The Flowers of Evil - Charles Baudelaire, James McGowan, Jonathan Culler Flowers of Evil was an entirely serendipitous impulse check-out from my local library. I can only imagine that what caught my eye was the title - Flowers of Evil - who could resist? So I pulled it from the shelf, opened it up at random, read a few verses, and said to myself "This isn't bad."

Not only was it "not bad" but it was extraordinarily good; good enough that Baudelaire has joined the list of authors I'll pay money for.

It's random events like finding authors whose work "speaks to me" in some way (Maugham, Le Guin, Chekhov, etc.) that keep me from being an out-and-out atheist. Afterall, it's strongly suggestive that there's at least a guardian spirit of some kind looking out for me. At the risk of offending or titilating some, Baudelaire's passions and obsessions mirror my own. I'm particularly taken with his ability to combine carnality with spirituality, often in the same poem. A short example that springs to mind is "Correspondences" (this and later translations are from the Oxford World Classic's edition, James McGowan, translator):

Nature is a temple, where the living
Columns sometimes breathe confusing speech;
Man walks within these groves of symbols each
Of which regards him as a kindred thing.

As the long echoes, shadowy, profound,
Heard from afar, blend in a unity,
Vast as the night, as sunlight's clarity,
So perfumes, colours, sounds may correspond.

Odours there are, fresh as a baby's skin,
Mellow as oboes, green as meadow grass,
- Others corrupted, rich, triumphant, full,

Having dimensions infinitely vast,
Frankincense, musk, ambergris, benjamin,
Singing the senses' rapture and the soul's.

Or there's "Conversation":

You are a pink and lovely autumn sky!
But sadness in me rises like the sea,
And leaves in ebbing only bitter clay
On my sad lip, the smart of memory.

Your hand slides up my fainting breast at will;
But, love, it only finds a ravaged pit
Pillaged by a woman's savage tooth and nail.
My heart is lost; the beasts have eaten it.

It is a palace sullied by the rout;
They drink, they pull each other's hair, they kill!
- A perfume swims around your naked throat!...

O Beauty, scourge of souls, you want it still!
You with hot eyes that flash in fiery feasts,
Burn up these meagre scraps spared by the beasts!

And any man (or woman) who writes poems to his cats is going to be on my A List by default. From section II of "The Cat" comes these verses which describe my young friend Oberon to a T (not to be confused with an earlier poem of the same name that begins, "Come, my fine cat, to my amorous heart"):

From his soft fur, golden and brown,
Goes out so sweet a scent, one night
I might have been embalmed in it
By giving him one little pet.

He is my household's guardian soul;
He judges, he presides, inspires
All matters in his royal realm;
Might he be fairy? or a god?

When my eyes, to this cat I love
Drawn as by a magnet's force,
Turn tamely back upon that appeal,
And when I look within myself,

I notice with astonishment
The fire of his opal eyes,
Clear beacons glowing, living jewels,
Taking my measure, steadily.

And, unlike in re my Russian literary interests, I was pleased to find that my graduate-school French was good enough that I could intelligently compare the parallel texts in the Oxford edition. McGowan uses a variety of techniques in translating Baudelaire; sometimes following both syntax and wording nearly exactly, sometimes translating a bit freely. In most cases I think he comes very close to capturing the original's intent.

There was something that I found utterly inexplicable: There is a missing poem. The final section of the Oxford edition are 14 poems (supposedly) that were included in the 1868 edition of the original work. Poem #3, "The Peace Pipe," isn't there. The text goes from poem #2, "To Theodore de Banville," to poem #4, "Prayer of a Pagan," as does the table of contents. I probably would have missed it entirely because I usually don't focus on the numbering but for the fact that there's a note for "The Peace Pipe" on page 383.

Despite that, readers of this review are safe in assuming that I highly recommend Baudelaire.