudelaire’s psychological universe which underlies Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire, who had drawn much of his early inspiration from Hugo, notoriously moves from the grotesque to the sublime in his poems. Helen Palma’s selection gives us a clear idea of how these two poles of Baudelaire’s collection function with respect to one another. This is particularly evident in her adept translations of the “great poems,” such as “Spleen” and “Elevation,” but also in some of the poems that are generally underappreciated these days, including “Le Guignon,” “Causerie,” and “Ciel Brouillé.” The Hugolian aspect of Baudelaire’s work is well represented in the two “Chants d’Automne” from which Palma unleashes the full force of the poet’s lyricism.

Every aspect of Baudelaire’s poetic personality is covered in this book, including the ever-present influence of Gautier, Baudelaire’s first biographer, which is perfectly drawn out of the texts. “Hymne à la Beauté” is compellingly rendered with a scholar’s understanding of Gautier’s doctrine of “l’art pour l’art.” Baudelaire the Christian moralist, exposing les misères de son siècle, the miseries of his time, is poignantly treated in Palma’s almost dramatic translations of “La Mort des Pauvres” and “Le Tonneau de la Haine”— poems, again, that are sadly under-anthologized in today’s Anglo-American publishing world. Even Baudelaire the flâneur des rues discretely observing the ever-changing city-scape of Paris under Houssmann’s reforms, is marvelously brought to life in a euphonious and memorable translation of “Le Cygne,” one of the immortal poems of the French nineteenth century.

Remarkably, Helen Palma’s exquisitely crafted translations follow Baudelaire’s rhyme schemes with a poet’s meticulous eye for detail—an important feature for those wishing to deepen their understanding of Baudelaire’s poetic structures. The translator herself has noted in her brief introduction that not every poem of Les Fleurs du Mal transposes easily into English, especially given (as we immediately discern) her own technical exigencies, those of translation properly speaking. The nineteenth century had a similar understanding of selection. Comprehensive translations were left to academics who were seldom poets in their own right, whereas working poets like Algernon Charles Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti tended to be selective in their choice of content. Indeed, Rossetti, although selective, was nevertheless prolific, with his English translations of nearly two hundred poems, beside the Vita Nuova, swelling the pages of his Early Italian Poets (1861).

There is also the question of degrees of translation, from the poetically licensed to the more precise transposition of forms and stylistic devices belonging to translation in the stricter sense. To illustrate the difference between the two and better appreciate Helen Palma’s achievement, one might take Frank Pearce Strum’s translation of the all-important last verse of “La Beauté” for comparison. For “Mes yeux, mes larges yeux aux clartés éternelles!” Strum gives: “The placid mirrors of my luminous eyes.” While Strum’s version captures the eternal stasis underlying not only the poem, but Baudelaire’s entire understanding of Gautier’s marbleized aesthetic as presented in Émaux et Camées, it utterly discards one of the poem’s most ingenious devices, the conduplicatio of “mes yeux, mes larges yeux.” Helen Palma’s treatment of the same verse preserves the all-important repetition of “mes yeux,” keeps the “miroirs” in the preceding verse where they belong, retains the exclamatory punctuation, and manages to sound poetic in our current English all at the same time: “My eyes, wide eyes, filled with infinite light!” Helen Palma’s accuracy here in no way compromises the lyrical dimensions of the verse.

Strum, a friend and collaborator of William Butler Yeats, had achieved fame for his 1906 translation of Les Fleurs du Mal. But just as one senses one is reading Yeats and not Ronsard in the former’s translation of “Quand vous serez bien vielle,” one has a similar sense that many of today’s translations of Baudelaire are really commentaries revealing the mind of the translator more than that of the translated. Rather than overwriting Baudelaire’s technical devices to flaunt her own style and genius, Helen Palma has found that critical point of balance between the two approaches. She renders Baudelaire into beautiful English prosody without eviscerating Baudelaire’s technique, style, or meaning. In other words, Helen Palma has taken the more difficult and arduous route of translation, one which is less and less travelled these days, but which offers far greater rewards for the reader.

In conclusion, Helen Palma’s Selected Poems from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal does exactly what a solid, classic translation ought to do: elucidate, engage, and edify. One would expect no less from a singularly gifted poet holding advanced degrees in Classics and Comparative Literature (City University of New York). Helen Palma’s many poems and translations have appeared in numerous journals, including The Formalist, Iambs and Trochees, Trinacria, The Raintown Review, and Pivot. Those possessing extensive knowledge of Baudelaire and his time will especially enjoy these intellectively gratifying translations of Les Fleurs du Mal, while those wishing to enjoy Baudelaire in English on a simple, poetic level, will keep this much-needed book ever at their side—a stolen pleasure of the highest order.

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The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or commentary.

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10 Responses

  1. Michael Dashiell

    I’ve read Flowers of Evil. I love its passion and lush imagery that satisfies one’s sensuality. He was willing to address dark and negative topics that renders him a modernist but also a romantic poet. One poem stands out in my memory: The Albatross that described the mockery and disdain poets suffer.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      It is, Mr. Dashiell, a memorable poem, one which I had the great pleasure of studying with one of the world’s foremost experts on Baudelaire, Claude-Marie Senninger of the University of Paris (La Sorbonne).

      Indeed, the origin of the poem was a sea voyage that Baudelaire had taken on his way to the Indies, but which terminated on the Île Maurice. The poet had directly observed something very much like what he imparts in the two verses about the vulgar behavior of the seamen: “L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,/L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait !”

      Baudelaire had likely conceived his famous comparison of the poet to an albatross during this voyage.

  2. David Paul Behrens

    What a coincidence! When I located my copy of Flowers of Evil, which I have owned for decades, I found a bookmark on the page containing ‘The Albatross,’ which is the second poem in the first section entitled BILE AND THE IDEAL.

    THE ALBATROSS (Translated by Richard Wilbur)

    Often, for pastime, mariners will ensnare
    The albatross, that vast seabird who sweeps
    On high companionable pinion where
    Their vessel glides upon the bitter deeps.

    Torn from his native space, his captive king
    Flounders upon the deck in stricken pride,
    And pitiably lets his great white wing
    Drag like a heavy paddle at his side.

    This rider of winds, how awkward he is, and weak!
    How droll he seems, who lately was all grace!
    A sailor pokes a pipe stem into his beak;
    Another, hobbling, mocks his trammeled pace.

    The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds,
    Familiar of storms, of stars, and of all high things;
    Exiled on earth amidst its hooting crowds,
    He cannot walk, borne down by his giant wings.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      It’s very good for our readers, Mr. Behrens, that you rightly mention “Spleen et Idéal,” the largest section of the “Les Fleurs du Mal” containing 85 of the collection’s total 126 poems.

      Indeed, the then fashionable anglicism “spleen” had been used earlier by Alfred de Musset to signify the loss of hope that his young generation had experienced after the Revolution whose socialist promises had proven complete deceptions. In a more psychological sense, “spleen” came to symbolize the irremediable melancholy suffered by a disillusioned society whose future had been compromised by the convulsive instability the Paris mob had created in its various attempts to overturn the Catholic monarchy. This is what contemporary authors and critics mean by “le mal du siècle”—a kind of national depression.

      For Lamartine, whose Catholic faith was never truly shaken by the liberalism of Lamennais, this malady was entirely curable by grace and exaltation in the radiance of the divine in nature, in the Thomistic sense of nature as one of the “quinque viae” to God.

      For Baudelaire, who would ultimately have recourse to the Sacraments at the end of his life (although I still pray for the release of his soul in purgatory according to our custom), this melancholy had no earthly remedy. But far from making Baudelaire a “decadent” or “maudit” as secular academics uncritically repeat, this rejection of mere creation and exalted nature as a replacement of Highest Truth could not be more counter-revolutionary, a complete repudiation of Rousseau.

      The “critique Catholique” of Baudelaire, in other words, has yet to be written, as it has recently been written for Shakespeare thanks to the efforts of Joseph Pearce.

  3. Cews Baudeleir

    I am thankful for Mr. MacKenzie’s bringing Baudelaire, through Ms. Palma’s translations, to our attention, as Mr. Eager brought forth his enthusiasm for Wordsworth and Mr. Gosselin brought forth his lyric admiration of Goethe and Heine. By works such as these, SCP proves time and again, the genuine nature of this enterprise. Having read the translations of Ms. Palma that Mr. MacKenzie included, poems he rightly mentions as fairly famous, I am surprised how often I am reminded of Poe.

    I am also thankful for Mr. Behrens’ inclusion of Wilbur’s translation of “The Albatross,” after Mr. Dashiell’s comment; it reminded me of a poem I wrote a couple of years ago:

    Charles Baudelaire

    He sat upon our deck, like as an idle albatross,
    as we plowed forward through the sea, an oceanic cross,
    his vast wings dragging lazily, fluffed out, like large, white oars,
    a clumsy, awkward clown, content with wooden boards and floors.
    Pathetic, ugly, weak and gauche, a tragi-comic fool,
    who entertained the crew with yammering and whistled drool.
    This urban dandy laughing at the bowman standing by,
    the butt of hoots and jeers, who left the kingdom of the sky,
    to hang about with mariners upon the open sea,
    relaxing as the wind-flushed sa-ils brushed infinity.

    In a statement of the obvious, we can learn about the various poets included here @ SCP by how they respond to other writers.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      In fact, Mr. Baudeleir, I think your “oceanic cross” is much closer to my own interpretation of the poem.

      In other words, Baudelaire, as a Catholic, would most certainly have had the image of Christ in his mind in forming the comparison between the albatross, a “roi de l’azur” (king of the blue) with the extremely common title of Christ found everywhere in Baudelaire’s culture, namely Roi du Ciel, or King of Heaven. In fact, Baudelaire himself presses the point by placing his primary contrasting word, “maladROIt” right next to “ROIs de l’azur.”

      So if one is required to perform the standard French exercise of an “analyse du text” (which was routine in my doctoral program in French Studies), the two poles of the poem emerge, namely that which is of heaven, the sky, and that which of the earth, or the “planches” of the ship.

      It would be impossible for a Catholic reader not to make the connection between the “passion” of the albatross and that of Christ, especially in the Third Mystery of the Rosary (The Crowning with Thorns) which Baudelaire would have meditated throughout his childhood and youth.

      The poet was baptized in Saint-Sulpice. He also died a Catholic, receiving the Last Rites, including the Rite of Penance, after a long illness.

  4. David Paul Behrens

    I suspect many of us respect and appreciate the work of the great French poets, such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, who portrayed a more earthy and realistic quality, juxtaposed with the divine aspects of existence, as compared to the work of the more romantically inclined English poets of yesteryear. I might even go so far as to say I prefer the classical French poets, with their use of down to earth imagery and wordplay. However, my all time favorite is still the English poet William Blake.

  5. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Thank you, everyone, for your kind comments. I would like to add one more thing.

    I do not read translations of French poetry, as French is one of my natural languages and my private library abounds with fine French editions.

    Helen Palma’s translation of Baudelaire, however, is literally the first translation I have read with any degree of satisfaction. I believe the perfection of her work demands serious consideration and highly recommend it to readers as an excellent choice for their own personal collections, if not a very special gift for those sophisticated, hard-to-please friends at Christmas.


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