Chats du bien

Written on April 27, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen


Can it be fairly said that there are two groups of people in this world: those who own cats and the rest of us? I remember in one of Céline’s novels – "D’un Château l’Autre" I think – where the author, in typical Célinois prose describes fleeing the collapsing Vichy regime (We stumble ahead… the train … people, people rushing …everywhere … I see it … smoke … – well, I am making that up, but I suspect it’s a fair approximation.) Anyway, Céline remarks that he leaves with only a small suitcase, his wife, a cane and his beloved Minou in a bag. And I suspect of all those, Céline would have parted last with his cat. He just seems the type.

Perhaps it is my own idiosyncrasy, but surely Charles Baudelaire must seem an unlikely candidate for this group. Equal parts louche, sybaritic, cerebral, indolent, syphilitic, alcoholic and brilliant, Baudelaire did not publish his first poems – and the volume upon which all his future fame as a poet would largely rest – until he was 36. This was, of course, the Famous Fleurs du Mal.  Now I may be wrong – but it seems to me that he was also in the company of feline fanciers. This judgment (possibly erroneous, and at any event highly frivolous I know) I base solely on the fact that Fleurs du Mal contains several poems about cats (three if you are taking notes). One of these, "Les Chats", must certainly be the best poem ever penned about the fickle voluptuary feline. Here it is, with a good English translation. 

Les Chats

Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.

Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l’horreur des ténèbres;
L’Erèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S’ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.

Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s’endormir dans un rêve sans fin;

Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d’étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d’or, ainsi qu’un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.


The ardent lovers and the stern students
in their maturity, love equally,
the gentle, powerful cats, pride of the family,
they too feel the cold and favour indolence.

Companions of knowledge and desire
they seek the silent horrors darkness breeds,
Erebus would take them for his funeral steeds,
were they able to soften their pride.   

They take as they dream the noble pose
of the great sphinxes, reclined in desolate land,
lost, it seems, in an endless doze

Their fecund loins brim with enchanting glitter,
whilst their haunting eyes at random flicker
with particles of gold, like fine sand. 

(translation by Claire Trevien)


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