Baudelaire, Rudel and the Impossibility of the Ideal

I’d like to discuss two very different poems, written by two very different kinds of poets, in two wildly contrasting styles – but which nonetheless evoke a very similar response in me.

The first is Baudelaire’s A Une Passante (To a Passerby). I append William Aggeler’s translation.

The street about me roared with a deafening sound .
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic grief ,
A woman passed, with a glittering hand
Raising, swinging the hem and flounces of her skirt;

Agile and graceful, her leg was like a statue’s.
Tense as in a delirium, I drank
From her eyes, pale sky where tempests germinate, 
The sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills.

A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?

Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

The second is an excerpt from Swinburne’s Triumph of Time, dealing with the legend of the troubadour Jaufre Rudel:

There lived a singer in France of old
By the tideless dolorous midland sea.
In a land of sand and ruin and gold
There shone one woman, and none but she.
And finding life for her love’s sake fail,
Being fain to see her, he bade set sail,
Touched land, and saw her as life grew cold,
And praised God, seeing; and so died he.
Died, praising God for his gift and grace:
For she bowed down to him weeping, and said
“Live”; and her tears were shed on his face
Or ever the life in his face was shed.
The sharp tears fell through her hair, and stung
Once, and her close lips touched him and clung
Once, and grew one with his lips for a space;
And so drew back, and the man was dead.

 The context needs some explanation. The primary theme of troubadour poetry was chivalrous, or courtly love, being as they were, wandering composers and singers of Occitan lyric in the high middle ages, who depended to a great extent on royal patronage. The lyrics of the troubadours explore the idea of love from many different standpoints, in many different ways. One conceptualisation of it is Jaufre Rudel’s amor de lonh, or “love from afar”. Legend has it that Rudel (who was of the princely class) heard so much about the beauty and wisdom of the Countess of Tripoli, that without ever seeing her, and from far away in Southwestern France, he fell passionately in love with her. His songs reflect his love (During May, when the days are long,/ I admire the song of the birds from far away/ and when I have gone away from there/I remember a love far away.)

Eventually, Rudel decided to go on the Second Crusade to get to Tripoli, and legend has it that after a long and difficult journey, during which he fell sick, he was dying as he arrived; the Countess came down from her castle to him as he was brought ashore, and he died in her arms. During the romantic era, this theme was treated by many – Browning wrote Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli, and of course, there are those two stanzas from Swinburne.

Now, there is absolutely no doubt that Baudelaire’s views on love were radically opposed to those of the romantics, or those of the troubadours. So, to elucidate the commonality that I nonetheless do see in this, let’s look at Walter Benjamin’s famous analysis of A Une Passante. Benjamin is dealing with the concept of the flaneur as depicted in Baudelaire’s poetry, and in particular, the relationship between the flaneur and the  crowd that he observes, follows and mingles with. Benjamin writes:

The sonnet presents the crowd not as a refuge of a criminal but as that of love which eludes the poet. At first glance this function appears to be a negative one, but it is not. Far from eluding the erotic in the crowd, the apparition which fascinates him is brought to him by this very crowd. The delight of the city-dweller is not so much love at first sight as love at last sight. The never marks the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.” (Emphasis supplied) (Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, p. 45)

Ignoring Benjamin’s broader point about what the flaneur tells us about the rise of capitalism in the 19th century, I’m particularly interested in the underlined words, which I think reveal another aspect of the poem, one that Benjamin does not treat in express words. I feel that in this poem, Baudelaire has captured, with great beauty and economy, a profound truth about the human condition: the unattainability of the ideal is what makes it so. Baudelaire’s state of delirium, the vision of tempests “germinating” in the woman’s eye, and more than anything else, “the sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills” all have their inception and their raison d’être in the first five words at the beginning of the tercet – “a lightning flash… then night“. It is the fleetingness of the moment and the impossibility of fulfillment that give rise to this mad intensity of feeling. This, precisely, is what is contained in Benjamin’s beautiful expression, “love at last sight“, and this is the truth he grasps when he says that “the never marks the high point of the encounter“. Not just that – the “never”, for me, defines the encounter and makes it worthy of a poem. Beauty is no beauty unless it is fleeting, and the single glance that resurrects the poet from the void of non-feeling, rescues him from his perennial state of soporific benumbment, would only send him back there if it lingered too long. I say this: when Baudelaire asks, “will I see you no more before eternity?“, he knows that the answer is no, and that is how is must be. The last three lines, ostensibly a lament, do not really signify the poet’s wish to find the woman again. On the contrary, if he did find her again, all would be lost. She would become just another person, commonplace and quotidian; and whatever she is in the poem, an ordinary person she is not. The poem is constructed and depends upon the fleetingness of the encounter, its very transience and ephemerality that permits the poet to see the certainty of love in a passing glance, experience resurrection in a moment’s gaze, find himself in delirium at a passing vision. The fulfillment of his electric, heightened sense of desire would destroy the very essence of what makes it so. As Benjamin writes later on, once again capturing the essence of things perfectly:

It is a farewell forever which coincides in the poem with a moment of enchantment.”  (Benjamin, p. 125)

And most tellingly, later down on the same page:

This is the look… of an object of a love… of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfilment.

And this, I think, is exactly what is at work in the Rudel legend, in the very concept of amor de lonh. Rudel’s death as he gazes his first upon the woman he has always loved is the only logical conclusion to the story. Just like Baudelaire’s intensity of feeling, his “love” – a kind of love admittedly entirely different from the love of the troubadours – exists on the condition of “farewell forever“, so Rudel’s amor de lonh exists on the condition of an eternally unfulfilled longing to bridge an unbridgeable distance. Rudel’s attainment of his ideal, the Lady of Tripoli, would be as anti-climactic and as destructive of everything as would be Baudelaire finding his city-woman again. The bittersweet yearning, the intensity of passion, the depth of longing created and then fed by non-fulfilment – all that would be lost at the moment of attainment. And so, for the sake of that love, and for the sake of the beautiful art that it creates, there must never be attainment or fulfillment.

And I feel there’s something else that must be noted. In my first post, I spoke about the sorrow of Virgil, of Byron and of Camus, the sorrow that comes with the inevitable awareness of the eternal gap between substance and shadow. But while the ever-retreating Ausonian fields make Aeneas weep and while Byron’s Manfred laments at humankind being “half-dust, half-deity”, for Baudelaire and Rudel, on the other hand, this impossibility is precisely what makes the ideal the ideal in the first place. And if that is the case, then there is no purpose in only lamenting – ideals are meant to bring forth great art, and for these two poets, that is precisely what they do.

(A similar – though not identical – point, incidentally, is made over on the Lemming Project, a dissertation on Walter Benjamin. The writer says: “The flâneur loves the passing stranger in the same way that he loves any source of inspiration or literary device–for its effectiveness as a representation of his own consciousness.” – see

It is a strange and alluring paradox – but if it is a paradox that gives to us A une Passante as well as the great troubadour lyrics, then I am grateful for it.

Rudel’s troubadour lyrics (and troubadour lyrics more generally): (the musical world of the troubadours is endlessly fascinating – I couldn’t recommend it highly enough)

Browning’s Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli:

Swinburne’s The Triumph of Time: (a brilliant poem independent of all else)

Baudelaire’s poetry:

A few things Walter Benjamin:



Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry, Jaufre Rudel, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Robert Browning, Troubadours, Victorian Poetry, Walter Benjamin

7 responses to “Baudelaire, Rudel and the Impossibility of the Ideal

  1. I have been looking over your blog – It is superb!

    This is a great and insightful post. Though I have not read these works before they are very powerful and I find them extraordinary.

    Your commentary is making me think a lot about the unrealized ideal as expressed throughout poetry and literature. One work that comes to mind is Dante’s Divine Comedy. I think that with his conception of Beatrice, Dante took the concept of the unrealized ideal in amazing directions.

  2. Thanks for dropping by – and thanks for these kind words. I’ve had a very enjoyable time going through yours as well.

    I think you’ve chosen a fascinating example there in Dante’s Beatrice. What I would suggest is that – in one sense at least – Beatrice is idealized in a slightly different fashion from Baudelaire’s city-woman and Rudel’s countess. I’m reminded of the creations of two near-contemporaries – Petrarch’s Laura and Shakespeare’s WH as depicted in the neo-platonist sonnets: 37, 43, 53 and 67. The unattainability of the ideal here is a result of attributing the beloved with divine qualities that automatically render her, in a sense, above and beyond the poet’s profane longings. Shakespeare is, of course, most explicit here – he speaks of the “substance of the shadow”, placing the beloved in the heavenly world of forms, and everything else in the pale world of shadows. I think something similar is at work with Beatrice, though of course, as you rightly point out, Dante takes it in amazing directions.

    But while Dante, Petrarch and Shakespeare choose their ideal and then clothe it with qualities that *make* it unattainable, for Baudelaire and Rudel, it is the unattainability that in and of itself, both *defines* and *exhausts* the ideal. The ideal is an ideal *because* unattainable, not merely possessing the qualities that make it so. The difference lies in the fact, I feel, that the first three would actually long to attain their ideal, if only they could, whereas for B and R, attainment would be tantamount to destruction.

    Your example is doubly fascinating because there is another attainable ideal at work in The Divine Comedy – Virgil, as Dante’s guide, and the guide and model and standard for all poets to aspire to. An ideal of a very different kind, but interestingly, I think, following the same inner logic.

  3. Hi,
    Excellent review of this poem which is one of my favourites by Baudelaire.
    For me, everything is in the fleetingness of the moment, the absurdity of feeling something for someone you’ve just passed by. I think Baudelaire seeks the feeling of being in love more than the love in itself. But that’s my modest opinion and I don’t have any academic background to support it.

    PS: For me, there’s something similar in Proust.

  4. Thanks – and thanks for dropping by!

    I haven’t thought of it that way before – but now that I do, I think it makes a lot of sense – the priority of the feeling of being in love over love itself. I’m not entirely sure, but I think Walter Benjamin is getting at something similar when he makes his argument about how, ultimately, it isn’t about the *person*, but the person’s role in bringing out/clarifying an aspect poet’s own consciousness (hence, the comparison to a literary device).

    I’ve heard and read so much *about* Proust – especially lately – but haven’t yet read him. I really should. Purely from secondary sources, I find the concept of the “memoire involontaire” dazzling. It does seem to be a rather large commitment, though – so hopefully, at the end of this academic year. Thanks for the heads-up – I think I’ll go over the posts on your blog for preparation.

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