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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]