We currently have sixteen poems by Charles Baudelaire from a new translation. You can listen to them all one after the other using the playlist below or if you prefer you can click the links further down to read a specific poem whilst listening to it.
Translated by R J Dent
Translation Copyright © R J Dent (2009)
Read and listen to I Love the Memory
I love the memory of those naked days,
when the sun gilded statues with its rays;
when men and women loved agility;
no shame was caused by sensuality,
as heaven lovingly caressed their skin,
they watched the health of their fleshy machines.
Nature, then rich, generous and kind,
carefully nourished her offspring – mankind,
and like a loving she-wolf she would nurse
at her brown teats the entire universe.
Man, elegant, robust and strong, was proud
of the beauties who claimed he should be crowned,
pure virgin girls, the fresh untainted fruit,
whose smooth and firm flesh invites every bite.
When the poet tries to imagine now
those naked joys, in places that allow
man and woman to be naked, a cold
and gloomy feeling envelopes his soul.
He sees a black, terrifying tableau:
monstrosities crying out for their clothes;
twisted bodies, fat uglies needing masks,
the crooked, wasted, flabby, the grotesque –
who some practical god, serene and calm,
forced into metal clothes when they were born,
and every one as pale as candle wax,
who gnaw at their debauchery and sex
who drag with them their parents’ stupid vice
of bringing hideous progeny to life.
It’s true we have, in our corrupted world,
beauties not known to the people of old:
we have the results of the languorous arts,
and faces gnawed away by cancerous hearts,
but these inventions of our tardy muse
will never let the sickest ones refuse
to give a tribute to eternal youth,
– to sacred youth, with its clear, simple views,
its clear-eyed gaze, fresh as a waterfall
that pours down constantly over us all;
as carefree as the flowers, the birds, the sky;
the perfumes, warmth and songs that never die.
Read and listen to Jewels
Knowing my needs, my dearest one was nude,
only wearing her jewellery for me,
these items made her seem perfectly lewd;
a slave in a harem eager to please.
As she moved slowly, gems danced, ringing out
subtle music – a mix of light and tone,
and I was transfixed by her jewelled pout,
lit up by sparkling metals and rare stones.
Reaching the bed, she spread voluptuously,
letting me love her in the ways she pleased,
my lust, like an ocean, was full and deep,
rising to her – a cliff mounted by seas.
Her eyes fixed on me, like a tiger tamed,
dreamily she tried various poses,
her candour and her willingness combined
to give charm to each metamorphosis.
Her arms and her legs, her loins and her thighs,
oil-polished, undulating like a swan,
were like a feast before my starving eyes,
then belly, breasts, her clusters on my vine.
When she thrust forward, this fallen angel
troubled me greatly, fuelling my desire,
until my lustful soul was half-deranged;
a cold crystal thrown on a raging fire.
In her I could discern a new design
of woman; smooth torso and rounded hips;
her perfect height setting off perfect lines;
her tawny skin deserving of worship.
And as the candle-light prepared to die,
and its low flames gently lit the chamber,
each time there sounded a contented sigh,
our warm flesh blushed the colour of amber.
Read and listen to Lethe
Crouch on my heart, tigress that I adore,
you cruel and silent, indolent mistress;
I long to plunge my fingers in the depths
of your thick, perfumed, long and heavy hair.
I’ll bury my head, when it is aching,
in your underclothes, inhale your perfume
and breathe in, like a flower’s fading bloom,
the sweet aroma of our lovemaking.
I long to sleep a sleep as sweet as death.
I’ll now be content to be nobody,
for over your beautifully bronzed body,
I’ve kissed my endless kisses, breathed my breath.
The perfection of you in your vast bed
swallows my agony, eases my pain;
your mouth makes me forget myself, my name,
your kisses fire my body, whirl my head.
My destiny with you is my delight;
you can command me – I have no real choice;
to be your martyr is one of my joys,
simply because you set my soul alight.
Now I’ve found a kind of tranquillity,
as I softly suck between my warm lips
the delightfully hardening brown tips
of perfect breasts that will never love me.
Read and listen to The Metamorphosis of the Vampire
The woman, with her strawberry flavoured lips,
twisted and writhed her graceful, snake-like hips,
slipped off her silver top, thrust her breasts near,
and let her musk-soaked words flow in my ear:
“I have the warmest mouth, and know the skills
to make all men renege on their own wills.
I dry their tears on my triumphant breasts,
and help the old ones find their inner beast.
Naked, I am Salome without veils;
I am the moon, the sun, stars, comet’s tails,
and am so learned in voluptuousness,
that when I entwine men between my thighs,
or else let them frenziedly bite my breasts,
the impotent, the virile, and the rest,
while in this bed, collapse contentedly,
for those poor angels give their best to me.”
After she’d sucked the marrow out of me
and I had turned my body lazily,
to give her a long, probing and deep kiss,
a flask full of disease was suddenly
right there instead of her! I closed my eyes
and kept them shut until it grew quite light,
and then I looked, but she had gone for good;
no vampire lying next to me in bed,
instead, there were a skeleton’s old bones,
that rattled like a metal weathervane,
or some old creaking sign, or sheets of tin,
throughout the day, blown roughly by the wind.
Read and listen to To a Woman Passing By
Deafening, the street around me roared.
Tall, slim, in black, wearing a look of hurt,
a woman passed by, her delicate hand
carefully holding the hem of her skirt,
lithe, sinuous, a model’s sculpted legs.
I stood, tense and witless, drinking my fill,
from eyes of pallid skies where storms begin;
of tenderness that snares, pleasure that kills.
A lightning flash… then night! – Fleeting beauty;
your briefest glance recharged the life in me –
now gone, you’ll live on in my circuitry.
You’re somewhere else. Perhaps not. I am. You,
unknowing of my life, and I of yours;
for an instant we joined – and we both knew.
Read and listen For a Creole Lady
In perfumed lands with warm and sunny skies,
I’ve known, beneath deep purple canopies
of palms that shaded brightness from my eyes,
a Creole lady’s depths and mysteries.
Her skin was light and warm, an enchantress
with gentle ways that were almost royal;
tall and svelte, she walked like a lithe huntress,
with an assured gaze and a tranquil smile.
Lady, if you ever visit this land,
to walk by the Seine or the green Loire,
all will see your beauty and understand,
for in peaceful gardens, you have inspired
a thousand sonnets praising your glory,
by poets enslaved by your eyes’ bright fire.
Read and listen to Hair
Fleece, dark curls, rolling in waves down your bare
neck; perfumed locks full of strong fragrances.
Tonight, when I breathe in your mane of hair,
I’ll be transported to a land somewhere,
your perfect tresses blowing in the breeze.
A distant, vanished, almost absent world;
African rhythms, Oriental charms
are there in the wild forest of your curls;
your music on which anyone can sail,
as I now drift along on your perfume.
I’ll go to where the sap-filled men and trees
rest from the ardent heat in burning lands;
strong tresses, be waves that take me away.
You are a dream, a vast ebony sea,
of boats, of sails, of sea, of sun, of sand:
a noisy, busy port where I may drink
great waves of colour and of sound and scent;
where ships, bringing their gold and watered silk,
open their arms to embrace the vast brink
of a pure sky trembling with eternal heat.
Into this black sea where other seas swell,
I’ll dip my lovingly rapturous head
and then, caressed by rolling waves, I will
find you again, idleness that’s fertile
enough to lull me into a sweet bed.
Blue hair, pavilion of night’s darkness,
an immense and rounded sky splashed full of stars;
in the softness of your untwisted locks,
I breathe in the intoxicating scents
of oil, of coconut, of musk, of tar.
Forever, in your heavy mane, my hand
will scatter sapphires and pearls and rubies,
to make sure my desire for you is heard.
You’re the oasis where I dream my words;
the wine glass from which I drink memories.
Read and listen to Elevation
Above the lakes, the valleys, woods, the far-
flung snowy mountain peaks and deepest seas,
beyond the sun, beyond the boundaries
of space and time, beyond the farthest star,
my spirit, you move fast, agile and light;
a swimmer taking pleasure in the sea,
cutting your way through its immensity
with a deliciously virile delight.
Go now! Run from this sickly, morbid place,
find somewhere with a cleaner atmosphere
and drink down gulps of its divine liqueur;
its blazing light that lights its perfect space.
Despite this boring life, this apathy
that weighs down on a constantly numbing
existence, how happy is he whose wings
lift him to fields of great serenity;
one whose thoughts, like skylarks, spread their wings
and find in morning’s freedom, perfect flight;
one who glides through life; knows without effort,
the language of the flowers and all mute things.
Read and listen to The Mask
An allegorical statue in the style of the Renaissance
For Ernest Christophe, sculptor.
Let’s look at this Grace, made by Florentines;
the smooth undulations of her body
have elegance and force subtly combined.
This woman, a truly marvellous piece,
so slender and so strong, should now be placed
inside a penthouse suite, furnished in style,
for the constant enjoyment of some prince.
– Also, notice the provocative smile,
containing ecstasy and arrogance;
over the fine features, a veil’s been placed,
half-covering a mocking and sly glance;
a look that looks as though it wants to say:
“I wear pleasure as clothes, love as a crown.”
This is a work of stunning majesty;
its sensual charms have powers to arouse –
let’s look around the back of this beauty…
Yes, it’s a shock! – as though art has blasphemed.
This perfect woman, her body divine,
is suddenly a monster with two heads!
– No, it’s just a mask, a clever design;
a mask of anguish, showing a grimace.
Look underneath this mask’s atrocities
and you’ll see the real head, the sincere face
that’s mirrored by this other face that lies.
I feel so sorry for this poor beauty;
tears stream down her face, straight into my heart,
and there’s something about her falsity
that makes me drunk on every tear she spurts.
– But why does she cry, this perfect beauty?
She could have the world at her feet – conquered.
Something troubles her – some great mystery.
She’s unhappy because she’s truly lived.
It’s life that hurts her. Life causes her pain.
Her sadness comes from knowing tomorrow,
will be the same – she’ll live her day again,
then one more… then one more… As we all do.
Read and listen to When she walks, it's as though she dances
When she walks, it’s as though she dances,
for in her sequinned clothes she undulates
the same way as a snake sways to the strange,
thin music that pours from a fakir’s flute.
But like the empty desert skies and sands,
she feels nothing for human suffering,
and like the waves that break on distant lands,
for those she has broken, she feels nothing.
Her eyes are hardened stone, gems of onyx;
her strange, symbolic nature is a mix
of purest angel and of antique sphinx.
Dressed in her diamonds and her gold and steel,
she shines brightly like distant nebulae,
but without any real heat – quite sterile.
Read and listen to The Balcony
Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses,
to you I owe my duties, my pleasures.
Do you recall beautiful caresses,
tender moments and evenings of leisure?
– Mother of memories, mistress of mistresses.
The evenings lit by a soft candle glow;
sunsets on the balcony; rose-tinged mist;
we spoke of our future, we whispered low.
How sweet your soul, how beautiful your breasts.
Those evenings lit by a soft candle glow.
How warm the sun was on lovely evenings,
how deep the sky. And how my heart pounded
as I leaned against you, my adored queen,
and breathed in the rich perfume of your blood.
How warm the sun was on lovely evenings.
The night surrounded us like a high wall,
and in the dusk, my eyes looked into yours,
and I drank in your breath; sweetest of all,
I softly touched you – and that touch endures.
The night surrounded us like a high wall.
I know how to recreate happiness;
relive my past, resting against your thighs.
Now I can search for beauty nowhere else,
but in your heart, your body’s symmetries,
I know how to recreate happiness.
Those promises, those kisses, those perfumes,
will they spring up from places we can’t see,
just as the new sun climbs into the blue,
after being purified in the seas?
– These promises. These kisses. These perfumes.
Read and listen to Invitation to a Voyage
My child, my sister,
let us be together,
on a perfect island across the sea.
At leisure, you and I,
to live and love and die,
in lands that look like you, when loved by me.
The sun shining up high
in heat-hazed tropic sky
has an insistent, strong hold over me;
it has the mysteries
of your mischievous eyes,
that pour out their crystal tears so freely,
where everything is beauty, love and right,
luxury, calm and sensual delight.
Carved wooden furniture,
polished by passing years,
fills up our rooms. Among the ornaments,
the rarest plants and flowers
mingle their fragrances
with a faint and alluring amber scent.
The rich embossed ceilings;
the mirrors, revealing
the natural treasures of the Orient,
and if they could, they would
speak to our secret souls
in a language of native innocence,
where everything is beauty, love and right,
luxury, calm and sensual delight.
In harbours and canals,
ships and boats rest their sails,
their gypsy spirits stilled, their pennants furled,
and it is to fulfil
your needs, desires – your will,
that they’ve come from the far ends of the world.
Each day the setting sun
bathes fields, house and inns,
the streets of the entire city in gold
and hyacinth and rose.
The city’s in repose
in a warm light that cherishes and holds,
where everything is beauty, love and right,
luxury, calm and sensual delight.
Read and listen to Sorrowful and Wandering
Tell me, does your heart sometimes fly away,
far from the black of the squalid city
towards a sea of exploded splendour,
blue, bright, profound, deep as virginity?
Tell me, does your heart sometimes fly away?
The sea, the vast sea, consoles our labours.
What was it made the singing sea’s voice hoarse,
accompanied by immense groaning winds,
with the sublime function of cradling us?
The sea, the vast sea, consoles our labours.
Transport me, wagon, carry me, frigate.
Far, far, for here mud is made of our tears.
– Is it true that sometimes your sad heart
says: Far from remorse, crimes, suffering, fears,
transport me, wagon, carry me, frigate?
How distant you are, perfumed paradise,
where love and joy grow under azure light;
where all of those worthy of love are loved;
where pure hearts drown in sensual delight.
How distant you are, perfumed paradise?
But that green paradise of childish loves;
its rides, its songs, its kisses, its bouquets,
the violins vibrant amongst the hills,
with the jugs of wine, at evening, in the glades,
– yes, that green paradise of childish loves.
Innocent place, full of furtive pleasures,
how far beyond India and China?
Can we recall it with our plaintive cries,
bring it to life with a voice of silver,
that innocent place of furtive pleasures?
Read and listen to The Landscape
So I can write my poetry, my verse,
I need to be high up, among the stars;
my chin in my hands, here in my attic
looking down on Paris, its streets and talk;
to hear the bells chime on the hour for me
and look out at the landscape when I please,
see drainpipes, towers, aerials, spires and beams
touching the skies over this city’s dreams.
Through the mist the first star begins to glow
high in the sky, a lamp in my window;
columns of smoke rise up in feathered plumes,
the city’s bathed in pale light from the moon.
Spring and summer and autumn come and go;
when winter brings the harsh and driving snow,
I’ll shut the blind and draw the curtains tight
and build fantastic castles in the night.
I’ll dream of perfect sapphire horizons;
of fountains weeping blue tears; of gardens
where lovers kiss and birds sing constantly –
an idyll created most lovingly.
If, outside my window, riots ensue,
I won’t break off from what I have to do,
for I am deep in sensual delight
of evoking the Spring with all my might;
I’ll gently pull a sun out of my heart,
and make the blue sky burn gold with my art.
Read and listen to The Voyage
To Maxime du Camp
For the child with a love of maps and stamps,
the world is equal to his appetite.
How vast the world is when lit up by lamps.
How small it is when held in memory’s sight.
One morning we set sail, our minds on fire,
our resentful hearts full of hostility,
and followed the rhythms the waves inspired –
the infinite upon a finite sea.
Some of us had left behind hated homes;
some were running from traumas of childhood;
some left their families so they could roam,
because their lives contained no earthly good.
To stay men, not beasts, they drink deep and long
of space and light and flaming, blazing skies;
they strengthen in the cold, tan in the strong
sunlight, forgetting their lusts and their lies.
But the true voyagers are those who go
so they can get there – their hearts light
and in tune with destiny; those who know
without knowing why, to say, “Yes” to flight;
those whose desires are shaped like clouds,
who always dream, as beginners dream of fame,
of pleasure, ever-changing, unknown, proud,
which human nature cannot give a name.
When we’re awake, we dance out of control;
asleep, we imitate automatons.
Curiosity torments us – it rolls
out, like a cruel angel, whipping the sun.
Strange fate – ever-changing goal, moving posts;
being nowhere it can be anywhere,
but mankind’s hopes are never truly lost;
each day we race, convinced a heaven’s there.
Our soul’s a ship looking for our island;
“Look out!” a lone voice cries out, full of shock,
while other voices, crazy, ardent, sound:
“Love… Fame… Delight!” but it’s a rock!
Each island sighted by the lookout seems
a Utopia promised by true fate;
imagination plans orgies and dreams,
then sees just rock by morning’s clearest light.
What to do with the one who cries and raves
he’s seen the promised land? – The fool insists
on paradise! Let’s throw him in the waves,
he makes drowning more bitter than it is.
The tramp, shuffling at night through our slums,
finds with drunken eyes, islands of beauty
as he trudges past warm and bright-lit homes;
to him, they’re all Mauritius or Capri.
Exotic travellers! What histories
are to be found in your deep sea-green eyes?
Show us films, your treasured memories,
those perfect jewels, those stars in their own skies.
We too would voyage – without wings or sails,
to break this ennui of our life’s prisons,
so pass into our spirits all details;
let your memories fill our horizons.
Tell us, what have you seen?
“We’ve seen the stars
and some waves too, and quite a bit of sand,
and, despite the odd shock and disaster,
we were as bored there as in any land.
The light of the sun on the violet sea,
a distant city’s outline at sunset,
made our hearts grow restless – we had to see
the worlds the skies alluringly reflect.
Not one city, not one single landscape,
contained the appeal or the mystery
of those vast billowing cloud shapes –
all we had were days of anxiety.
– We’ve found fulfilment increases desire
and desire’s an old tree whose branches spread
towards the sun, stretching out further, higher,
absorbing the sun’s warmth, and pleasure-fed,
always growing – greater than the cypress.
Anyway, people, dreamers, stay-at-homes,
we’ve brought you some footage of our travels;
we know you need to vicariously roam.
We’ve worshipped an elephant-headed god;
seen thrones built of gold constellations,
in palaces rich enough to provide
a merchant banker with palpitations;
clothes cut from cloth far too costly to wear;
women with tattooed skin and painted teeth,
magicians who could make great snakes appear.”
And then! And then! What else?
“Oh children, please!
Oh yes, we ought to mention this one thing
we learned and sadly have not forgotten.
Wherever we went we saw in everything
the taint of human folly – of real sin:
Tyrant men, greedy, cruel and stupid,
always lazy and only moved by lust;
women, enslaved to louts, seeking cupid
in everything – loving without disgust;
martyrs wanting mercy, sadists who joke;
the festival season, the scent of blood;
the poison that enervates the despot,
and those who love the whip because they should;
so many religions – all like our own;
ladders leading to heaven, Saints who reign
over sanctity, and pleasurably moan
as they find paradise on beds of nails;
awed by its genius, humanity,
as insane as it’s always going to be,
cries to god in tormented agony:
‘My master, how I hate you. You are me.’
The least mad choose senility; others
round themselves up, letting fate lock their doors,
dulling lives with an opiate, no bother
to anyone. That’s it for our report.”
Sharp truths are at the end of a voyage:
the world is tedious and small – do we
see ourselves today, tomorrow, now, always,
as poisoned wells in deserts of ennui?
Should we stay? Go? Go if you must, or stay –
whichever you prefer – no one will care.
Time has his gloomy eye on us today,
and no one can escape his glassy stare.
For some: the Apostles, the Wandering Jew,
nowhere is right; there is no place on Earth
to avoid the nets flung out – one or two
manage to slip through by dying at birth.
When finally the foot stamps on our spine,
we’ll still be hoping, crying as before –
as when we set off in that other time,
hair blown by the wind, eyes fixed on a star.
We set off over a sea of darkness,
with a young navigator’s joyful heart;
can you hear those charming, but sad voices,
singing: “Come here, those of you who would eat
the perfumed Lotus flower. It is right here.
The fruit you hunger for is all you thought –
it’s tender and it’s strange, but never fear…
to taste it will bring you endless delight.”
The voice is familiar – we know the ghosts –
dead sisters and companions of the past
hold out their arms in welcome: ‘Why be lost?
Come here with us and let your childhood last.’
Well, Captain Death, it’s time. Lift the anchor.
This country’s dead; we’ve had enough. Let’s go!
Let sky and sea be as dark as ichor;
our heart is full of light, as well you know.
We’ve drunk the poison, now we wish you well.
Fire burns in our minds – all now left to do
is dive through the depths of heaven or hell,
and on through the unknown to find the new.
Charles Baudelaire - 1821 - 1867
His most famous work, a book of lyric poetry titled Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), expresses the changing nature of beauty in the rapidly industrializing Paris during the mid-19th century. Baudelaire’s highly original style of prose-poetry influenced a whole generation of poets including Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé, among many others. He is credited with coining the term “modernity” (modernité) to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility of artistic expression to capture that experience.
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