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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banned Books Week: "Lethe" by Charles Baudelaire

"Lethe"
By Charles Baudelaire
Translated by Geoffrey Wagner, "Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire"

Come on my heart, cruel and insensible soul,
My darling tiger, beast with indolent airs;
I want to plunge for hours my trembling fingers
In your thick and heavy mane;

In your petticoats filled with your perfume
To bury my aching head,
And breathe, like a faded flower,
The sweet taste of my dead love.

I want to sleep, to sleep and not to live,
In a sleep as soft as death,
I shall cover with remorseless kisses
Your body beautifully polished as copper.

To swallow my appeased sobbing
I need only the abyss of your bed;
A powerful oblivion lives on your lips,
And all Lethe flows in your kisses.

I shall obey, as though predestined,
My destiny, that is now my delight;
Submissive martyr, innocent damned one,
My ardor inflames my torture,

And I shall suck, to drown my bitterness
The nepenthe and the good hemlock,
On the lovely tips of those jutting breasts
Which have never imprisoned love.

The original French:

Le Léthé
By Charles Baudelaire

Viens sur mon coeur, âme cruelle et sourde,
Tigre adoré, monstre aux airs indolents;
Je veux longtemps plonger mes doigts tremblants
Dans l'épaisseur de ta crinière lourde;

Dans tes jupons remplis de ton parfum
Ensevelir ma tête endolorie,
Et respirer, comme une fleur flétrie,
Le doux relent de mon amour défunt.

Je veux dormir! dormir plutôt que vivre!
Dans un sommeil aussi doux que la mort,
J'étalerai mes baisers sans remords
Sur ton beau corps poli comme le cuivre.

Pour engloutir mes sanglots apaisés
Rien ne me vaut l'abîme de ta couche;
L'oubli puissant habite sur ta bouche,
Et le Léthé coule dans tes baisers.

À mon destin, désormais mon délice,
J'obéirai comme un prédestiné;
Martyr docile, innocent condamné,
Dont la ferveur attise le supplice,

Je sucerai, pour noyer ma rancoeur,
Le népenthès et la bonne ciguë
Aux bouts charmants de cette gorge aiguë
Qui n'a jamais emprisonné de coeur.

This poem was banned from "Les Fleurs du Mal" because of its corrupting content. This poem which was most likely inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s mistress Jeanne Duvall, also known as his "Black Venus."


The son of Joseph-Francois Baudelaire and Caroline Archimbaut Dufays, Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821. Baudelaire's father, who was 30 years older than his mother, died when the poet was 6.

Baudelaire was very close with his mother (much of what is known of his later life comes from the letters he wrote her), but was deeply distressed when she married Major Jacques Aupick.

In 1833, the family moved to Lyons where Baudelaire attended a military boarding school. Shortly before graduation, he was kicked out for refusing to give up a note passed to him by a classmate. Baudelaire spent the next two years in Paris' Latin Quarter pursuing a career as a writer and accumulating debt. It is also believed that he contracted syphilis around this time.

In 1841 his parents sent him on ship to India, hoping the experience would help reform his bohemian urges. He left the ship, however, and returned to Paris in 1842. Upon his return, he received a large inheritance, which allowed him to live the life of a Parisian dandy. He developed a love for clothing and spent his days in the art galleries and cafes of Paris. He experimented with drugs such as hashish and opium. He fell in love with Jeanne Duval, who inspired the "Black Venus" section of Les Fleurs du mal. By 1844, he had spent nearly half of his inheritance. His family won a court order that appointed a lawyer to manage Baudelaire's fortune and pay him a small "allowance" for the rest of his life.

To supplement his income, Baudelaire wrote art criticism, essays, and reviews for various journals. His early criticism of contemporary French painters such as Eugene Delacroix and Gustave Courbet earned him a reputation as a discriminating if idiosyncratic critic. In 1847, he published the autobiographical novella La Fanfarlo. His first publications of poetry also began to appear in journals in the mid-1840s. In 1854 and 1855, he published translations of Edgar Allan Poe, whom he called a "twin soul." His translations were widely acclaimed.

In 1857, Auguste Poulet-Malassis published the first edition of Les Fleurs du mal. Baudelaire was so concerned with the quality of the printing that he took a room near the press to help supervise the book's production. Six of the poems, which described lesbian love and vampires, were condemned as obscene by the Public Safety section of the Ministry of the Interior. The ban on these poems was not lifted in France until 1949. In 1861, Baudelaire added thirty-five new poems to the collection. Les Fleurs du mal afforded Baudelaire a degree of notoriety; writers such as Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo wrote in praise of the poems. Flaubert wrote to Baudelaire claiming, "You have found a way to inject new life into Romanticism. You are unlike anyone else [which is the most important quality]." Unlike earlier Romantics, Baudelaire looked to the urban life of Paris for inspiration. He argued that art must create beauty from even the most depraved or "non-poetic" situations.

Les Fleurs du mal, with its explicit sexual content and juxtapositions of urban beauty and decay, only added to Baudelaire's reputation as a poéte maudit (cursed poet). Baudelaire enhanced this reputation by flaunting his eccentricities; for instance, he once asked a friend in the middle of a conversation "Wouldn't it be agreeable to take a bath with me?" Because of the abundance of stories about the poet, it is difficult to sort fact from fiction.

In the 1860s Baudelaire continued to write articles and essays on a wide range of subjects and figures. He was also publishing prose poems, which were posthumously collected in 1869 as Petits poémes en prose (Little Poems in Prose). By calling these non-metrical compositions poems, Baudelaire was the first poet to make a radical break with the form of verse.

In 1862, Baudelaire began to suffer nightmares and increasingly bad health. He left Paris for Brussels in 1863 to give a series of lectures, but suffered from several strokes that resulted in partial paralysis.

On August 31, 1867, at the age of 46, Charles Baudelaire died in Paris. Although doctors at the time didn't mention it, it is likely that syphilis caused his final illness. His reputation as poet at that time was secure; writers such as Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud claimed him as a predecessor. In the 20th century, thinkers and artists as diverse as Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Benjamin, Robert Lowell and Seamus Heaney have celebrated his work.

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