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  • Five Poems
  • Charles Baudelaire
    Translated and with an introduction by Ryan Wilson

For every reader, there are, I suppose, images that take on a totemic quality. These images seem somehow radiant and obscure: their brilliance catches the mind's eye, and yet the depths of their significances seem unsoundable. We apprehend them without comprehending them. Our desire to see them fully leads us to look at them again and again, to linger over them, to contemplate them. Paradoxically, the more we come to understand them, the more mysterious these images may appear to us. As we approach their significances, they recede, in a kind of labyrinthine semantic dance. And so again we turn to the stanza or poem, the story or the page in the novel. (Or, mutatis mutandis, to the memory, the photograph, the painting, the sculpture, etc.) While the theorists and theories may have a great many interesting and even illuminating things to say about such matters and are certainly worth consideration, after reading them one rarely, if ever, feels they've quite explained away the mystery. So, we return once more to the words on the page.

For me, one of the strongest appeals of Charles Baudelaire's poetry is the great number of such images that I find within it. For instance, for more than a dozen years I've been returning to the following stanza from Baudelaire's poem, "Brumes et pluies."

Dans cette grande plaine où l'autan froid se joue,Où par les longues nuits la girouette s'enroue,Mon âme mieux qu'au temps du tiède renouveauOuvrira largement ses ailes de corbeau. [End Page 6]

(In this great plain where the cold south wind plays,Where through the long nights the weathervane makes itself hoarse,My soul, better than in seasons of lukewarm renewal,Will open wide its raven's wings.)

On a technical level, the arrangement of the stanza is masterful. In the first two lines, we find a rhetorical caesura exactly where it should be in the classic Alexandrine: in the medial position, immediately after the sixth syllable. However, in the third line, we find a rhetorical caesura after "âme," and the remaining syllables constitute a kind of parenthetic expression. Moreover, the hyperbaton between "âme" and its verb, "ouvrira," leads us, upon reaching the final line, to hurry through it with only a minimal pause after "largement": that is, rhythmically, the last line seems to expand like the wings it describes opening. (A similar rhythmic effect may be found in Shakespeare 29, line 11.) Moreover, we might note that, in terms of pitch, the abundance of long o and oo sounds dominate the stanza; however, the mouth opens with "largement" and the pitch then rises on "ailes" ("wings")—the pitch rising up like the crow itself, which is the speaker's soul, taking flight. Finally, we should note that "corbeau" here may be either "crow" or "raven" (both of which, ultimately, derive from onomatopoetic etymons) but likely points at the "raven," as Baudelaire's greatest influence was Edgar Allan Poe. Nonetheless, a kind of onomatopoeia means that the stanza resolves, if we listen closely, with the cawing of the crow or raven as it ascends.

This is, in terms of the making or craft, first-rate poetry. One sees how Baudelaire's admirer Verlaine, in his "Art poétique," might have come to the conclusion, "De la musique avant toute chose" ("Music ahead of everything"). But I have yet to mention what appeals to me most strongly in this stanza. First, there is the line, "Où par les longues nuits la girouette s'enroue." We find ourselves on this wide plain where the cold south wind plays, and in the cold wind's bitter game the weathervane is spun around so violently it begins to creak, [End Page 7] to rasp. Baudelaire shows us no house, no town, no village. Through the synecdoche of the "girouette," we must infer the house that stands all alone on this great plain. Moreover, all we hear is the wind and the weathervane creaking. Where are the people? We do not know. It is a landscape stripped to the elemental except for...