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Spleen à la Grecque: Karyotakis and Baudelaire Rachel Hadas What poet writing between, say, 1840 and 1930 combines a superb ear and a strict adherence to form with savage irony and a preoccupation with death and decay? What poet hymns his sickly muse, ponders escaping the frustrating urban world in which he finds himself immured, and travels in imagination over a shining sea to a land of tropical innocence and ease—only to meet with disillusionment, possibly even with the realization that such a haven never existed? What poet feels old at a young age and is haunted by nostalgia for a past happiness which, again, may never have existed; yet haunted also by the claustrophobic here and now? What poet writes extensively and evocatively of gardens and flowers—growing things that come to be tinged with the same bitterness and regret that flavor his lyricism? That many poets might conceivably fill the bill says, of course, a good deal about modern poetry or, if one wants a label, about Symbolism or Modernism. Americans might well think of Eliot. For me, however, and in the European context, the answer that first and overwhelmingly presents itself is Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867). Yet a very close runner-up is Konstantine Karyotakis (1896-1928). The question of Baudelaire's influence on the Greek poet is not in doubt; nor is it my purpose here to belabor the obvious. Moreover, Karyotakis, widely read in French poetry, was surely indebted to other French poets too. His oeuvre includes translations of Verlaine, Moréas, Toulet, and Corbière as well as of Baudelaire. Why single out the one relationship then? Because of affinities of temperament. When we read the poems of Baudelaire which Karyotakis chose to translate—"La Voix" and "Spleen (III)"—we have a catalog in parvo of Karyotakis' most crucial themes and tones. Here are Richard Howard's translations of these two poems of Baudelaire: 21 22 Rachel Hadas THE VOICE Above my cradle loomed the bookcase where Latin ashes and the dust of Greece mingled with novels, history, and verse in one dark Babel. I was folio-high when I first heard the voices. 'All the world,' said one, insidious but sure, 'is cake— let me make you an appetite to match, and then your happiness need have no end.' And the other: 'Come, O come with me in dreams beyond the possible, beyond the known!' that second voice sang like the wind in the reeds, a wandering phantom out of nowhere, sweet to hear yet somehow horrifying too. 'Now and forever!' I answered, whereupon my wound was with me—ever since, my Fate: behind the scenes, the frivolous decors of all existence, deep in the abyss, I see distinctly other, brighter worlds; yet victimized by what I know I see, I sense the serpent coiling at my heels; and therefore, like the prophets, from that hour I've loved the wilderness, I've loved the sea; no ordinary sadness touches me though I find savor in the bitterest wine; how many truths I trade away for lies, and musing on heaven, stumble over trash . . . Even so, the voice consoles me: 'Keep your dreams, the wise have none so lovely as the mad.' SPLEEN (III) I'm like the king of a rainy country, rich but helpless, decrepit though still a young man who scorns his fawning tutors, wastes his time on dogs and other animals, and has no fun; nothing distracts him, neither hawk nor hound nor subjects starving at the palace gate. His favorite fool's obscenities fall flat —the royal invalid is not amused— and ladies in waiting for a princely nod no longer dress indecently enough to win a smile from this young skeleton. The bed of state becomes a stately tomb. The alchemist who brews him gold has failed Karotakis and Baudelaire 23 to purge the impure substance from his soul, and baths of blood, Rome's legacy recalled by certain barons in their failing days, are useless to revive this sickly flesh through which no blood but brackish Lethe seeps.1 Taken together, the two Baudelaire poems can be read as a miniature autobiography: first, in "The Voice...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3265
Print ISSN
0738-1727
Pages
pp. 21-27
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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