The Paris of the boulevards that we so admire today was created in the 19th century at the cost of sweeping away large tracts of a much-loved old city. Many shared the dismay expressed by Baudelaire in this poem at what they saw as a colossal act of vandalism.
The poet’s train of thought is sparked by Andromache, the widow of Troy’s greatest warrior, Hector, and by reflections on her state, for some of the time woeful, and even in more favourable circumstances gravely diminished, after the fall of Troy. Baudelaire, though a revolutionary, modern poet in his day, has completely absorbed this classical image, and turns to it entirely naturally, an example of how much he and most other major European writers since at least the Renaissance were steeped in classical literature. (Though Racine wrote a play about Andromache in the 17th century, most of its plot was invented: Baudelaire’s allusions are to the story as it appeared in such ancient authors as Homer and Euripides, and all of them could have been prompted by Virgil’s Aeneid.) The “man from Ovid” is Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death: the fact that Baudelaire thinks it unnecessary to name him is another example of the classical knowledge that he possessed himself and assumed as a matter of course in his educated readers. They would also recognise Simoïs as a river of the Trojan plain.
Yeats also used swans as a metaphor for loss in another great poem, The Wild Swans at Coole; but the desolation and anger that Baudelaire expresses are a world away from the elegiac melancholy of Yeats’s piece.
References to Andromache frame the heartbreaking image of the desperate swan, with which Baudelaire empathises in his longing for his vanished Paris, and the poem ends with wider references to those who suffer pain, exile and loss, including by implication Victor Hugo, the dedicatee of the poem, who was in political exile from France at the time it was written. The reader is Béatrice Damamme-Gilbert.
See the illustrated blog post here
See and hear Yeats’s poem about the wild swans at Coole here.
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