The Dancing Snake: Charles Baudelaire. Spencer Hawkins, translator.

Translator’s note: The poem is a blason, a form in which the lyric subject dissects a person’s body by describing each part separately. In translating it, I have tried to restore signs of life to the person described. In the original, the lyric subject describes a woman with precise, sometimes demeaning bodily descriptions, while he also describes himself as overcome with intoxicating reverence. Precision and intoxication provide the tension in this poem. While impeccable meter and rhyme, surprising metaphors, and brutal epithets all give the impression of a man trying to overwhelm a woman with rhetorical mastery, its charm and threat, he appears disarmed by her charm. This inadvisable dynamic is beautifully displayed in the poem—and I tried to render some of the violence in my translation.

How I love seeing, indolent dear,
the parts of your beautiful body
ripple with the insincere
gleam of the skin you’re haunting!

When your deep hair gets messy
full of stifling, burnt smells,
a scented and reckless sea
with blue and auburn swells,

like the wind that wakes
a ship with a sign of morning,
a distant sky clears a way
into dream made for exploring.

Your eyes, where nothing shows
neither sweet nor bitter,
are jewels made of snow,
alloys of gold and winter.

If a stranger saw your gait
when you walk, queen in dishabille,
you’d seem like a dancing snake
on a branch, seeking out a meal.

Behind your veil of laziness,
your child’s head turns intent
with thought, sways, then rests
like a baby elephant.

And your body contracts and extends,
like a narrow boat
that rolls from side to side and upends
into the deep water of earth’s moat.

Like a wave growing from the thaw
of groaning glaciers,
when water from your mouth crawls
over your teeth and up their spaces,

I think I’m drinking Czech wine,
bitter and victorious—sense departs,
and inside a liquid sky shines
by spreading stars throughout my heart!

Translated from the French poem, “Le Serpent qui danse.”

About the translator: Spencer Hawkins teaches ancient Greek literature, German language, and English composition at University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on the persistence of metaphors in philosophy.

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