Baudelaire Among the Greeks

At age 17, Charles Baudelaire wrote to his stepfather: 

“I’m writing with a request which will very much surprise you. You’ve promised me lessons in fencing and horse riding. But instead of that, I ask you–if you’re willing, if it’s possible, if you don’t mind–for a private tutor . . . 

What I would ask of him, among other things, would be Greek–yes, to teach me Greek, which I don’t know at all (like all those who learn it in middle school) . . .

You know I’ve got a taste for ancient languages, and Greek inspires a great curiosity in me. I believe, whatever people say nowadays, that it brings not only great pleasure, but also practical advantage. Why stifle these tastes?”

Baudelaire lettre au Colonel Aupick, 26 February 1839:

Je t’écris pour te faire une demande qui te surprendra fort. Tu m’as promis des leçons d’arme, de manège; au lieu de cela, je te demande, si tu le veux, si c’est possible, si cela ne te gêne pas, un répétiteur . . .

Ce que je lui demanderais aussi, ce serait du grec – oui, de m’apprendre le grec, que je ne sais pas du tout, comme tous ceux qui l’apprennent au collège . . .

Tu sais que je me suis pris de goût pour les langues anciennes, et le grec m’inspire une grande curiosité. Je crois, quoi qu’on dise aujourd’hui, que cela procure non seulement de grandes jouissances, mais encore un avantage réel. Pourquoi étouffer ces goûts-là?

We don’t know whether Baudelaire got his tutor, but we do know that he read a lot of Greek literature in his school days and won prizes for his translations. 

Let’s assume that when in his maturity he sat down to write, somewhere in his memory there was a poem the likes of this Hellenistic “aubade,” the song of lovers interrupted by the arrival of daybreak:

Antipater of Thessalonica 5.3 (Greek Anthology)

The early-morning light came some time ago, Chrysilla,
And dawn’s rooster, with his proclaiming, brings jealous daybreak.
Most envious birds, be gone! You chase me from my own house
And out into the profusion of young men’s blabbing.
You’re growing old, Tithonus.
Why else drive Dawn from your bed at first light?

Antipater of Thessalonica 5.3 (Greek Anthology)
ὄρθρος ἔβη, Χρύσιλλα, πάλαι δ᾽ ἠῷος ἀλέκτωρ
κηρύσσων φθονερὴν Ἠριγένειαν ἄγει.
ὀρνίθων ἔρροις φθονερώτατος, ὅς με διώκεις
οἴκοθεν εἰς πολλοὺς ἠιθέων ὀάρους.
γηράσκεις, Τιθωνέ: τί γὰρ σὴν εὐνέτιν Ἠῶ
οὕτως ὀρθριδίην ἤλασας ἐκ λεχέων;

Spiritual Dawn

In the room of the debauched, the white and vermillion dawn
Forms a league with the gnawing Ideal,
And by the workings of an avenging mystery
An angel awakens in the drowsy brute.

The inaccessible azure of the spiritual heavens,
For the stricken man who still dreams and suffers,
Opens and gapes with the lure of the abyss.
Thus, dear Goddess, Being light and pure,

Above the smoking debris of stupid orgies
Your memory, clearer, more roseate, more charming,
Flutters incessantly before my widened eyes.

The sun has darkened the candles’ flame;
Thus, ever victorious, your phantom is equal,
Resplendent soul, to the immortal sun!

L’Aube Spirituelle

Quand chez les débauchés l’aube blanche et vermeille
Entre en société de l’Idéal rongeur,
Par l’opération d’un mystère vengeur
Dans la brute assoupie un ange se réveille.

Des Cieux Spirituels l’inaccessible azur,
Pour l’homme terrassé qui rêve encore et souffre,
S’ouvre et s’enfonce avec l’attirance du gouffre.
Ainsi, chère Déesse, Être lucide et pur,

Sur les débris fumeux des stupides orgies
Ton souvenir plus clair, plus rose, plus charmant,
A mes yeux agrandis voltige incessamment.

Le soleil a noirci la flamme des bougies ;
Ainsi, toujours vainqueur, ton fantôme est pareil,
Ame resplendissante, à l’immortel soleil !

Pierre Bonnard. “Man and Woman.” (1900) Musee d’Orsay.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

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