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This question is about the following stanza of Baudelaire's opening poem Au Lecteur to Les Fleurs du mal:

Sur l'oreiller du mal c'est Satan Trismégiste
Qui berce longuement notre esprit enchanté,
Et le riche métal de notre volonté
Est tout vaporisé par ce savant chimiste.

This “chimiste” is commonly translated to English as “alchemist”:

On evil's pillow lies the alchemist
Satan Thrice-Great, who lulls our captive soul,
And all the richest metal of our will
Is vaporized by his hermetic arts.

– James McGowan

Cradled in evil, that Thrice-Great Magician,
The Devil, rocks our souls, that can't resist;
And the rich metal of our own volition
Is vaporised by that sage alchemist.

– Roy Campbell

On the pillow of evil Satan, Trismegist,
Incessantly lulls our enchanted minds,
And the noble metal of our will
Is wholly vaporized by this wise alchemist.

– William Aggeler

Pillowed on evil, Satan Trismegist
Ceaselessly cradles our enchanted mind,
The flawless metal of our will we find
Volatilized by this rare alchemist.

– Jacques LeClercq

This seems fitting because Baudelaire invokes images / symbolism of alchemy. But if we consult a dictionary, “chimiste” does just mean “chemist” in English. Contrarily, the English “alchemist” would be “alchimiste” in French.

One rare translation of Au Lecteur which uses the dictionary translation, has a certain anachronistic vibe to it:

On the pillow of evil it is Satan Trismegistus
Who soothes a long while our bewitched mind,
And the rich metal of our determination
Is made vapor by that learned chemist.

– Eli Siegel

So the question is:

  • Are the translations by McGowan, Aggeler, Campbell and LeClercq basically just distorting the meaning? We're talking about a mid-19th century work, after Lavoisier and de Fourcroy; while in the 18th century the differentiation between “chimie” and “alchimie” may not have been fully complete, at this time it surely was?

  • If indeed a faithful translation of “chimiste” in this poem would just be “chemist”, i.e. “a rational man of science”, without hinting at an occult discipline, what could be an explanation (aside from lyrical technicalities) for Baudelaire's choice of this word? Was the anachronism intended?

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Alexandrine requirements might have played a (minor) role. Par ce savant chimiste is a fine hemistich but par ce savant alchimiste doesn't work. Maybe Baudelaire preferred the former to potential alternatives using alchimiste.

In any case, savant chimiste looks appropriate here. Alchimiste (a dreamer, a loser searching in vain something that doesn't exist) would have been ill-suited when talking about the Devil (here described as a powerful, knowledgeable scholar). Satan is called Trismégiste so assimilated to Hermes Trismegitus (combination of Hermes and Thoth), the God who created all arts and science, including alchemy.

Here is an excerpt from Alexandre Dumas Un alchimiste au XIXe siècle (1843) about chimie and alchimie:

Mon ami se décida pour la chimie, ou plutôt pour l’alchimie.
Il y a un abîme entre ces deux sciences, qui, à la vue, cependant, n’offrent une différence que de deux lettres de plus ou de deux lettres de moins. L’une est une science positive, l’autre est un art conjectural. L’alchimie est le rêve des imaginations puissantes, la chimie est l’étude des esprits graves. Tout chimiste supérieur a commencé par être quelque peu alchimiste.

The Devil as a chimiste can also be opposed to God as an architecte. The latter is building/creating things while the former is destroying/melting them.

When looking closer to the last verses, Satan is kind of vaporizing gold, i.e. is destroying it. Quite the opposite of what the alchemist were after.

Based on that, I would say chimiste was used on purpose so the four translations are losing a part of Baudelaire's intent by using the reductive alchimiste.

  • 3
    Speaking to the technical constraints, it's also worth noting that among the English translations Siegel's is the only one without meter, and chemist is much less useful for meters with stressed line ends. Moreover, three of the English ones rhyme and woe to the poet who tries to rhyme chemist. ("Dentist" perhaps, provided the "t" goes wherever Lenny left it?) Speaking to the meaning, I think you're on the nose about vaporizing the rare metal. Far from performing alchemy, Satan reverses the process. – Luke Sawczak Sep 14 '17 at 0:57
  • yes, the “vaporizing metals” is really the critical part. It is just chemistry because it is possible to do by a chemical process. For example, nitric acid or a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid can dissolve “riche métal” like silver or gold. – wolf-revo-cats Sep 16 '17 at 17:34
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Il me semble que présumer qu'un auteur comme Baudelaire aurait dû utiliser un mot (alchimiste) mais ne l'a pas fait pour une seule raison technique (l'alexandrin) est très réducteur.

On peut retrouver ce terme à nouveau dans cette ébauche d'épilogue, avec pourtant cette fois une allusion directe à l'alchimie.

Comme un parfait chimiste et comme une âme sainte.

Car j’ai de chaque chose extrait la quintessence,

Tu m’as donné ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or.

Mais, concernant l'époque de Baudelaire, le dictionnaire Littré de 1873 ("Les fleurs du mal" est paru en 1857) définit l'alchimie par "chimie du moyen âge..." et la chimie par "science dans laquelle...". Nous ne sommes donc pas à une période de transition entre la chimie et l'alchimie et, probablement, Baudelaire ne pouvait confondre les deux.

Sur un autre plan, dans cette introduction "Au lecteur", Baudelaire décrit une réalité, la sienne, qu'il nous invite à partager ("mon frère"). Il semble qu'au-delà de l'allégorie, il parle donc bien d'une vérité (la chimie) et non pas d'anciennes croyances (l'alchimie).

PS: étant nouveau sur ce site, et considérant cette petite analyse comme une interprétation, une opinion, j'espère ne pas contrevenir à ses règles.


Is it legitimate to presume an author such as Baudelaire should have chosen a word (alchemist) but did not only for technical reasons (alexandrine) ?

This word is also present in this outline of epilogue, but with, this time, a direct allusion of what we call alchemy.

Comme un parfait chimiste et comme une âme sainte.

Car j’ai de chaque chose extrait la quintessence,

Tu m’as donné ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or.

But the Littré dictionary of 1873 defines alchemy by "chemistry of the middle age..." et chemistry by "science in which...". So we are not here in a transition period between alchemy and chemistry, and probably, Baudelaire was aware of that.

On another plan, in this opening poem "to the reader", Baudelaire describes a reality, his own, which he invites us to share ("mon frère"). So it seems that, above the allegory, he's talking about truth (the chemistry) and not about ancient beliefs (alchemy).

  • Les règles voudraient que vous répondiez uniquement à la question posée dans votre réponse. Vous faites référence à une autre proposition de réponse. Ce n'est pas nécessaire. Faites le dans une remarque. Mais j'aime la fin de votre réponse ;) – jcm69 Sep 15 '17 at 20:41
  • @jcm69, je suis d'accord avec vous et j'ai réagi car un peu choqué de conclure si vite que le "vrai" mot aurait dû être "alchimiste". Jlliagre a d'ailleurs édité sa réponse pour modérer cet aspect. On aurait pu citer "l'alchimie de la douleur". Le titre n'est pas contraint à l'alexandrin mais aussi "alchimie" peut avoir un sens sensiblement différent d'alchimiste, du moins en français. "il se passe une alchimie" quelque chose qu'on n'explique pas, alors que l'alchimiste est un acteur conscient. Ici le diable n'est clairement pas un acteur qui tatonne... du moins il me semble. – lemon Sep 16 '17 at 7:10
  • yes, in a way, the anachronism of “chimiste” in the mythological context has the effect of waking the reader: the threat is real and present now. – wolf-revo-cats Sep 16 '17 at 17:55
  • For a fringe interpretation, one could also say Baudelaire hints at real chemicals that dissolve our willpower, that is psychoactive drugs. He certainly had some experiences with that. ;-) – wolf-revo-cats Sep 16 '17 at 17:56
  • @lemon je me suis permis cette remarque uniquement parce que vous précisiez être nouveau etc. De nombreuses réponses, dont des miennes, ne sont pas très réglementaires... Il n'y a pas mort d'homme ! :) – jcm69 Sep 16 '17 at 18:35
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The relevant sentences are the last two

Et le riche métal de notre volonté
Est tout vaporisé par ce savant chimiste.

Baudelaire mentions "le riche métal" that clearly references gold. Moreover, alchemists have for centuries tried (in vain) to turn lead into gold. The point is that although Baudelaire wrote "chimiste" for alexandrine requirements, the words express the idea of the alchemists all time dream. Hence the chosen translation.

Sorry for my poor wording, but I am neither native nor a poet.

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By default, the translation of "chimiste" is indeed "chemist".

Apparently here the translators chose to use "alchemist" since the rest of the strophe is about alchemical references, and my bet is that they feeled that they had to use compensation.

The French text clearly carries alchemical references, and they may have think that their translation would be closer to the original tone if they used "alchemist".

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    Ça participerait de la compensation que d'évaluer les connotations ? Le sujet du site n'est pas la langue anglaise, mais justement ne serait-ce pas parce qu'en anglais alchemist est plus symboliste qu'il ne l'est en français qu'on l'aurait choisi ? Merci. – user3177 Sep 16 '17 at 17:30
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One possible reason that very few of the translations use the word chemist is that there don't seem to be any perfect rhymes in English for chemist. The word chemist has stress on the first syllable, and you would need to find a feminine rhyme, which is much harder in English; menaced is the closest rhyme I can think of for chemist (they rhyme except that /m/ is replaced by the similar consonant /n/).

However, alchemist rhymes with both Trismegist and resist, a fact the translations you quote took advantage of.

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    Actually, in a comment to my related answer on the literature stackexchange, it was pointed out that premised is a perfect rhyme for chemist, although it would be hard to work that into a translation of Au Lecteur. – Peter Shor Mar 30 '18 at 9:21

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