Between 1855 and his death in 1867, Charles Baudelaire inaugurated a new—and in his own words “dangerous”—hybrid form in a series of prose poems known as Paris Spleen. Important and provocative, these fifty poems take the reader on a tour of 1850s Paris, through gleaming cafes and filthy side streets, revealing a metropolis on the eve of great change. In its deliberate fragmentation and merging of the lyrical with the sardonic, Le Spleen de Paris may be regarded as one of the earliest and most successful examples of a specifically urban writing, the textual equivalent of the city scenes of the Impressionists. In this compelling new translation, Keith Waldrop delivers the companion to his innovative translation of The Flowers of Evil. Here, Waldrop’s perfectly modulated mix releases the music, intensity, and dissonance in Baudelaire’s prose. The result is a powerful new re-imagining that is closer to Baudelaire’s own poetry than any previous English translation.
About the Author
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE (1821–1867) wrote some of the most influential poetry of the nineteenth century in books including Les Fleurs du Mal and Le Spleen de Paris.
KEITH WALDROP is author of numerous collections of poetry and is the translator of The Selected Poems of Edmond Jabès, as well as works by Claude Royet-Journoud, Anne-Marie Albiach, and Jean Grosjean.
Read an Excerpt
Whom do you love best? do tell, you enigma: your father? your mother, sister, brother?
— I have no father, no mother, neither sister nor brother.
— Your friends?
— That is a word I've never understood.
— Your country?
— I don't know at what latitude to look for it.
— Immortal goddess, I would gladly love her.
— I hate it as much as you hate God.
— Well then, you puzzling stranger, what do you love?
— I love clouds ... clouds that go by ... out there ... over there ... marvelous clouds!CHAPTER 2
An Old Woman's Despair
The shrunken little old woman rejoiced to see such a pretty infant whom everybody was making over, whom everyone tried to please; this pretty thing, as fragile as she, the little old woman, and, again like her, short on teeth and hair.
So she came closer, wanting to give babyish laughs and make appropriate faces.
But the terror-stricken infant writhed under the caresses of the decrepit old woman and filled the house with howls.
So the old woman retired into her eternal solitude, crying in a corner, saying: — "Ah, we unhappy old females, past the age of pleasing, even pleasing these innocents; and we horrify the little ones whom we would love."CHAPTER 3
The Artist's Confiteor 2
How the close of an autumn day pierces! Pierces to the point of pain, for delightful sensations, though vague, may be intense, and there is no sharper pang than that of Infinity.
What greater delight than for the eye to drown in the immensity of sky and sea! Solitude, silence, incomparably chaste blue, on the horizon a tiny sail quivering which, by its smallness and isolation, resembles my irredeemable existence, monotonous melody of the sea swell — all these things think through me, or I think through them (for, in the grandeur of reverie, the I is soon lost); they think, I say, but musically and picturesquely, without quibble, without syllogism, without deduction.
These thoughts, whether from inside me or from external things, soon become too intense. Voluptuous energy creates uneasiness and positive suffering. My overtense nerves then give out only peevish and painful vibrations.
And now the depth of sky is appalling; its clarity exasperates me. I find the indifference of the sea, the immutability of the spectacle, revolting ... Ah! must I suffer eternally, or else eternally flee the beautiful? Nature, pitiless enchantress, always victorious rival, let me go! Tempt no more my desires and my pride! Study of the beautiful is a duel in which the artist cries out in fear, before being bested.CHAPTER 4
Explosive New Year's Day: chaos of mud and snow, criss-crossed by a thousand carriages, sparkling with toys and toffee, crawling with greed and despair, standard delirium of a metropolis, made to disturb the brain of the sturdiest solitary.
In the midst of bohu and din, a donkey trotted briskly, hard pressed by a rascal with a whip.
As the donkey came to turn a corner, a gentleman, gloved, polished, imprisoned in cruel necktie and spanking new duds, bowed ceremoniously to the humble beast and, doffing his hat, addressed it, "All the best for you in the new year," turning then to I know not what companions with a fatuous air, as if praying them to approve his own satisfaction.
The donkey, oblivious to this high-class joker, continued its trek as duty directed.
For my part, I was taken suddenly with an incommensurate rage against this ostentatious imbecile, who seemed to me to concentrate in himself the whole spirit of France.CHAPTER 5
A room resembling a reverie, a room truly spiritual, stagnant atmosphere in soft pink and blue tints.
There the soul bathes idly, scented with regret and desire. — Something crepuscular, bluish and rose pink; voluptuous dream during an eclipse.
The furnishings are elongated, prostrate, languid. The furniture seems to dream; suggesting somnambulistic life, vegetable or mineral. The upholstery speaks a mute language, like flowers, like skies, like setting suns.
On the wall, no artistic abomination. Compared to pure dream, unanalyzed impression, an art made definite — positive art — is blasphemy. Here, everything has just enough clarity, and the delicious obscurity of harmony.
Hints of a choice and exquisite scent mingled with air lightly humid swim in this atmosphere, where slumbering spirit is rocked by hot-house sensations.
Muslin rains down abundantly over the windows and around the bed in snowy cascade. Within this bed is ensconced the Idol, queen of dreams. But how did she come there? Who brought her? what magic potency set her upon this throne of voluptuous reverie? Well never mind: there she is! I recognize her.
There indeed, those eyes whose flame travels the twilight; subtle and terrible organs of sight familiar to me from their fearsome malice. They call to, they beat down, they devour foolhardy focus fixed on them. I have made long study of those dark stars which excite curiosity and admiration.
To what benevolent demon do I owe being thus set about with mystery, silence, peace and perfumes? What beatitude! what we ordinarily call life, even when it expands most happily, has nothing in common with this supreme life that I now know and that I savor, minute by minute, second by second.
But no! there are no longer minutes, no longer seconds. Time has disappeared; it is Eternity that reigns, an eternity of delight!
But then there's a terrible loud knock at the door and, as in hellish dreams, I feel a pickax in my gut.
Then enter a Specter: a bailiff come to torture me with legal matters; a notorious trollop bitching about money and loading her life's trivialities on top of my own troubles; or maybe even an editorial guttersnipe demanding another installment of some manuscript.
The paradisal room, the idol, the queen of dreams, the Sylphide, as the great René calls her, all this magic has vanished with the Specter's brutal blow.
Horrors! I remember. I remember! Yes! this hole-in-the-wall, this abode of eternal ennui, is mine. Pieces of furniture, stupid, musty, broken down; the fire unlit, emberless, fouled with spit; sad windows where rain has cut furrows in the dirt; manuscripts crossed out or unfinished; an almanac with a penciled check on dates to be careful of.
The other-worldly scent, in which I tippled with a practiced sensibility, is, alas! replaced by the fetid odor of tobacco mixed with a species of evil-smelling mildew. One breathes in rancid desolation.
In this shrunken world, so full of disgust, a single object attracts me: the vial of laudanum; old and terrible lover; like all lovers, alas, fertile in caresses and betrayal.
Oh! yes! Time has reappeared; Time reigns absolute now; and with that hideous old character has come his devilish retinue of Memories, Regrets, Convulsions, Fears, Anguish, Nightmare, Rage, Neurosis.
I swear that now the seconds are strongly, solemnly accentuated and each, flying off the clock, cries, "I am Life insupportable. I am implacable Life."
There is only one single Second in human life with the mission of announcing good news, the good news that causes for each of us an inexplicable fear.
Yes! Time reigns, recovering his brutal dictatorship. And he drives me as if I were an ox, with his double goad. — "Gee up! ass! sweat, you slave! damn you! Live!"CHAPTER 6
To Each His Chimæra
Under a wide gray sky, in a great dusty plain, pathless, grassless, without so much as a thistle or a nettle, I came across some men walking, their shoulders bent.
Each carried on his back an enormous Chimæra, heavy as a sack of flour or charcoal, or a Roman foot-soldier's pack.
But the monstrous beast was no dead weight; on the contrary, it enveloped and mauled its man with supple and powerful muscles; scratching with two enormous claws the chest of its mount. And its fabulous head surmounted the man's, like one of those horrible helmets ancient warriors wore, hoping to increase the terror of their foes.
I questioned one of these men and asked him where they were going. He told me he didn't know, nor did the others; but obviously they were going somewhere, since they were driven by an invincible need to go.
Curious to note: none of these travelers seemed annoyed by the fierce beast hanging at his neck and attached to his back; one must suppose he considered it a part of himself. All these faces, tired and serious, betrayed no despair; under the splenetic cupola of sky, feet sunk in the dust of a soil every bit as desolate as the sky, they trudged on, with the resigned faces of those condemned forever to hope.
And the cortege passed by me and sank into the atmosphere at the horizon, where the planet's rounded surface renders it unavailable to human curiosity.
And for a few moments I persisted in trying to solve the mystery; but soon irresistible Indifference came over me, and I was more heavily burdened with it than they by their crushing Chimæras.CHAPTER 7
The Fool and Venus
What a fine day! The vast park swoons under the burning eye of the sun, like youth under Love's dominion.
The universal ecstasy of things no sound expresses; the waters themselves as if put to sleep. Quite other than with human celebrations: here the orgy is silent.
It would seem that light increasing steadily makes objects sparkle more and more; that flowers in their excitement burn with desire to pit their colors against the blue of the sky; and that heat, rendering their scent visible, lifts them starward like smoke.
But in this universal enjoyment, I noticed one unblessed being.
At the feet of a colossal Venus, one of those made-up fools (voluntary buffoons employed in getting kings to laugh when overtaken by Remorse or Ennui, all tricked out in a loud and ridiculous costume, capped with horns and bells) crouching down against the pedestal, lifted his tear-filled eyes towards the immortal Goddess.
And his eyes said: — "I am the last and the most solitary of human beings, deprived of love and friendship, lower in that respect than the most imperfect animal. Nevertheless, I too am made so as to comprehend and appreciate immortal Beauty! Ah! Goddess! have pity on my sorrow, on my folly!"
But implacable Venus gazes yonder towards who knows what with her eyes of marble.CHAPTER 8
Dog and Flask
" — My beautiful dog, good dog, dear bow-wow, come closer and sniff an excellent perfume, purchased at the best scent shop in town."
And the dog, wagging his tail, which I suppose, in these poor creatures, the sign corresponding to laugh and to smile, approaches and, curious, puts his moist nose to the unstoppered flask; after which, drawing back in fright, barks at me, clearly a reproach.
" — Ah! wretched dog, if I had offered you a bundle of excrement, you would have sniffed its scent with delight and perhaps devoured it. So you too, unworthy companion of my sad life, you are like the public, to whom one must not present the delicate perfumes which exasperate them, but carefully selected crap."CHAPTER 9
The Bad Glazier
There are natures purely contemplative, completely unsuited for action, who nevertheless, under mysterious unknown impulses, act sometimes with a rapidity of which they would suppose themselves incapable.
Those for instance who, afraid their concierge may have bad news for them, pace an hour timorously before daring to go in; those who hold letters for two weeks before opening them, or wait six months to take some step that has been immediately necessary for a year already — but sometimes abruptly feel precipitated into action by an irresistible force, like an arrow leaving the bow. Moralists and doctors, who claim to know everything, fail to explain from whence so sudden a mad energy comes to these lazy, voluptuous souls and why, incapable of the simplest and most necessary things, they find at certain moments a spurt of first class courage to execute the most absurd and even most dangerous actions.
A friend of mine, as harmless a dreamer as ever was, one day set a forest on fire, in order to see, he said, if a fire would catch as easily as generally claimed. Ten times the experiment failed; but the eleventh it was all too successful.
Another lit a cigar next to a powder keg, to see, to see if, to tempt fate, to force himself to prove his own energy, to gamble, to feel the pleasures of anxiety, for nothing, caprice, to kill time.
This sort of energy springs from ennui and reverie; and those in whom it so unexpectedly appears are in general, as I have said, the most indolent and dreamy of mortals.
Another, timid to the extent of lowering his eyes before anybody's gaze, to the point of having to pull together his poor will to enter a café or go past the ticket office of a theater (where the managers seem to him invested with the majesty of Minos, of Aeacus and of Rhadamanthus) will all of a sudden fall on the neck of some geezer and embrace him enthusiastically, to the astonishment of passers-by.
Why? Because ... because of an irresistibly sympathetic physiognomy? Maybe, but we may well suppose that he himself has no idea.
More than once I have been victim to these crises, these outbursts, that give some authority to the notion that malicious Demons slip into us and make us unwittingly accomplish their most absurd wishes.
One morning I got up on the wrong side, dejected, worn out from idleness, driven it seemed to me to perform some grand, some brilliant action. And, alas! I opened the window.
(Please note that the urge to practical jokes, in certain persons, the result neither of work nor planning, but of mere chance inspiration, belongs largely, even if only through the eagerness of desire, to that temper — hysterical according to doctors; by rather better minds than a doctor's, satanic — which drives us irresistibly towards a host of dangerous or indecent acts.)
The first person I noticed in the street was a glazier whose cry, piercing, discordant, came up to me through the oppressive and dirty Parisian atmosphere. Impossible for me to say why this poor fellow roused in me a hatred as sudden as despotic.
" — Hey there!" and I yelled for him to come up, meanwhile reflecting, not without amusement, that, my room being on the sixth floor and the stairs very narrow, the man would find it difficult to effect his ascent, to maneuver at certain spots the corners of his fragile merchandise.
Finally he appeared: I examined curiously all his glass and said to him: "What? you have no colored glass? pink, red, blue glass, magical glass, the glass of paradise? Shameful! you dare promenade this poor district and you don't even have glass to suggest a better life!" And I pushed him smartly towards the staircase where he stumbled growling.
I went to the balcony, picked up a little pot of flowers, and when the man came out of the door below, I let my war machine fall straight down, onto the edge of his hooks. The shock sending him over backwards, he smashed under his back the whole petty fortune he carried, from which burst the sound of a crystal palace shattered by a bolt of lightning.
And, drunk with my folly, I shouted at him, madly, "The beauty of life! the beauty of life!" These nervous pleasantries are not without danger, and sometimes quite costly. But what's an eternity of damnation to one who has found in such an instant infinite satisfaction?CHAPTER 10
Finally! Alone! No longer hearing anything but the rumble of a few hackneys delayed and exhausted. For several hours we'll have silence, if not repose. Finally! the tyranny of the human face has disappeared and from now on my sufferings will be my own.
Finally I'm allowed to relax, bathed in shadows. First, a double turn of the lock. Turning the key seems to me to increase my solitude and raise the barricade that effectively separates me from the world.
Horrible life! Horrible city! Let's go over my day: having seen some men of letters, one of whom asked me can you go to Russia by land (apparently assuming that Russia is an island); argued at length with the director of a review, who to each of my objections replied, "We're all gentlemen here," as if to say that every other paper is put out by rogues; greeted a couple dozen people, three quarters of whom I didn't know; shook hands with a like number, without the precaution of gloves; during a rain, to kill time, went to see a lady tumbler who wanted me to design a costume for Vénustre; paid court to a theatre director who, dismissing me, said, "You might do better consulting with Z — —, dullest, stupidest and most famous of my authors, the two of you might come up with something — go see him and then we'll talk about it"; bragged (why?) about several nasty things I hadn't done and denied in cowardly fashion some misdeeds in which I had luxuriated, flagrant braggadocio, offenses to human dignity; refused a friend an easy favor and wrote a recommendation for a perfect skunk; oof! can that be all?
Annoyed by everyone and annoyed with my self, I'd like to be redeemed and gain a little self-respect in the silence and solitude of the night. Souls of those I've loved, souls of those I've sung, strengthen me, sustain me, take from me the world's lies and breath of corruption. And you, Lord God, accord me the grace to produce a few beautiful lines, enough to prove to myself that I am not the worst of men, that I am not beneath even those for whom I have such contempt!(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Paris Spleen"
Copyright © 2019 Charles Baudelaire.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Dedication: for Arsène Houssaye
An Old Woman’s Despair
The Artist’s Confiteor
To Each His Chimæra
The Fool and Venus
Dog and Flask
The Bad Glazier
Wild Woman and Little Darling
The Old Showman
A Hemisphere in a Head of Hair
Invitation to the Voyage
A Toy for the Poor
Temptations or Eros, Plutus and Glory
Dorothea the Beautiful
The Eyes of the Poor
An Heroic Death
The False Coin
The Urge to Paint
Which Is the True?
The Gallant Marksman
Soup and Clouds
Shooting-Gallery and Cemetery
Anywhere Out of the World
Knock Down the Poor!
What People are Saying About This
"A handsome pendant to Waldrop's previous translation of The Flowers of Evil. There, his prose provided a sober caution against poetic inebriation; here it registers the sorry morning-after of the lyric subject."
“Waldrop’s translations soar…perhaps getting closer to Baudelaire’s rich tone than any other translation.”
"A handsome pendant to Waldrop's previous translation of The Flowers of Evil. There, his prose provided a sober caution against poetic inebriation; here it registers the sorry morning-after of the lyric subject."Richard Sieburth
"Waldrop's translations soarperhaps getting closer to Baudelaire's rich tone than any other translation."Chicago Review