Robert Lowell’s 1961 Imitations did more for the reputation of twentieth-century poets Mandelstam and Montale than it did for the nineteenth-century Europeans, Baudelaire and Leopardi, since the latter never needed much rehabilitating in literary circles and since the latter has still not received as much attention, in translation or in cultural myths, as he is due (the somewhat recent Galassi translation notwithstanding). But Lowell’s collection of loose translations occasioned a few reviews in which some of the best critics around were given the occasion to remark on the nineteenth-century masters. Geoffrey Hill, for instance, finds a phrase that bring the two together: “poets of worldly attrition,” a label that also helps place mid-Lowell (the Lowell who would go onto write “For the Union Dead”), and that extends to Hill, especially in the late works. But Hill’s description also alerts us to the absence, in the nineteenth-century, of a British (and American) poet the phrase might fit; Hopkins, the socially engaged Hopkins, perhaps–and the one great exception, Arnold’s “Dover Beach” which comes as close as any English poem to expressing Leopardi’s “noia,” a word that, like Baudelaire’s “ennui,” doesn’t find an easy translation (T.S. Eliot creatively proposes that Baudelaire’s ennui be understood as a modern form of “accidie”).
But in the poetry of Baudelaire and Leopardi, the forces of worldly attrition are registered as they cannot be in English poetry. Another distinguishing characteristic of Leopardi and Baudelaire, an element that becomes apparent, sometimes even excruciatingly apparent, in reading Lowell’s translations is that each writes with a Classical inheritances at his disposal. And this not because theirs are Latinate languages, but because of the conventions of what could be done with those languages in poetry: namely, fit them to a rhetorical tradition that English does not possess. As richly rhetorically patterned as, say, Richard II, Shakespeare, the font of English poetry, does not provide a model for the power of classical rhetoric in the same way as Racine; and Milton’s reinvention of English by way of Latin, Greek and more, however much it takes from classical languages, does not sustain that hardened intensity of utterance locked in the couplets of French tragedy.
That’s one way of describing the inheritance of the French rhetorical tradition. But it’s difficult to describe or define it at any length; rhetoric, so much of which is about shifting figures of speech, itself shifts as soon as one tries to grasp it. At reactionary periods of literary history–Romanticism, Modernism–when authors seek to return to first principles, “rhetoric” is often a term of stigma and abuse, and, as with many terms of stigma and abuse, its precise sense is blurred by passionate disavowals. Perhaps it is better to forget the thorny term and say instead only that Baudelaire writes with Racine behind him and that the English have no equivalent figure. We can sense that others have sensed this–Eliot, in “The Metaphysical Poets,” groups Baudelaire with Racine, not for their rhetorical affinities, but as the most curious explorers of the soul; and Eliot quotes Baudelaire elsewhere, in his essay on Dryden (an essay that can be read, along with many of Eliot’s critical pieces, can be read as a sustained rejection, refinement, or correction of Arnold’s principles and judgments), to show the possibilities of wit. Lowell, in an interview, says that the nearest we get to Baudelaire in English is in Pope’s lines on the death of the Duke of Buckingham, in the Epistle to Bathurst; Pope, for Lowell, is the best English model for Baudelaire’s taut balance and controlled modulation of disdainful irony.
So there is an instinct for what English nearly, but doesn’t, possess; yet the absence is not understood until poets confront the task of translating Baudelaire and find that there are no resources at all in English adequate for some of the original material, that there are no substitutes or equivalents for essential elements of the French rhetorical tradition. Among these elements, though not as frequent as others: rhetorical questions: questions that are posed with the answer implied in its terms or with no answer possible or necessary.
In the essay on Dryden, Eliot quotes Baudelaire’s “Les Petites Vielles”: “Avez-vous observé que maints cercueils de vieilles | Sont presque aussi petits que celui d’un enfant?” –“Have you noticed that oftentimes the coffins of old ladies| Are nearly as small as those of children?” If you hadn’t noticed before he asked, you’ve noticed it now; and whether you admit to answering yet, or whether you realize that you never have thought a thing, Baudelaire knows that some will feel worse for having had to stop, think, and see that he is right. And, though not exactly what we would mean by a rhetorical question—because the answer is not assumed to have been possessed by the audience beforehand—the question is gratuitous: he need not have asked, but might have simply stated, leaving our imaginations innocent bystanders witnessing his crime.
Translation to English doesn’t founder; to some degree a question remains a question. But the French postures and poses theatrically and the English, to my ears, cannot. The English poets who most posture and pose with pride in the artifice of the act are Pope and Byron, but Byron would have put the question otherwise, the desire to ruffle more impish and less poised and unflappable than Baudelaire’s French. Another way of saying it: Baudelaire’s rhetorical question runs cool with ‘sang froid’, a quality that is, in the name itself, somehow out of place in English literature. So maybe the question is one not a matter of conventions of language, but a matter of the conventions of life to which language adheres, of which language forms a part: French rhetorical questions not only are fortified by Racine, but also by the manners and habits of a class of French society that is itself fortified by the cultural distinction attaching to a proper appreciation for Racine. Perhaps Browning could have found a proper equivalent in his poetry—not because of the characteristics of his peculiar syntax, but because of his capacity to bring foreign voices, and foreign ways of thinking, into his English (he had both a cultural and historical imagination).
The question in “Les Petites Vielles” makes fewer demands on English than other questions. In his review of Lowell’s Imitations, Donald Carne-Ross is especially critical of Lowell’s handling of “Le Cygne,” the stunning record not only of worldly attrition, but of attrition of, done to, the world and inhabitants of Paris. The poem pitches forward from the start with a theatrical mode of address that no translation can match, invoking Racine directly: “Andromaque, je pense à vous.” (Baudelaire’s apostrophes seem as difficult for translators as his questions, and are more noticeably moments of weakness in that they are so frequent; English can’t even manage the deflated “Helas, tout est abime” from “Le Gouffre,” because the deflation depends on there being an acceptable standard of inflation).
But the poem’s furor culminates when, at the end of the first section, the titular swan speaks, calling out to the skies: “Eau, quand donc pleuvras-tu? quand tonneras-tu, foudre?”
Translators are helpless. Anthony Hecht, who can’t be shunted aside as a tin-eared scholar-translator, does what he has to do, get the line out and moves on: “Water, when will you rain? Where is your thunder?” Lowell’s swan “screams” at the sky, a hysterical rendering that at least admits its own awkwardness;it doesn’t pretend that a Swan in English could have the dignity of Baudelaire’s. Carne-Ross points out that the trouble is with the available rhetorical registers: not even a Yeatsian Swan, he writes, could cry out like this.
In consequence of an English translator’s inability to find an English equivalent of these most rhetorically searing moments, those questions that are quieter, less grandiose in their performances, suffer also: the absence of the greater intensity is felt in the French, as it cannot be in the English, where no such intensity is available to make an absence. In “Le Voyage,” the third section ends with the intimate and earnest appeal: “Dites, qu’avez-vous vu?” and the fifth section in its entirety: “Et puis, et puis encore?” And, no louder, the informal surrender “Faut-il partir? Rester? Si tu peux rester, reste,” depends on the abandonment of formality. And then there is the final shrug of the poem, in its penultimate line: “Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau,| Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?” The resignation is felt in the question’s laziness. Lowell does not miss the mark when he writes: “to drown in the abyss — heaven or hell, | who cares? Through the unknown, we’ll find the new.” But the mark is of an entirely different sort than in Baudelaire’s poetry, because of the alternative interrogative conventions.
The Baudelaire poem that Lowell gets most right (an opinion that Carne-Ross shares)—perhaps because he had lived with it longest, already having translated some of its lines into the dramatic monologue, “Mother Marie Therese,” in The Mills of the Kavanaughs—is “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalouse,” which he titles, “The Servant.”
That poem ends on a question:
Lorsque la bûche siffle et chante, si le soir
Calme, dans le fauteuil je la voyais s’asseoir,
Si, par une nuit bleue et froide de décembre,
Je la trouvais tapie en un coin de ma chambre,
Grave, et venant du fond de son lit éternel
Couver l’enfant grandi de son oeil maternel,
Que pourrais-je répondre à cette âme pieuse,
Voyant tomber des pleurs de sa paupière creuse?
The question suggests that there might be no answer, since there is nothing he could say in response, but it also genuinely inquires; the question constitutes also a discovery by Baudelaire: in asking it, in arriving at its terms, he sees something new.
This sort of question is at home in English verse; it is found especially in poetry by Baudelaire’s contemporary, Christina Rossetti: it holds the possibility of being heard as a rhetorical gesture (already knowing or else assuming the response), and also of being heard as a genuine inquiry.
Lowell’s translation surprises, and not because he digests and assimilates Baudelaire into a specter of himself (a tendency in his translations). Instead, it surprises because Lowell refits this question more drastically than any other; more drastically also than other translators, and this although the question is not, on the face of it, in a rhetorical register alien to English.
Hence Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Some evening, when the whistling log begins to purr,
Supposing, in that chair, appeared the ghost of her;
Supposing, on some cold and blue December night,
I found her in my room, humble, half out of sight,
And thoughtful, having come from her eternal bed
To shield her grown-up child, to soothe his troubled head,
What could I find to say to the poor faithful soul, —
Seeing the tears beneath those sunken eyelids roll?
Here is Lowell:
The oak log sings and sputters in my chamber
and in the cold blue half-light of December,
I see her tiptoe through my room, and halt
humbly, as if she’d hurried from her vault
with blankets for the child her sleepless eye
had coaxed and mothered to maturity.
What can I say to her to calm her fears?
My nurse’s hollow sockets fill with tears.
Not only the question, but the entire scenario is altered: there is no “if” or “supposing” in Lowell’s version. As is often the case, he strips away the rhetorical moves of the original. But whereas oftentimes, the result is a move away from the original spirit, as if acknowledging that, lacking the rhetorical riches of the French, the English translator is consigned to write another poem entirely, here the result answers to Baudelaire’s poem. Even though Baudelaire’s question—ambivalently rhetorical—is of a sort that English poets can and do deploy, its elaborate staging, the machinery of its suppositions, the long roll of lines through to the final interrogative gesture, is not the sort of thing that English (and especially not American) poets can easily pull off with the feeling of touching uncertainty, gratitude, and devotion that Baudelaire finds; the machinery, in English, would likely be felt to get in the way (artifice like this being opposed, through most of English literary history, to authentic and subtle feeling). Lowell needs to find a way to get to and ask the question without leading us through a virtuoso syntactical maze. And, finally, arriving at the question, he gives it only a single line, and, what is most surprising, declines to end the poem with it; instead, his final line curtails the rhetorical performance, directs attention away from the question, and towards the nurse: “My nurse’s hollow sockets fill with tears.” The line shifts the implication: Not “what could I say to her as I saw her crying,” but instead making the vision of her tears a response to the question, one that recognizes that there might be nothing he can say; the question is asked and then rendered impotent. In asking the question as he does, Baudelaire shows off his virtuosity in order to show how little it matters in this case; recognizing that there English poetry has not done much to suggest that so grandiloquent a question would be worth much, Lowell does not need to put the futility of rhetoric on display.
Baudelaire’s poems, like many poems, are struggles against, as well as in, an inherited language and its conventions; Baudelaire’s struggles against rhetorical questions cannot be Lowell’s; but Baudelaire’s struggle to imagine the distance between the living and the dead, to find a sympathy for the dead that bears the recognition that such a sympathy must be as much of a fantasy as the thought that the dead will return to life and pay the living visits—that can be, and movingly is, Lowell’s struggle to share in “The Servant.”
Baudelaire’s poems, and various translations, are all available here.