My heart, like a bird, went flitting with joy and soared freely about the gear;
the ship sailed on under a cloudless sky, like an angel drunk with the sun's
What is this sad dark isle? —This is Cythera, we're told, a land famous in
song, banal El Dorado of all the old bachelors. Look how after all it's only
a miserable tract.
—Island of sweet secrets and of hearts' festivals! a superb phantom of
ancient Venus floating above your waters like a perfume, spirits heavy with
love and languor.
Fair isle of verdant myrtles, full of flowers in bloom, forever venerated by all
nations, where the sighs of hearts in adoration waft like incense over a garden
or the eternal cooing of ringdoves! —Cythera nothing now but waste terrain,
a stony desert racked by shrill cries. But a singular object caught my eye.
It was no temple in a shady wood, no young flower-loving priestess, body
candescent from a secret heat, loosening her robe to partake of passing
but there, as we skimmed the coast, near enough for our white sails to disturb
the birds—what we saw was a gibbet with three arms, etched in black against
the sky, like cypress.
Fierce birds were settled on their prey, furiously demolishing a hanged man
already rotten, each planting its foul beak like a tool in any bloodsoaked cranny
of that decay;
his eyes were two holes and from the ripped belly the heavy guts hung down
over his thighs and his tormenters, gorged with hideous delicacies, had with
their beaks quite gelded him.
Below, a pack of jealous quadrupeds, muzzles lifted, twisted and turned; a
larger beast in the middle leapt about like an executioner surrounded by his
Inhabitant of Cythera, child of so fair a sky, silently you suffered these
outrages, in expiation of some disgraceful worship and the sins that denied
Ridiculous hanged man, your pangs are mine! I felt, at sight of your dangling
parts, the long bitter river of old sorrows well to my teeth like bile;
before you, poor devil of precious memory, I felt all the beaks, the bites, of
the jabbing crows and the black panthers that once so loved to gnaw at my
—The sky was lovely, the sea was smooth; but for me it was, alas! all dark,
all bloody, my heart, as in a heavy shroud, buried in this allegory.
In your isle, O Venus! all I found erect was a symbolic gibbet hung with my
image . . . —Ah, Lord! give me the strength, the courage, to contemplate my
heart and my body without disgust!
translated from the French by Keith Waldrop
The Flowers of Evil
Sorry about the line breaks...Blogger is a pain! In the
preview, all looks right, but published, the lines are all wrong.