As if a) writing a blog, and b) writing about poetry FOR FUN wasn’t bad enough, today I present to you: c) me writing on my blog about a poem in French. Really, I get it if you just want to exile me to the special jail to which all pretentious Francophiles (indeed all people who would describe themselves as ‘francophiles’) should be deported.
Disclaimer over, I am happy to copy here one of my favourite poems:
Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.
À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.
Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!
Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.
— Charles Baudelaire
Often, to amuse themselves, the men of a crew
Catch albatrosses, those vast sea birds
That indolently follow a ship
As it glides over the deep, briny sea.
Scarcely have they placed them on the deck
Than these kings of the sky, clumsy, ashamed,
Pathetically let their great white wings
Drag beside them like oars.
That winged voyager, how weak and gauche he is,
So beautiful before, now comic and ugly!
One man worries his beak with a stubby clay pipe;
Another limps, mimics the cripple who once flew!
The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky
Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman;
When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jeers,
His giant wings prevent him from walking.
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
Note: I didn’t attempt a translation on this, largely because I worry i’d get altitude sickness sitting quite so far up in the Heavens of Smugness.
The first stanza makes reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which describes the mariner shooting an albatross. The albatross otherwise symbolises good luck, but its shooting means the journey will be cursed. After this, the mariner is forced to wear the bird around his neck, as penance for his act. This means the bird becomes an image of psychological – even a religious – burden. (‘Instead of the cross, the Albatross/ About my neck was hung.’)
The verb ‘suivent’ and adjective ‘indolent’ show how the bird is passive, even controlled in some uncertain way by the ship. In French, the syntax emphasises the bird’s submission to the ship’s path, by using a subordinate clause (‘qui suivent/ le navire glissant’).
As the narrative continues in the second stanza, the sailors remain in control of the birds, as they place them on the boards of the deck: ‘À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches’; meanwhile, the birds simply appear embarrassed, a description that stands in weird contrast to their being ‘ces rois de l’azur’ – a title that would surely provoke jealousy in any seafarer. They are described not as birds, but as possessing human emotions (‘maladroits et honteux’) and in terms of nautical imagery : they drop their wings ‘comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux’. So passive are they, they have lost all sense of personality, rather taking on the characteristics of their surroundings (the boat and the sailors).
The poet uses the third stanza to emphasise their humiliation: where they once where proud, now they have been degraded, to be mocked and hurt by the sailors. Here, Baudelaire uses the emphatic structure ‘qu’il est comique et laid!’ perhaps to produce a sense of the exclamatory ribbing carried out by the sailors. By rhyming ‘laid’ and ‘volait’ he heightens the birds’ loss of status.
A volta in the final stanza brings to reader to read the poem on a more symbolic level: the bird, the narrator explains, is like a poet: although he soars high, he is mocked in ordinary society, and finds himself unable to elevate himself above the ‘milieu des huées’. What I like most about this comparison is the line ‘Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer’: Baudelaire does not depict the poet as superior to the sailors, but as a figure who makes fun of them just as readily as they do of the injured albatross: the poet also tempts danger by flying in the storm – an image which might bring the dangers of Icarus’ flight to mind. By soaring so high and living a life of intensity, the poet makes himself both a visible target to others, and vulnerable to external dangers (‘la tempête’).
It is not a poem of condemnation. Both the albatross (the poet) and the sailors (ordinary people) have command over nature – the sea and the sky – and both are as bad as each other in mocking what is unknown to them.
We see how the albatross, so powerful in its element (the sky / poetic nature) is grounded once on Earth, and this is a useful thought; different personalities flourish in different environments, finding flight in one, and prison in the other.
Although I have identified the sailors as representing a kind of ordinary, insensitive citizen, here, it is also worth noting that the setting of this poem takes us out of the recognisable landscape of suburbs, towns and shops: by placing the tale in the vastness of the ocean, Baudelaire creates a sense of infinity, in the endless ebb and flow of the sea, the sky which stretches beyond human comprehension. So far removed from our familiar surroundings, this description of the poet’s humiliation too is beyond our quotidien lives, just as the furthest reaches of sea and sky are beyond our human reach – accessible only by the bravery of those sailors who navigate their way.
They, too, are out of their depth: even as they seem to exert control over their environment, ‘Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers’, they cannot achieve the titles of ‘ces rois de l’azur’, or the ‘prince des nuées’. There is not a clear balance of power, but rather a gulf of miscomprehension that exists between two groups of equalish, but very different dominions.