[Translated from the French by Robert Bensen.]
Confined in caves of boundless misery
I spend my life’s sentence in solitary
Where no dawn spreads its rose above me,
Where, alone with Night, in her grim custody,
I am like a painter, by God’s mockery
Condemned to paint, alas, on shadows.
Here, as a chef to satisfy funereal hungers,
I prepare to boil and consume my heart,
Instantly a glimmer lengthens and shapes
A phantom made of grace and splendor.
With a gait dream-like, oriental, exotic,
At last attains the plenitude of grandeur
It’s she!—my beautiful visitor
I recognize by her black and luminous luster.
Reader, have you savored the fumes of candled brandy
or gotten so high on holy incense
you lusted for it in the cathedral,
biting and fragrant as feminine musk?
A profound charm, magical, goes to your head
and summons a past joy to this moment.
So from the beloved’s body the lover culls
The memory of the most exquisite flower of all.
From her plait hair, its heavy trove
A living sachet, incense of the alcove
Perfume rising from its steady arc,
And from the garments, chiffon and velour,
Moist with love’s first sweat and scent of ardor,
Release from themselves a perfume of fur.
3. The Frame
As a beautiful frame enhances a portrait,
As much as a brush that’s full of praise,
I don’t know what strange enchantment
lies in enclosing her image, but it does!
Thus gems, jewelry of metals and gilt
so perfectly set off a rare beauty;
nothing outshone her perfect clarity;
And all seems to serve her that touch her.
Even one who’d sometimes say that she’d offer
To everything that would make love to her
Her naked flesh, open her voluptuousness
To the kisses of satin and linen.
And, however slow or brusque, every movement
she makes mimes the impetuous grace of a simian.
4. The Portrait
Sickness and death scatter the ashes
Of every blaze that leaps up inside us.
Of these grand eyes so fervent and so tender,
Of this mouth where my heart discloses itself,
Of our kisses, more potent than absinthe,
Of these ecstasies blinding as sunbeams,
What trace remains? My terror would erase
Everything but itself, and leave me a pale sketch
In pencil that grows more faint in the solitude
That Time’s insults inflict on old men,
A harpy beating us with its uncouth wing…
Assassin of my youth and art though you are,
You will never tear her from my memory
Who gave me my pleasure and consummate joy.
Featured image: Woodburytype of a portrait of Charles Baudelaire by Étienne Carjat.