Danse macabre: the illustrated version

fleurs du mal larousse
The Larousse version of Baudelaire’s “Les fleurs du mal.” Picture source: me.

Being old, bald, and fat, I don’t get a lot of admiring glances when I ride the train to work in the mornings.  I do, however, get a lot of funny looks when I pull out a book to read.  The reason: I’m fond of reading French literature, but I tend to read it in the sorts of annotated versions of a work that you would read if you were a middle-school student in France (collégien in French, I think–roughly 7th and 8th grades in the American system).  For me, they’re perfect–they have definitions in simple French of the kinds of words that the editors think will be difficult for a French child, which as a non-native speaker, I have trouble with myself.  (Think back to the footnoted versions of Shakespeare that you read in high school and college.)  If this kind of thing interests you, you can find them used by the score (see this post for an explanation of what by the score means) in boxes in front of the Boulinier bookstore on boulevard Saint Michel in the Quartier Latin.  They’re so cheap–typically one euro–that there’s no reason not to by multiple versions of a play that you’re planning to see.  (17th-century French theater is actually probably more intelligible than Shakespeare is in English, although as is the case with Shakespeare, it’s a good idea to read a play before you go see it.)  I find it interesting to see the contrast between the sorts of things that one would (not) dare to teach middle-school students in the US and the sorts of things that one can teach middle-school children in France–definitely edgier in France.

In honor of National Poetry Month, here’s some Baudelaire, from Les fleurs du mal.  Baudelaire popularized poetry about cities, as opposed to nature, glorified ad nauseum by Romanticism.  In his delightful book The flâneur, Edmund White describes him as “the great apostle of dandyism,” which explains a lot about the picture of him that you see below.  Odd 6-degrees-of-separation stuff: he went to high school across the street from the university where my grandfather would later study.

Danse macabre

Charles Baudelaire

A Ernest Christophe

Picture source: https://goo.gl/BVRvlb

Fière, autant qu’un vivant, de sa noble stature,
Avec son gros bouquet, son mouchoir et ses gants,
Elle a la nonchalance et la désinvolture
D’une coquette maigre aux airs extravagants.

Note the inversion that moves un soulier pomponné, joli comme une fleur to the end of the sentence, indicated only by the relative maker que rather than qui.

s’écrouler: to fall, e.g. le mur s’est écroulé, s’écrouler sur le canapé.

Vit-on jamais au bal une taille plus mince ?
Sa robe exagérée, en sa royale ampleur,
S’écroule abondamment sur un pied sec que pince
Un soulier pomponné, joli comme une fleur.

la ruche: a strip of pleated cloth (see picture above)

lascif: sensual, lascivious

lazzi: jibes, ribbing

appas: “charms”

La ruche qui se joue au bord des clavicules,
Comme un ruisseau lascif qui se frotte au rocher,
Défend pudiquement des lazzi ridicules
Les funèbres appas qu’elle tient à cacher.

frêle: fragile, frail

attifé: dressed, not necessarily well

Ses yeux profonds sont faits de vide et de ténèbres,
Et son crâne, de fleurs artistement coiffé,
Oscille mollement sur ses frêles vertèbres.
Ô charme d’un néant follement attifé.

Note ivre here and enivré later.

armature: framework; also the underwiring of a bra, although I don’t know whether or not that sense was current in Baudelaire’s time

Aucuns t’appelleront une caricature,
Qui ne comprennent pas, amants ivres de chair,
L’élégance sans nom de l’humaine armature.
Tu réponds, grand squelette, à mon goût le plus cher !

éperonner: to spur, to spur on; also to ram

encor: an old literary spelling of “encore”

Viens-tu troubler, avec ta puissante grimace,
La fête de la Vie ? ou quelque vieux désir,
Éperonnant encor ta vivante carcasse,
Te pousse-t-il, crédule, au sabbat du Plaisir ?

Au chant des violons, aux flammes des bougies,
Espères-tu chasser ton cauchemar moqueur,
Et viens-tu demander au torrent des orgies
De rafraîchir l’enfer allumé dans ton coeur ?

aspic: asp

errer: to wander, roam, rove

Inépuisable puits de sottise et de fautes !
De l’antique douleur éternel alambic !
A travers le treillis recourbé de tes côtes
Je vois, errant encor, l’insatiable aspic.

Love the ne expletif after craindre!

Pour dire vrai, je crains que ta coquetterie
Ne trouve pas un prix digne de ses efforts ;
Qui, de ces coeurs mortels, entend la raillerie ?
Les charmes de l’horreur n’enivrent que les forts !

gouffre: gulf, chasm, abyss

Le gouffre de tes yeux, plein d’horribles pensées,
Exhale le vertige, et les danseurs prudents
Ne contempleront pas sans d’amères nausées
Le sourire éternel de tes trente-deux dents.

Pourtant, qui n’a serré dans ses bras un squelette,
Et qui ne s’est nourri des choses du tombeau ?
Qu’importe le parfum, l’habit ou la toilette ?
Qui fait le dégoûté montre qu’il se croit beau.

bayadère: sacred dancer from India

gouge: old word for a prostitute

offusqué: offended

musqé: musky

Bayadère sans nez, irrésistible gouge,
Dis donc à ces danseurs qui font les offusqués :
” Fiers mignons, malgré l’art des poudres et du rouge,
Vous sentez tous la mort ! Ô squelettes musqués,

Antinoüs: according to the footnotes in my middle-school-student version, jeune esclave d’une beauté parfaite, qui était le favori de l’empereur Hadrien

flétri: faded (beauty), withered, wilted (like the roses sitting on my table–I really need to toss them)

dandy: in Baudelaire, this is a compliment, as you might guess from the painting of him at left

glabre: clean-shaven, smooth-skinned (WordReference.com)

lovelace: séducteur pervers et cynique, according to the footnotes in my middle school version of the poem

chenu: white-haired from age

le branle: a kind of dance.  (If you are French: you can just imagine what happens when you try looking for videos of this on YouTube)

Antinoüs flétris, dandys, à face glabre,
Cadavres vernissés, lovelaces chenus,
Le branle universel de la danse macabre
Vous entraîne en des lieux qui ne sont pas connus !

se pâmer: to faint; to swoon, either literally or in a state of strong emotion, whether good (with synonyms délirer, exulter, se griser, s’émerveiller, s’enthousiasmer, s’exalter, s’extasier) or bad (elle s’est pâmée de douleur).

béant: gaping, wide open, cavernous

le tromblon: blunderbuss

Des quais froids de la Seine aux bords brûlants du Gange,
Le troupeau mortel saute et se pâme, sans voir
Dans un trou du plafond la trompette de l’Ange
Sinistrement béante ainsi qu’un tromblon noir.

la contorsion: contorsion, but also “a face” in the sense of “to make a face”

En tout climat, sous tout soleil, la Mort t’admire
En tes contorsions, risible Humanité,
Et souvent, comme toi, se parfumant de myrrhe,
Mêle son ironie à ton insanité ! “

17 thoughts on “Danse macabre: the illustrated version”

  1. Thank you for paying a tribute to French poetry . I must say that the by far best known Baudelaire’s photo is this one : “https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Baudelaire” . Photos of his youth are not that common, his decadency more, understandably through his “spleen” .
    Maybe you don’t know that Baudelaire translated Edgard Allan Poe . As he was a great artist his translation is a masterpiece . Nerval, Rimbaud, Baudelaire were fans of Poe . Without being promoted by this illustrious avant-garde, Poe would have become famous only later, or never .

    Super idea to use middle-school books to penetrate a foreign literature . Brilliant !

    I’m not sure here “branle” refers to this old forgotten dance . “Un branle” is an ample oscillation, for a church bell for instance, and became a synonym for an action that starts a heavy, important or widely spread operation . When a warship is attacked the order is shouted this way “Branle-bas de combat !” Here it might suit Charlie’s idea better, even though the poem is called “Dance” .
    Wagging one’s head is also “branler le chef” in educated French ( chef is a literary term for head) .
    You might have heard “branle” in its modern slang sense : masturbating . It is used figuratively in “Qu’est-ce que tu branles ?” (What the f… are you doing ?) and the n°1 hit ” J’en ai rien à branler” (I don’t give a shit) .
    A sadly funny thing is the reaction of our illiterate youth of now when by accident they meet someone who already saw a book and they hear “Branler le chef” .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I didn’t know that about Poe–thanks. I also didn’t know that there were so many uses for “branler.” It’s the modern slang sense of the word that gets you to the bizarre YouTube videos, as you can imagine.

      In the naval sense, what does the “bas” in “branle-bas de combat” mean? (In the US Navy, by the way, it’s “general quarters, general quarters”–you always hear “battle stations” in the movies, but I have heard that exactly never in real life.)


      1. I had to search . Imagine that “un branle”also meant a hammock, probably from the swinging movement . I never knew this forgotten meaning . So “branle-bas de combat” is “Unhook (all) hammocks to make room for combat” .

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Now there are no more sailing ships but this expression is used to mean suddenly a whole group is speeding to prepare things, even in a funny way . “Aussitôt ce fut un branle-bas général dans la cuisine, tous les enfants se mirent au travail” .

        You’ll hear “branle” more often in the phrase “mettre en branle”. Always for something heavy (les ouvriers commencent à mettre en branle l’énorme machine) or with large consequences (l’équipe de Trump met en branle une campagne de désinformation nationale) . I know you like Trump so you can change the name .

        There is also the verb “ébranler”, rather common, meaning something like shaking with undermining consequences . “Les violents coups répétés ébranlèrent les lourdes portes du château”; “”le tremblement de terre a ébranlé tout le bâtiment” .

        And of course a very common pejorative slang term “un branleur”, originally a wanker and now a time waster, not working or working badly, or a young lad full of ignorance, undeserved pride, agressive, this kind of things . This one is highly frequent, you’ve probably heard it several times without noticing .

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It is a stroke of genius to use annotated middle school versions of books rather than the originals. I am known at the children’s library here in Grenoble already – I joined the library of Grenoble as soon as I arrived and so far have only frequented the mountain library and the children’s. These two lovely places fulfil all I need. Which is not to get bogged down in books that I struggle with so I am very happy to read as a 12 year old for now! It’s progress … when I arrived I was taking out books intended for 8-9 year olds!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re making progress, then! 🙂 I often buy children’s books on mildly scientific topics–anatomy, plants, stuff like that. They usually have great pictures and about the right amount of the vocabulary that I’m looking for.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Slowly slowly catchy monkey …. or alternatively petits pas a petits pas – either way I’m getting there! I love children’s reference books … I don’t get totally overwhelmed by having to decipher language that is baffling but equally if I choose carefully I am slowly stretching my boundaries

        Liked by 1 person

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