The New Factory of the Eccentric Actor recently staged a new play 1848 at Conway Hall. It’s a mix of styles: documentary, drama, musical, popular history. With a minimum of fuss and rehearsal the extravaganza was staged by approx. 75 actors and a band of musicians for one night only on Jan 22 2014. It was artistic collectivism in action. I got to play Charles Baudelaire who was very much involved with the Parisian wing of the 1848 revolution, as poet-activist-journalist. Here is my translation of his revolutionary poem from 1848 with its bourgeois vs. proletariat overtones, ‘Abel and Cain’.


Race of Abel
   sleep drink eat
   God smiles on you
Race of Cain
    in the shit
    grovel and die
Race of Abel
     your sacrifice
     flatters the nose
                   of seraphim
Race of Cain
     your elbow grease
     we trust
                   is never-ending
Race of Abel
      see your crops
      and your livestock
Race of Cain
      you lick your chops
      howling in
                   mongrel hunger
Race of Abel
       warm your paunch
       by the fire…
                   it’s patriarchal!
Race of Cain
       on your haunches
       shiver with cold
                   poor jackals
Race of Abel
       love and increase
       your gold
                   also begets
Race of Cain
       you’ve such unhealthy
Race of Abel
       gnaw your way in
                   as woodlice
Race of Cain
       you drag your kin
       into an abyss
                   of vice
Ah Race of Abel
        your fruiting corpse
        manures the perfumed
Race of Cain
        your labour force
        sweats in a hellfire
                   of toil
Race of Abel
        what a shame!
        the pitchfork slays
                  the sword
Race of Cain
         to heaven climb
         and to the turf
hurl God


Walter Benjamin says of this unique poem in the Baudelaire oeuvre:

‘The litany entitled “Abel et Cain” shows the basis for Baudelaire’s view of the disinherited… The poem turns the contest between the biblical brothers into one between eternally irreconcilable races…. The poem consists of sixteen distiches; every second distich begins the same way. Cain, the ancestor of the disinherited, appears as the founder of a race and this race can be none other than the proletariat. In 1838, Granier de Cassagnac published his Histoire des classes ouvrieres et des classes bourgeoises. This work claimed to trace the origin of the proletarians: they form a class of subhumans which sprang from the crossing of robbers with prostitutes. Did Baudelaire know these speculations? Quite possibly. What is certain is that Marx, who hailed Granier de Cassagnac as “the thinker” of Bonapartist reaction, had encountered them. In his book Capital, he parried this racial theory by developing the concept of a “peculiar race of commodity-owners” by which he meant the proletariat. The race descended from Cain appears in Baudelaire precisely in this sense, though admittedly he would not have been able to define it. It is the race of those who possess no commodity but their labour power.’

The poem has always fascinated me. I translated it about 20 years ago. Francis Scarfe’s prose version was pretty terrible, so I felt it wouldn’t be too difficult to improve on it. The above version is a dusted down and touched up version of the effort from all those years ago. Later I translated it into Pidgin English – which suited the tribal theme very well, with its ‘Pipol blong Ken’ refrain a nod to Ken Campbell who had taught me the Melanesian esperanto he called Wol Wantok. Later still, I did a modern adaption of the poem, updating it to contemporary London, though keeping Baudelaire’s rhyme-scheme and rhythm.

Baudelaire is always capable of savage irony but what I noticed in the translations and adaptions was that I was channelling and juggling at least four voices: my own, Baudelaire’s, as well as Abel’s and Cain’s. Thus, occasionally the two races seem to be having a slanging match. This makes the adaption much more a mirror of modern England with its Daily Mail vs. Daily Mirror class propagandising. The tone is cruelly unsentimental but is of course occasionally misinterpreted. The line ‘Race of Cain, you breed like dogs / gratis on the NHS’ is not me talking, or Baudelaire, but the Race of Abel, probably echoing a modern sociologist and eugenicist such as Professor Richard Lynn.

There is also a film of a performance:

Interestingly, speeches by the Mazzini and Bakunin characters in 1848 both echoed the last line of the Baudelaire version, about evicting God from heaven, so Baudelaire was clearly and consciously versifying an idea that was current at the time. I updated it to ‘Big Brother’ making it more contemporary, and suitable to the biblical theme.

Here is another poem, inspired by my researches into Baudelaire’s participation in the February Revolution.



This cabalist passion for milk and honey!

I am sharing the desert with machinists.

Behind barricades of quatrains

I work with new materials, magic stones,

falling into events, an impersonal history

and have never had such company or communion.

My tomahawk voice works overtime

gibbering with idiots savants

as waves of barbarism and counter-barbarism

crash into thin bodies, candled souls.


This depression and mania. 

The engineered dream – Paris – is losing

its royal dollhouse aura

looking more a like a sea of cormorants

lunching on bourgeois goldfish.

This is the saddest opera I have ever seen

because I have worked out the ending.

I war with Latin egos

who dislike the topography of a poet’s brow,

the Cain forehead complimenting a cloven hoof

expert at dance steps.


This below. This above.

Onion-layers of irony cannot make me shed

an animal’s sincerity.

A field-marshal is fucking my mother.

(That’ll do for France.)

In darkrooms I’m developing

a poetry like photography.

I told you I know the end of the opera.

 My empty belly is a crystal ball.


I’ll leave the final word with CB himself, taken from his later diaries:

“Mon ivresse en 1848. De quelle nature était cette ivresse ? Goût de la vengeance. Plaisir naturel de la démolition. Ivresse littéraire : souvenir des lectures.”

Photo: Julie Goldsmith

About Niall McDevitt

Niall McDevitt > poet > author of b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010) and Porterloo (International Times, 2012) > urban explorer > radical pedestrian who leads Shakespeare/Blake/Rimbaud /Yeats walks, among others.
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