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Charles Baudelaire - "A Voyage Past Cythera", trans. Ian Brinton

A Voyage Past Cythera

My heart soared with joy, bird-like,
Wheeling with ease around the rigging;
The vessel glided on beneath a cloudless sky
Like an angel intoxicated under a dazzling sun.

What is that mournful and dark island? – It is Cythera
We are told, a country made famous throughout song,
The dreary Eldorado of all ageing rou├ęs;
You may as well gaze at its somewhat barren ground.

 – O island of fragrant sweetness and of romance!
Drifting in scents across your oceans
The proud spirit of an ancient Aphrodite
Woos our minds with languor and with love.

Beautiful island of myrtle green, covered with open flowers,
Revered by every nation throughout Time,
Where charmed hearts sighed
Like incense seeping through a rose-garden

Or like the non-stop cooing of a ring-dove!
 – Yet Cythera was now no more than  waste land,
A barren rock-scape haunted by shrill screams.
I was confronted now by a strange sight!

There was no temple lying in wooded shades,
Served by a young priestess decked in flowers
With warm body breathing secret passions
As her gown drifted open to a wafted breeze;

Instead, as we clipped close enough to shore
To rouse the birds with our white sails
We could see there was a gibbet of three branches
Set black against the sky like a cypress tree.  

Screeching birds were perched upon their prey
Tearing at the ripe flesh of a hanged man,
As each one stabbed its tool-like beak
Into the bloody folds of the rotting corpse;

The eye-sockets were empty and out of the collapsed belly
The heavy guts hung dangling down the thighs;
The winged hangmen, brimmed with foul secrets
Had castrated him completely with their beaks.

Snouts thrust in air, a pack of quarrelling dogs
At his feet were turning to and fro,
The largest of them acting like a pack-leader
Surrounded by his minions.

Native of Cythera, offspring of that inviting sky,
In payment for your outrageous actions,
The sins which forbid you a hallowed grave.
You suffer these indignities in silence.

Absurdly hanging, your sufferings are my own!
And gazing on your windswept limbs, I felt
The vomit rising to my mouth
From the venom of my anguished recall.

Poor devil, faced with you so dear to heart,
I too have felt the ripping stab of beaks,
The claws of black panthers
Gorging on my flesh.

Beneath an azur sky and waveless sea
All has turned alas to blackened blood for me,
And wrapped in a dense shroud
My heart lies buried in this allegory.

On Aphrodite’s isle I could discern nothing
But a gibbet on which my own body swung…
     – Ah dear God, give back my strength and courage
To see both heart and body without disgust!


Translated by Ian Brinton



Translation copyright © Ian Brinton, 2021

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