Friday 27 April 2018

Poetry: Baudelaire's devotion to his 'little old ladies'

Poet Charles Baudelaire.
Poet Charles Baudelaire.

Ulick O'Connor

Little old ladies were very much part of the Dublin of years ago. Having weathered the travail of life and reared their families, they had arrived at a special position where they were regarded with awe by the community.

They had their own special place in the pubs, usually the snug. Dare a man enter this sacred space, he would be shunted out pronto. They didn't drink stout or beer, just shorts or a glass of port was the favourite. I was honoured when they would welcome me into their nook. The reason, I think, was at that time on television I was quick to tell fools to shut up, and the women had had to listen to so much gab from their spouses on the home front that my interventions cheered them up. These heroic ladies, irrespective of class, were referred to as "Little Oul Ones".

I was delighted to find, therefore, that Baudelaire, France's greatest poet who had found material for his poetry on the boulevards of Paris, had a real devotion to what he called the "Little Old Ladies". He found in their attitude to the battle of life a certain heroism that fascinated him. He used to follow them through the streets, observing their reactions to the passing scene and how they lived out the evening of their lives.

One of them he has immortalised in his verse. This little old lady he spotted going to the Luxembourg Gardens every day where she would sit down to listen to the military band which played there. She would allow herself to be carried away by the music so that as the tunes of France's famous victories reached her, she would be transported in mind to the battlefield and the crowning of the victor.

Baudelaire fought the establishment of this time with the greatest courage when they banned his work as obscene, which it most certainly wasn't. It is touching, then, to think that his poet's eye had perceived, beneath the fragile frame of the old ladies, the same courage that had led him to spend so much of his life before the courts accused of writing obscenity.


Little old ladies, how often have I followed them!

Especially one who, as the dying sun departs

And vermilion wounds bloody the evening's rim,

Would sit on a park bench, pensive and apart,

Delighting in those concerts with their ringing brass

With which the army sometimes grace our parks,

Making us feel reborn as the golden evening pass

And some heroism pours into people's hearts.

Her, I recall still, proud, with a queen's stance,

Absorbed in the valour of some martial quarrel.

Sometimes her eye would open with an eagle glance,

The marble forehead lifted for the laurel.

Translated by Ulick O'Connor

Charles Baudelaire 1821-1867

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