Baudelaire wrote ‘The Swan’ in 1861. Between 1855 and 1870, Paris was experiencing the demolition of its old suburbs, this due to a huge public works program commissioned by Napoleon III and actuated under the direction of Haussmann. Paris was changing on an aesthetic and social level: indeed, its new public spaces brought together different social classes thanks to an increased consumerism. In this context, Baudelaire stood as a transient figure between past and present, without feeling of belonging to either of these realities. Consequently, the detachment felt from his surrounding increased the flâneur’s sense of melancholia: indeed, Baudelaire was a dual personage who both hated and loved his city, without being able to free himself from its influence. This malaise of living is conveyed in ‘The Swan’ by themes of alienation, lost beauty, despondency and memory.
Significantly, Baudelaire opens the poem with the figure of Andromache, a woman who saw the destruction of her native city by Greeks. The poet employs her image to convey his spiritual pain: similarly to her, he suffered by seeing Paris ruined and transformed after the idea of progress. Moreover, both function as transient figures living between different historical worlds, this fact rendering them suspended between memory and reality. Interestingly, the poet’s association of himself with Andromache is caused by his looking into a river, this described as a ‘deceptive Simois’ growing by the tears of the widow; the river functions as a ‘mirror’ reflecting both the ‘widow’s grief’ and Baudelaire’s memories of Paris, the lasts increasing the subject’s melancholia due to a sense of loss in this always evolving environment.
Nonetheless, if Paris constantly grows, the poet’s heart remains unchanged, as Andromache in her sufferings. Although Baudelaire tries to mingle himself with modernity, his soul refuses this system of masses’ categorization, maintaining himself into a position of exclusion that renders him more bound to the past than the present. For instance, his refuse for modernity is seen in his use of the word ‘Labor’ in order to describe the multitude of working men: indeed, by substituting the producer with its product, Baudelaire early denounces this form of human alienation given by modern production. On the contrary, the poetic flâneur represents the last survivor of a lost generation: indeed, while the mass runs through the streets as a ‘dark storm’, the poet spends time to reflect on the ruins of the city, trying to find in them – as in himself – a resistance against the menacing force of time. Therefore, memories become a refuge for the melancholic subject, as well as the only possibility to conserve the past.
In this context, the poet’s reflectivity renders him excluded from others. This melancholic despondency is especially conveyed by the image of the swan. The latter is presented as walking on the city’s ‘dry pavement’, this inadequate for its ‘webby feet’; moreover, it is ‘escaped from its cage’, likely in the attempt to return to its ‘native lake’. In the Parisian streets, the swan is decontextualized from its origins and features, looking clumsy, dirty and dusty, thus losing its original beauty. The latter is rather transferred from the animal’s appearance to its interior feelings, these located into the animal’s plumage: indeed, this is dragged ‘over the level ground’, similarly to the discouraged poet’s soul wandering in the city’s streets. Consequently, it is the world that dominates the swan, making of it just a ‘wretched bird’.
Clearly, the swan becomes an allegory for the poet’s self among the crowd: indeed, he cannot find integration in modern society, this refusing individuality in praise of categorization. In this context, both the swan and the poet becomes a ‘strange and fatal myth’ irreversibly lost. Moreover, both feel the cruelty of time as a swallowing and irresistible force. Evidently, there is much more in the swan’s blasphemous ‘reproaches to God’ than a request for a never coming rain: indeed, its turning ‘towards the sky’ could be representative for a sense of impotence towards reality, this accepted only for pliability. Moreover, this bird longing for water is explicative of a desire for an immersion into the realms of thought; the lake in itself is a symbol of stillness, suggesting a possible poet’s yearning for death to reach the infinite, this reminding of water’s depths. In this context, melancholia seems to lead to self-destruction, this seen as a form of liberation from a world impossible to comprehend: indeed, Baudelaire’s use of words suggests an unconscious refusal of his present, by finding refuge in poetry and in places that no longer exist except than in his own memory and imagination.
Not only is the swan explicative of the poet’s soul: indeed, the flâneur can find allegories in many of his surrounding realities, discovering lyricism in the majesty and misery of progress. The melancholic detachment that the poet feels in his own relation to the world is transformed into an ‘unrelenting desire’ that Baudelaire employs in the creation of lyrical verses; moreover, this unadaptability renders him ‘ridiculous and sublime’ among his peers, like the swan in the streets. The poet’s only consolation is that of believing his sentiment to be shared by ‘many others’. For instance, as he compares Andromache and himself to ‘degraded animal[s]’, he also discovers a similar sentiment of inadequacy into a Negress’ eyes, this removed from Africa and constrained to live ‘behind the huge wall of fog’ of Paris.
Baudelaire also speaks of ‘orphans’, ‘sailors’, ‘prisoners’ and ‘conquered men’. The firsts could symbolize his feeling of being a disinherit child of a past history. Secondly, the ‘forgotten’ sailors ‘on an island’ could represent the poet’s consequent isolation in pursuing a life which aim to conquer the vast ocean of thought, this in contrast with the masses’ carelessness about thinking. Thirdly, the ‘conquered men’ and the ‘prisoners’ might represent both the poet and the crowd, either engaged in defeating forces superior to themselves. Significantly, the poem’s final, although apparently including multiple people, is inconclusive and ambiguous, relegating the poem to a private sphere which is not negotiable, this solution in contrast with modern consumerism. Indeed, by this perspective, melancholia becomes a form of individual resistance against a sentimental categorization, this probably perceived by Baudelaire while walking among the arcades and huge store departments that invaded his old Paris.
Here you can find an accurate version and translation of Baudelaire’s poetic collection ‘Flowers of Evil’ .
To Victor Hugo
“Andromache, I think of you! — That little stream,
That mirror, poor and sad, which glittered long ago
With the vast majesty of your widow’s grieving,
That false Simois swollen by your tears,
Suddenly made fruitful my teeming memory,
As I walked across the new Carrousel.
— Old Paris is no more (the form of a city
Changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart);
I see only in memory that camp of stalls,
Those piles of shafts, of rough hewn cornices, the grass,
The huge stone blocks stained green in puddles of water,
And in the windows shine the jumbled bric-a-brac.
Once a menagerie was set up there;
There, one morning, at the hour when Labor awakens,
Beneath the clear, cold sky when the dismal hubbub
Of street-cleaners and scavengers breaks the silence,
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,
Toward the sky at times, like the man in Ovid,
Toward the ironic, cruelly blue sky,
Stretch his avid head upon his quivering neck,
As if he were reproaching God!
Paris changes! but naught in my melancholy
Has stirred! New palaces, scaffolding, blocks of stone,
Old quarters, all become for me an allegory,
And my dear memories are heavier than rocks.
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!
Thus in the dim forest to which my soul withdraws,
An ancient memory sounds loud the hunting horn!
I think of the sailors forgotten on some isle,
— Of the captives, of the vanquished!…of many others too!”