Macabre gallantry

from Mallarmé

Into one of those neighbourhoods where caravans
of ragmen go to fight and gallantly to kiss
old linen smelling of courtesan skin
and to throw stones at cats ensconced in love,

like them I went: my soul wandered in a leaden sky
the equal of that gleam full of vague terror
outlined on the pallid wall by their lantern
its flame turned red by morning, one cold day.

And I saw a scene funereally grotesque
the thought of which still haunts me, one like this:
a woman, very young, a pauper, after
childbirth, lay dead in a blackened slum.

Without sacrament and like a dog, — her neighbour said.
A black rag hung there and for silver tears
displayed the pale wall through its holes: meanness
and rancid incense fluttered in its folds.

Three chairs supporting the coffin: a candle, on the floor,
whose wax had already wept more than one death, then
a candlestick, letting the copper laugh
beneath its austere silver, and, in the rain, a sprig of boxwood…

that is all. Until now, nothing: it is permissible to die
poor, one miserable day, — and for a choir boy
to open his umbrella and, without a dog having wept for you,
send off your mocking convoy at a gallop.

But what gave me pain to see was this: the door
seeming too narrow for him, or the stairs too low,
an undertaker climbing into the dead woman’s hovel
through the skylight, with a ladder, taking double steps.

Death is considerate to those it is hunting down:
it gets our eyes drunk on azure, while closing them;
then puts on an old black tailcoat and a folding hat,
and comes to cheat us of our last coin, courteously. —

From the first rung to the last, that entity
fantastically leapt like Romeo,
then, through gallantry, on the edge of the window
he laid his pipe down, drawing the shutters closed.

I looked away and went on walking: the colour
in which the grey sky drowned my dreams grew sombre,
and now the voice of my extinguished thought
reawakened, speaking the way the Devil laughs.

In my heart where boredom hangs its funereal curtains
there is also a sarcophagus, memory.
There, among unguents penetrating the darkness,
She sleeps, to whom Satan riveted my future.

And Vice, eager to fix its Gehenna there,
would carry her into the earth and knocks at the window-panes; but
you must still wait, dear undertaker: — the vengeful eye
of my hatred is there, which imprisons her forever.

(1861)

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