Charles Baudelaire, 1821 – 1867
Free as a bird and joyfully my heart Soared up among the rigging, in and out; Under a cloudless sky the ship rolled on Like an angel drunk with brilliant sun. “That dark, grim island there—which would that be?” “Cythera," we’re told, “the legendary isle Old bachelors tell stories of and smile. There’s really not much to it, you can see.” O place of many a mystic sacrament! Archaic Aphrodite’s splendid shade Lingers above your waters like a scent Infusing spirits with an amorous mood. Worshipped from of old by every nation, Myrtle-green isle, where each new bud discloses Sighs of souls in loving adoration Breathing like incense from a bank of roses Or like a dove roo-cooing endlessly . . . No; Cythera was a poor infertile rock, A stony desert harrowed by the shriek Of gulls. And yet there was something to see: This was no temple deep in flowers and trees With a young priestess moving to and fro, Her body heated by a secret glow, Her robe half-opening to every breeze; But coasting nearer, close enough to land To scatter flocks of birds as we passed by, We saw a tall cypress-shaped thing at hand— A triple gibbet black against the sky. Ferocious birds, each perched on its own meal, Were madly tearing at the thing that hung And ripened; each, its filthy beak a drill, Made little bleeding holes to root among. The eyes were hollowed. Heavy guts cascading Flowed like water halfway down the thighs; The torturers, though gorged on these vile joys, Had also put their beaks to use castrating The corpse. A pack of dogs beneath its feet, Their muzzles lifted, whirled and snapped and gnawed; One bigger beast amidst this jealous lot Looked like an executioner with his guard. O Cytherean, child of this fair clime, Silently you suffered these attacks, Paying the penalty for whatever acts Of infamy had kept you from a tomb. Grotesquely dangling, somehow you brought on— Violent as vomit rising from the chest, Strong as a river bilious to taste— A flow of sufferings I’d thought long gone. Confronted with such dear remembered freight, Poor devil, now it was my turn to feel A panther’s slavering jaws, a beak’s cruel drill— Once it was my flesh they loved to eat. The sky was lovely, and the sea divine, but something thick and binding like a shroud Wrapped my heart in layers of black and blood; Henceforth this allegory would be mine. O Venus! On your isle what did I see But my own image on the gallows tree? O God, give me the strength to contemplate My own heart, my own body without hate!
Written by Charles Baudelaire and translated by Rachel Hadas. Published in Other Worlds Than This by Rutgers University Press. © 1994 by Rachel Hadas. Originally appeared in Tennessee Quarterly (1994). Used with permission. All rights reserved. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/voyage-cythera