Review of Helen Palma’s Selected Poems from Baudelaire’s “Les Fleur du Mal”

By Joseph Charles MacKenzie

Two arts are beautifully displayed in Helen Palma’s Selected Poems from Baudelaire’s Les Fleur du Mal (Pivot Press, New York, 2014). The first and most obvious is that of translation, but also an art rarely considered in our day, the art of selection.

Selective translation, as differentiated from the comprehensive translation of an entire work or oeuvre, belongs to the poet for whom translation is an occasion for magnificent poetry offering at the same time a solid idea of the original poet’s true spirit. Selection is therefore an auxiliary art to that of translation. In this case, Helen Palma has not only translated well, she has also selected well. Her chief aim is to give us perfectly crafted English verse through a well-chosen échantillon of Baudelaire’s original collection (as republished in Yves Gérard Le Dantec’s authoritative edition in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade series). Palma’s selection is far from thin, however, as it gives us a full third of the original opus. For readers of French, the original texts of the poems have been generously included on facing pages.

The ampleness of Helen Palma’s selection is calculated to give the reader a just picture of the emotional breadth of Baudelaire’s psychological universe which underlies Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire, who had drawn much of his early inspiration from Hugo, notoriously moves between the grotesque and the sublime in his poems. Helen Palma’s selection gives us a clear idea of how these two poles of Baudelaire’s collection function with respect to one another. This is particularly evident in her adept translations of the “great poems,” such as “Spleen” and “Elevation,” but also in some of the poems that are generally under-appreciated these days, including “Le Guignon,” “Causerie,” and “Ciel Brouillé.” The Hugolian aspect of Baudelaire’s work is well represented in the two “Chants d’Automne” from which Palma draws the full force of the poet’s unique lyricism.

Quite remarkably, every aspect of Baudelaire’s personality is covered by Helen Palma’s adroit selection. As for the indisputable influence of Gautier, this is also perfectly represented. “Hymne à la Beauté,” for example, is compellingly translated with a scholarly understanding of the doctrine of “l’art pour l’art.” Baudelaire, the Christian moralist, exposing les maux de son siècle, the miseries of his time, is poignantly rendered in Palma’s almost dramatic translations of “La Mort des Pauvres” and “Le Tonneau de la Haine”—again, poems that are sadly under-anthologized in today’s Anglo-American publishing world. Even Baudelaire the socially observant flâneur des rues discretely recording the ever-changing urban landscape of Paris, is marvelously brought to life in a euphonious and memorable translation of “Le Cygne,” one of the immortal poems of the French nineteenth century.

Helen Palma’s exquisitely crafted translations follow Baudelaire’s rhyme schemes with a poet’s meticulous eye for detail—an important feature for those wishing to deepen their understanding of Baudelaire’s poetic structures. The translator herself has noted in her brief introduction that not every poem of Les Fleurs du Mal transposes easily into English, especially given (as we immediately discern) her own technical exigencies, those of translation properly speaking. The nineteenth century had a similar understanding of selection. Comprehensive translations were left to academics who were seldom poets in their own right, whereas working poets like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne tended to be selective in their choice of content. Indeed, Rossetti, although selective, was nevertheless prolific, with his English translations of nearly two hundred poems, beside the Vita Nuova, swelling the pages of his Early Italian Poets (1861).

There is also the question of degrees of translation, from the poetically licensed to the more precise transposition of forms and stylistic devices belonging to translation in the stricter sense. To illustrate the difference between the two and better appreciate Helen Palma’s achievement, one might take Frank Pearce Strum’s translation of the all-important last verse of “La Beauté” for comparison. For “Mes yeux, mes larges yeux aux clartés éternelles!” Strum gives: “The placid mirrors of my luminous eyes.” While Strum’s version captures the eternal stasis underlying not only the poem, but Baudelaire’s entire understanding of Gautier’s marbleized aesthetic as presented in Émaux et Camées, it utterly discards one of the poem’s most ingenious devices, the conduplicatio of “mes yeux, mes larges yeux.” Helen Palma’s treatment of the same verse preserves the all-important repetition of “mes yeux,” keeps the “miroirs” in the preceding verse where they belong, retains the exclamatory punctuation, and manages to sound poetic in our current English all at the same time: “My eyes, wide eyes, filled with infinite light!” Helen Palma’s accuracy here in no way compromises the lyrical dimensions of the verse.

Strum, a friend and collaborator of William Butler Yeats, had achieved fame for his 1906 translation of Les Fleurs du Mal. But just as one senses one is reading Yeats and not Ronsard in the former’s translation of “Quand vous serez bien vielle,” one has a similar sense that many of today’s translations of Baudelaire are really commentaries revealing the mind of the translator more than that of the translated. Rather than overwriting Baudelaire’s technical devices to flaunt her own style and genius, Helen Palma has found that critical point of balance between the two approaches. She renders Baudelaire into beautiful English prosody without eviscerating his technique, style, or meaning. In other words, Helen Palma has taken the more difficult and arduous route of translation, one which is less and less traveled these days, but which offers far greater rewards for the reader.

In conclusion, Helen Palma’s Selected Poems from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal does exactly what a solid, classic translation ought to do: elucidate, engage, and edify. One would expect no less from a singularly gifted poet holding advanced degrees in Classics and Comparative Literature from City University of New York. Helen Palma’s many poems and translations have appeared in numerous journals, including The Formalist, Iambs and Trochees, Trinacria, The Raintown Review, and Pivot. Those possessing extensive knowledge of Baudelaire and his time will especially enjoy these intellectively gratifying translations of Les Fleurs du Mal, while those wishing to enjoy Baudelaire in English on a simple, poetic level, will keep this much-needed book ever at their side—a stolen pleasure of the highest order.

Winner of the 2020 Society of Classical Poets Competition (America's highest honor in classical verse), Joseph Charles MacKenzie is a traditional lyric poet of New Mexico. He is also the only American to have won the Scottish International Poetry Competition (see: Times Literary Supplement, Jan 27, 2017). A Pushcart Prize nominee, MacKenzie's verses have appeared in The New York Times, The Scotsman (Edinburgh), The Independent (London), The Telegraph (London), and many other venues. He wirtes primarily for Trinacria (New York) and the Society of Classical Poets (New York).

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