French poet Charles Baudelaire had his most passionate (and tumultuous) love affair with a Haitian woman, Jeanne Duval, who was also painted by Manet. She is the addressee of this poem, for which I have written a new English translation. Baudelaire intended it to be part of his most famous collection, “The Flowers of Evil,” but it was banned in his lifetime along with five other poems in that book, due to its intense eroticism.

(English translation by Kimberly Gladman Jackson)

Come to my heart, cruel, unhearing soul
Tiger I’ve adored, monster with your indolent air
I want to plunge my trembling fingers deep
Into the thick of your unruly mane,

To shroud my head, encased in pain
In rippling skirts that reek of your perfume
And to breathe, like a wilting flower
The sweet stink of my expired love.

I want to sleep! To sleep more than to live!
In a slumber that is sweet as death itself
I will spread kisses free of all regret
Upon your shining, copper-colored skin.

To swallow up my sobs of muffled grief
Nothing suits me better than the abyss of your bed.
The power of oblivion lives inside your mouth
And the river Lethe runs coursing through your kiss.

My destiny, in future my delight
I will obey like a fated man,
A docile martyr, condemned innocent
Whose very fervor fuels his torturing.

I will suck, to drown my rancor
Opium and hemlock in twin streams
From the charming tips of your pointed bosom
That has never truly held a heart.

Le Léthé

(original French by Charles Baudelaire)

Viens sur mon coeur, âme cruelle et sourde,
Tigre adoré, monstre aux airs indolents;
Je veux longtemps plonger mes doigts tremblants
Dans l’épaisseur de ta crinière lourde;

Dans tes jupons remplis de ton parfum
Ensevelir ma tête endolorie,
Et respirer, comme une fleur flétrie,
Le doux relent de mon amour défunt.

Je veux dormir! dormir plutôt que vivre!
Dans un sommeil aussi doux que la mort,
J’étalerai mes baisers sans remords
Sur ton beau corps poli comme le cuivre.

Pour engloutir mes sanglots apaisés
Rien ne me vaut l’abîme de ta couche;
L’oubli puissant habite sur ta bouche,
Et le Léthé coule dans tes baisers.

À mon destin, désormais mon délice,
J’obéirai comme un prédestiné;
Martyr docile, innocent condamné,
Dont la ferveur attise le supplice,

Je sucerai, pour noyer ma rancoeur,
Le népenthès et la bonne ciguë
Aux bouts charmants de cette gorge aiguë
Qui n’a jamais emprisonné de coeur.

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