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Comparative Literature Studies 39.1 (2002) 1-17

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Stalled Flight:
Horatian Remains in Baudelaire's "Le Cygne"

Katherine Elkins

Dedicated to Victor Hugo and opening with thoughts of Virgil's Andromache, Baudelaire's "Le Cygne" 1 situates poetic memory within a world of multiple influences. At first glance, the poem seems to follow a well-worn structure. It opens with the traditional nod to precursors--remembrances of both Hugo and Virgil--before progressing to the speaker's own personal memory of a past event--the remembrance of seeing a swan in the heart of Paris. 2 And yet, the significance of the swan continues to puzzle critics. Perhaps the most interesting question surrounding the poem remains that posed by Richard Terdiman: "What's the swan doing in Baudelaire's 'Le Cygne'?" 3 Despite numerous hypotheses, critics have overlooked the possibility that even this most personal memory is the glimpse of yet another precursor: Horace's swan from Ode 2.20. In fact, comparison of the two poems yields more than just the revelation of another literary precursor disguised as a material and personal memory: in Horace's poem, the metaphor of the swan guarantees the future immortality of the poet, an immortality that renders lamentations or mourning unnecessary. But the swan reappears as an allegory in Baudelaire, an allegory in which the swan represents the truth of time's passage and the poet's eventual mortality. For Baudelaire, the swan no longer guarantees the pure presence of the lyric voice, as it does in Horace. Rather, it reveals the ghostly memories of other poets, memories that show up as fragments of the speaker's own past. 4 The lyrical voice no longer preempts mourning but calls upon grief's very necessity by revealing, at its very core, the mortal remains of another.

In Horace's Ode 2.20, the poet writes of his own immortality by literalizing the classical metaphor of the poet as swan. Even among Horace [End Page 1] scholars this ode does not receive as much attention as it should, because it is often seen as displaying a certain "vulgarity" and "offensive realism" atypical of Horace. 5 I therefore cite the poem in its entirety:

Non usitata nec tenui ferar
penna biformis per liquidum aethera
vates neque in terris morabor
longius invidiaque maior

urbes relinquam. Non ego, pauperum
sanguis parentum, non ego, quem vocas
dilecte Maecenas, obibo
nec Stygia cohibebor unda:

iam iam residunt cruribus asperae
pelles et album mutor in alitem
superne nascunturque leves
per digitos umerosque plumae.

Iam Daedaleo notior Icaro
visam gementis litora Bosphori
Syrtisque Gaetulas canorus
ales Hyperboreosque campos;

me Colchus et, qui dissimulat metum
Marsae cohortis Dacus et ultimi
noscent Geloni, me peritus
discet Hiber Rhodanique potor.

Absint inani funere neniae
luctusque turpes et querimoniae;
conpesce clamorem ac sepulcri
mitte supervacuos honores.

[On no common or feeble wings
shall I fly in double form through the liquid air,
a poet still, nor remain on earth any longer,
but overcoming envy

I shall leave the towns behind. Not I,
the son of poor parents, not I, invited friend of [End Page 2]
beloved Maecenas, shall die,
or be imprisoned by the waters of the Styx.

Even now the wrinkled skin is gathering
on my ankles, and above I am changing into a white swan,
and over my fingers and shoulders
delicate feathers sprout.

Soon, a singing swan, and more renowned than Icarus,
born of Daedalus, I shall visit
the shores of the moaning Bosphorus, I shall visit
Roman Africa and the plains of the Arctic.

The Colchian shall come to know me, and the Dacian,
who conceals his dread of our Marsian cohorts,
and the far Geloni; by reading me the Spaniard
shall become learned, as well as the Rhone-drinkers.

Let dirges be absent from a pointless funeral,
and displays of grief
and lamentation. Restrain your cries
and spare my tomb these empty tributes.] 6

Like Virgil's poetic prophecy that, through the Aeneid, promises the presence of a great city, the speaker relies on a memory that will make him present...


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