Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.
À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.
Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!
Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.
English translation, by William Aggeler
Often, to amuse themselves, the men of a crew
Catch albatrosses, those vast sea birds
That indolently follow a ship
As it glides over the deep, briny sea.
Scarcely have they placed them on the deck
Than these kings of the sky, clumsy, ashamed,
Pathetically let their great white wings
Drag beside them like oars.
That winged voyager, how weak and gauche he is,
So beautiful before, now comic and ugly!
One man worries his beak with a stubby clay pipe;
Another limps, mimics the cripple who once flew!
The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky
Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman;
When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jeers,
His giant wings prevent him from walking.
Well, I was all ready to translate this, but when I googled the poem I found tons of different translations of it. I couldn’t help reading through them, and thought that this one was the best. I knew that I couldn’t do my own translation after reading it, because I would have wanted to plagiarise it too much!
I love this poem. I read it first at school; Baudelaire was among the first French poets I read. It is from his collection Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) which was first published in 1857.
L’albatros uses a very similar image to yestedray’s poem by Rilke. This beautiful bird, the albatross, represents the poet; Baudelaire makes this quite clear in the final stanza. I love this image of these birds that are at once so graceful in flight — “kings of the sky” — and also so “clumsy” and “ashamed”, dragging their awkward wings when they are captured and forced to walk on deck.
For me, this is a very touching image. The poet is “prince of cloud and sky” when he is in his element — when he is writing. But, in other situations (perhaps social or other) he is “gauche”, “comic and ugly”, and is “the butt of hoots and jeers”. It seems to be the poet’s genius or brilliance that, like the albatross’s oar-like wings, “prevent him for walking.” What a beautiful final line.
(This reminds me of what Keats once wrote in a letter about a poet being the “most unpoetical of any thing in existence”, because he is always inhabiting other body, such as the sun, the moon etc. The “chameleon poet”, to use Keats’ phrase, is poetical only when he is writing — when he inhabiting something poetic. In other situations, he might be like the albatross, stumbling over his beautiful wings.)
Reviewed by Emily Ardagh