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  • Rereading Baudelaire’s “Le Cygne”
  • Massimo Verdicchio (bio)

Baudelaire’s “Le Cygne” (1861) stands out among the other poems of Les Fleurs du mal not only for the number of studies that have been devoted to it by the best critical minds writing on poetry today,1 but also for certain characteristics of the poem that render it unique. According to F. W. Leakey, “Baudelaire’s unusual achievement and innovation in “Le Cygne” is … to have made a poem simply by setting down the thoughts that freely came into his mind at the actual moment of composition.” (38) Leakey links Baudelaire’s thoughts to the letter he wrote to Victor Hugo on December 7, 1859 that accompanied a manuscript copy of the poem. The dedication not only provided the basic structure of the poem but also its basic theme:

Voici des vers faits pour vous et en pensant à vous. … Ce qui est important pour moi, c’était de dire vite tout ce qu’un accident, une image, peut contenir de suggestions, et comment la vue d’un animal souffrant pousse l’esprit vers tout les êtres que nous aimons, qui sont absents et qui souffrent, vers tous ceux qui sont privés de quelque chose d’irretrouvable.

(622)2

This is the theme of exile and compassion that the poet feels for Andromache, the swan, the “négresse,” himself, the orphans, the sailors as well as the people who are either captive or vanquished and who give the poem its focus as well as its “universality.” (49, Leakey’s emphasis) According to Leakey, this is the way the poet’s thoughts speak to us, of “our problems: … about Vietnam, Biafra, Ulster, Bangladesh—about any time or place where there are orphans, exiles, [End Page 879] captives, vanquished.” (49, his emphasis) Leakey’s analysis is a good example of how “Le Cygne” has been read to date, as a poem of exile and human suffering that moves from the ancient past (Andromaque, the swan) to the present (la négresse) before reaching out to the universal, “à bien d’autres encore!”

When we approach the poem without these received ideas other ways of reading present themselves. For instance, the initial allusion to Andromache (“Andromache, je pense à vous”), besides being an allusion to her suffering and mourning, can also refer to the exiled Trojans who have built a replica of the city of Troy in exile, as Virgil narrates in the Aeneid. Aeneas, on his way to Latium, stops at the hilltop town of Buthrotum where Helenus, the son of Priam has settled with Andromache, now his wife. It is here that Aeneas first sees Andromache grieving her dead husband Hector over a replica of his tomb and the river Simois:

I chanced to see Andromache pouring out libationsto the dead—the ritual foods, the gifts of grief—in a grove before the city, banked by a streamthe exiles made believe was Simois River. Just nowtipping wine to her husband’s ashes, she imploredHector’s shade to visit his tomb, an empty moundof grassy earth, crowned with the double altarsshe had blessed a place to shed her tears.

(3: 359-66, my emphasis)

In Buthrotum, the exiled Trojans have rebuilt another Troy in imitation of their destroyed city:

And as I walk, I recognize a little Troy,a miniature, mimicking our great Trojan towers,and a dried-up brook they call the river Xanthus,and I put my arms around a cut down Scaean Gate.

(3: 414-17, italics mine)

As the poet crosses the bridge of the new Carrousel, “Comme je traversais le nouveau Carrousel” and sees only destruction around him, the thought of Andromache stimulates his imagination, “A fécondé soudain ma mémoire fertile” with the possibility of reconstructing the old Paris that has been demolished to make way for a new city. The examples of Andromache and of the exiled Trojans serve Baudelaire as a literary model to imitate. If Virgil can tell of the exiled Trojans building a new Troy to replace their lost Troy, the poet who feels equally an exile in his own city can create the fiction of a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6598
Print ISSN
0026-7910
Pages
pp. 879-897
Launched on MUSE
2016-02-25
Open Access
No
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