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Review: Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, by Charles Baudelaire

It is Owen's assured ear which helps to make her versions of Baudelaire so fine, even, I would say, exemplary. I used to think that one poem in particular of Les Fleurs du Mal was untranslatable. At all events, having read numerous attempts to bring over "Harmonie du Soir" into English, all of which flopped, most of them belly-up, I was certain it couldn't be done. The French polysyllables together with Baudelaire's subtle vowel and consonantal patterns - the poem's harmonies - put it out of range of anyone writing in English. How could you hope to Anglicise this:

Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s'évapore ainsi qu-un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir;
Valse eélancolique et languoreux vertige!

Well, here is Owen.

Each stem is trembling with the turning hour
as all the flowers, like censors, breathe and pulse.
With languorous vertigo, a plaintive waltz,
sounds and perfumes swirl in the evening air.

It may not be perfect but it's pretty damned good. Some of the velvety, insidious music has had to go, and "swirl" isn't quite right; nevertheless, she's found convincing equivalents for Baudelaire's sounds; she's even managed good half-rhymes for a poem which, being a pantoum, places additional burdens on a poet who can't use the far-easier-to-rhyme-in French language, with its plethora of open vowels.


Owen's are not merely far and away the best modern versions of Baudelaire "Englished" that I've read, they are excellent poems in their own right. A triumph, in fact.