Before I start, I should probably warn people about something.
This poem was written in the atmosphere of 19th-century Paris, where Black and mixed-race women were seen as hypersexual, corrupting, diseased, lazy, almost bestial. And, of course, they were fetishised for it. So this poem absolutely reeks of racism, misogyny, fetishisation and objectification hiding under beautiful words. At the same time, I feel that this poem is important for understanding a bit about Baudelaire himself and one of the women who inspired Les Fleurs du Mal – Jeanne Duval.
So who’s this poem about anyway? My pet theory (though I don’t study Baudelaire for a living) is that it’s about Duval herself. I suppose it fits, though it’s not part of the traditional cycle of poems that are supposed to be about her.
Little is known about Duval, not even her surname, as it’s also given as Lemer, Lemaire and Prosper. Her birthplace is disputed, as well; some sources give it as Haiti, others as the Mascarene Islands, Saint-Barthélemy, South Africa, Madagascar and India. It should therefore come as no surprise that we only have an approximate birthdate for her and no real date of death or place of burial. What we do know is that she was an actress, dancer and muse of mixed Black African and French ancestry who captured Baudelaire’s heart, and whom he fetishised (see above – I need say no more).
Although their relationship was long, it was also very stormy and the couple frequently broke up thanks to racism, sexism, fetishisation and objectification, and Baudelaire’s mother frowned upon it, thinking that Duval tortured the poet and drained him of money. It is likely that Duval died of syphilis, although the date is unknown; she may have died as early as 1862, after going blind from her illness, though other sources claim to have seen her as late as 1870, by which time she was on crutches.
Au pays parfumé que le soleil caresse,
J’ai connu, sous un dais d’arbres tout empourprés
Et de palmiers d’où pleut sur les yeux la paresse,
Une dame créole aux charmes ignorés.
Son teint est pâle et chaud; la brune enchanteresse
A dans le cou des airs noblement maniérés;
Grande et svelte en marchant comme une chasseresse,
Son sourire est tranquille et ses yeux assurés.
Si vous alliez, Madame, au vrai pays de gloire,
Sur les bords de la Seine ou de la verte Loire,
Belle digne d’orner les antiques manoirs,
Vous feriez, à l’abri des ombreuses retraites
Germer mille sonnets dans le cœur des poètes,
Que vos grands yeux rendraient plus soumis que vos noirs.
I knew, under a dais of trees all flushed with red
And of palm trees where idleness rains into your eyes,
A Creole lady, her charms left unsaid.Her complexion is pale and warm; the dark enchantress
Wears on her neck nobly mannered airs;
Tall and slender as she walks like a huntress,
Her smile is calm, her eyes without cares.
If you went, Madame, to the real land of glorious ranks,
To the green Loire or to the Seine’s banks,
Beauty worthy of ornamenting the antique manors, we give thanks,
You would make, sheltered in shadowy retreats
A thousand sonnets grow in the hearts of poets,
Whom your large eyes would make more submissive than your slaves.