Charles Baudelaire, “La Cloche fêlée”, translated by Jan Owen

Reviewing Jan Owen’s translations of poems from Les Fleurs du Mal for The North[1], I was startled by the ending of her version of “La Cloche fêlée”. In the end there wasn’t space to include my thoughts on it in the review, but I want to say something here because “La Cloche fêlée” has always meant a good deal to me. Here’s Baudelaire’s poem:


Il est amer et doux, pendant les nuits d’hiver,
D’écouter, près du feu qui palpite et qui fume,
Les souvenirs lointains lentement s’élever
Au bruit des carillons qui chantent dans la brume.

Bienheureuse la cloche au gosier vigoureux
Qui, malgré sa vieillesse, alerte et bien portante,
Jette fidèlement son cri religieux,
Ainsi qu’un vieux soldat qui veille sous la tente!

Moi, mon âme est fêlée, et lorsqu’en ses ennuis
Elle veut de ses chants peupler l’air froid des nuits,
Il arrive souvent que sa voix affaiblie

Semble le râle épais d’un blessé qu’on oublie
Au bord d’un lac de sang, sous un grand tas de morts
Et qui meurt, sans bouger, dans d’immenses efforts.

To my ear that shows a remarkable combination of localized conversational intimacy with a kind of stately, balanced expansiveness in the overall development of the thought, unfolding in  harmony with the metrical divisions, line by line and stanza by stanza. The coincidence of sentence with stanza in the first two quatrains gives added moment to the enjambed division between the two tercets, but again the effect is gravely balanced, because the sentence is divided equally between the two.  To my ear Owen’s opening moves too briskly to match that, but it’s highly atmospheric and involving in its own way:

How bitter-sweet it is on winter nights
listening by the fire’s flicker and hiss
to distant memories slowly taking flight
with the carillons resounding through the mist.

Her ending shocked me though:

and often now my voice turns weak and thin

as the last rattling breaths of a wounded man
under a mound of corpses piled up high
next to a lake of blood. Struggling to die.

This seemed to me an incomprehensible blunder, not as a matter of language (Owen’s French is undoubtedly far superior to mine) but as a matter of poetic understanding. Having the soldier struggling to die instead of struggling in vain to live changes the whole sense of the poem from what I’d always taken it to be. I went to a website that presents a mass of different translations of Baudelaire poems. You can find it by clicking here.

I saw that Roy Campbell interprets the line in essentially the same way as Owen, though he puts it into much more pompous words (“Trying with fearful efforts to expire”). However, this interpretation seems to me plumb wrong, for the following reasons:

  1. It’s difficult to imagine why a wounded man crushed and stifled under a pile of corpses and who wanted to die would need to struggle to do so, or what form his struggling would take.
  2. It’s appallingly easy to imagine a wounded man crushed and stifled under a pile of corpses making immense efforts to live, straining every weakened muscle without being able to move under the weight pressing down on him.
  3. Such an image makes sense of the wider context. Baudelaire has presented himself trying and failing to live as a poet, to fill the cold night air with his songs. The cracked soul that makes him fail makes him unlike the full-throated bell or hale old soldier; makes him in fact like the dying man who tries to call out from under a heap of corpses but is only capable of a death-rattle.

I’ll post my review of the book here when it’s been published in the magazine. For now I’ll just say that over all I think Jan Owen’s translations make a very good introduction to Baudelaire and that her versions of a number of the poems are outstanding.



[1] Charles Baudelaire, Selected Poems from “Les Fleurs du Mal”, translated by Jan Owen, Arc Publications, 192 pp.

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