Friday, June 12, 2009

Edna St. Vincent Millay: Baudelaire

charles baudelaire

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Below: An excerpt from Edna St. Vincent Millay's Introduction to the Dillon/Millay translation of Les Fleurs du Mal (1936).

A short excerpt from the same book on the influence of Poe on Baudelaire.

(Companion post found HERE.)

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"Many writers, I am sure, will envy me the happy circumstance which makes it possible for me so highly to praise and so warmly to recommend this book of which I am co-author, without at the same time laying myself open to the grave charge of liking my own book and saying so. This circumstance which permits -- permits, do I say? -- which imposes upon me this heady and exhilarating task is the following:

Until four months ago this was entirely George Dillon's book; I had no part in it. For nearly two years Mr. Dillon had had the intention of bringing out a book of his translations of the poems of Charles Baudelaire. He had sent me several of the translations which were already finished, and asked me if I liked them sufficiently to be be willing to write an introduction for them. I had seen some excellent translations of French poetry into English,1 but I had never seen a translation of Les Fleurs du Mal which greatly pleased me.2 I found Mr. Dillon's poems so true to the original in style, as well as in matter and mood, that I replied saying I should be delighted and honoured with to write the introduction. Mr. Dillon continued with his translating; and I went on with my own work. I was familiar with the writings of the great French poet, and admired him extremely; but I had never translated a line of Baudelaire, nor had I ever considered doing so, although I had made a few translations from certain other French writers.

About four months ago, when looking up a poem in Les Fleurs du Mal, in order to compare the original with Mr. Dillon's English version of it, my attention was caught by a line in quite another poem; and a few minutes later, with something of the terror which a person must feel who realizes that he has undoubtedly been bitten by a mosquito and that he is in a notoriously malarial climate, I found that I had translated the line!

That in itself would have been innocent enough, but I was aware that I was breathing had, that I more likely than not had a feverish glitter in my eye, that I had entirely forgotten what I was looking up, and that I had more than half an idea as to how the translation of the whole stanza should go!

"Now, that's perfectly all right, and don't you be worried," I said to myself soothingly and with a false smile; "you're just doing it for fun; it's just an exercise. Go right ahead and translate the whole poem. It won't do you a bit of harm. Only, of course, when you've done that, you'll go straight back to work on your own book, which is the most important thing in the world to you, and you won't even think of translating another."

This is what I said to myself, but neither of us believed me. Fatally in my mind was the sickening conviction that I was in for it, that I had caught the fever, and that neither quinine nor wise counsel could save me.

From that day to this moment I have thought of nothing, lived for nothing, but my translations from Les Fleurs du Mal which are now printed, together with George Dillon's, in this collection (the combined translations representing about one-half of Baudelaire's published poetry.)

I see no reason, however, why the writer of a preface to another persons book should be restrained, just because against his will and propelled by a demon he has burst into the book proper and become a part of it, from writing his preface.

Which I now proceed to do.


To translate poetry into prose, no matter how faithfully and even subtly the words are reproduced, is to betray the poem. To translate formal stanzas into free verse, free verse into rhymed couplets, is to fail the foreign poet in a very important way.

With most poets, the shape of the poem is not an extraneous attribute of it: the poem could not conceivably have been written in any other form. When the image of the poem first rises before the suddenly quieted and intensely agitated person who is to write it, its shadowy bulk is already dimly outlines; it is rhymed or unrhymed; it is trimeter, tetrameter, or pentameter'; it is free verse, a sonnet, an epic, an ode, a five-act play. To many poets, the physical character of their poem, its rhythm, its rhyme, its music, the way it looks on the page, is quite as important as the thing they wish to say; to some it is vastly more important. To translate the poetry of E.E. Cummings into the rhymed alexandrines of Molière, would be to do Mr. Cummings no service.

Yet this is precisely the sort of thing which is done in a majority of instances when poetry is translated from one language to another. The translator takes the poem, no matter what its form may be, and forces it into the meter and form to which he is most accustomed, the one in which he writes most easily. There are notable exceptions (John Payne and W.J. Robertson, for example, both of whom have translated into alexandrines and managed them very skillfully). But for the most part the translator -- and no wonder -- give himself every possible help and advantage at the outset; a French poet translating verse, no matter what its metrical scheme may be, into French, will, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, translate it into alexandrines; an English poet will translate alexandrines into pentameter. In Les Fleurs du Mal there are only two poems in lines of ten syllables -- Le Léthé, which opens this collection, and Le Portrait, which appears further on.

Baudelaire made, so far as I know, only one translation of English poetry into French, with the exception of Poe's The Raven, which he translated into prose. This, unexpectedly enough, was an "imitation" of part of Longfellow's Hiawatha.3 It is difficult to imagine what it was in the American poem which attracted a poet who not only in his own quality was at the opposite pole from Longfellow, but whose two great enthusiasms in English were the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Since it is only the part of the poem called The Peace Pipe which he seems to have been concerned with, it is possible that it was the theme of universal brotherhood which attracted him; it is also possible that it was principally the strange meter and rhythm of the lines. In any case, Baudelaire's imitation of Hiawatha is in the traditional meter of the Comédie Française -- it is in alexadrines, and it is rhymed.

Consider these lines from the original:

On the Mountains of the Prairie,
On the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
He the Master of Life, descending,
On the red crags of the quarry
Stood erect, and called the nations,
Called the tribes of men together.

From the red stone of the quarry
With his hand he broke a fragment,
Moulded it into a pipe-head,
Shaped and fashioned it with figures;
From the margin of the river
Took a long reed for a pipe-stem,
With its dark green leaves upon it;
Filled the pipe with bark of willow,
With the bark of the red willow.

This is Baudelaire's approximation of them:

Or Gitche Manito, le Maître de la Vie,
Le Puissant, descendit dans la verte prairie,
Dans l’immense prairie aux coteaux montueux;
Et là, sur les rochers de la Rouge Carrière,
Dominant tout l’espace et baigné de lumière,
Il se tenait debout, vaste et majestueux.

Alors il convoqua les peuples innombrables,
Plus nombreux que ne sont les herbes et les sables.
Avec sa main terrible il rompit un morceau
Du rocher, dont il fit une pipe superbe,
Puis, au bord du ruisseau, dans une énorme gerbe,
Pour s’en faire un tuyau, choisit un long roseau.

Having read Baudelaire Calumet de Paix, what does the French reader know about an American poem called Hiawatha? He knows that once there were some redskins, and they were very warlike, and they had a god whose name was Gitche Manito, and he was distressed because they were so warlike, so he made a Pipe of Peace, and they all smoked it. He feels also, such will have been the spell of Baudelaire's lovely lines upon him, that all this was very important. But of the poem Hiawatha itself, of what made it a poem, he knows nothing. All the charm of Longfellow's drum-beating, double-stamping, moccasin-shod tetrameter is lost in the courtly alexandrine of the French adaptation.

When George Dillon wrote me that he was translating some of Les Fleurs du Mal into English verse, and that he was using in every instance the meter and the form used by Baudelaire in the original poem, I was very much interested; this had always seemed to me the only way to go about such a task. It is true that the translator, who is hard put to it enough in any case to transpose a poem from one language into another without strangling it in the process, here takes upon himself an added burden; but he is more than rewarded when he finds that his translation, when read aloud directly after the original, echoes the original, that it is still, in some miraculous way, the same poem, although its words are in a different language. One impertinence at least, of the many impertinences almost necessarily involved in re-writing another person's poem, has not been committed: the poem has been pretty roughly handled, possibly, but its anatomy at least is still intact.

I do not mean by this to suggest that the more closely the translator adheres to the rhythm and the rhyme-scheme of the original, the more liberties he may permit himself in the over setting of the mood and physical content, of the actual words, of the original. No. It is to be supposed that the translator is a serious person, probably greatly admiring, and in any case deeply respecting, the poem upon which he is engaged. It is his duty, as it is his delight, to reproduce this poem in its every aspect as faithfully as possible. To realize, as he works, that his poem is beginning to look like the original, and in a way even to suggest the sound of it, gives him added courage to proceed with his strenuous and exacting task.

Poetry should not, and indeed cannot properly be translated except by poets. But there is more to it than that; it is as complicated as blood-transfusion. It is doubtful if any English poet could translate equally well the poems of Pierre de Rosnard, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset and Charles Baudelaire. It is quite conceivable that William Wordsworth could have made an excellent translation of the poems of Victor Hugo; but one drop of the blood of Wordsworth in the veins of Baudelaire would have meant death. Baudelaire himself was so eminently fitted to translate the works of Poe that one feels sometimes when reading the translation that Edgar Poe wrote his own stories both in English and French, and one is not sure in which langauge one prefers them. But Baudelaire in his imitation of Longfellow was not so successful. Quite apart from the question of meter, a natural, unbridgeable gulf existed between the minds and the tastes of the French and American poets.

You will note that where the Longfellow says simply, "Gitche Manito, the mighty... Stood erect..." Baudelaire says, "Dominating all space and bathed in light, he stood erect, vast and majestic." Naturally, the work of making an eight-syllable line into a twelve-syllable line, supposing that the equivalent words in the two languages are of about the same length, as in this instance for the most part they happen to be, includes a considerable elaboration. But it would have been more characteristic of Longfellow to enlarge, not upon the god-like qualities of Gitche Manito, but upon the physical attributes of natural objects. Compare the two descriptions of the making of the Peace Pipe. Longfellow says, "From the red stone of the quarry/With his hand he broke a fragment"; Baudelaire says, "With his terrible hand he broke a piece of the rock"; the italics are mine, I put them there to call attention to the fact that in the French poem "the red stone of the quarry" becomes plain "rock," whereas the simple "hand" of Gitche Manito becomes a "terrible" hand. Take the following two lines from Hiawatha: "Moulded it into a pipe-head, Shaped and fashioned it with figures." What does Baudelaire say? "He made a superb pipe." Continue with this for a moment: "Took a long reed for a pipe-stem, With its green leaves upon it"; "To make himself a stem from it, he chose a long reed"; "Filled the pipe with bark of willow, With the bark of the red willow"; "To fill it he took the willow's bark" -- this last is from the third stanza of Le Calumet de Paix, not quoted here. (These brutal prose renderings of Baudelaire's lines, naturally, give no suggestion of the quality of Le Calumet de Paix as a poem. But I am considering it here not as a poem, but just as translation.)

As I shall point out further on in this preface, for Baudelaire to consider the reed and the willow at all was a great concession to Longfellow; that he should concern himself as to whether or not so dull a creature as a reed had "dark green leaves" or as to what kind of willow it was, that was asking a bit too much of him.

Under the pen of Baudelaire not only do the "groves of Tuscaloosa" become a "perfumed" forest, and the simple "morning" through whose "tranquil air" the smoke of the peace pipes mounts a "vermilion" morning; but in the last line of Le Calumet de Paix Gitche Manito himself, of whom Longfellow says he "Vanished from before their faces/In the smoke that rolled around him, The Pukwana of the Peace Pipe," ascends into heaven not only "immense," "sublime," "radiant," bit also "perfumed"! There was here an insuperable incompatibility of temperaments.

The poet best fitted, technically, to translate the work of a foreign poet, is the accomplished and disciplined craftsman in his own tongue, who possesses also a comprehensive knowledge of the language from which he is translating. All his skill, however, will not avail him, if he is not sufficiently in sympathy with the poem he is translating, to feel that he might have written it himself. The poem may be even strikingly different from his own work; yet he must feel, at least during the period at which he is at work upon it, that he might have written it himself. He must be able to fill the veins of the poem, nearly emptied through the wound inflicted by translation, with his own blood, and make the poem breathe again.

To be attracted by the music of a poem, to admire it as a fine piece of observation, to concede that the thought expressed is subtle, and that the meter and rhyme are extremely well managed -- all of these honest approbations will not avail, will not lift a finger to save, in his difficult task, the translator nagged by the consideration that the work upon which he is engaged is not "strictly moral," must at all costs be kept from the clairvoyant eyes of the young, and that really, dash it all, the fellow couldn't possibly have meant some of the things he said!

It would seem that certain translators of the Fleurs du Mal have been at times rather uncomfortable under their self-shouldered pack. One sees them at moments ill at ease and embarrassed in the face of a scandalous or otherwise disturbing line, and at these moments the unforgivable thing is bound to happen: they gloss him over; they tone him down; they pass him off. They translate him with the lights out.

Charles Baudelaire did not live the kind of life which would have recommended him to doting fathers as a fitting companion for their debutante daughters -- (although in truth, those debutante daughters would have been even comically safe with him: he was not interested in the undeveloped and immature). He lived openly from the time he was twenty-two with a woman of the lowest class, to whom he was not married; he published a book of poems which was instantly seized by the police as being a menace to public morals; and he took opium. An awareness of this author's reprehensible habits seems at times to have stood between the translators and the particular poem under consideration, as it often, unfortunately, stands between the poem and the reader. Let a poem of Baudelaire be filled with the most rarefied and ethereal sentiments toward some woman, with the deepest and most tender sympathy for the afflicted and the poor, with the most fervent and ecstatic religious ecstasy -- no, no; walk all around it carefully! prod it with a stick at arm's length and be ready to jump! if you pick it up at all, pick it up by the tail.

Even to this day, and even in France, where he is so widely read and so greatly admired, Baudelaire is considered a monster. A very cultured Frenchwoman said to me a few days ago, "But Baudelaire was never tender! C'était un monstre!"

One wonders sometimes what the critic of literature would do, were he left entirely in the dark as to the sex, age, amorous proclivities and political affiliations of the writer whose work he is considering. Fortunately, he does not often find himself in this predicament. For the most part he is in the enviable position of the graphologist who writes, "Send me a sample of your handwriting, and I will read your character," having just looked one up in Who's Who, skimmed through one's recently published autobiography, and had an hour or so's ever-so-interesting conversation with one's most garrulous friend.

It is impossible to make a good translation of a poet of whom one disapproves. To excuse him or to condemn him is, for the translator, equally impertinent and equally fatal. The poem is the thing. Is it interesting? -- is it beautiful? -- is it sublime? Then it was written by nobody. It exists by itself. The reader of poetry who has never had the brain-dizzying experience of being seduced into stupefied, into incredulous, into dismayed, into amused, into delighted, into wild unqualified enthusiasm for a poem written by his bitterest personal enemy, or by the person whom he has for years considered to be the Most Sickening Poet on the Face of the Earth, has never known one of the few authentic paradisiacal vertigoes of life.

I did not know whether George Dillon approved, deplored of was indifferent to the much-discussed bad habits of Charles Baudelaire, or what his opinion might be as to the effect upon the public morals of Les Fleurs du Mal. But in the course of several years of friendship Mr. Dillon and I have read and discussed much poetry together. Our arguments had been fiery and abusive; frigid and polite; pitying and tolerant; scornful and amused; but never had the consideration of the poet's domestic arrangements, or of his poetry as possibly conducive to or deterrent from evil practices, entered into our discussions of his poems as such.

Baudelaire wrote in his projected preface to the second edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, "Some people have said to me that these poems might do harm; I am not rejoiced by this. Others, worthy souls, that they might do good; and that did not afflict me. The fears of the former and the hopes of the latter equally astonished me." I felt sure that the fact that of the Les Fleurs du Mal would be rather out of place on the bookshelf in the nursery, would not strongly influence this translator in his consideration of Baudelaire's poetry, or lead him, to use his author's own phrase, "to confuse ink with virtue." Moreover I felt that in this instance, between the French and American poets there was a real, though not necessarily complete, temperamental compatibility, which would make it possible for Mr. Dillon not only to understand and sympathize with the mood and point of view of many of the poems in the Fleurs du Mal, but even perhaps in some cases to re-create them.

I was not disappointed. When I read Le Mort Joyeux, Le Léthé, Le Goût du néant, Lesbos, L'Examen de Minuit, De Profundis slamavi, as they appear in translation in this book, it seemed to me that the tortured and idealistic spirit of Charles Baudelaire himself was in these English lines.

1 Swinburne and Andrew Lang, among others, did beautiful work in this line; George Santayana's inspired rendering of Gautier's l'Art is a model for translators.

2 The Arthur Symons version, for instance, which is probably the best known, is shockingly inaccurate and misleading.

3 I think it is not generally known by Americans that the American poet Edgar Allan Poe, who is so well known in Europe through Baudelaire's translations of his work into French, and so greatly admired there, is known there for the most part, except by those who have read his poetry in English, as a writer of tales. Baudelaire, who admired Poe so enormously, and who made it the work of nearly half his writing life to present Poe to the French reading public, presented him only as a writer of prose; he did not translate Poe's poetry.

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edgar allan poe baudelaire

"Now we come to the man whose writing had so great an effect upon the thought and upon the life of Baudelaire that many people, a great many French people among them, consider Baudelaire to have been the spiritual child of Poe, a vehicle and a further expression simply of the American poet who had been dead for some time when Baudelaire became acquainted with his works. This is going far. When the French poet first made the acquaintance of the writings of Poe he was twenty-five years old, and had already written some of his most characteristic verse. But see what Baudelaire himself had to say about it, in a typical letter written in defense of one of his painter friends who had been accused of imitating Goya and El Greco: "M. Manet has never seen a Goya; M. Manet has never seen a Greco. Do you doubt that such astonishing geometrical parallelisms can present themselves in nature? Very well! They accuse me, me, of imitating Edgar Poe! Do you know why I so patiently translated Poe? -- Because he resembled me. The first time that I opened a book of his I saw, with awe and rapture, not only subjects dreamed by me, but sentences, thought by me, and written by him, twenty years before."

That Baudelaire should have been fascinated by the mind of Poe is natural, and if he had undergone no influence from the work of a poet he so much admired it would have been remarkable; nevertheless one has only to compare the poetry of the two poets to be at once aware that Baudelaire was no re-writing Poe."

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