La Vie antérieure

Charles Baudelaire left us so many beautiful poems. This architect of modern day French literature is one of the many poets from French history. His poem La Vie antérieure isn’t as popular as Flowers of evil, but is so beautiful.

Charles Baudelaire
Charles Baudelaire. Source: Wikimedia Commons

About the poet

There is a good chance, you read some of the work of Baudelaire. He is most known for his Fleurs du mail (Flowers of evil). It’s just one of the many poems he wrote during his life. But, he was also known for his essays, art criticism and the translations of the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

Baudelaire is considered as one of the architects of modern day French literature. In his poems, he described a changing world and inspired other great minds such as Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé.

In his poetry, he described a changing world inside the cities of France. This was the basis for the Modernity (Modernité).

Baudelaire was born on April 9 1821 in Paris. This was also the city where he died at the age of 46 (August 31 1867). During his life, he was well known for his writing. He began a Law study at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. At that time, this study was popular for those who did not know what career they should be pursuing.  During that time, he was tempted by the prostitutes of Paris. He was contacted with gonorrhoea and syphilis. He still managed to graduate, but did not want to start a career as a lawyer. He wanted to be a writer.

To change his mind, Baudelaire was sent to India by his stepfather, where he arrived in 1841 in Calcutta. This only inspired his writing and especially his poems. When he returned to Paris, he wrote the famous poem Fleurs du mal (Flowers of evil). He had seen more of the world than most 21-year-old men.

In 1845 his first work was published. It was an art review for the Salon de 1845. A year later he wrote another review. In this second review, he dared to criticize Romanticism. The basis for Modernity was made. From that time, he started to publish more of his work, including his poetry. His work often got him into trouble, since some considered his work as immoral.

During the last years of his life, he also translated work from other writers, including Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas De Quincey. It was the long-time use of Laudanum (a tincture of opium) and his illness that proved to be fatal. His condition worsened after 1859. Life had taken his toll on Baudelaire. Not only his health worked against him. Financially things did not go as planned. In 1861, his publisher had to stop due to bankruptcy, this left him with no steady income. In an attempt to make some money, he decided to go to Belgium in 1864, to sell his work. This wasn’t a wise choice. Once in Brussels, he began to use opium and drink excessively. This lead to a stroke in 1866, leaving him paralysed. He was diagnosed with aphasia and spent the last year of his life in Maison de Santé in Brussels and later in Paris.

When Baudelaire died on August 31 1867, he left France and the rest of the world an enormous legacy.

About the poem

The trouble with Charles Baudelaire’s work is that it has been translated by many. There are numerous versions of the original poem, La Vie antérieure. One is even more beautiful than the other when translated. Therefore, there is not just one English translation. Actually, there isn’t just one title when translation the poem that seems the right one. My former life, Former life or Previous existence have been used.

Let’s do things different and start off with the untranslated version written by Baudelaire.

La Vie antérieure

Charles Baudelaire

La Vie antérieure

J’ai longtemps habité sous de vastes portiques
Que les soleils marins teignaient de mille feux,
Et que leurs grands piliers, droits et majestueux,
Rendaient pareils, le soir, aux grottes basaltiques.

Les houles, en roulant les images des cieux,
Mêlaient d’une façon solennelle et mystique
Les tout-puissants accords de leur riche musique
Aux couleurs du couchant reflété par mes yeux.

C’est là que j’ai vécu dans les voluptés calmes,
Au milieu de l’azur, des vagues, des splendeurs
Et des esclaves nus, tout imprégnés d’odeurs,

Qui me rafraîchissaient le front avec des palmes,
Et dont l’unique soin était d’approfondir
Le secret douloureux qui me faisait languir.


William Aggeler translated the poem in 1954, when he translated Fleurs du mal. This book containing the poems of Baudelaire was published in different versions between 1857 and 1861.

My Former Life

My former life

For a long time I dwelt under vast porticos
Which the ocean suns lit with a thousand colors,
The pillars of which, tall, straight, and majestic,
Made them, in the evening, like basaltic grottos.

The billows which cradled the image of the sky
Mingled, in a solemn, mystical way,
The omnipotent chords of their rich harmonies
With the sunsets’ colors reflected in my eyes;

It was there that I lived in voluptuous calm,
In splendor, between the azure and the sea,
And I was attended by slaves, naked, perfumed,

Who fanned my brow with fronds of palms
And whose sole task it was to fathom
The dolorous secret that made me pine away.

As said, when it comes down to the title, there are different translations of this poem. Previous existence was the title that was given by Geoffrey Wagner when he translated the poem in 1974.

Previous Existence

Previous existance

For a long time I lived under vast colonnades,
Stained with a thousand fires by ocean suns,
Whose vast pillars, straight and majestic,
Made them seem in the evening like grottos of basalt.

The sea-swells, in swaying the pictures of the skies,
Mingled solemnly and mystically
The all-powerful harmonies of their rich music
With the colors of the setting sun reflected by my eyes.

It is there that I have lived in calm voluptuousness,
In the center of the blue, amidst the waves and splendors
And the nude slaves, heavy with perfumes,

Who refreshed my forehead with palm-leaves,
Their only care was to fathom
The dolorous secret that made me languish.

We could go on and on, with different translations of this magnificent poem. The matter of the fact is, that this poem is even nowadays more than inspirational for others. A magnificent job done by Charles Baudelaire.


If you are interested in reading more about Charles Baudelaire, considere the options below.


Baudelaire: Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets)
Baudelaire: Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets)

Complete Poems: Charles Baudelaire
Complete poems: Charles Baudelaire

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