Baudelaire’s Parisian Scenes

By Daniel Finch-Race, March 13, 2018

Étienne Carjat's Portrait of Charles Baudelaire - circa 1862

Étienne Carjat’s Portrait of Charles Baudelaire – circa 1862

Charles Baudelaire's poetic masterpiece, Les Fleurs du mal, underwent extensive reworking between 1857 and 1868, as did the French capital in which he was writing. Daniel Finch-Race explores the ecopoetic implications of such upheaval in 'Le cygne', a poem torn between antiquity and modernity.

‘Le cygne’ is the eighty-ninth poem in Les Fleurs du mal and the fourth piece in the ‘Tableaux parisiens’ series, created for the second edition of the work in 1861. The bipartite piece is the only poem of the section to feature a titular non-human protagonist, and is the first of three sequential poems addressed to Victor Hugo in exile. The first part focusses on the narrator’s regret at the destruction of the quartier du Doyenné to make way for the Carrousel, while the second envisages the challenge of finding bearings in the ‘new world’ of industrialised Paris. The eponymous swan, like the narrator, is perturbed by the topographic changes in the cityscape, evoking a sense of disconnection from its surroundings as an exile from its natural home (a feeling further underscored by the invocation of Andromache and a host of other displaced human figures as the piece progresses). The non-human protagonist has its transcendent appeal tarnished, moreover, by the dirty reality of the modern cityscape, and is tormented by memories of its extra-urban existence, in turn highlighting the melancholic unease of the narrator in his sophisticated environment: he does not wish to forget the previous incarnation of Paris (free from the trappings of industrialisation), wherein he felt more at ease. Permanence is lexically and thematically juxtaposed against transformation, making this a piece of transition not just from the old form of the metropolis to a new one, but also from one style of poetry (verse) to another (prose).

The work of the ‘demolition-artist’ Haussmann occupies most of the first part of ‘Le cygne’, in a sketch of chaotic modernisation from the narrator’s memory, throughout which the traditional incarnation of the alexandrine line is often subverted. Divergence from established poetic models (especially from the classical precepts of Victor Hugo) is evident in both Baudelaire’s irregular versification and the presentation of the narrator as a wandering exile. The debris of progress disquiets him: ‘Ces tas de chapiteaux ébauchés et de fûts’ (10). His unease at the memory of abandoned, fragmented building materials is emphasised by the rich rhyme between ‘fûts’ (10) and ‘confus’ (12), compounding the sensation of haphazard disposal. An acute sensation of metropolitan displacement is reinforced, moreover, by the contrast of old and new at the beginning of the second part: ‘palais neufs, échafaudages, blocs,/Vieux faubourgs’ (30-31). The impression of chaotic urbanity is embodied in the disconcerting versification, as well as in the imposing presence of construction work, since the pentasyllabic noun (‘échafaudages’ (30)) blights the line in the same way as its physical incarnation would have affected the Parisian skyline.

Ecological issues relating to urbanisation are particularly foregrounded in the second quatrain, wherein the relationship between the body of the narrator and the cityscape is rendered particularly striking:

Ce Simoïs menteur qui par vos pleurs grandit,

A fécondé soudain ma mémoire fertile,
Comme je traversais le nouveau Carrousel.
Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville
Change plus vite, hélas! que le cœur d’un mortel). (4-8)

The sensation of the narrator’s faculties being rendered suddenly ebullient as he traverses the area near the Carrousel is reflected in the irregular versification, such that the exclamation of the seventh line, wherein it is claimed that old Paris no longer exists, could be interpreted as also applying to outmoded prosodic conventions. The rhyming associations of the stanza, moreover, are particularly loaded: the pairing not only of ‘fertile’ (5) and ‘ville’ (7), but also of ‘Carrousel’ (6) and ‘mortel’ (8), evokes the trappings of urbanisation, suggesting the unsustainable proliferation of the cityscape and the merry-go-round ambitions of humanity. Such implications are pursued in the fourth quatrain, in which the diminishment of nature is pointedly foregrounded by the rhyme between ‘cieux’ (14) and ‘silencieux’ (16) because the visual suggestion of a rich rhyme is shown to be fallacious when syllables are counted. The hopelessness of the silent skies, from which the possibility of revivifying communion with the nature is absent, is thus augmented.

How does urbanisation affect dwellers in the cityscape? The narrator channels experiential knowledge through the actions and singular utterance of his exceptional non-human protagonist. The balance of syllables around the caesura in the twenty-third line brings harmony to the quasi-chiasmatic phrase, adding to the potent pathos in the swan’s address, arising from the intimate apostrophe of water and thunder, implying complicity between the animal and the elements: ‘”Eau, quand donc pleuvras-tu? quand tonneras-tu, foudre?”‘ (23). The swan’s employment of human language can be interpreted in two ways: first, the creature is a pawn in the anthropomorphic belittlement of non-human entities, since it must use language intelligible by humans to incite sympathy; second, the organism is allomorphic, connected to nature and superior to mankind. The latter hypothesis is more satisfactory, given that the use of symbolic language represents a rebellion against Cartesian notions of animal inferiority (arising from anthropocentric perceptions of unsophisticated non-human thought and communication), thereby allowing the swan to achieve plenitude in the eyes of its human persecutors. This startling insight is compounded by the suspenseful appearance of the swan: the target of the first-person verb in the fourteenth line is withheld for three lines, such that the position of the object directly after the stanzaic break makes the appearance of the bird in the seventeenth line particularly striking. Despite the swan having escaped from the first stage of urban captivity (as an objectified spectacle in menageries and circuses), any notion of communion between humanity and nature is nevertheless devalued by the disquieting ecological symbolism of the twenty-second line: ‘le cœur plein de son beau lac natal’ (22). Both the swan’s loss and the unease of its movement through the city, tarnishing its impeccable plumage in the dirt, are underscored through a rebuke of the sky for having forsaken it:

Vers le ciel quelquefois, comme l’homme d’Ovide,
Vers le ciel ironique et cruellement bleu
Sur son cou convulsif tendant sa tête avide
Comme s’il adressait des reproches à Dieu! (25-28)

The trisyllabic anaphora at the beginning of the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth lines emphasises the ‘cruelty’ of the sky at the conclusion of the first part, complementing the sensation of ecological balance having been upset, also evoked by the rhyming similarity of ‘silencieux’ (16) and ‘Dieu’ (28). The swan inaugurates a ‘strange and fatal’ mythology, whereby Ovid’s Metamorphoses are urbanised into tales of souls dispossessed in their own cities.

The rhyme between ‘blocs’ (30) and ‘rocs’ (32) in the eighth quatrain further augments the contrast of the human/non-human dialectic by juxtaposing the natural state of the stones against their sophisticated incarnations after the work of sculptors. The ninth stanza, moreover, recalls the remarkable impact of the swan, as well as the folly of societal faith in the positivity of progress: the rhyme between ‘fous’ (34) and ‘vous’ (36) could be taken as an apostrophe to human beings in the throes of urbanisation, in an attempt to recall them from the headiness of relentless ambition. As a corollary of this implied admonition, the unbridled ferality of dislocated beings is focalised in the latter stages of the part through the enumeration of assorted exiles: Andromache (the archetypal displaced princess of antiquity), reduced to ‘Vil bétail’ (38); the African female, ‘amaigrie et phtisique’ (41); moribund orphans; the narrator’s own ‘esprit’ (49); ‘matelots’ (51); ‘captifs’ (52); ‘vaincus’ (52)… The list of lost figures augments the aforementioned sense of displacement, given that those listed are emblematic of estranged dwellers in a city that they no longer recognise. The eleventh stanza particularly emphasises, in fact, the key topos of environmental degradation as a backdrop to a search for identifiable landmarks: both the forty-second and forty-third lines foreground the sensation of the terrain (and verse conventions) being trampled, as well as the dearth of natural elements in the cityscape, leading to a sense of environmental degradation, especially since the adjective of lack (‘absents’ (43)) is emphasised by the plosive echoes in /b/: ‘boue’ (42); ‘superbe’ (43); ‘brouillard’ (44). A sense of aridity due to the environmental upset of industrialisation is, indeed, perfectly depicted at the end of the thirteenth quatrain:

à ceux qui s’abreuvent de pleurs
Et tètent la Douleur comme une bonne louve!
Aux maigres orphelins séchant comme des fleurs! (46-48)

This evocation of dispossession and ecological depletion allegorises the quasi-desertification of the setting, particularly given that the hope of revivifying inspiration, of invoking the epic world and its ‘heroic’ poesis in a redemptive gesture, is but a distant echo in the ‘forest’ of memory. Is the final suggestion, therefore, that Paris has become a desert of exiles, grinding to a halt because of a lack of environmental sensitivity? At the close of the piece, the narrator finds himself on the overtly allegorical bank of a dry stream, vainly awaiting rain in a post-industrialisation wasteland.

It is hardly surprising, ultimately, that both the human and non-human protagonists of this key work in the ‘Tableaux parisiens’ are perturbed by their surroundings, considering the hotchpotch of building work and demolition in which they are immersed. The signs of fragmentation and abandonment, especially of old traditions and landmarks, evoke the ‘ordered chaos’ of Haussmannisation: the haphazardness of the cityscape is particularly stark in ‘Le cygne’, infusing Paris with a feeling of chaotic confluence for both human and non-human presences, especially in regard to the stream-of-consciousness presentation. The rapid enumeration of situations and figures at the close of the piece augments, in fact, the sensation of different worlds and entities bustling together at breakneck pace through the cityscape. Foreshadowing his virtuoso prose musings in Le Spleen de Paris, Baudelaire pushes the limits of poetic convention in Les Fleurs du mal to highlight the overly accelerated existence of the inhabitants of the nineteenth-century French capital.


Daniel Finch-Race is a Research Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge. His chief interest is in nineteenth-century French ecopoetics, with particular focus on Baudelaire’s later verse poetry.


French text (1868) with English translations:


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