These are fragmentary notes and commentary on some poems from Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil (1857). The header photo of Paris by Daguerre is dated 1838.
An online transcription of the spleen poems may be found here. Let’s step back and begin by thinking about the meaning of the title and about Baudelaire’s mention of a cat in the second stanza. In his notes to the Oxford edition, James McGowan underlines that spleen (which is closely related to ennui) refers to a dark state of being or humor associated with sadness or a lack of feeling. Based on this alone, we can conclude that “Spleen I” is an exploration of this state of being.
In “Spleen I,” Baudelaire also refers to his “restless cat” with a scabby hide. What are we to make of this cat? In another poem, “The Cat,” Baudelaire describes its subject as “strong, charming, sweet.” The animal has a “tender and discreet” tone that fulfils and delights the poet with a “balanced verse.” The cat controls the poet’s emotions, numbs pain, and allows the poet to utter a strong and “pure” verse. The cat from “The Cat” (poem 51) is clearly not associated with failure or spleen but with wholeness, artistic self-realization, and the vitality of creativity.
Keeping the above in mind, we can start working on this poem. In “Spleen I,” the cat “goes scratching on the tiles/To make a littler for his scabby hide” and is paired with “some poet’s phantom” who roams around “moaning and whimpering like a freezing soul.” From “The Cat,” we know that a feline is associated with mystery, wholeness and perfection in self expression but here, in “Spleen I,” we see a damaged, mangy, and “restless” creature. The same could be said about the “poet’s phantom,” which is paired with the cat in the same stanza. Both are trapped beneath the “great waves of chilling rain” we read about in the first stanza, and which the poetic voice associates with the awareness of mortality, and with being numb to the world (like the dead in the graveyards.) Using this logic, we could say that “Spleen I” is about a poetic voice questing for the idea of creation/self-expression in an environment defined by a mortal or existential chill, by solitude and gloom. The final lines speak to a certain kind of communication or self expression: “sinister accounts of wasted love.” But this kind of story telling isn’t one that’s elevating or transformational or redemptive. It just bears witness to horror.
An online transcription of the spleen poems may be found here. The poetic voice in “Spleen II” compares the mind, and by extension, the self, and the “I” to a “giant chest of drawers, stuffed to the full…”, and, subsequently, a graveyard, and “a dusty boudoir.” These material vessels, enclosures and structures, and by extension the self as well, are places bound together by the idea of death and failure, and by variety and volume (hence the lists of things, that refer to quantity and variety.) Taken together, the items in furniture, boudoirs, and the self are also a random combination of transcendent things and intranscedent things: balance sheets, lawsuits, receipts, and yesterday’s fashions coexist with love letters, locks of hair, roses, and an open flask fresh enough to still have an aroma. In the second stanza, the voice refers to the addressee and to itself as being full of dread and made of stone. This is the ennui described in the poem as a “dulling” slowness or lack of energy. The first stanza refers to a pyramid as a vessel of death. The second stanza refers to the Sphinx singing to the end of the light and of daytime. Based on these observations, we can see “Spleen II” as a poem about the crushing weight of death on the spirit and how this experience is central to the poetic act of self-expression.
The Swan (Part I)
Here’s an English version of “The Swan.” There are two displacements at the beginning of this poem: the first is mythological, and the second is architectural or spatial. The reference to Andromache in exile and the river Simois, alludes to the fall of Troy, widowhood, and sadness. (Andromache was married to Hector, killed at Troy by Achilles.) Andromache is displaced, decontextualized, separated, exiled. The second displacement refers to the work of Baron Hausmann, who supervised the tearing up of ‘old’ Paris to redesign the city in the first half of the nineteenth century. The speaker in the poem links his evocation of Andromache to his memory of what Paris used to be like, and to the process of its architectural reconstruction. The ideas of defeat, exile, and separation link Andromache to the architectural upheaval happening in Paris.
The swan that appears after these references has various connotations. It’s possible to make an argument linking the displaced and pathetic bird to fallen or broken masculinity because in Greek mythology, Zeus took the form of a swan to rape Leda, the wife of a Spartan king. Be that as it may, swans are also associated with beauty and perfection, and this swan is not in a good situation. Taken together, and setting aside the issue of male virility, we can safely say that the first part of this poem is about feelings of loss and alienation.
If we read relationally, and go to “Spleen II,” we could compare the workcamp from “The Swan” and its random assemblage of building and materials as an analogue of the dead things in a chest of drawers, pyramid, or boudoir. In the case of both poems we can speak of alienation in terms of dispersal and random combinations, as well as of subjectivity, or an inner state (please remember that in “Spleen II,” the aggregate of random things in one vessel is associated with the mind/skull, which is also full of dead things.) The first part of “The Swan” is indeed an inner monologue, with some feeling, but much recreation based on memory. We’re inside the poet’s skull, so to speak.
Another relevant poem for thinking about the first part of “The Swan” is “The Albatross,” which also accents fallen birds with trailing wings. The focus of “The Albatross” is the fate of idealism and art in a material world. In particular, the speaker in “The Albatross” directly links the poet to the fallen and awkward albatross, who walks with difficulty. Clearly. “The Swan” recodes this theme from “The Albatross,” helping us to see that beyond feeling and alienation, the poem is about the poet and the fate of poetry in the modern world.