Whenever I think of Charles Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil (Les fleurs du mal), which rattled Francophone poetry when it initially appeared in 1857 and which continues to resound in that and other literary traditions up through today, I associate it with the nocturnal. That is, with things that occur at night, darkness and darkened streets, alleys, rooms--the mind and heart themselves. A glance at the 1857 or expanded 1861 table of contents shows, however, that most of the poems do not treat the night so much as they cast Baudelaire's dark, critical and coruscating poetic light on various aspects of city life, and with a candor that until that time had been quite rare for many centuries in the literature of any country, let alone France.
Baudelaire, a self-proclaimed revolutionary and avant-gardiste, admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and ally of Gustave Courbet, a critic of estimable talent and a post-Romantic figure,knew what he was doing with his remarkable volume, and had to leave out six poems that were thought to have gone too far. As he famously wrote in the prefatory poem, speaking of his reader and himself, "You know him reader, that refined monster / --Hypocrite reader, -- my double, -- my brother," and, as a way of thinking of all the poems in the volume, he notes in my favorite of all his poems, "Correspondences," that "Man passes through forests of symbols / which look at him with familiar eyes"; the poems of The Flowers of Evil represent Baudelaire's poetic journey through those forests and his attempt to record them. The attempt has lost little of his power in the 150+ years since the book first appeared. Here, from The Flowers of Evil, is "Evening Twilight," in two translations. All are taken from the online Flowers of Evil website.
Now is the graceful evening, friend of the criminal;
Now it comes like an accomplice, stealthily; the sky
Closes slowly like a gigantic bedroom,
And Man, impatient, changes to wild beast.
O evening, lovable eveningtime, longed for by him
Whose arms can truthfully say: Today
We have worked! — It is evening that lightens
Spirits consumed by a fierce sorrow,
The stubborn savant whose forehead grows heavy,
And the bent laborer gaining again his bed.
Meanwhile unhealthy demons heavily awake,
Like business men, in the atmosphere,
And fly and strike the shutters and the awning.
Across those lights the wind tortures
Prostitution is ignited in the streets;
Like an ant-hill she opens her escapes,
Spawning all over a secret path,
Like an enemy's sudden attack;
She stirs on the breast of the city of dung
Like a worm that steals his meals from Man.
Here and there one hears kitchens hissing,
The screaming of theatres and orchestras roaring;
The plain tables, where gambling throws its pleasures,
Fill up with bawds and cheats, accomplices,
And thieves, who know no truce nor grace,
Soon go to get to work, they also,
Depart to force gently safes and doors
For a few days' living and to clothe their mistresses.
Reflect, O my soul, in this most solemn time,
And close your ears to this roar.
It is the hour when the sorrows of the ill are sharpened.
Dark Night grips them by the throat; they fulfill
Their fate and move into the common whirlpool;
The hospitals are full of their sighing. — More than one
Will no more come back to seek the perfumed soup,
Beside the fire, at night, by a beloved soul.
Still most, most of them have never known
Home's sweetness nor have they really lived.
— Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974)
Behold the sweet evening, friend of the criminal;
It comes like an accomplice, stealthily; the sky
Closes slowly like an immense alcove,
And impatient man turns into a beast of prey.
O evening, kind evening, desired by him
Whose arms can say, without lying: "Today
We labored!" — It is the evening that comforts
Those minds that are consumed by a savage sorrow,
The obstinate scholar whose head bends with fatigue
And the bowed laborer who returns to his bed.
Meanwhile in the atmosphere malefic demons
Awaken sluggishly, like businessmen,
And take flight, bumping against porch roofs and shutters.
Among the gas flames worried by the wind
Prostitution catches alight in the streets;
Like an ant-hill she lets her workers out;
Everywhere she blazes a secret path,
Like an enemy who plans a surprise attack;
She moves in the heart of the city of mire
Like a worm that steals from Man what he eats.
Here and there one hears food sizzle in the kitchens,
The theaters yell, the orchestras moan;
The gambling dens, where games of chance delight,
Fill up with whores and cardsharps, their accomplices;
The burglars, who know neither respite nor mercy,
Are soon going to begin their work, they also,
And quietly force open cash-boxes and doors
To enjoy life awhile and dress their mistresses.
Meditate, O my soul, in this solemn moment,
And close your ears to this uproar;
It is now that the pains of the sick grow sharper!
Somber Night grabs them by the throat; they reach the end
Of their destinies and go to the common pit;
The hospitals are filled with their sighs. — More than one
Will come no more to get his fragrant soup
By the fireside, in the evening, with a loved one.
However, most of them have never known
The sweetness of a home, have never lived!
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
LE CRÉPUSCULE DU SOIR
Voici le soir charmant, ami du criminel;
II vient comme un complice, à pas de loup; le ciel
Se ferme lentement comme une grande alcôve,
Et l'homme impatient se change en bête fauve.
Ô soir, aimable soir, désiré par celui
Dont les bras, sans mentir, peuvent dire: Aujourd'hui
Nous avons travaillé! — C'est le soir qui soulage
Les esprits que dévore une douleur sauvage,
Le savant obstiné dont le front s'alourdit,
Et l'ouvrier courbé qui regagne son lit.
Cependant des démons malsains dans l'atmosphère
S'éveillent lourdement, comme des gens d'affaire,
Et cognent en volant les volets et l'auvent.
À travers les lueurs que tourmente le vent
La Prostitution s'allume dans les rues;
Comme une fourmilière elle ouvre ses issues;
Partout elle se fraye un occulte chemin,
Ainsi que l'ennemi qui tente un coup de main;
Elle remue au sein de la cité de fange
Comme un ver qui dérobe à l'Homme ce qu'il mange.
On entend çà et là les cuisines siffler,
Les théâtres glapir, les orchestres ronfler;
Les tables d'hôte, dont le jeu fait les délices,
S'emplissent de catins et d'escrocs, leurs complices,
Et les voleurs, qui n'ont ni trêve ni merci,
Vont bientôt commencer leur travail, eux aussi,
Et forcer doucement les portes et les caisses
Pour vivre quelques jours et vêtir leurs maîtresses.
Recueille-toi, mon âme, en ce grave moment,
Et ferme ton oreille à ce rugissement.
C'est l'heure où les douleurs des malades s'aigrissent!
La sombre Nuit les prend à la gorge; ils finissent
Leur destinée et vont vers le gouffre commun;
L'hôpital se remplit de leurs soupirs. — Plus d'un
Ne viendra plus chercher la soupe parfumée,
Au coin du feu, le soir, auprès d'une âme aimée.
Encore la plupart n'ont-ils jamais connu
La douceur du foyer et n'ont jamais vécu!