Chapter XII: Edgar Allan Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse”

Section 1 - Poetry
Section 2 - Images
Section 3 - Music

Selections from Fleurs du Mal
(THe Flowers of evil)
By Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

As a fervent admirer of Poe's and the translator of all his prose works, Baudelaire had an enormous influence on the next generation of symbolist poets, and he was himself greatly impacted by Poe. The following poems display that impact in varying ways:  the Spleen poems and "Le vin de l'assassin" share the imagery and dark atmosphere of Poe's world, while "Le balcon" exists in a sunnier world but shares the incantatory quality of Poe's writing. (Note in this latter poem the repetition of the first line of each verse as the last line of that same verse.)

Spleen (II)

J'ai plus de souvenirs que si j'avais mille ans.

Un gros meuble à tiroirs encombré de bilans,
De vers, de billets doux, de procès, de romances,
Avec de lourds cheveux roulés dans des quittances,
Cache moins de secrets que mon triste cerveau.
C'est une pyramide, un immense caveau,
Qui contient plus de morts que la fosse commune.
— Je suis un cimetière abhorré de la lune,
Où comme des remords se traînent de longs vers
Qui s'acharnent toujours sur mes morts les plus chers.
Je suis un vieux boudoir plein de roses fanées,
Où gît tout un fouillis de modes surannées,
Où les pastels plaintifs et les pâles Boucher
Seuls, respirent l'odeur d'un flacon débouché.

Rien n'égale en longueur les boiteuses journées,
Quand sous les lourds flocons des neigeuses années
L'ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité,
Prend les proportions de l'immortalité.
— Désormais tu n'es plus, ô matière vivante!
Qu'un granit entouré d'une vague épouvante,
Assoupi dans le fond d'un Sahara brumeux;
Un vieux sphinx ignoré du monde insoucieux,
Oublié sur la carte, et dont l'humeur farouche
Ne chante qu'aux rayons du soleil qui se couche.

 

When the low heavy sky weighs like a lid
Upon the spirit aching for the light,
And all the wide horizon's line is hid
By a black day sadder than any night;

When the changed earth is but a dungeon dank
Where batlike Hope goes blindly fluttering
And, striking wall and roof and mouldered plank,
Bruises his tender head and timid wing;

When like grim prison-bars stretch down the thin,
Straight, rigid pillars of the endless rain,
And the dumb throngs of infamous spiders spin
Their meshes in the caverns of the brain;

Suddenly, bells leap forth into the air,
Hurling a hideous uproar to the sky
As 'twere a band of homeless spirits who fare
Through the strange heavens, wailing stubbornly.

And hearses, without drum or instrument,
File slowly through my soul; crushed, sorrowful,
Weeps Hope, and Grief, fierce and omnipotent,
Plants his black banner on my drooping skull.

Spleen (IV)

Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle
Sur l'esprit gémissant en proie aux longs ennuis,
Et que de l'horizon embrassant tout le cercle
II nous verse un jour noir plus triste que les nuits;

Quand la terre est changée en un cachot humide,
Où l'Espérance, comme une chauve-souris,
S'en va battant les murs de son aile timide
Et se cognant la tête à des plafonds pourris;

Quand la pluie étalant ses immenses traînées
D'une vaste prison imite les barreaux,
Et qu'un peuple muet d'infâmes araignées
Vient tendre ses filets au fond de nos cerveaux,

Des cloches tout à coup sautent avec furie
Et lancent vers le ciel un affreux hurlement,
Ainsi que des esprits errants et sans patrie
Qui se mettent à geindre opiniâtrement.

Et de longs corbillards, sans tambours ni musique,
Défilent lentement dans mon âme; l'Espoir,
Vaincu, pleure, et l'Angoisse atroce, despotique,
Sur mon crâne incliné plante son drapeau noir.

English translation reprinted from Jack Collings Squire, Poems and Baudelaire Flowers (London: The New Age Press, Ltd, 1909)

The balcony

Oh, Mother of Memories! Mistress of Mistresses!
Oh, thou all my pleasures, oh, thou all my prayers!
Can'st thou remember those luscious caresses,
The charm of the hearth and the sweet evening airs?
Oh, Mother of Memories, Mistress of Mistresses!

Those evenings illumed by the glow of the coal,
And those roseate nights with their vaporous wings,
How calm was thy breast and how good was thy soul,
'Twas then we uttered imperishable things,
Those evenings illumed by the glow of the coal.

How lovely the suns on those hot, autumn nights!
How vast were the heavens! and the heart how hale!
As I leaned towards you — oh, my Queen of Delights,
The scent of thy blood I seemed to inhale.
How lovely the sun on those hot, autumn nights!

The shadows of night-time grew dense like a pall,
And deep through the darkness thine eyes I divined,
And I drank of thy breath — oh sweetness, oh gall,
And thy feet in my brotherly hands reclined,
The shadows of Night-time grew dense like a pall.

I know how to call forth those moments so dear,
And to live my Past — laid on thy knees — once more,
For where should I seek for thy beauties but here
In thy langorous heart and thy body so pure?
I know how to call forth those moments so dear.

Those perfumes, those infinite kisses and sighs,
Are they born in some gulf to our plummets denied?
Like rejuvenate suns that mount up to the skies,
That first have been cleansed in the depths of the tide;
Oh, perfumes! oh, infinite kisses and sighs!

Le balcon

Mère des souvenirs, maîtresse des maîtresses,
Ô toi, tous mes plaisirs! ô toi, tous mes devoirs!
Tu te rappelleras la beauté des caresses,
La douceur du foyer et le charme des soirs,
Mère des souvenirs, maîtresse des maîtresses!

Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon,
Et les soirs au balcon, voilés de vapeurs roses.
Que ton sein m'était doux! que ton coeur m'était bon!
Nous avons dit souvent d'impérissables choses
Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon.

Que les soleils sont beaux dans les chaudes soirées!
Que l'espace est profond! que le coeur est puissant!
En me penchant vers toi, reine des adorées,
Je croyais respirer le parfum de ton sang.
Que les soleils sont beaux dans les chaudes soirées!

La nuit s'épaississait ainsi qu'une cloison,
Et mes yeux dans le noir devinaient tes prunelles,
Et je buvais ton souffle, ô douceur! ô poison!
Et tes pieds s'endormaient dans mes mains fraternelles.
La nuit s'épaississait ainsi qu'une cloison.

Je sais l'art d'évoquer les minutes heureuses,
Et revis mon passé blotti dans tes genoux.
Car à quoi bon chercher tes beautés langoureuses
Ailleurs qu'en ton cher corps et qu'en ton coeur si doux?
Je sais l'art d'évoquer les minutes heureuses!

Ces serments, ces parfums, ces baisers infinis,
Renaîtront-ils d'un gouffre interdit à nos sondes,
Comme montent au ciel les soleils rajeunis
Après s'être lavés au fond des mers profondes?
— Ô serments! ô parfums! ô baisers infinis!

English translation reprinted from Cyril Scott, Baudelaire: The Flowers of Evil (London: Elkin Mathews, 1909)

The Murderer's Wine

My wife is dead and I am free,
Now I may drink to my content;
When I came back without a cent
Her piteous outcries tortured me.

Now I am happy as a king,
The air is pure, the sky is clear;
Just such a summer as that year,
When first I went a-sweethearting.

A horrible thirst is tearing me,
To quench it I should have to swill
Just as much cool wine as would fill
Her tomb — that's no small quantity.

I threw her down and then began
To pile upon her where she fell
All the great stones around the well —
I shall forget it if I can.

By all the soft vows of our prime,
By those eternal oaths we swore,
And that our love might be once more
As 'twas in our old passionate time,

I begged her in a lonely spot
To come and meet me at nightfall;
She came, mad creature — we are all
More or less crazy, are we not?

She was quite pretty still, my wife,
Though she was very tired, and I,
I loved her too much, that is why
I said to her, "Come, quit this life."

No one can grasp my thought aright;
Did any of these sodden swine
Ever conceive a shroud of wine
On his most strangely morbid night?

Dull and insensible above
Iron machines, that stupid crew,
Summer or winter, never knew
The agonies of real love.

its black enchantments, fiery trials,
Processions of infernal pains,
Its burning tears, its poison phials,
Its rattling bones, and jingling chains.

So now I am without a care!
Dead-drunk this evening I shall be,
Then fearlessly, remorselessly
Shall lie out in the open air.

And sleep there like a homeless cur;
Some cart may rumble with a load
Of stones or mud along the road
And crush my head — I shall not stir.

Some heavy dray incontinent
May come and cut me clean in two:
I laugh at thought o't as I do
At Devil, God, and Sacrament.

Le vin de l'assasin

Ma femme est morte, je suis libre!
Je puis donc boire tout mon soûl.
Lorsque je rentrais sans un sou,
Ses cris me déchiraient la fibre.

Autant qu'un roi je suis heureux;
L'air est pur, le ciel admirable...
Nous avions un été semblable
Lorsque j'en devins amoureux!

L'horrible soif qui me déchire
Aurait besoin pour s'assouvir
D'autant de vin qu'en peut tenir
Son tombeau; — ce n'est pas peu dire:

Je l'ai jetée au fond d'un puits,
Et j'ai même poussé sur elle
Tous les pavés de la margelle.
— Je l'oublierai si je le puis!

Au nom des serments de tendresse,
Dont rien ne peut nous délier,
Et pour nous réconcilier
Comme au beau temps de notre ivresse,

J'implorai d'elle un rendez-vous,
Le soir, sur une route obscure.
Elle y vint — folle créature!
Nous sommes tous plus ou moins fous!

Elle était encore jolie,
Quoique bien fatiguée! et moi,
Je l'aimais trop! voilà pourquoi
Je lui dis: Sors de cette vie!

Nul ne peut me comprendre. Un seul
Parmi ces ivrognes stupides
Songea-t-il dans ses nuits morbides
À faire du vin un linceul?

Cette crapule invulnérable
Comme les machines de fer
Jamais, ni l'été ni l'hiver,
N'a connu l'amour véritable,

Avec ses noirs enchantements,
Son cortège infernal d'alarmes,
Ses fioles de poison, ses larmes,
Ses bruits de chaîne et d'ossements!

— Me voilà libre et solitaire!
Je serai ce soir ivre mort;
Alors, sans peur et sans remords,
Je me coucherai sur la terre,

Et je dormirai comme un chien!
Le chariot aux lourdes roues
Chargé de pierres et de boues,
Le wagon enragé peut bien

Ecraser ma tête coupable
Ou me couper par le milieu,
Je m'en moque comme de Dieu,
Du Diable ou de la Sainte Table!

English translation reprinted from Jack Collings Squire, Poems and Baudelaire Flowers (London: The New Age Press, Ltd, 1909)

 

Il pleure dans mon coeur (Tears Are Falling in My Heart)
By Paul Verlaine

Verlaine was one the most important symbolist poets to follow in Baudelaire's path, and the following text which Debussy set as one of the Ariettes Oubliées captures the self-destructive irrationality that so fascinated Poe as well.

Tears are falling in my heart
Like the rain upon the town;
What is this languorous dart
That penetrates my heart?

Oh! Soft sound of rain
Falling on ground and roofs!
For a heart in pain,
Oh! The song of the rain!

Tears fall without a cause
In the desolate heart
What! It is beyond all laws
That this sorrow has no cause!

There is the much worse pain
Of not knowing the reason
That neither love nor hate explain
Why my heart has so much pain!

Il pleure dans mon cœur
Comme il pleut sur la ville;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon cœur ?

Ô bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un cœur qui s'ennuie,
Ô le chant de la pluie!

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce cœur qui s'écœure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison?...
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C'est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi
Sans amour et sans haine
Mon cœur a tant de peine!

English translation © David Paley, Poems Without Frontiers. Reprinted with kind permission.

 

Noel des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison (1915)
By Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

This song, to which Debussy wrote both words and music, was written in 1915, when Debussy was in the depths of despair about the war which engulfed Europe. The simple text captures both his rage and his anguish.

Christmas of the homeless children

Our houses are gone!
The enemy has taken everything,
even our little beds!
They burned the school and the schoolmaster.
They burned the church and the Lord Jesus!
And the poor old man who couldn't get away!

Our houses are gone!
The enemy has taken everything,
even our little beds!
Of course, Papa has gone to war.
Poor Mama died
before she saw all this.
What are we going to do?
Christmas! Little Christmas!
Don't go to their houses, never go there again.
Punish them!

Avenge the children of France!
The little Belgians, the little Serbs
and the little Poles, too!
If we've forgotten anyone, forgive us.
Christmas! Christmas! Above all, no toys.
Try to give us our daily bread again.

Our houses are gone!
The enemy has taken everything,
even our little beds!
They burned the school and the schoolmaster.
They burned the church and the Lord Jesus!
And the poor old man who couldn't get away!
Christmas, listen to us. Our wooden shoes are gone,
but grant victory to the children of France!

Noël des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons

Nous n'avons plus de maisons!
Les ennemis ont tout pris,
Jusqu'à notre petit lit!
Ils ont brûlé l'école et notre maître aussi.
Ils ont brûlé l'église et monsieur Jésus-Christ!
Et le vieux pauvre qui n'a pas pu s'en aller!

Nous n'avons plus de maisons!
Les ennemis ont tout pris,
Jusqu'à notre petit lit!
Bien sûr! papa est à la guerre,
Pauvre maman est morte
Avant d'avoir vu tout ça.
Qu'est-ce que l'on va faire?
Noël! petit Noël! n'allez pas chez eux,
N'allez plus jamais chez eux,
Punissez-les!

Vengez les enfants de France!
Les petits Belges, les petits Serbes,
Et les petits Polonais aussi!
Si nous en oublions, pardonnez-nous.
Noël! Noël! surtout, pas de joujoux,
Tâchez de nous redonner le pain quotidien.

Nous n'avons plus de maisons!
Les ennemis ont tout pris,
Jusqu'à notre petit lit!
Ils ont brûlé l'école et notre maître aussi.
Ils ont brûlé l'église et monsieur Jésus-Christ!
Et le vieux pauvre qui n'a pas pu s'en aller!
Noël! écoutez-nous, nous n'avons plus de petits sabots:
Mais donnez la victoire aux enfants de France!

English translation © 2003 by Faith J. Cormier, reprinted with permission.

 

Images

Debussy and his literary cohort adored Edgar Allan Poe as well. That fad didn't disappear quickly, as evidenced by the surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967). Here he recreated the Garden that had obsessed Mr. Ellison, Poe's landscape gardener in "The Domain of Arnheim." Mr. Ellison found himself "enwrapt in an exquisite sense of the strange," with which both Magritte and Debussy identified.

  René Magritte,  The Domain Of Arnheim  (1938)

René Magritte, The Domain Of Arnheim (1938)

 

Musical examples

None of Debussy’s piano music bears any direct attribution to Poe, yet given how immersed the composer was in the darkly mysterious world of the author, it seems only natural that traces of Poe’s sensibility would be found throughout the piano oeuvre.  Below are just a few possibilities!

Le vent dans la plaine, Prelude no. 3, Book 1, 1909-1910 (Kautsky, 2014)

The wind here is far less terrifying than that in the later Ce qu'a vu le Vent d'Ouest, but it has its explosive moments and even when more subdued, the overall harmonic palette here is ominous and implies unknown dangers. 

«Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir», Prelude no. 4, Book 1, 1909-1910 (Kautsky, 2014)
(Note: this and other links to the Preludes require a free Spotify account)

Like the Baudelaire poem, "Harmonie du soir," which is quoted in this prelude's title, Debussy's music is hypnotically patterned.  The poem is a pantoum, meaning the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the next, and Debussy preserved that pattern musically in his setting of the text as a song.  In the piano prelude, he uses dipping 4ths, 5ths, and tritones interspersed throughout to convey a sense of memory and recollection similar to the effect realized by the formal structure of a pantoum.

Des pas sur la neige, Prelude no. 6, Book 1, 1909-1910 (Kautsky, 2014)

These implacable footsteps surely take place in a merciless landscape of ice and snow where human companionship is in short supply. Poe would have been at home there; he and Debussy shared a fascination with the bleakest of settings. 

Ce qu'a vu le Vent d'Ouest, Prelude no. 7, Book 1, 1909-1910 (Kautsky, 2014)

This prelude is uncharacteristically violent, especially coming from a composer whose music is usually unusually peaceful. The determined destruction wreaked here by the Four Winds could easily be transferred into the stories of Poe, and indeed "The Fall of the House of Usher," which Debussy worked hard at making into an opera, features a house whose moaning and collapsing walls may well have met up with these same brutal winds.

Feuilles mortes, Prelude no. 2, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)

Of all Debussy's piano works, this seems to me the most Poe-like.  It's dark and haunting, and even the title, Dead Leaves, would have pleased the author.  The fact that the title is probably drawn from a collection of poems by Gabriel Mousey, who was himself a translator of Poe, makes the connection that much more persuasive.

Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C, Prelude no. 9, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)

This piece, with its kindly parody of  Dicken's Pickwick, who can't even sing his own national anthem in tune, is reminiscent of Poe's own parodies and pleasure in debunking the foolish.  Poe enjoyed mystery and horror but he also delighted in the absurd, as was more than amply evident in the story, "The Devil in the Belfry," one of two Poe stories Debussy sketched as an opera.

Canope, Prelude no. 10, Book 2, 1912-1913 (Kautsky, 2014)

Canope, with its reverberations from ancient Egypt, comes from the depths of an unknown world, and, the funerary urns of its title provide an image that Poe would have found totally congenial.

Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon, 1917 (Bavouzet)

The title of this very late piece is taken directly from the Baudelaire poem, "Le Balcon."  (See above) It draws on the same opening idea as "Les sons et les perfumes tournent dans l'air du soir" and has a similar dreamy sensibility. Despite the illumination of the title, it shares with Poe a sense of pervasive darkness, though with a sweet resignation not typical of Poe. Debussy presented this recently unearthed piece to the man who delivered his coal during the war, when heat was in such short supply, and its allusion to the war is unmistakable.