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Illustrating Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal: Preliminary Sketches

posted Aug 17, 2010, 9:09 AM by James Mah

From an illustrator's point of view, the poems in Les Fleurs du Mal can be divided into two groups:  those that tend to give concrete images when read and those that do not. The former are represented by these preliminary sketches for illustrations, done with ball point pen on 11 x 8.5" paper.

This is a typical two-page spread from my notebooks with the translation on the recto and a sketch on the facing verso page.  This illustration is for The Happy Corpse.  The sketches were conceived for final reproduction using drypoint and so ball point pen would be a good fit for this printmaking technique.  I like the black shapes on the recto page:  they were accidental as they bled from another illustration (pen and wash) on the verso of the text page.

                                                                                                                                                                                                  The Blind                                                 

       The Two Good Sisters                                                                                                                                   

Spleen IV

             Song of Autumn                                                                                                                                        Perfume

The Possessed

Translations of Baudelaire's poem "Recueillement"

posted Aug 11, 2010, 5:48 PM by James Mah   [ updated Sep 18, 2010, 9:57 AM ]

Le Dantec says of this poem: "C'est peut-être le chef-d'oeuvre de Baudelaire".  For me, it was one of the poems in which I was able to first hear clearly  his strange music.  Here is the original  text of the poem:


Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille.
Tu réclamais le Soir; il descend; le voici;
Une atmosphère obscure enveloppe la ville,
Aux uns portant la paix, aux autres le souci.

Pendant ques des mortels la multitude vile,
Sous le fouet du Plaisir, ce bourreau sans merci,
Va cueillir des remords dans le fête servile,
Ma Douleur, donne-moi la main, viens par ici,

Loin d'eaux.  Vois se pencher les défuntes Années,
Sur les balcons du ciels, en robes surannées;
Surgir du fond des eaux le Regret souriant;

Le soileil moribond s'endormir sous une arche,
Et, comme un long linceul traînant à l'Orient,
Entends, ma chère, entends la douce Nuit qui marche.

You can hear the poem recited in the original French here:

If you listen to the poem with eyes closed, you can get a good impression of its rhythm and musicality. By keeping this musicality in your mind's ear, you can judge for yourself the success or not of the following translations, but we cannot  assume that this musicality was foremost in the minds of these translators who may have had other aspects of the poem that they wished to emphasize.  Baudelaire's poems are a large  enough universe to allow different people to interpret the same poem in different ways.

Recueillement translated by C.F. MacIntyre

Be wise and calm yourself, O my Despair.
You prayed for evening. Even now it's here:
the town is veiled by a black atmosphere.
bringing peace to some, to others care.

And while the wretched horde of human beasts,
scourged by Pleasure, merciless torturer,
gather remorses from this servile feast,
my Grief, give me your hand; let us go far

away from them. Behold how the dead Years
lean, in old robes, from balconies of sky;
smiling Regret arises from the deep;
 under an arch the dying sunlight sleeps,
and from the east, with long shroud trailing , hear
the soft footfalls of Night as she walks by.

[Here is another translation by Francis Duke, also using iambic pentameter]


Hush, Sorrow! Here comes the Evening into sight,
As you wished, drifting down and drawing near,
His shadows wrapping all the city tight,
And bringing care to some, to others cheer.

While servile throngs of humans, taking flight
From Pleasure, iron-handed overseer,
Eat slaves' bread, tasting gall in every bite,
Take my hand, Sorrow, and come with me here

Away. In antiquated finery, see
The old Years lean from Heaven's balcony.
Regret surge smiling from the watery deeps,

The Sun's eye close in sleep beneath an arch;
And, as enshrouded from the East she creeps,
Listen, my dear, to Night's soft-footed march.

[Whatever the merits of the iambic pentameter, one can clearly "hear"that it does not work well in capturing the essence of Baudelaire's music in this particular poem.  The lines just seem too short for its elegiac mood and its lulling rhythm.   Unfortunately, neither Dillon/ St. Vincent Millay nor Lappin (see references to translators and  books in my last post) attempted to translate this poem as it would have been interesting to see how they handled this poem with a  12 syllable line.  The following is Geoffrey Wagner's translation,
Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (1974) which is not encumbered by rhyme].


Be wise, O my Sorrow, be calmer.
You implored the evening; it falls; here it is:
A dusky air surrounds the town,
Bringing peace to some, worry to others.

Whilst the worthless crowd of humanity,
Lashed by Pleasure, that merciless torturer,
Go to gather remorse in slavish rejoicing,
Give me your hand, my Sorrow; come with me,

Far from them. See the dead years leaning,
In worn-out clothing, on the balconies of the skies;
See how Regret, grinning, rises from the deep waters;

The dying sun goes to sleep in an archway,
And, like a long shroud dragging from the East,
Hear, O my dear one, hear the soft night coming.

[The title itself presents translation difficulties.  It has been rendered as "Meditation", "Self-communion", or simply left as "Recueillement".  This title is probably best described as a 'picking over' of the day's thoughts or a summing up at the end of the day. What is most important for me is the lulling rhythm of the first two verses and the elegiac mood of the final sextet. There is a very deliberate break between the first 8 and the last 6 lines. With "Vois se pencher..." there is a expansion in mood and the tone is raised. Baudelaire is addressing his "Douleur" as if speaking to a small child clamouring  impatiently for the Night:  the verb "réclamais" is a dead giveaway as it is used in French for young kids who are whining for something.  The many soft s-sounds in the first 8 lines should be noted.  Here is my translation in 12 syllable lines:

Musing at Dusk


Hush now, O my Sorrow, and try to settle down.

You clamoured for the Night;  it’s falling;  see, it’s here.  

A darkening atmosphere envelops the town;

To some it brings sweet peace, to others pain and fear.


As these poor mortals, in their vile multitudes, let

Fall the whip of Pleasure, a master without pity,

Reaping in a while the remorse of a slavish fête,

O Sorrow, let me have your hand, and come with me       


Far from them.  Let us watch the bygone years paraded

Past the parapets of heaven, in robes outdated,

As Regret surges smiling, from the deep waters sent.


The dying sun is extinguished in its vault of light,

Trailing its long death-shroud towards the Orient.

Listen, my sweet, listen to the soft steps of Night.


[Translated by James W Mah]

The Baudeliare Project (Translations in English of Les Fleurs du Mal)

posted Jul 30, 2010, 12:41 PM by James Mah   [ updated Aug 11, 2010, 5:45 PM ]

            The following is a list of translations in English of Les Fleurs du Mal.  The list is not complete.  The listings with photos attached are in my collection.

1.        F.P. Sturm    Th
e Poems of Charles Baudelaire, 1906

2.        J.C. Squire    Poems & Baudelaire Flowers, 1909

3.        Arthur Symons    Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal
I am unsure of the date of first publication.  I know the poems through an anthology entitled Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine:  Selected Verse & Prose Poems      edited by Joseph M. Bernstein, 1947


4.         Lewis Piaget Shanks        Les Fleurs du Mal:  The Complete Poems, 1926


5.         Beresford Egan and C. Bower Alcock    Flowers of Evil, 1929

6.        George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Flowers of Evil, 1936
            St. Vincent Millay rendered her translations as approximations of the French alexandrine. There is a
            discussion of the problems of translating into English hexameters in her preface.  This, and the Lappin
            book (see below) are the only two works I know that use this approach instead of the iambic pentameter.
            "We soon found that we often came much closer to the effect we wanted by importing into the 12-syllable
   seemed bumpy or unbalanced---one or two (infrequently three) extra syllables, still
            always keeping the line, however, a line of six feet".


7.        James Laver / Jacob Epstein    Charles Baudelaire:  Flowers of Evil, 1940

8.        C.F. MacIntyre    Baudelaire:  One Hundred Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, 1949
            This translator dispenses with the alexandrine:  "I hope my practice of mixing pure with slant or suspended
            rhymes, of employing consonance and assonance, and of using as nearly as possible the word order of good
            prose will give the reader some understanding of the effect of the poet created..."

8.        Roy Campbell    Poems of Baudelaire, 1952


9.        William Aggeler    Charles Baudelaire:  The Flowers of Evil, 1954


10.       Marthiel and Jackson Mathews    Charles Baudelaire:  The Flowers of Evil, 1955


11.          Francis Scarfe        Baudelaire:  Selected Verse, 1961

12.          Francis Duke        The Flowers of Evil and Other Poems of Charles Baudelaire, 1961
                "The iambic pentameter with its elegance, sonority, flexibility, force, and illustrious history, needs no
                defence as to its intrinsic merits."


13.            James Laver, editor    Charles Baudelaire:  The Flowers of Evil, 1971


14.            Joanna Richardson        Selected Poems of Baudelaire, 1975

15.            Jack Hibberd        Baudelaire:  Le Vin des Amants, 1977

15.            Richard Howard        Les Fleurs du Mal, a new translation, 1983
                  Howard's translations do not rhyme but emphasizes the structural relationship amongst the poems:
                  "I have  employed all the artifices in my power to make up for, even to suggest, the consentaneous
                  regularities that the persistent use of rhyme affords...eschewing 'terminal consonance' for the sake of 
cumulative effects, that 'secret architecture' Baudelaire so prided himself upon."
16.            Kendall Lappin        Echoes of Baudelaire:  Selected Poems, 1992
                  Lappin's translations do no rhyme either; he takes " a strategic approach featuring de-emphasis of rhyme
                  in favor of rhythm". He approximates Baudelaire's alexandrines in English with a "flexible, often-
                  defective anapestic tetrameter.  A commitment to a rhyme-scheme complicates the rendition of content and
                  impairs accuracy.  
17.            Keith Waldrop        Baudelaire:  The Flowers of Evil, 2006

                  Waldrop has rendered the poems as prose "versets" with paragraph breaks between stanzas.  

The Baudelaire Project (Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal)

posted Jul 29, 2010, 9:57 AM by James Mah   [ updated Jul 30, 2010, 12:06 PM ]

The Baudelaire Project (Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal)

Drypoint of a portrait of Baudelaire from a painting by Emile Deroy, 1844

The Baudelaire Project is conceived as an artist's book of selected poems, translated by myself and illustrated with original prints, to be bound and issued in an edition of no more than ten copies. The project is a result of the confluence of my interest in fine books, in French poetry and in printmaking.

I first started to read French poetry in order to improve my pronunciation, as the rhymes provided valuable clues as to how certain words are pronounced. Quite soon, I discovered that I enjoyed simply reading and appreciating the poems in their original language. I was reading mostly 19th century material because almost all of the poems from that period rhymed, so it was in such an anthology that I was introduced to Baudelaire, who stood out from the rest, as his poems carried a ring of modernity to them even though they were all written before 1860. Probably more important was that for me, many of Baudelaire's poems had a delicious musicality that stuck in the mind.

At that point, I purchased a volume of Les Fleurs du Mal with parallel French original and English translation on facing pages. On reading the translations, I found that in most cases, they did not match the construct of the poems that had entrenched themselves in my mind's ear. The musicality that I found so delicious was in fact missing. Even though this particular volume was published only in the early 1960s, (at a remove of only one generation from myself) the translations, although there were some fine passages, on the whole did not satisfy me in terms of what I thought the poems could be in English. I concluded that Baudelaire's poems have a universality that each generation must reinterpret for themselves, and it was at that point that I decided to try my hand at translating some of the poems for myself in order to clarify what I thought I had found it them. 

Drypoint of Momento Mori

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