Charles Baudelaire’s Cats
The short lived French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), had much in common with Edgar Allan Poe. Both would die young, and both were interested in the macabre and supernatural. Baudelaire and Poe suffered from depression, drug and alcohol abuse and were sensitive men who enjoyed the company of cats. Baudelaire was often known to enter a house and give his full attention to any cat available completely ignoring his human companions. Baudelaire was not unaccustomed to scandal and his penchant for giving felines more of his attention was ridiculed perhaps almost as much as his immoral poems. He was once described as “A voluptuous wheedling cat, with velvety manners.”
The publication of Baudelaire’s collection of poems, The Flowers of Evil in 1857 created a public scandal. The French court ruled it to be an obscene collection, and some of the poems had to be deleted in subsequent editions.
Charles Baudelaire’s “Cats” was first published in the journal Le Corsaire in 1847, and was ultimately included in Baudelaire’s collection of 1857, known in English as The Flowers of Evil. In the following poems it is clear that Baudelaire is symbolically equating cats with women and their ambiguity, a symbol of both the sacred and profane.
They are alike, prim scholar and perfervid lover:
When comes the season of decay, they both decide
Upon sweet, husky cats to be the household pride;
Cats choose, like them, to sit, and like them, shudder.
Like partisans of carnal dalliance and science,
They search for silence and the shadowings of dread;
Hell well might harness them as horses for the dead,
If it could bend their native proudness in compliance.
In reverie they emulate the noble mood
Of giant sphinxes stretched in depths of solitude
Who seem to slumber in a never-ending dream;
Within their fertile loins a sparkling magic lies;
Finer than any sand are dusts of gold that gleam,
Vague star points, in the mystic iris of their eyes.
By Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
The Cat (II)
In my mind it strolls
As well as in my apartment,
A cat, strong, sweet and delightful.
When it meows, one scarcely hears it,
Its timbre is so tender and discreet;
Whether a growl or an appeasement,
It is always rich and deep?
That is its charm and its secret.
That voice, which pearls and filters
To the darkest recess of my purse
Delights me like a philtre
And fills me like the rhythms of a verse.
It lulls the most cruel pains to sleep
And contains all ecstasies,
It has not the need of words to speak
The lengthiest phraseologies.
There is no bow that tears so profound
On my heart’s perfect strings,
No sovereign instrument vibrant with sound
Could stronger in me sing
Than your voice, mysterious
Seraphic, blissful cat? in form an angel,
Strange cat? in which all is
As harmonious as it is subtle.
Out of its fur, brown and blonde
Rose a perfume so sweet I nearly
Dissolved in its scent, one night, embalmed
When I caressed it once, once only.
It is the familiar mien of a sire;
It judges, it presides, it inspires
All things in its empire;
Is there a fairy, is there a God, in its eyes fires?
When my eyes finally tire and pull away,
Turned around as by a magnet they veer
From this cat that I love, and gently
Look at myself in the mirror,
I see to my astonishment
The fire of its pale pupils inside me
Like beacons, lively opals clear and dominant
Contemplating me fixedly.
By Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
Viens, mon beau chat, sur mon coeur amoureux;
Retiens les griffes de ta patte,
Et laisse-moi plonger dans tes beaux yeux,
Mêlés de métal et d’agate.
Lorsque mes doigts caressent à loisir
Ta tête et ton dos élastique,
Et que ma main s’enivre du plaisir
De palper ton corps électrique,
Je vois ma femme en esprit. Son regard,
Comme le tien, aimable bête
Profond et froid, coupe et fend comme un dard,
Et, des pieds jusques à la tête,
Un air subtil, un dangereux parfum
Nagent autour de son corps brun.
— Charles Baudelaire
Come, superb cat, to my amorous heart;
Hold back the talons of your paws,
Let me gaze into your beautiful eyes
Of metal and agate.
When my fingers leisurely caress you,
Your head and your elastic back,
And when my hand tingles with the pleasure
Of feeling your electric body,
In spirit I see my woman. Her gaze
Like your own, amiable beast,
Profound and cold, cuts and cleaves like a dart,
And, from her head down to her feet,
A subtle air, a dangerous perfume
Floats about her dusky body.
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)