I was recently asked to contribute to a project for the English department. A fun project, mostly it involved choosing my favorite poem and writing about it.
How hard could that be? Pretty hard, as it turned out. My problem wasn’t with the constraint of choosing only one piece. Rather, pathetically, I couldn’t think of anything.
What sprang to my mind were tired, cliché answers. “The Road Not Taken.” “The Raven.” Something by Shakespeare. I chastised myself. While I appreciate these British and American classics (especially Poe), it would be inaccurate to name them as my favorites.
I really enjoy reading poetry (and writing it), but I tend not to read collections or to seek out a particular author. Rather, I read whatever comes my way. I enjoy it in the moment and then (quelle horreur), I suppose I forget most of it. I like edgy, free-form prose poetry. I like what language can do when prescriptive rules are ignored. The other day I read a long stream-of-conciousness poem about nachos.
One author I have specifically sought out, though, is Charles Baudelaire: the Paris-born scandal maker & innovator of the first half of the 19th century.
His stuff is dark and it is beautiful, equally melancholy and passionate. I chose as a favorite poem his “À une passante” (To a Passerby)
Here it is in French, followed by a translation (there are four versions on fleursdemal.org; if you can’t read the French, it can be helpful to read several different translations to get a fuller picture of the original)
À une passante
La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;
Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.
Un éclair… puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?
Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!
— Charles Baudelaire
To a Woman Passing By
The deafening road around me roared.
Tall, slim, in deep mourning, making majestic grief,
A woman passed, lifting and swinging
With a pompous gesture the ornamental hem of her garment,
Swift and noble, with statuesque limb.
As for me, I drank, twitching like an old roué,
From her eye, livid sky where the hurricane is born,
The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,
A gleam… then night! O fleeting beauty,
Your glance has given me sudden rebirth,
Shall I see you again only in eternity?
Somewhere else, very far from here! Too late! Perhaps never!
For I do not know where you flee, nor you where I am going,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!
— Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974)
I appreciate this poem first for its beautiful language and feeling, then for its narrative perspective, one that should be familiar t0 any romantic (of both the capital or lowercase ‘r’ varieties).
The poem, though short, creates this great image. Can’t you just picture the narrator standing in the midst of a crowd, blocking traffic perhaps as he stops and stares at this woman? As he considers what could have been? All this from a single glance.
I can see him shouting, even, drawing attention. Is he mad? Does he know? Does he care? I see a stormy sky, a fragile genius, an outlook on life that will lead to both beauty and heartache.
Some people look in a crowd and see a stranger. Others look into a crowd and see “you whom I would have loved.”
Baudelaire is known for his striking juxtaposition of beauty and decay, and I think we can see that in the themes he presents as well as in individual word choices, unexpected modifiers that add intrigue and complexity.
pleasure that kills
You might call it dark, how chez Baudelaire, pleasure must kill, beauty must be fleeting. Or you might call it hopeful: there is majesty in grief, and hope of love and a future can come from chance eye contact with a stranger.
Baudelaire’s approach to light and dark is appropriately complex: he writes not of wars wherein one side must conquer the other, but rather of a sort of tumultuous coexistence between the two. In his work there is evil, longing, pain, but there are also glimpses of wild hope.