I just came across these stanzas from Baudelaire’s The Swan.
Background: the poet, wandering through the streets of Paris at dawn, sees a swan.
I saw a swan that had escaped from his cage,
That stroked the dry pavement with his webbed feet
And dragged his white plumage over the uneven ground.
Beside a dry gutter the bird opened his beak,
Restlessly bathed his wings in the dust
And cried, homesick for his fair native lake:
“Rain, when will you fall? Thunder, when will you roll?”
I see that hapless bird, that strange and fatal myth…
And then, a little while later:
So, before the Louvre, an image oppresses me:
I think of my great swan with his crazy motions,
Ridiculous, sublime, like a man in exile,
Relentlessly gnawed by longing! and then of you,
Andromache, base chattel, fallen from the embrace
Of a mighty husband into the hands of proud Pyrrhus,
Standing bowed in rapture before an empty tomb,
Widow of Hector, alas! and wife of Helenus!
I think of the negress, wasted and consumptive,
Trudging through muddy streets, seeking with a fixed gaze
The absent coco-palms of splendid Africa
Behind the immense wall of mist;
Of whoever has lost that which is never found
Again! Never! Of those who deeply drink of tears
And suckle Pain as they would suck the good she-wolf!
Of the puny orphans withering like flowers!
For me, the beauty and the greatness of these lines lies in how the poet makes use of a familiar myth in order to give us images that let us visualise an unfamiliar – and brutal – reality. Great poets through the ages have sung of the sufferings of Andromache, wife of Hector: Homer, Euripides and Virgil, to name just three. Baudelaire needn’t go into details, he needn’t compose beautiful verse in order to bring home to us Andromache’s agony; he only needs to mention it, insert a couple of references that remind us of Euripides and Virgil, and our own minds will do the rest; we will imagine her speech to Hector in Book VI of The Iliad, we will imagine her behind the high walls of Troy, having to watch her husband die on the battlefield; and then her child executed in the aftermath, and years of slavery, as Euripides describes in Trojan Women and Andromache; and lastly, living out her years far from her homeland, when Aeneas meets her in Aeneid III. And so, in that one stanza, by saying very little, Baudelaire, by simple techniques of reference, succeeds in evoking in us vivid images and a sharp, clear sense of bereavement, loss, despair, exile and hopelessness.
So, at this point, from the first three quoted stanzas, we have the image of a drooping and bedraggled swan waddling despairingly through the street of Paris, something we can relate to through directly felt and seen experience (even though we might not have seen a swan, we have all seen similar sights and thought similar thoughts), and from the next stanza, we have an equally clear image of exiled Andromache, through the medium of great poetry.
And then, in the next stanza, Baudelaire connects this with another situation, one that we are dimly aware of, but one that we don’t have images for, and one that, consequently, we can’t sense or feel as sharply – because great poets haven’t, really, sung of the sorrow and despair of victims of colonialism, seized from their homes and cast into a cruel and unfamiliar world, with no prospect of return.
But with that transposition, we suddenly do have our images; the sufferings of Baudelaire’s African woman are the sufferings of the lonely swan, and the sufferings of Andromache; we can sense it now, the exile, the loss, the pain, the hopeless longing – in a way that we couldn’t have had it only been an isolated description, no matter how powerful and evocative. It is this way of using associations, I think, that makes this particular poem profoundly powerful.