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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

14-and-under, commended

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Dominic Hand

by Baudelaire

When, like a lid, the heavy sky weighs low
Upon a spirit groaning in fearful fright,
And when from every corner in gathering flow
It drenches us in dark more dread than night;
When earth is changed into a humid cell
Where, like a bat, Hope on its feeble wings
Flaps up against the prison of a wall
Or beats its head upon rotten ceilings;

When rain spreads out in an immense trawl
And imitates a vast prison’s blinds,
And loathsome spiders in a silent ball
Begin to spin webs deep within our minds;

Then bells burst forth in sudden furious tones
And to the sky hurl cries rendered with hate,
Like wandering spirits who exiled from their homes
Unendingly bemoan their miserable fate.

– And slow funerals, with no drum nor music,
File past in my soul; Hope, left for dead,
Weeps, while Anguish, atrocious, despotic,
Plants its black flag upon my bowed head.

Translated from the French by Dominic Hand


Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle
Sur l'esprit gémissant en proie aux longs ennuis,
Et que de l'horizon embrassant tout le cercle
II nous verse un jour noir plus triste que les nuits;
Quand la terre est changée en un cachot humide,
Où l'Espérance, comme une chauve-souris,
S'en va battant les murs de son aile timide
Et se cognant la tête à des plafonds pourris;
Quand la pluie étalant ses immenses traînées
D'une vaste prison imite les barreaux,
Et qu'un peuple muet d'infâmes araignées
Vient tendre ses filets au fond de nos cerveaux,
Des cloches tout à coup sautent avec furie
Et lancent vers le ciel un affreux hurlement,
Ainsi que des esprits errants et sans patrie
Qui se mettent à geindre opiniâtrement.
— Et de longs corbillards, sans tambours ni musique,
Défilent lentement dans mon âme; l'Espoir,
Vaincu, pleure, et l'Angoisse atroce, despotique,
Sur mon crâne incliné plante son drapeau noir.

Charles Baudelaire

Translation commentary

When I discovered Baudelaire in an anthology in a library, I became fascinated by his dark and nervous world, and the way the bizarre and horrible seem beautiful. I finally chose his fourth ‘Spleen’ poem to translate, because I was intrigued by the way it builds up in one sentence stretched over four stanzas to a frenetic climax, and then disintegrates in another sentence lasting only four lines!

The basic technical problem was how to deal with the rules and rhythms of the traditional ‘Alexandrine’ line that Baudelaire uses. In the end, I relied on the classic and familiar feel of iambic pentameter, which I thought was the best equivalent. However, the rhyme scheme and the punctuation were easier to follow, although sometimes I had to change the word-order. When I couldn’t match Baudelaire’s alliteration, I introduced where I could some of my own to generate similar sound-effects. Finally, I could not find any direct way of saying spleen or ennui in English, which are moods that the whole poem is looking to convey, therefore my translation of ennui in line 2 partly assists with the rhythm and alliteration instead.

Overall, I wanted to preserve all of the poem’s ‘Gothic’ dystopian nature, and especially the way the poem starts low and individually, and then climbs up into a great shout of refusal, before it sinks back down once more into defeat and silence. I noticed after a while how skilfully Baudelaire repeats some words to create this sense of coming full circle, and I tried to keep this also.

In retrospect, having studied it closely, I now notice far more in the poem, and I have developed a growing admiration for the detail and craft of Baudelaire’s work.

Dominic Hand