Tag Archives: Baudelaire

Baudelaire and the Eliotic Shudder

In his article in The London Review of Books, Eliot and the ShudderFrank Kermode presents a fascinating account of T.S. Eliot’s aesthetics. Eliot, he says, valued a particular sensation that, in an analysis of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, he labeled “the shudder”. This shudder, according to Kermode, is about “describing the horror, or even the beauty, of a body’s response to violent stimulus. Eliot admired shock and surprise, looked for these qualities in his own verse, and judged others, as he does Tennyson, by their success in providing them.” More specifically, by the shudder Eliot (according to Kermode) refers to “experiences one would rather not have, and which are roughly antithetical to moments of ecstasy.” It “belongs to a set that includes ‘fear’ and ‘horror’ and is associated with a powerful physical response.” For Kermode, Yeats’ Leda and the Swan is an example par excellence of a shudder-inducing poem.

The idea of the “shudder” links up with what Eliot considered to be an integral part of the aesthetic experience, something that good poetry must aim at: “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations.” The newness and suddenness of the combination (recall Rimbaud saying that all poetry must be modern, and Pound saying that poetry must be new) is what, I think yields the “shudder”. In a sense, what Eliot is saying is remarkably similar to the Russian defamiliarists such as Schlosky who, in Art as Technique, writes:

And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

And:

After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it – hence, we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways.

And, on a specific passage from Tolstoy:

“The familiar act of flogging is made unfamiliar both by the description and by the proposal to change its form without changing its nature.”

Kermode himself, in his article, uses different words to describe the phenomenon. The French word “frisson“; a “hit”; “shock”; “a touch of mystery”; Poe’s “quality of surprise”; and so on.

For my part, all of these, I think, are partly true, yet incomplete. The “shudder” (and there probably is no better word for the experience in question), I would suggest, is the product of an intense – almost paradoxical – meeting of novelty and recognition. When Eliot talks about words in new combinations, I take him to mean that the words themselves are familiar, and used in a familiar context, but it is the way that they associate with each other that is novel (Eliot’s classic example, Shakespeare’s phrase “strong toil of grace” to describe Cleopatera’s seductive beauty, is an outstanding illustration – “strong toil” and “grace“). Now, the initial force of the phrase certainly, I think, stems from its novelty; but the Eliotic shudder isn’t simply novelty. After the initial shock, the hit, we recognise the new combination as expressing something important about the human condition in a way that hasn’t been expressed before, but that is nonetheless, in a sense, true. That is the stage of recognition, of matching the novel description, the novel association of ideas, thoughts, sensations, feelings (and I know that these are all different things for Eliot) with our prior experiences and beliefs, and it is at the moment when the two align that the “shudder” is completed. In a sense, the “novel” association has always been latent within us, as a way of understanding ourselves and the world, and the great poets tease it out into awareness. But what is crucial is that we do realise that it was, indeed, latent, and what the novelty does is to prompt an awakening.

To illustrate these admittedly vague generalisations, I will refer – yet again, in this blog – to the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. Previously, I’ve found Baudelaire fascinating because of his approach to the impossibility of achieving the ideal, and his ideas about the ugliness of beauty. But I feel that above all else, his poetry evokes – most brilliantly – the Eliotic “shudder”. I’ve already written about A Une PassanteLe Soleil, L’Ideal, Le Cygne, Hymn to Beauty and The Carcass, all of whom I think exhibit this quality in abundance. But here are three more examples (Aggeler translations). I will attempt no analysis of them, only say that I felt – never more strongly – the Eliotic shudder when I read them. Perhaps you will, too.

 

Spleen

I have more memories than if I’d lived a thousand years.

A heavy chest of drawers cluttered with balance-sheets, 
Processes, love-letters, verses, ballads, 
And heavy locks of hair enveloped in receipts, 
Hides fewer secrets than my gloomy brain. 
It is a pyramid, a vast burial vault 
Which contains more corpses than potter’s field.
— I am a cemetery abhorred by the moon, 
In which long worms crawl like remorse 
And constantly harass my dearest dead. 
I am an old boudoir full of withered roses, 
Where lies a whole litter of old-fashioned dresses, 
Where the plaintive pastels and the pale Bouchers, 
Alone, breathe in the fragrance from an opened phial.

Nothing is so long as those limping days, 
When under the heavy flakes of snowy years 
Ennui, the fruit of dismal apathy, 
Becomes as large as immortality. 
— Henceforth you are no more, O living matter! 
Than a block of granite surrounded by vague terrors, 
Dozing in the depths of a hazy Sahara 
An old sphinx ignored by a heedless world, 
Omitted from the map, whose savage nature 
Sings only in the rays of a setting sun.

 

The Complaints of an Icarus

The lovers of prostitutes
Are happy, healthy, and sated;
As for me, my arms are weary
Because I have embraced the clouds,

It is thanks to the peerless stars 
That flame in the depth of the sky 
That my burned out eyes see 
Only the memories of suns.

I tried in vain to find 
The middle and the end of space; 
I know not under what fiery eye 
I feel my pinions breaking;

Burned by love of the beautiful 
I shan’t have the sublime honor 
Of giving my name to the abyss 
That will serve me as a tomb.

 

The Death of Lovers

We shall have beds full of subtle perfumes, 
Divans as deep as graves, and on the shelves 
Will be strange flowers that blossomed for us 
Under more beautiful heavens.

Using their dying flames emulously, 
Our two hearts will be two immense torches 
Which will reflect their double light 
In our two souls, those twin mirrors.

Some evening made of rose and of mystical blue 
A single flash will pass between us 
Like a long sob, charged with farewells;

And later an Angel, setting the doors ajar,
Faithful and joyous, will come to revive
The tarnished mirrors, the extinguished flames.

 

And lastly – I’m cheating here, but nonetheless – this quatrain from To the Reader, which uses the well-worn image of paint on canvas in conjunction with a deeply disturbing suggestion, the two of which combine in a rather heady concoction:

If rape, poison, daggers, arson 
Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs 
The banal canvas of our pitiable lives, 
It is because our souls have not enough boldness.

 

 

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Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry

Baudelaire and the Ugliness of Beauty – An Addendum: Auden on Poetry

Earlier, I wrote about how, in the best of Baudelaire’s poems, he brings out with unrestrained clarity and starkness, through striking and brutal images, the repulsive – yet alluring – aspect of beauty and love. Today, I came across this passage by Auden:

We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play, which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable suffering; at the same time we want a poem to be true, that is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our life which will show us what life is really like and free us from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.” – “Robert Frost”, from The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. (Emphasis Supplied)

The first half of that passage would, I suppose, be the philosophy of a Keats writing La Belle Dame Sans Merci, or a Tennyson writing The Lady of Shalott, or a Walter de La Mere writing A Song of Enchantment – romanticism, essentially. The second half seems to resemble the approach of the Movement, perhaps D.J. Enwright’s Saying No, or Larkin’s Deceptions. And as I think about Auden’s passage, it seems to me that these two approaches have often been in tension, evolving as a response, and in opposition to, each other. The 19th century Romantics were reacting to the Enlightenment, to mechanisation, to industrialisation, and so they were consciously trying to create, in the words of the critic F.R. Leavis, “a dream world“; and it was against this dream world that first, the Modernists, and then the Movement, in turn, reacted (think of Ezra Pound’s A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste and Kingsley Amis’ Lovely, to take just two examples). 

And as I continued to muse over the passage, it occurred to me that perhaps one of the major reasons why Baudelaire’s poetry is so striking and impactful, and why it lingers so long in the memory, is that he does succeed in carrying out the Auden edict, to a great degree. I’ve underlined a few of the words in that passage, because I think they are most accurate. La Mort des Amants (The Death of Lovers) and La Chevelure (Of Her Hair) are two brilliant examples of how Baudelaire can build a “verbal earthly paradise“, that timeless world of pure play that contrasts with “actual historical existence… of inescapable suffering“. And for ugliness at its starkest, we of course need look no further than Une Charogne (The Carcass), and so many more.  The presence of these two types of poems in the same volume already hints at the point that Auden is making, but what is more, Baudelaire repeatedly succeeds in marrying them within the same poem. A few poems that I discussed earlier: Le Cygne (The Swan), where Baudelaire appropriates the classically romantic image of the swan to illustrate the desperate situation of the victims of colonialism (discussed here), and his series of poems on love and the ideal, in which allure and repulsion, attraction and disgust, beauty and ugliness – are all held together, mutually reinforcing each other, integral parts of both the poem and the experience (discussed here).

It is part of the point that, I think, Walter Benjamin makes in the very title of his book – “Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism“, and in the book itself, when he calls Baudelaire the last of the lyric poets, and explains how he used the lyric form, and lyric motifs, in writing about the effects of the rise of the cities as part of the rise of 19th century industrial capitalism. This perhaps explains it – Baudelaire remoulded the language, imagery and vocabulary of romanticism – without depriving it of its essence – in a way that it becameincredibly – the language of the city, of everyday life, of what Auden calls “the truth“. Lyricism, but with no dream words, and “free from self-enchantment and deception” (remember, for a moment, how obsessed Larkin was with the word “deception”, and of freeing poetry from it – see this poem, called Deceptions. Larkin’s solution was a different language altogether, while Baudelaire kept the language, because he saw himself as a lyric poet).

Le Soleil (The Sun) is, I think, one of Baudelaire’s most beautiful poems, and it illustrates the point perfectly (Aggeler translation):

The Sun

Along the old street on whose cottages are hung 
The slatted shutters which hide secret lecheries, 
When the cruel sun strikes with increased blows 
The city, the country, the roofs, and the wheat fields, 
I go alone to try my fanciful fencing, 
Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme, 
Stumbling over words as over paving stones, 
Colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.

This foster-father, enemy of chlorosis,
Makes verses bloom in the fields like roses;
He makes cares evaporate toward heaven,
And fills with honey hives and brains alike.
He rejuvenates those who go on crutches
And gives them the sweetness and gaiety of girls,
And commands crops to flourish and ripen
In those immortal hearts which ever wish to bloom!

When, like a poet, he goes down into cities, 
He ennobles the fate of the lowliest things 
And enters like a king, without servants or noise, 
All the hospitals and all the castles.

I think the great thing about this poem is how the two sets of images – and words – are intertwined so closely, so subtly, even, that it’s impossible to keep them apart in your head. “Secret lecheries” and “verses blooming in the fields like roses“; the “cruel” sun that “strikes with increased blows” – and yet “rejuvenates” those on crutches, filling them with the “sweetness and gaiety of girls” – and at the end, in the last line, “hospitals” and “castles” as the two places into which the sun goes. Baudelaire uses classic romantic vocabulary, referring to “immortal hearts” and “dreams“, and at the same time, destabilises it by also using “chlorosis” and “slated shutters“.  At the end of reading this poem, my mind, at least, was filled with a clutch of contradictory and confusing images, sensations, thoughts and ideas. The verbal earthly paradise, in the process of construction, had been subverted by the intrusion of the problematic, the painful, the disorderly and the ugly. And the key point, I think, the point that Auden does not make in the passage, but one that appears repeatedly in his own poetry – is the essentiality of not taking sides, of not driving the poem to a resolution where either one view prevails over another, or both are reconciled. This absence of reconciliation is, I feel, a key feature of Baudelaire’s poetry, something that distinguishes his treatment of contradictions from the romantics’ “sublimation of sorrow” that I discussed here. The contradictions remain unresolved, remain in tension, and yet remain integral and indispensable parts of the entire experience. And at the end of the day, we get a sense, from Baudelaire, that dissonance, disharmony, disarray… even these things can be beautiful.

This is perhaps what Auden’s vision of poetry – as it comes out through that passage – was, and perhaps what Baudelaire accomplished brilliantly.

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Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, W.H. Auden

Baudelaire, Swinburne and the Ugliness of Beauty

In a previous post, I discussed the similarities between Baudelaire’s conception of the unattainable ideal in To A Passerby, and Swinburne’s narration of the Rudel story in The Triumph of Time. Yesterday, while thumbing through my copy of Fleurs du Mal, I perceived what I think to be another affinity between the two poets: a similarly contradiction-laden view of the intertwined concepts of beauty and love.

That there do exist contradictions in the very nature of these concepts is nothing new. It has been a common theme for poets through the ages. As far back as the Greek lyric age, Anacreon wrote:

I love and yet I do not love,
I am out of my mind – and I am not out of my mind. (fr46)

Most famously, perhaps, the Roman poet Catullus:

hate and I love. Why would I do this, perhaps you ask?                                                                                                        do not know, but I realize it happens and I am tormented. (Catullus 85)

And, of course, the troubadours:

I never held it but it holds me
all the time in its bail, Love,
and makes me glad in angerfool in wisdom 
(Arnaut Daniel)

And the idea perhaps reached its apotheosis with the romantics. But what, I think, is crucial to note here is that the contradictions are, in virtually all cases, mirror images of each other (something that becomes clear on a close reading of the chiasmus in each of the lines). Furthermore, all these are examples of what Parry, in his article on Virgil, calls “the sublimation of sorrow”: that is, the so-called negative emotions that love and beauty evoke – hatred, madness, the absence of self-control, rage, foolishness – are, in a certain sense, every bit as high, pure, beautiful and noble (“sublime) as their opposites. If there is pain, then it is, in its own way, as glorious and uplifting as joy, it is, in a sense, to be as much desired as joy – and both joy and pain are two integral parts of the complete and fulfilled experience.

So far, so romantic. But the fascinating thing about Baudelaire and Swinburne is how, in their poetry, they emphatically reject this entire tradition of love-and-beauty versification, and focus upon a very different kind of contradiction. Let’s start with Baudelaire’s L’Ideal (Aggeler translation):

It will never be the beauties that vignettes show, 
Those damaged products of a good-for-nothing age,
Their feet shod with high shoes, hands holding castanets, 
Who can ever satisfy any heart like mine.

I leave to Gavarni, poet of chlorosis, 
His prattling troop of consumptive beauties, 
For I cannot find among those pale roses 
A flower that is like my red ideal. 

The real need of my heart, profound as an abyss,
Is you, Lady Macbeth, soul so potent in crime,
The dream of Aeschylus, born in the land of storms;

Or you, great Night, daughter of Michelangelo,
Who calmly contort, reclining in a strange pose
Your charms molded by the mouths of Titans.

This piece has the first hints of what later poems make explicit: namely that, in its entirety, beauty has an aspect that resists sublimation, that isn’t simply a reflection of pure virtues. “Profound as an abyss“, “soul so potent in crime“, “… contort, reclining in a strange pose…” – all these bear not only clear suggestions of an unabashedly carnal yearning, but also an essence that escapes a simple division into opposites (love and hate, foolishness and wisdom, and so on). And it is impossible, on reading this, especially the lines about Lady Macbeth and crime, to not be reminded of these lines from Swinburne’s Dolores:

Seven sorrows the priests give their Virgin;
But thy sins, which are seventy times seven,
Seven ages would fail thee to purge in,
And then they would haunt thee in heaven:
Fierce midnights and famishing morrows,
And the loves that complete and control
All the joys of the flesh, all the sorrows
                That wear out the soul.

In Baudelaire, this theme becomes even more explicit in Hymn to Beauty:

Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss
Beauty? Your gaze, divine and infernal
Pours out confusedly benevolence and crime, 
And one may for that, compare you to wine.

You contain in your eyes the sunset and the dawn; 
You scatter perfumes like a stormy night; 
Your kisses are a philtre, your mouth an amphora, 
Which make the hero weak and the child courageous.

Do you come from the stars or rise from the black pit
Destiny, bewitched, follows your skirts like a dog; 
You sow at random joy and disaster, 
And you govern all things but answer for nothing. 

You walk upon corpses which you mock, O Beauty!
Of your jewels Horror is not the least charming,
And Murder, among your dearest trinkets,
Dances amorously upon your proud belly.

The dazzled moth flies toward you, O candle!
Crepitates, flames and says: “Blessed be this flambeau!”
The panting lover bending o’er his fair one
Looks like a dying man caressing his own tomb, 

Whether you come from heaven or from hell, who cares, 
O Beauty! Huge, fearful, ingenuous monster
If your regard, your smile, your foot, open for me 
An Infinite I love but have not ever known?

From God or Satan, who cares? Angel or Siren, 
Who cares, if you make, — fay with the velvet eyes, 
Rhythm, perfume, glimmer; my one and only queen! 
The world less hideous, the minutes less leaden?

There are a number of different things at work, I think, in this poem. First, notice his use of the chiasmus, as compared to the example of the lyric poets. Some of them – “joy and disaster”, “governing all things, but answering for nothing” – would not be out of place in the latter – but the rest certainly would be. “Heaven and abyss”, “divine and infernal”, “benevolence and crime”, “stars and the black pit” – none of these, I think, are the images of romanticism – quite the contrary. They suggest, again, an aspect that is the very opposite of purity and sublimity, that is almost… repulsive. That brings me to the second point – the feeling of repulsion – although not very strong just yet – is reinforced by the words he appends to describe Beauty: “horror”, “murder” and “monster” cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be sublimated in the same way that “madness” or “foolishness” or “pain” can. And this – the third point – in turn, is reinforced by his personification of Beauty – or rather, the personification of two body parts that are decidedly anti-romanticist: the “proud belly” (upon which murder is dancing “amorously”) and the foot.

There is, again, something decidedly similar in the Swinburne’s fervent declamations in Dolores: 

Fruits fail and love dies and time ranges;
Thou art fed with perpetual breath,
And alive after infinite changes,
And fresh from the kisses of death;
Of languors rekindled and rallied,
Of barren delights and unclean,
Things monstrous and fruitless, a pallid
               And poisonous queen.

By the hunger of change and emotion,
By the thirst of unbearable things,
By despair, the twin-born of devotion,
By the pleasure that winces and stings,
The delight that consumes the desire,
The desire that outruns the delight,
By the cruelty deaf as a fire
               And blind as the night.

As for Baudelaire, the repulsion finally becomes unambiguous and express in this single line the final quatrain of I Adore you as much as the Nocturnal Vault:

I advance to attack, and I climb to assault, 
Like a swarm of maggots after a cadaver
And I cherish, implacable and cruel beast, 
Even that coldness which makes you more beautiful.

This is a truly extraordinary image. Moths and flames is part of the standard imagery of love; but who would ever describe the pursuit as a swarm of maggots chasing after a cadaver? And that is not all: Baudelaire has a complete poem that is called, unsurprisingly, The Carcass: 

My love, do you recall the object which we saw, 
That fair, sweet, summer morn!
At a turn in the path a foul carcass
On a gravel strewn bed,

Its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman, 
Burning and dripping with poisons,
Displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way 
Its belly, swollen with gases.

The sun shone down upon that putrescence, 
As if to roast it to a turn,
And to give back a hundredfold to great Nature 
The elements she had combined;

And the sky was watching that superb cadaver 
Blossom like a flower.
So frightful was the stench that you believed 
You’d faint away upon the grass.

The blow-flies were buzzing round that putrid belly,
From which came forth black battalions
Of maggots, which oozed out like a heavy liquid 
All along those living tatters.

All this was descending and rising like a wave, 
Or poured out with a crackling sound;
One would have said the body, swollen with a vague breath, 
Lived by multiplication.

And this world gave forth singular music, 
Like running water or the wind,
Or the grain that winnowers with a rhythmic motion 
Shake in their winnowing baskets.

The forms disappeared and were no more than a dream, 
A sketch that slowly falls
Upon the forgotten canvas, that the artist 
Completes from memory alone.

Crouched behind the boulders, an anxious dog 
Watched us with angry eye,
Waiting for the moment to take back from the carcass 
The morsel he had left.

— And yet you will be like this corruption,
Like this horrible infection,
Star of my eyes, sunlight of my being, 
You, my angel and my passion!

Yes! thus will you be, queen of the Graces,
After the last sacraments,
When you go beneath grass and luxuriant flowers, 
To molder among the bones of the dead.

Then, O my beauty! say to the worms who will
Devour you with kisses,
That I have kept the form and the divine essence 
Of my decomposed love!

I don’t think I need to say anything about this poem – it speaks for itself, far more eloquently than any critic ever could. The imagery is stark and brutal. Swinburne never goes quite this far, but he does have a stanza that is vaguely suggestive of the same idea, along with the use of the words “corpses” and “barren”:

For the crown of our life as it closes
Is darkness, the fruit thereof dust;
No thorns go as deep as a rose’s,
And love is more cruel than lust.
Time turns the old days to derision,
Our loves into corpses or wives;
And marriage and death and division
               Make barren our lives.

While highlighting the similarity between the two, I think it is also important to note that they come from very different places. Yes, both Swinburne and Baudelaire reject the romanticist conception of love as feeble, withered, incomplete, pale. But Swinburne’s poetry, as is especially evident from Hymn to Proserpine and The Last Oracle is full of anger against Christianity, which he believes has diluted and watered down real life to an unacceptable extent (“the pale god’s kingdom come“) through its emphasis on abnegnation, on a weak morality, on sinning and forgiveness, and so on. Dolores can also be read, perhaps best, as an attack on stifling Victorian morality (recall that the press in his day castigated Swinburne as “that libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs“), and that’s why, much of the focus of Dolores is on uncontrolled and uncontrollable passion. On the other hand, one of the points that Walter Benjamin makes in his book on Baudelaire, or at least, so I gathered, is that Baudelaire was writing lyric poetry but was also, first and foremost, a poet of the city, the city and the arcades of mid-19th century Paris. This essentially is one of the causes of the seeming tension in his work, between lyric form and style and themes, and subjects and images that are entirely alien to traditional lyric poetry (the situation is somewhat similar to Byron’s Don Juan).

Nonetheless, I love to read both Swinburne and Baudelaire for precisely this reason: they fly to where other great poets fear to tread, make prey where others dare not perch, exploring the ugly and repulsive side of love and beauty to its very depths, and coming up with a very different kind of paradox: that it is precisely that ugliness and repulsiveness that is alluring, without which the experience would be, in a sense, only partial. That a decaying and putrefying corpse can nonetheless be possessed of a strange and inexplicable enchantment of its own, a kind of horrifying fascination that can’t just be rendered sterile by simply making it, like I said before, a straightforward mirror of the straightforward pleasures and joys of love and beauty that have, by now, become almost quotidian.

And lastly, the difference between Baudelaire/Swinburne and the great romantics comes out beautifully, I think, in this instance, where Baudelaire and Keats invoke precisely the same image in radically different ways. Consider:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task… (Keats, Bright Star)

For Keats, the image of the star suggests steadfastness, loyalty, beauty, splendour, eternity. But Baudelaire, in one his poems (which I have, at the moment, shamefully forgotten) finds in that same image simply the suggestion that the star, hung up in isolation in the sky, will burn for all time in utter pointlessness. It is two great poets simply looking at the world in radically different ways, and perhaps, both philosophies have something to recommend themselves.

Fleurs du Mal: http://fleursdumal.org/1868-table-of-contents

Swinburne’s Dolores: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/swinburne/dolores.html

Keats’ Bright Star: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/bright-star/

 

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January 4, 2013 · 6:34 am

The Impossibility of the Ideal – An Addendum: Ibsen’s Love’s Comedy

Still on the topic of the impossibility of the ideal: a conversation in the comments section of the previous post reminded me of what is perhaps the most stark and vivid treatment of the concept that I’ve come across. It is Ibsen’s early play, Love’s Comedy. It would be accurate, I think, to say that Ibsen begins where Baudelaire and Rudel leave off; in Love’s Comedy, through the characters of Falk and Svanhild, he shows us precisely what would happen if Baudelaire found his city-woman again, or Rudel his Lady of Tripoli. Ibsen takes the argument right to the bitter end, does not flinch from the disturbing consequences of his own logic, and has both the dramatic skill and the human sensitivity to carry the whole thing off very convincingly.

Love’s Comedy, like all Ibsen, is primarily social commentary: set in a late-nineteenth century Norwegian country boarding-house, it deals with the subjugation of women and the stifling nature of conventions – interrelated themes, both. But what I’d like to discuss is the other theme that weaves its way around these two, that is, Ibsen’s treatment of a certain kind of love, a love that would be avowed by a Lermontov or a Byron, and which, with some discomfort, but for want of a better label, I will tentatively classify as “romantic love“. This is the love between Falk and Svanhild, that sets itself up in opposition to and in conflict with the more… conventional forms that it takes in the relationships between the other – rather more traditional – members of the country house.

A brief account of the characters: Falk is the revolutionary poet, the rebel against society, a Lermontov or a Shelley. Svanhild is the woman trapped in the stifling webs of social convention and, ostensibly, longing to escape. All the other characters – Mrs Halm, the proprietress; Stiver, the lawyer and Miss Jay, his fiancee; Guldstad, the wholesale merchant; Lind, Falk’s friend and fellow-student and his fiancee, Anna; and Strawman, the clergyman are society at its most conventional – although with their own individual twists.

The scene is set at the very opening, when Falk is reciting a poem for the gathering, a poem in which he celebrates the fleetingness of moments:

I will live in song and gladness,—
       Then, when every bloom is shed,
     Sweep together, scarce in sadness,
       All that glory, wan and dead:
     Fling the gates wide! Bruise and batter,
       Tear and trample, hoof and tusk;
     I have plucked the flower, what matter
       Who devours the withered husk!

Immediately after that, Falk claims that if he had control over the dictionary for one hour, he would expunge the word “next” from the lexicon, because we ruin our lives and we ruin our moments by thinking of what is to come next. We then learn that back in the day, when Stiver the lawyer was first in love, he wrote reams of poetry in office hours. And yet, he hasn’t written a word since he became engaged with the woman he loved. At one level, one could view this as a simple commentary on how social conventions destroy all depth of feeling. But at another level, if we look at this in light of Falk’s opening poem, there is a deeper point here: the wellspring of your inspiration that flowed freely when you were pursuing your ideal dries up utterly when you attain it. This is what Falk really means when he says that an engagement destroys love. This is the hidden truth behind his subsequent contemptuous dismissal of Strawman the clergyman:

FALK [looking after STRAWMAN who appears at the window].
 He was once so brilliant and strong;
Warred with the world to win his mistress; passed
For Custom’s doughtiest iconoclast;
And pored forth love in paeans of glad song—!
Look at him now! In solemn robes and wraps,
A two-legged drama on his own collapse!
And she, the limp-skirt slattern, with the shoes
Heel-trodden, that squeak and clatter in her traces,
This is the winged maid who was his Muse
And escort to the kingdom of the graces!
Of all that fire this puff of smoke’s the end!
Sic transit gloria amoris, friend.

Falk then comes up with the classical romanticist desire of finding a woman to be his muse, one who will inspire him to write great poetry.


Let blindness veil the sunlight from mine eyes,
I’ll chant the splendour of the sunlit skies!
Just for a season let me beg or borrow
A great, a crushing, a stupendous sorrow,
And soon you’ll hear my hymns of gladness rise!
But best, Miss Jay, to nerve my wings for flight,
Find me a maid to be my life, my light—
For that incitement long to heaven I’ve pleaded;
But hitherto, worse luck, it hasn’t heeded.

At this point, Svanhild enters, and her very first lines are redolent of tragedy:

I’ll pray that such may be your destiny.
But, when it finds you—bear it like a man.

And then, replying to Falk when he wonders whether her faith in prayer will be adequate to provide him what he has always unsuccessfully asked for: 

Wait till sorrow comes,
And all your being’s springtide chills and numbs,
Wait till it gnaws and rends you, soon and late,
Then tell me if my faith is adequate.

And there you have it. Live by romanticism and, by Lermontov, you will die by it! Falk doesn’t answer, but suddenly, there is a sense of foreboding, and a sense of the inevitable. In a sense, we know what is going to come. Falk will fall in love, he will write poetry, he will live his life like it was a poem, he will live in every moment for the moment, but he will be utterly unable to carry the logic through to its conclusion. Like Faust, he will want the moment to last as long as it can, and in wanting that, he will betray himself and his own professed ideals, and that… well, you know what that will bring.

There is another point at issue here. In his conversation with Svanhild, Falk stresses on how important she is to him, how much she means to him, as a muse.

FALK.
 Yes, free, for freedom’s all-in-all
Is absolutely to fulfil our Call.
And you by heaven were destined, I know well,
To be my bulwark against beauty’s spell.
I, like my falcon namesake, have to swing
Against the wind, if I would reach the sky!
You are the breeze I must be breasted by,
You, only you, put vigour in my wing:
Be mine, be mine, until the world shall take you,
When leaves are falling, then our paths shall part.
Sing unto me the treasures of your heart,
And for each song another song I’ll make you;
So may you pass into the lamplit glow
Of age, as forests fade without a throe. 

In my previous post, a commentator remarked about how Baudelaire doesn’t necessarily want love as much as the feeling of being in love. Something similar is at work, I think, when analyses of A une Passante indicate that to the flaneur, the city-woman serves essentially as an inspiration, or a literary device. And something similar is happening here. The ideal serves not as something we desire, but something that exists so that we can experience the feeling of desiring it, and in that feeling, either (in the case of the flaneur) find a better representation for our own consciousness or, in the case of Falk, be inspired to write great poetry.

I would love to discuss the brilliant interplay between Falk and Svanhild, but that will have to wait for another post. Suffice it here to say that Svanhild rejects him at first – and understandably so – you wouldn’t want to have your existence defined and exhausted by being someone else’s muse, would you? She exhorts him not to write but be (echoes of Kundera’s house of mirrors here); Falk then has a bitter and violent argument with the rest of the members of the household about love, marriage and convention, during the course of which his eloquence and passion is such that Svanhild falls in love with him. They resolve to march to battle against the enemies Society and Convention together. Falk has further arguments with individual members of the household. He and Svanhild determine to leave and travel elsewhere. But then in comes Guldstad, the dry, prosaic, quotidian wholesale merchant, and he asks Svanhild to marry him.

It sounds utterly absurd at first – two lovers, in all the passionate blaze of youth, who have just determined to initiate a war against all the forces of convention; and a grey-haired wholesale merchant who is as much a part of the establishment as a high-backed and cushioned armchair. Surely, if he tries to match arguments with Falk, it is going to be a complete mismatch. But then Guldstad puts forward his claim: 

GULDSTAD [completing his sentence].
That heartfelt love can weather unimpaired
Custom, and Poverty, and Age, and Grief.
Well, say it be so; possibly you’re right;
But see the matter in another light.
What love is, no man ever told us—whence
It issues, that ecstatic confidence
That one life may fulfil itself in two,—
To this no mortal ever found the clue.
But marriage is a practical concern,
As also is betrothal, my good sir—
And by experience easily we learn
That we are fitted just for her, or her.
But love, you know, goes blindly to its fate,
Chooses a woman, not a wife, for mate;
And what if now this chosen woman was
No wife for you—?

FALK [in suspense].
Well?

GULDSTAD [shrugging his shoulders].
Then you’ve lost your cause.
To make happy bridegroom and a bride
Demands not love alone, but much beside,
Relations that do not wholly disagree.
And marriage? Why, it is a very sea
Of claims and calls, of taxing and exaction,

Whose bearing upon love is very small.

In short, he makes a passionate case for safety, stability and security over “lawless passion” However, it isn’t Guldstad’s argument that is so very interesting, as is Falk and Svanhild’s response to it, once he has left, after asking them to make their choice. I quote it in full:

SVANHILD.
But if love, notwithstanding, should decay,
—Love being Happiness’s single stay—
Could you avert, then, Happiness’s fall?

FALK.
No, my love’s ruin were the wreck of all.

SVANHILD.
And can you promise me before the Lord
That it will last, not drooping like the flower,
But smell as sweet as now till life’s last hour?

FALK [after a short pause].
It will last long.

SVANHILD.
“Long!” “Long!”—Poor starveling word!
Can “long” give any comfort in Love’s need?
It is her death-doom, blight upon her seed.
“My faith is, Love will never pass away”—
That song must cease, and in its stead be heard:
“My faith is, that I loved you yesterday!”
                    [As uplifted by inspiration.
No, no, not thus our day of bliss shall wane,
Flag drearily to west in clouds and rain;—
But at high noontide, when it is most bright,
Plunge sudden, like a meteor, into the night!

FALK.
What would you, Svanhild?

SVANHILD.
We are of the Spring;
No autumn shall come after, when the bird
Of music in thy breast shall not be heard,
And long not thither where it first took wing.
Nor ever Winter shall his snowy shroud
Lay on the clay-cold body of our bliss;—
This Love of ours, ardent and glad and proud,
Pure of disease’s taint and age’s cloud,
Shall die the young and glorious thing it is!

FALK [in deep pain].
And far from thee—what would be left of life?

SVANHILD.
And near me what were left—if Love depart?

FALK.
A home?

SVANHILD.
Where Joy would gasp in mortal strife.
                                      [Firmly.
It was not given to me to be your wife.
That is the clear conviction of my heart!
In courtship’s merry pastime I can lead,
But not sustain your spirit in its need.
                [Nearer and gathering fire.
Now we have revell’d out a feast of spring;
No thought of slumber’s sluggard couch come nigh!
Let Joy amid delirious song make wing
And flock with choirs of cherubim on high.
And tho’ the vessel of our fate capsize,
One plank yet breasts the waters, strong to save;—
The fearless swimmer reaches Paradise!
Let Joy go down into his watery grave;
Our Love shall yet triumph, by God’s hand,
Be borne from out the wreckage safe to land!

FALK.
O, I divine thee! But—to sever thus!
Now, when the portals of the world stand wide,—
When the blue spring is bending over us,
On the same day that plighted thee my bride!

SVANHILD.
Just therefore must we part. Our joy’s torch fire
Will from this moment wane till it expire!
And when at last our worldly days are spent,
And face to face with our great Judge we stand,
And, as righteous God, he shall demand
Of us the earthly treasure that he lent—
Then, Falk, we cry—past power of Grace to save—
“O Lord, we lost it going to the grave!”

FALK [with strong resolve].
Pluck off the ring!

SVANHILD [with fire].
Wilt thou?

FALK.
Now I divine!
Thus and no otherwise canst thou be mine!
As the grave opens into life’s Dawn-fire,
So Love with Life may not espoused be
Till, loosed from longing and from wild desire,
Pluck off the ring, Svanhild!

SVANHILD [in rapture].
My task is done!
Now I have filled thy soul with song and sun.
Forth! Now thou soarest on triumphant wings,—
Forth! Now thy Svanhild is the swan that sings!

[Takes off the ring and presses a kiss upon it.
To the abysmal ooze of ocean bed
Descend, my dream!—I fling thee in its stead!

    [Goes a few steps back, throws the ring into the
      fjord, and approaches FALK with a transfigured
      expression.

Now for this earthly life I have foregone thee,—
But for the life eternal I have won thee!

The underlined verses present, I think, the core thought. Paradoxically, it is only in parting that Falk and Svanhild’s love can survive. It is in the nature of the human condition for everything – including love – to decay, to fade, and eventually, to die with use; and so, there is but one solution to keep it alive: the lovers must deny themselves attainment and fulfillment. Baudelaire has found his city-woman again, but he can’t love her – his delirium, his vision of tempests, his resurrection – these can only ever happen if he sees her once, for a fleeting moment, in a crowd. And so, the second time, Baudelaire walks away. Rudel has come at last to the Lady of Tripoli, but how can he sustain his amor de lonh, and have the birds of autumn remind him of his faraway love, when she is right there in front of him, to touch, to grasp, to know? And so, Rudel must depart – whether or not it is to his death. That single, intense, divine passion that has characterised and defined one’s being must, at its very apotheosis, be rejected if it is not to be utterly destroyed.

Is it a happy conclusion? Anything but. We can sense the helpless, suppressed, thwarted anger bubbling within Falk as he bids his farewells to the company:

Forgive me my offences great and small, I resent nothing;— [Softly. but remember all.

And we can sense, only too vividly, the hopeless despair of Svanhild when, having accepted Guldstad’s proposal, and on seeing Falk depart, she says:

SVANHILD [Looks after him a moment, then says softly but firmly:
Now over is my life, by lea and lawn,
The leaves are falling;—now the world may take me.

And the last lines of the play:

CHORUS OF FALK AND THE STUDENTS.

And what if I shattered my roaming bark,
It was passing sweet to be roaming!

We leave – or at least, I left – Love’s Comedy with a distinct of sadness, at the inescapability of the paradox, the inevitability of the logic. It is as if Ibsen is saying, this is the game, and if you decide to play it, this is the only possible end. So choose – either play it and be a Falk or a Svanhild, or opt out, and be a Guldstad. 

It seems, in its original and classic sense, a Catch-22.

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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 http://www.thelemming.com/lemming/dissertation-web/home/a-une-passante.html)

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): http://www.trobar.org/troubadours/jaufre_rudel/ (the musical world of the troubadours is endlessly fascinating – I couldn’t recommend it highly enough)

Browning’s Rudel to the Lady of Tripoli: http://www.online-literature.com/robert-browning/men-and-women/9/

Swinburne’s The Triumph of Time: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174574 (a brilliant poem independent of all else)

Baudelaire’s poetry: http://fleursdumal.org/1868-table-of-contents

A few things Walter Benjamin: http://www.thelemming.com/lemming/dissertation-web/articles/articles-nav.html

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

Some lines from Baudelaire

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.

 

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