As Michael Hamburger wrote, Charles Baudelaire was the prototype of the modern poet. There are many translations of his single, immensely influential collection of verse, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). With Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, Jan Owen has made a distinctive contribution to the archive, offering versions that capture Baudelaire’s formal rigour and direct diction.
Owen’s choice of poems displays all the characteristics that have fascinated readers of the collection since 1857: a startling range of moods, exultant sensuality, steady attention to the negative, exquisite skill in song and storytelling, depth of thought. In these versions Baudelaire is very much alive, even as he dwells on decrepitude, death and decay. Jan Owen’s translations rise to the challenge of rhyming while responding with care to the nuances of the prestigious originals.
Jan Owen’s Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du Mal is a triumph of sensibility and skill. Although Baudelaire has been assiduously served by previous translators, Owen’s work quickly dispels any doubts about its necessity. Poetry in English is certainly richer now that it includes her graceful and ingenious versions of such pieces as ‘Correspondences’, ‘A Carcass’, ‘The Little Old Women’ and ‘The Voyage’, which effected an aesthetic revolution in the mid-nineteenth century and have never ceased to fascinate. Owen has chosen the English iambic pentameter to render the French alexandrine, and her lines rhyme, like Baudelaire’s. She writes in her preface: ‘I have often settled for a sensible half-rhyme over an unconvincing full rhyme or inversion’. Her translations demonstrate the wisdom of this strategy: they are feats of exquisite balance, fine and striking poems in their own right, as well as responding with great care to the prestigious originals.