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20 March 2010

Baudelaire - A une Dame Créole

This was the first-written of the poems in FdM, a result of Baudelaire's trip to Réunion. In many ways, it's a fairly bland courtly love exercise; the poet argues that the Creole lady in question has beauty that would make French society take notice. But then the last line is so problematic for us, now.

Au pays parfumé que le soleil caresse,
J'ai connu, sous un dais d'arbres tout empourprés
Et de palmiers d'où pleut sur les yeux la paresse,
Une dame créole aux charmes ignorés.

Son teint est pâle et chaud; la brune enchanteresse
A dans le cou des airs noblement maniérés;
Grande et svelte en marchant comme une chasseresse,
Son sourire est tranquille et ses yeux assurés.

Si vous alliez, Madame, au vrai pays de gloire,
Sur les bords de la Seine ou de la verte Loire,
Belle digne d'orner les antiques manoirs,

Vous feriez, à l'abri des ombreuses retraites
Germer mille sonnets dans le coeur des poètes,
Que vos grands yeux rendraient plus soumis que vos noirs.
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.

Again, translation tactics reveal some of the problem. In this translation, Aggeler translates "noirs" as "slaves". Roy Campbell (1952) makes them "negro slaves", while Geoffery Wagner (1974) has "Blacks". Another significant difference is that Campbell displaces the word. In the original, it's the last word, and that makes it particularly jarring to modern ears.

There have been warning signs: exoticism is connoted in the first quatrain, and it's personalised in the rhyme enchanteresse/chasseresse. The Lady is seen as different (and we could note that she's a very inert presence throughout).

But in the last line, Edward Said might say that the foundation of this Lady's wealth is made explicit, and what's shocking is that it's presented as a fact of nature, rather than of politics or violence. These days, you can't raise the subject of slavery without signalling some attitude towards it. The expression is so flat and bathetic. And if the Lady is inert, how much more so are the "noirs"?

We could waste many hours discussing how Baudelaire's contemporaries would have read this, but now, having read and thought about this a lot, I think the last line of this sonnet is not reconcilable these days. We don't have a framework of understanding for it, and so probably have to shrug and pass on to the next poem. That's quite a serious conclusion, implying that certain works are incompatible with a given cultural formation. Yet we'd have no problem in saying that an eighteenth century audience would have no way of understanding the Cantos. Why should we assume that all we do, across centuries, is gain understanding? There comes a point when the difference between our understanding and the understanding of the culture that created a work is so fundamental that we'd be better off not trying. Another example might be Shakespeare's comic banter.

If we don't do this, we may find ourselves doing a C S Lewis - attempting to become a contemporary reader. I have doubts about the possibility of doing so, and even bigger doubts about the worth of it. We don't (well, I don't) read literature to learn about the society that created it, but because there is something in it that is relevant to us, now.

I'll probably come back to this. I'm aware that there's a hidden question here: doesn't the fact that I can recognise a difference between our understanding and that of Baudelaire's time require me to have some knowledge of the understanding of Baudelaire's time? I've a feeling this isn't an insuperable problem, though.

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