"L'Horloge" (The Clock)
a prose poem by Charles Baudelaire [translated by David Lehman]
– for a lady
How do the Chinese tell time? By looking at the eyes of their
cats. Here’s how.
A lost missionary, afoot in a sleepy suburb of Nankin, had
forgotten his watch and asked a little boy what time it was.
After a moment’s hesitation, this street urchin of the celestial
Empire said: ‘‘Wait, I will tell you.’’ A few seconds later, he
reappeared with a very fat cat in his arms, looked into the
whites of her eyes, and said, ‘‘It is almost but not quite noon.’’
Which was the case.
As for me, if I favor my beautiful Feline, so felicitously named –
the honor of her sex, the pride of my heart, and the perfume
of my spirit, day and night, rain or shine – in the depths of her
adorable eyes I can always tell what time it is, and it is always
the same time, an hour vast, solemn, limitless as space undivided
into minutes and seconds – a lingering hour no clock observes,
soft as a sigh, swift as a glance.
And if an intruder came to disturb my study of this enchanting dial,
if some malevolent genie, some demon of ill fortune, were to address
me as a vain and idle mortal and say: ‘‘What are you staring at?
What are you looking for in the eyes of that creature? Is time told there,
and can you tell it?’’ I would reply without hesitation. ‘‘I know what time
it is; it is Eternity.’’
Madame, is not this a most meritorious bagatelle, and as full of vain
self-regard as your high and mighty self? Frankly, my dear, it has given me
so much pleasure embroidering this pretentious piece of puffery that I ask
nothing of you in return.
from the Summer 2019 issue of The Yale Review, in which four other prose poems by Charles Baudelaire appear.
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