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.
A little Poe for Hallowe’en.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;–vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost Lenore–
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore–
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me–filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“‘Tis some visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door–
Some late visiter entreating entrance at my chamber door;
This it is and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”–here I opened wide the door–
Darkness there and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”–
Merely this and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my sour within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping something louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is and this mystery explore–
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;–
‘Tis the wind and nothing more.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he,
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door–
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door–
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then the ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore–
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning–little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door–
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.”
But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if its soul in that one word he did outpour
Nothing farther then he uttered; not a feather then he fluttered–
Till I scarcely more than muttered: “Other friends have flown before–
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.”
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore–
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
But the Raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore–
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee–by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite–respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!–prophet still, if bird or devil!–
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted–
On this home by Horror haunted–tell me truly, I implore–
Is there–is there balm in Gilead?–tell me–tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!–prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us–by that God we both adore–
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore–
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting–
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul has spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!–quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadows on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted–nevermore!
Many apologies for the long hiatus. I’ve been writing my MA dissertation, and that had to take priority for a bit. I’m back now though, and I thought I’d get back into things with another of my favourite poems by Swinburne.
Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,
Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;
Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,
Save the long smile that they are wearied of.
Ah sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough.
Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;
Two loves at either blossom of thy breast
Strive until one be under and one above.
Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,
Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:
And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,
Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;
A strong desire begot on great despair,
A great despair cast out by strong desire.
Where between sleep and life some brief space is,
With love like gold bound round about the head,
Sex to sweet sex with lips and limbs is wed,
Turning the fruitful feud of hers and his
To the waste wedlock of a sterile kiss;
Yet from them something like as fire is shed
That shall not be assuaged till death be dead,
Though neither life nor sleep can find out this,
Love made himself of flesh that perisheth
A pleasure-house for all the loves his kin;
But on the one side sat a man like death,
And on the other a woman sat like sin,
So with veiled eyes and sobs between his breath
Love turned himself and would not enter in.
Love, is it love or sleep or shadow or light
That lies between thine eyelids and thine eyes?
Like a flower laid upon a flower it lies,
Or like the night’s dew laid upon the night.
Love stands upon thy left hand and thy right,
Yet by no sunset and no moonrise
Shall make thee man and ease a woman’s sighs,
Or make thee woman for a man’s delight.
To what strange end hath some strange god made fair
The double blossom of two fruitless flowers?
Hid love in all the folds of all thy hair,
Fed thee on summers, watered thee with showers,
Given all the gold that all the seasons wear
To thee that art a thing of barren hours?
Yea, love, I see: it is not love but fear.
Nay, sweet, it is not fear but love, I know;
Or wherefore should thy body’s blossom blow
So sweetly, or thine eyelids leave so clear
Thy gracious eyes that never make a tear –
Though for their love our tears like blood should flow,
Though love and life and death should come and go,
So dreadful, so desirable, so dear?
Yea, sweet, I know; I saw in what sweet wise
Beyond the woman’s and the water’s kiss
Thy moist limbs melted into Salmacis,
And the large light turned tender in thine eyes,
And all thy boy’s breath softened into sighs;
But love being blind, how should he know of this?
Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (1870 – 1945) is best known as Oscar Wilde’s lover, and is often blamed for Wilde’s downfall. However, he was a poet in his own right. He lacked the genius of the older man, but some of his work is very lovely. The most famous, of course, is ‘Two Loves’ – one of the pieces of literature quoted at Wilde’s trial as evidence against him. One of my other favourites though, and a much lesser-known poem, is called ‘The Dead Poet’. Douglas wrote it after hearing the news of the death of his exiled former lover.
The Dead Poet
I dreamed of him last night, I saw his face
All radiant and unshadowed of distress,
And as of old, in music measureless,
I heard his golden voice and marked him trace
Under the common thing the hidden grace,
And conjure words out of emptiness,
Till mean things put on beauty like a dress
And all the world was an enchanted place.
And then methought outside a fast locked gate
I mourned the loss of unrecorded words,
Forgotten tales and mysteries half said,
Wonders that might have been articulate,
And voiceless thoughts like murdered singing birds.
And so I woke and knew that he was dead.
A lot of Wilde fans blame Bosie for what happened, but I actually feel more pity for him than anything. Yes, the relationship with Oscar was clearly a destructive one, and yes, Douglas was obviously very selfish at times, but with Queensbury for a father who wouldn’t have issues? Also, he truly knew how to live decadently (before he turned to Catholicism at least), and that is something I can always appreciate.
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?
Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) is probably best known today for his destructive relationship with Arthur Rimbaud. This is a great pity, as he was a very fine poet in his own right. True, he lacked the fierce genius of the younger man, but he was still one of the more interesting poets of the Decadent movement. The turbulent years he spent with Rimbaud, while they nearly destroyed him, produced some of his greatest literature.
It is only in recent years that his most remarkable (read: most purple) works have been published. This is one of my favourites.
A Bad Sleeper
He is a bad sleeper and it is a joy to me
To feel him well when he is the proud prey
And the strong neighbour of the best of sleep
Without false covers – no need – and without awakenings.
So near, so near to me that I believe he inflames me
In some way, with his overwhelming desire, that I feel
In my ravished and trembling body.
If we find ourselves face to face, and if he turns
Close to my side, as lovers are wont to do,
His haunches, deliriously dreamy or not,
Sudden, mutinous, malicious, stubborn, whorish,
In the name-of-God, his cravings, so gentle, will pierce my flesh,
And leave me girdled like a eunuch,
Or if I should turn to him with the wish
To sooth him; or, if peacefully we lie, his quietness,
Brutal and gentle, will suffuse my body in his;
And my spirit, out of happiness, will submerge and overwhelm him,
And prostrate him, infinite in that tack.
Am I happy? Totus in benigno positus!
Translated by Francois Pirou
One of my favourite Wilde poems, Taedium Vitae
To stab my youth with desperate knives, to wear
This paltry age’s gaudy livery,
To let each base hand filch my treasury,
To mesh my soul within a woman’s hair,
And to be mere Fortune’s lackeyed groom, – I swear
I love it not! these things are less to me
Than the thin foam that frets upon the sea,
Less than the thistledown of summer air
Which hath no seed: better to stand aloof
Far from these slanderous fools who mock my life
Knowing me not, better the lowliest roof
Fit for the meanest hind to sojourn in,
Than to go back to that hoarse cave of strife
Where my white soul first kissed the mouth of sin.
I just love this poem so much. It’s not often that Wilde gets so explicitly bleak in his writing. He wears it well, and it’s especially poignant considering what happened to him at the hands of the public.
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.
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) is considered one of the key British Decadents, although he was perhaps less dedicated to the decadent lifestyle than he professed to be. Oscar Wilde sarcastically observed that Swinburne was “a braggart in matters of vice who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.” The fact remains, however, that he wrote some truly delicious poetry. He’s gone out of fashion a bit in recent years, which is a great pity.
I love Swinburne’s poetry. He returned several times to the themes of sexual ambiguity and synaesthesia, as well as erotic obsession. He wasn’t afraid of depicting powerful, sexually active women in his poems – just one of the reasons he was thought to be ‘unhealthy’ by the more staid members of Victorian society. Although Victoria herself was supposed to be a fan. One of his most quintessentially decadent poems is, of course, the wonderful Faustine, though it’s rather too long to post here. Another of my favourites is ‘Cleopatra’, which I have copied out below.
Her mouth is fragrant as a vine,
A vine with birds in all its boughs;
Serpent and scarab for a sign
Between the beauty of her brows
And the amorous deep lids divine.
Her great curled hair makes luminous
Her cheeks, her lifted throat and chin.
Shall she not have the hearts of us
To shatter, and the loves therein
To shred between her fingers thus?
Small ruined broken strays of light,
Pearl after pearl she shreds them through
Her long sweet sleepy fingers, white
As any pearl’s heart veined with blue,
And soft as dew on a soft night.
As if the very eyes of love
Shone through her shutting lids, and stole
The slow looks of a snake or dove;
As if her lips absorbed the whole
Of love, her soul the soul thereof.
Lost, all the lordly pearls that were
Wrung from the sea’s heart, from the green
Coasts of the Indian gulf-river;
Lost, all the loves of the world—so keen
Towards this queen for love of her.
You see against her throat the small
Sharp glittering shadows of them shake;
And through her hair the imperial
Curled likeness of the river snake,
Whose bite shall make an end of all.
Through the scales sheathing him like wings,
Through hieroglyphs of gold and gem,
The strong sense of her beauty stings,
Like a keen pulse of love in them,
A running flame through all his rings.
Under those low large lids of hers
She hath the histories of all time;
The fruit of foliage-stricken years;
The old seasons with their heavy chime
That leaves its rhyme in the world’s ears.
She sees the hand of death made bare,
The ravelled riddle of the skies,
The faces faded that were fair,
The mouths made speechless that were wise,
The hollow eyes and dusty hair;
The shape and shadow of mystic things,
Things that fate fashions or forbids;
The staff of time-forgotten Kings
Whose name falls off the Pyramids,
Their coffin-lids and grave-clothings;
Dank dregs, the scum of pool or clod,
God-spawn of lizard-footed clans,
And those dog-headed hulks that trod
Swart necks of the old Egyptians,
Raw draughts of man’s beginning God;
The poised hawk, quivering ere he smote,
With plume-like gems on breast and back;
The asps and water-worms afloat
Between the rush-flowers moist and slack;
The cat’s warm black bright rising throat.
The purple days of drouth expand
Like a scroll opened out again;
The molten heaven drier than sand,
The hot red heaven without rain,
Sheds iron pain on the empty land.
All Egypt aches in the sun’s sight;
The lips of men are harsh for drouth,
The fierce air leaves their cheeks burnt white,
Charred by the bitter blowing south,
Whose dusty mouth is sharp to bite.
All this she dreams of, and her eyes
Are wrought after the sense hereof.
There is no heart in her for sighs;
The face of her is more than love—
A name above the Ptolemies.
Her great grave beauty covers her
As that sleek spoil beneath her feet
Clothed once the anointed soothsayer;
The hallowing is gone forth from it
Now, made unmeet for priests to wear.
She treads on gods and god-like things,
On fate and fear and life and death,
On hate that cleaves and love that clings,
All that is brought forth of man’s breath
And perisheth with what it brings.
She holds her future close, her lips
Hold fast the face of things to be;
Actium, and sound of war that dips
Down the blown valleys of the sea,
Far sails that flee, and storms of ships;
The laughing red sweet mouth of wine
At ending of life’s festival;
That spice of cerecloths, and the fine
White bitter dust funereal
Sprinkled on all things for a sign;
His face, who was and was not he,
In whom, alive, her life abode;
The end, when she gained heart to see
Those ways of death wherein she trod,
Goddess by god, with Antony.