Translated from the French
by Lasha Darkmoon
[LD] The poem is ostensibly about a cat. In actual fact, it is about Baudelaire’s dusky mulatto mistress, Jeanne Duval, a feline beauty with whom the French poet remained totally obsessed for roughly 20 years. He is said to have loved his half-French half-Haitian mistress more than any other woman in his life, apart from his mother who always came first.
‘The Cat’ was not one of Baudelaire’s six “banned poems”. Its eroticism is veiled in double meanings. Most people reading the poem would assume that the poet (pictured here) is talking about a cat, not a feline femme fatale. Here is a painting of Baudelaire’s mistress by Manet — what he saw in her is a mystery, as she doesn’t seem particularly stunning to me. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say—each man to his taste.
By today’s standards, even Baudelaire’s six banned poems are extraordinarily tame. When published in 1857 in Les Fleurs du Mal (‘Flowers of Evil’), during the height of the Victorian era, it was thought that these poems would have a corrupting effect on youth. The average reader here, it is hoped, will not be corrupted by my translation of “The Cat”. [LD]
CAT WOMAN AND CAT
“Queen of delicious domination!—
Are you a goddess in disguise?”
Just see her padding through my brain,
As if it were her furnished flat:
This frisky, fascinating Cat!
Were she to mew, the low-pitched strain
Of her voice, softer than softest sighs,
Would scarce be audible; but her
Purr’s the thing, her husky purr—
Her purr, that’s where her secret lies!
Her velvet voice, it filters down
Into the darkrooms of my brain;
It thrills me like a poetry line
Or liqueur that I love to drain.
It soothes my sorrows and it lulls
My soul to sleep with ecstasy.
To say the thing it wants to say,
It has no need for words at all.
My heart’s the perfect instrument
For her to play soft music on.
Her rich and vibrant undertone,
Her royal purr’s my ravishment.
The sound you make, mysterious Cat—
O noble Cat so strange of mood!—
Cat in whose breast dark angels brood!—
I’ve never heard a note like that!
From her proud pelt all golden brown
So sweet a fragrance flows, its balm
Soaks through me as I run my palm
Once up her silken flank, and down.
Familiar spirit at my side!—
Presiding judge and inspiration!—
Queen of delicious domination!—
Are you a goddess in disguise?
Now when my eyes draw back again,
Back from this kitty I adore,
To look within myself and pore
Upon the map of my own brain,
I look and see with wild surprise
Flash back at me from lucent pools
Two blazing lamps, two burning jewels—
The fire opals of her eyes!