Literature: poetry: Charles Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du Mal: Le Flacon

Original French, and translation by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Le Flacon

Il est de forts parfums pour qui toute matière
Est poreuse. On dirait qu'ils pénètrent le verre.
En ouvrant un coffret venu de l'orient
Dont la serrure grince et rechigne en criant,

Ou dans une maison déserte quelque armoire
Pleine de l'âre odeur des temps, poudreuse et noir,
Parfois on trouve un vieux flacon qui se souvient,
D'où jaillit toute vive une âme qui revient.

Mille pensers domaient, chrysalides funèbres,
Frémissant doucement dans les lourdes ténèvres,
Qui dégagent leur aile et prennent leur essor,
Teintés d'azur, glacés de rose, lamés d'or.

Voilà le souvenir enivrant qui voltige
Dans l'air troublé les yeux se ferment; le Vertige
Saisit l'âme vaincue et la pousse à deux mains
Vers un gouffre obscurci de miasmes humains;

Il la terrasse au bord d'un gouffre séculaire,
Où, Lazare odorant déchirant son suaire,
Se meut dans son réveil le cadavre spectral
D'un vieil amour ranci, charmant et sépulcral.

Ainsi, quand je serai perdu dans la mémoire
Des hommes, dans le coin d'une sinistre armoire
Quand on m'aura jeté, vieux flacon désolé,
Décrépit, poudreux, sale, abject, visqueux, fêlé,

Je serai ton cercueil, aimable pestilence!
Le témoin de ta force et de ta virulence,
Cher poison préparé par les anges! liquer
Qui me ronge, ô la vie et la mort de mon cæur!

The Perfume Flask

All matter becomes porous to certain scents; they pass
Through everyting; It seems they even go through glass.
When opening some old trunk brought home from the far east,
That scolds, feeling the key turned and the lid released--

Some wardrobe, in a house long uninhabited,
Full of the powdery odours of moments that are dead--
At times, distinct as ever, an old flask will emit
Its perfume; and a soul comes back to live in it.

Dormant as chrysalids, a thousand thoughts that lie
In the thick shadows, pulsing imperceptibly,
Now stir, now struggle forth; now their cramped wings unfold,
Tinted with azure, lustred with rose, sheeted with gold!

Oh, memories, how you rise and soar, and hover there!
The eyes close; dizziness, in the moth-darkened air,
Seizes the drunken soul, and thrusts it toward the verge--
Where mistily all human miasmas float and merge--

Of a primeval gulf; and drops it to the ground,
There, where, like a Lazarus rising, his grave-clothes half unwound,
And odorous, a cadaver from its sleep has stirred:
An old and rancid love, charming and long-interred.

Thus, when I shall be lost from sight, thus when all men
Forget me, in the dark and dusty corner then
Of that most sinister cupboard where the living pile
The dead--when, an old flask, cracked, sticky, abject, vile,

I lie at length--still, still, sweet pestilence of my heart,
As to what power thou hast, how virulent thou art,
I shall bear witness; safe shall thy dear poison be!
Thou vitriol of the gods! thou death and life of me!


No explication could be appropriate without leading disclaimers, suggesting the context of the writer. I do not speak French, nor have I studied French Literature and am utterly unable to comment on the resonance and reflections of Baudelaire in his own literary setting.

However, the translation of this poem is by an American author of whom I have some knowledge. Edna St. Vincent Millay was already an accomplished writer and poet at the time of translating Le Flacon, having already been the first woman ever to win the Pullitzer Prize for Poetry, as well as publishing plays including Aria da Capo: A Play in One Act. (see, Edna St. Vincent, 1892-1950) Ms. Millay claimed to have become involved in a collaborative work translating Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal/Flowers of Evil with George Dillon strictly by accident, having been asked by him to both review some of his translations and write the introduction to the work.

Ms. Millay was attracted to the project in part due to Dillon's insistence in using the same meter as Baudelaire had for each poem. Most poetry translations transpose a work to one more accessible to an audience in the new language, or one with which the translator is more familiar. Baudelaire himself did this, for example when he translated part of the Song of Hiawatha from Longfellow's prose to an alexandrine, or Poe's The Raven to prose from rhymed stanzas. Maintaining the presentation of the original requires, at times, modifying the precise content of the lines, but then idiom and image across languages is nearly always imperfect and must needs be rewritten in the target language for similar effect.

In doing so, although working from an original manuscript and aiming to recreate its effects as nearly literally as possible, Millay became as much the author as Baudelaire. And while discussion might refer to Baudelaire, it is in fact Millay's word choices and emphasis which are being considered.

The larger themes of Le Flacon deal with memories and ageing, regret, and of course enduring passion. The effect of memory, how it shapes our opinion and experience of now, is implied with the opening lines, and the sense of smell is a self-referencing thema repeated throughout the poem.

Similarly, the use of the flask, le flacon, as a symbol of containing and of life recurs. The perfume bottle, the wardrobe, the chrysalis, cupboard... all are shells which are, ultimately, emptied as their life, their contents, are spilled forth--and into memory, where they maintain a ghoulish half-life parasitic on the living.

Memories themselves are likened to vaguely grotesque insects. Spreading beautiful wings and yet blinding the viewer to the dangers of here and now, urging him nearer the cliff's unseen edge.

The pitiful final images, of the half-living corpse stinking and only partially covered, and of the speaker clutching his dark fantasies of injury and bitterness, praying for their discovery while claiming innocence of betrayal... Nearly a demented confession of a desire for revenge while steadfastly honouring a romance so long in the past it is unremembered by any other. A twist which suggests contempt rather than compassion is the appropriate response.

And yet... The omnipresence of memory, and the self-examination and self-delusion it requires, leads the audience to question how closely they are to the speaker's misery and ecstasy, how often they too have fantasized such a doom for themselves. How many things they have done they regret.

  • Dillon, George and St. Vincent Millay, Edna; Flowers of Evil: From the French of Charles Baudelaire;Harper & Brothers Publishers; © 1936 George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.