I haven’t discussed Baudelaire for a while now, which is nothing short of a travesty. Here is another of his infamous banned poems, condemned for being far too explicit at the initial publication of Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857. It’s called ‘The metamorphosis of the vampire’, and it’s fraught with sexual guilt and religious allegory.
Les Métamorphoses du vampire
La femme cependant, de sa bouche de fraise,
En se tordant ainsi qu’un serpent sur la braise,
Et pétrissant ses seins sur le fer de son busc,
Laissait couler ces mots tout imprégnés de musc:
— «Moi, j’ai la lèvre humide, et je sais la science
De perdre au fond d’un lit l’antique conscience.
Je sèche tous les pleurs sur mes seins triomphants,
Et fais rire les vieux du rire des enfants.
Je remplace, pour qui me voit nue et sans voiles,
La lune, le soleil, le ciel et les étoiles!
Je suis, mon cher savant, si docte aux voluptés,
Lorsque j’étouffe un homme en mes bras redoutés,
Ou lorsque j’abandonne aux morsures mon buste,
Timide et libertine, et fragile et robuste,
Que sur ces matelas qui se pâment d’émoi,
Les anges impuissants se damneraient pour moi!»
Quand elle eut de mes os sucé toute la moelle,
Et que languissamment je me tournai vers elle
Pour lui rendre un baiser d’amour, je ne vis plus
Qu’une outre aux flancs gluants, toute pleine de pus!
Je fermai les deux yeux, dans ma froide épouvante,
Et quand je les rouvris à la clarté vivante,
À mes côtés, au lieu du mannequin puissant
Qui semblait avoir fait provision de sang,
Tremblaient confusément des débris de squelette,
Qui d’eux-mêmes rendaient le cri d’une girouette
Ou d’une enseigne, au bout d’une tringle de fer,
Que balance le vent pendant les nuits d’hiver.
The Metamorphoses of the Vampire
Then the woman with the strawberry mouth,
Squirming like a snake upon the coals,
Kneading her breasts against the iron of her corset,
Let flow these words scented with musk:
— “I have wet lips, and I know the art
Of losing old conscience in the depths of a bed.
I dry all tears on my triumphing breasts
And I make old men laugh with the laughter of children.
For those who see me naked, without any covering,
I am the moon and the sun and the sky and the stars!
I am so dexterous in voluptuous love, my dear, my wise one,
When I strangle a man in my dreadful arms,
Or abandon my breast to his biting,
So shy and lascivious, so frail and vigorous,
That on these cushions that swoon with passion
The powerless angels damn their souls for me!”
When she had sucked the pith from my bones
And, drooping, I turned towards her
To give her the kiss of love, I saw only
An old leather bottle with sticky sides and full of pus!
I shut both eyes in cold dismay
And when I opened them both to clear reality,
By my side, instead of that powerful puppet
Which seemed to have taken some lease of blood,
There shook vaguely the remains of a skeleton,
Which itself gave the cry of a weathercock
Or of a sign-board, at the end of a rod of iron,
Which the wind swings in winter nights.
trans. Geoffrey Wagner, 1974
As we know, the femme fatale was one of the staples of Decadent literature. Carnality and sexual desire are aligned with the demonic, and acting on desire produces only destruction and loathing. Once again, a predatory female preys on a passive man. It is interesting to compare this with ‘Allegory’ another of Baudelaire’s poems about a prostitute, but one where the woman remains somehow pure and good in spite of her profession.
The second installment in my catalogue of Baudelaire’s banned poems. This one was dedicated to the famous courtesan and artistic patroness, Apollonie Sabatier, with whom Baudelaire had a brief affair.
To One Who Is Too Cheerful
Your head, your hair, your every way
Are scenic as the countryside;
the smile plays in your lips and eyes
Like fresh winds on a cloudless day.
The gloomy drudge, brushed by your charms,
Is dazzled by the vibrancy
That flashes forth so brilliantly
Out of your shoulders and your arms.
All vivid colours, and the way
They resonate in how you dress
Have poets in their idleness
Imagining a flower ballet.
These lavish robes are emblems of
The mad profusion that is you;
Madwoman, I am maddened too,
And hate you even as I love!
Sometimes within a park, at rest,
Where I have dragged my apathy,
I have felt like an irony
The sunshine lacerate my breast.
And then the spring’s luxuriance
Humiliated so my heart
That I had pulled a flower apart
To punish nature’s insolence.
So I would wish, when you’re asleep,
The time for sensuality,
Towards your body’s treasury
Silently, stealthily to creep,
To bruise your ever-tender breast,
And carve in your astonished side
An injury both deep and wide,
To chastise your too-joyous flesh.
And, sweetness that would dizzy me!
In these two lips so red and new
My sister, I have made for you,
To slip my venom, lovingly!
– Translated by James McGowan
The poem was banned because the literary sensors believed that the ‘venom’ referred to was that most decadent of venereal diseased, syphilis. Baudelaire, however, argued that they had taken the poem too literally, and that he was in fact writing about the melancholy and ennui that his ‘White Venus’ could never understand. While I think that there are obviously sexual connotations to the poem, it should also not be taken too literally. To me, it embodies the decadent love of beauty that is in some way marred, and the desire to corrupt innocence. What do you think about it?
I’ve just realised that back when I started up this blog I promised to discuss Charles Baudelaire in more detail, and I never did. Well, now it’s about time to start making it up to my favourite tortured poet, and what better way to go about it than by discussing his condemned poems, banned from the early editions of Les Fleurs du Mal? This post is going to focus on Lethe, a poem which was in all probability inspired by Baudelaire’s most prolific mistress, Jeanne Duvall, his ‘black Venus’.
Come to my heart, you tiger I adore.
You sullen monster, cruel and speechless spirit;
Into the thickness of your heavy mane
I want to plunge my trembling fingers’ grip.
I want to hide the throbbing of my head
In your perfume, under those petticoats,
And breathe the musty scent of our old love,
The fading fragrance of the dying rose.
I want to sleep! to sleep and not to live!
And in sleep as sweet as death, to dream
Of spreading out my kisses without shame
On your smooth body, bright with copper sheen.
If I would swallow down my softened sobs
It must be in your bed’s profound abyss-
Forgetfulness is moistening your breath,
Lethe itself runs smoothly in your kiss.
My destiny, from now on my delight,
Is to obey as one who has been sent
To guiltless martyrdom, when all the while
His passion fans the flames of his torment.
My lips will suck the cure for bitterness:
Oblivion, nepenthe has its start
In the bewitching teats of those hard breasts,
That never have been harbour of the heart.
Translated by James McGowan
So what do you think of it? I could never quite understand the reasoning behind the banning – as far as I can see, the poems which were condemned are no more ‘corrupting’ than the ones that were left. For example, ‘Litanies of Satan’ was, as far as I’m aware, never banned. And you can’t get much more corrupt than a prayer to Beelzebub himself. I suppose it just goes to show how idiotic these moral police were. More banned Baudelaire is coming soon. Also, I’ve posted a link in my blog roll on the right to a site where you can listen to Baudelaire’s poems being read in the original French, which is well worth checking out.