Three Little Prose Poems
By Charles Baudelaire
(Translated by Aleister Crowley, from the French)
Vanity Fair, November 1915, Vol. 5 No. 3, p 59
(Editor’s note.—In the August issue of Vanity Fair, Arthur Symons, the English critic, contributed an impressive essay on Baudelaire. The great interest awakened by this essay has prompted us to print three of Baudelaire’s Prose Poems. No bolder task can be undertaken than the translation of prose so musical, so subtle and so profound as Baudelaire’s, but, in this difficult quandary, we have been fortunate in finding Mr. Aleister Crowley, an English translator quite equal to the task.)
THE Chinese can tell the time by looking in the eyes of a cat.
One day a missionary, while walking in the suburbs of Nankin, found that he had forgotten his watch, and asked a little boy what the time was. The gutter-snipe hesitated at first, then, recollecting himself, he replied, “I will find out for you.”
A minute later he reappeared, holding in his arms a fine big cat, and looking, as the saying is, in the whites of its eyes, he unhesitatingly said: “It is just a little before noon.”
This turned out to be the case.
As to me, if I bend over towards my beautiful Féline—so well named—who is at once the glory of her sex, the pride of my heart, and the incense of my spirit, whether it be night, or whether it be day, in the abyss of her adorable eyes I read the hour most clearly. This hour is always the same; vast, solemn, wide as space, without division into minutes or seconds; a motionless hour which is not marked on clocks. And if some importunate person were to come and disturb me while my gaze rests on this delicious dial, if some false and intolerant spirit, some demon of unlucky accident were to come and say to me: “What are you looking at with such intensity? What do you seek in the eyes of this being? Do you see the time?” I should reply unhesitatingly, “Yes, I see the time; it is eternity.”
Now, Madam, is not this really a meritorious madrigal, and as pompous as yourself? In good sooth, I have taken so much pleasure in embroidering this pretentious piece of gallantry that I shall ask you for nothing in return.
THREE TEMPTATIONS: OR A VISIT FROM LOVE, WEALTH AND GLORY
TWO superb Satans, and a She-Devil not less remarkable than they, last night climbed the mysterious staircase by which Hell emerges to assault the weakness of a sleeping man, and secretly communicated with him. In their glory they came, as it were, upon a platform, and stood in front of me. A sulphurous splendour emanated from these three mighty Beings, cutting them from the thick darkness of the night. So proud and so masterful was their manner that at first I took them to be indeed Gods.
The face of the first Satan was epicene, and he had also in every line of his body the softness of old Bacchus. Lovely were his eyes, and languishing, of a shadowy and undecided colour, resembling violets still wetted with the heavy tears of the storm, and his half-opened lips seemed like warm caskets of perfume, whence he exhaled a subtle scent; and every time he sighed, musk-scented butterflies gat light, on their winged way, from the ardour of his breath.
Around his purple tunic was twisted as a belt a gleaming serpent, who, with raised head, turned languorously toward him his eyes that were like glowing coals. From this living girdle were suspended alternately phials full of deadly liquids, shining knives, and surgical instruments. In his right hand he held another phial, filled with a luminous red liquid, and which bore these strange words: “Drink, this my blood, the perfect cordial.”
In the left hand he bore a violin, which he used, doubtless, to sing his pleasures and his sorrows, and to spread the contagion of his folly on the nights of the Witches’ Sabbath.
From his delicate ankles dragged some rings of a broken chain of gold, and when the constraint which this occasioned him made him lower his eyes to the ground, he contemplated vaingloriously the nails of his feet, brilliant and polished like well-worked stones.
With his inconsolably sad eyes he looked upon me, with his eyes whence flowed an insidious intoxication, and he intoned these words: “If thou wilt, if thou wilt, I will make thee Lord of Souls, and thou shalt be the master of living matter, more so even than the sculptor can be of his clay, and thou shalt know the pleasure, ceaselessly re-born, of leaving thyself to forget thyself in another, and to draw other souls until thou dost confound then with thine own.”
AND I answered him, “Thank you for nothing. What should I do with this parcel of beings, who doubtless are worth no more than my poor self? Though I have sometimes shame in remembering, I wish to forget nothing. And even if I did not know you, old monster, your mysterious cutlery, your ambiguous phials, the chains with which your feet are cumbered are symbols which explain clearly enough the inconveniences of your friendship. Keep your presents to yourself!”
The second Satan had not that air, at the same time tragic and smiling nor those insinuating manners, nor that delicate and scented beauty. It was a hulk of a man, with course, eyeless face, whose heavy paunch hung over his thighs, and whose skin was gilded and as if tattooed with the images of a crowd of little moving figures to represent the innumerable forms of universal wretchedness. There were little lank men who had hung themselves from a nail; there were little misshapen gnomes, exceeding thin, whose pleading eyes demanded alms even more than did their trembling hands.
THE great Satan knocked with his fist on his enormous belly, whence came a long, resounding clangour of metal, which ended in a vague groan as of many human voices, and he laughed, showing shamelessly his decayed teeth in an enormous and imbecile guffaw, just as do certain men in every country when they have dined too well.
And he said to me: “I can give thee that which obtains all, that which is worth all, that which replaces all;” and he beat upon his monstrous belly.
I turned aside with disgust, and answered him: “I have no need for my enjoyment of the wretchedness of anyone, and I refuse a wealth saddened, like a soiled tapestry, with all the misfortunes represented on your skin.”
As to the great She-Devil, I should lie if I did not admit that at the first sight I found a bizarre charm in her. To define this charm I know nothing better to compare it to than to that of very beautiful women (in their decadence) whose beauty has the penetrating magic of ruins. Her air was at once imperial and loose; and her eyes, although heavily ringed, were full of the force of fascination. What struck me most was the mystery of her voice, at whose sound I recalled both the most delicious contralto singers, and also a little of that hoarseness which characterizes the throat of very old drunkards.
“WILT thou know my power,” cried the false goddess, with her charming and paradoxical voice; “Listen!” and she put to her mouth a gigantic trumpet covered with ribands like the reed-pipe, on which were written the titles of all the newspapers in the world, and through this trumpet she cried my name which thus rolled across space with the noise of a hundred thousand thunders, and came back to me on the echo of the most distant of the planets.
“The Devil!” cried I, half conquered: but upon examining more closely the seductive Amazon it seemed to me vaguely that I remembered having seen her drinking with some fools of my acquaintance, and the raucous sound of the brass bore to my ears I know not what remembrance of a venal trumpet.
So I replied, with all my scorn: “Be off with you; I am not the man to marry the mistress of certain persons whom I will not mention.”
Certainly, of so courageous a self-denial, I had every right to be proud; but unfortunately I awoke and all my strength deserted me.
“Indeed,” said I to myself, “I must have been very soundly asleep to show such scruples. Ah, if the three could only return, now that I am awake, I should not play the prude.”
And I called upon them all, beseeching them to pardon me; offering to give up honour, as often must be, to deserve their favour; but I had doubtless bitterly offended them, for they never returned.
THE POLITE GUNNER
AS THE carriage rolled through the woods he stopped it in the neighborhood of a shooting gallery. He wanted to fire a few shots in order to kill time.
To kill that monster is surely the most ordinary and legitimate occupation of all of time is it not?
And he politely offered his hand to his beloved, delicious, execrable wife; to the mysterious woman to whom he owes so much pleasures and so many sorrows.
Several balls struck far from the bull’s-eye. One of them even buried itself in the ceiling. And, as the charming creature behind laughed wildly in mockery of her husband’s bad marksmanship, he turned sharply towards her and said, “You see that doll down there on the right with its nose in the air, and with so haughty an expression? Well, my dear angel I imagine to myself that it is you,” and he half closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. The doll was cleanly beheaded.
Then, bending towards his beloved—his delicious, his execrable wife—he kissed her hand respectfully, and added, “Ah, dear angel, how I thank you for my skill!”
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