The Alchemy of Sorrow

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Charles Pierre Baudelaire  was a French poet who produced notable work as an essayist, art critic, and pioneering translator of Edgar Allan Poe. His most famous work, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), expresses the changing nature of beauty in modern, industrializing Paris during the 19th century. Baudelaire’s highly original style of prose-poetry influenced a whole generation of poets including Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé among many others. He is credited with coining the term “modernity” (modernité) to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis, and the responsibility art has to capture that experience.

Charles Pierre Baudelaire poems translated by William Aggeler

Bertha’s Eyes

You can scorn more illustrious eyes,

sweet eyes of my child, through which there takes flight

something as good or as tender as night.

Turn to mine your charmed shadows, sweet eyes!

Great eyes of a child, adorable secrets,

you resemble those grottoes of magic

where, behind the dark and lethargic,

shine vague treasures the world forgets.

My child has veiled eyes, profound and vast,

and shining like you, Night, immense, above!

Their fires are of Trust, mixed with thoughts of Love,

that glitter in depths, voluptuous or chaste.

The Alchemy of Sorrow

One man lights you with his ardor,

Another puts you in mourning, Nature!

That which says to one: sepulcher!

Says to another: life! glory!

You have always frightened me,

Hermes the unknown, you who help me.

You make me the peer of Midas,

The saddest of all alchemists;

Through you I change gold to iron

And make of paradise a hell;

In the winding sheet of the clouds

I discover a beloved corpse,

And on the celestial shores

I build massive sarcophagi.

To a Creole Lady

In the perfumed country which the sun caresses,

I knew, under a canopy of crimson trees

And palms from which indolence rains into your eyes,

A Creole lady whose charms were unknown.

Her complexion is pale and warm; the dark enchantress

Affects a noble air with the movements of her neck.

Tall and slender, she walks like a huntress;

Her smile is calm and her eye confident.

If you went, Madame, to the true land of glory,

On the banks of the Seine or along the green Loire,

Beauty fit to ornament those ancient manors,

You’d make, in the shelter of those shady retreats,

A thousand sonnets grow in the hearts of poets,

Whom your large eyes would make more subject than your slaves.


Soon we will plunge ourselves into cold shadows,

And all of summer’s stunning afternoons will be gone.

I already hear the dead thuds of logs below

Falling on the cobblestones and the lawn.

All of winter will return to me:

derision, Hate, shuddering, horror, drudgery and vice,

And exiled, like the sun, to a polar prison,

My soul will harden into a block of red ice.

I shiver as I listen to each log crash and slam:

The echoes are as dull as executioners’ drums.

My mind is like a tower that slowly succumbs

To the blows of a relentless battering ram.

It seems to me, swaying to these shocks, that someone

Is nailing down a coffin in a hurry somewhere.

For whom? — It was summer yesterday; now it’s autumn.

Echoes of departure keep resounding in the air.

Gypsies Traveling

The prophetical tribe, that ardent eyed people,

Set out last night, carrying their children

On their backs, or yielding to those fierce appetites

The ever ready treasure of pendulous breasts.

The men travel on foot with their gleaming weapons

Alongside the wagons where their kin are huddled,

Surveying the heavens with eyes rendered heavy

By a mournful regret for vanished illusions.

The cricket from the depths of his sandy retreat

Watches them as they pass, and louder grows his song;

Cybele, who loves them, increases her verdure,

Makes the desert blossom, water spurt from the rock

Before these travelers for whom is opened wide

The familiar domain of the future’s darkness.

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