Le cygne (The Swan)

by Charles Baudelaire

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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To scroll the original and English translation of the poem at the same time - tap inside one box to select it and then scroll.

A Victor Hugo


Andromaque, je pense à vous ! Ce petit fleuve,
Pauvre et triste miroir où jadis resplendit
L’immense majesté de vos douleurs de veuve,
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 coeur d’un mortel) ;

Je ne vois qu’en esprit tout ce camp de baraques,
Ces tas de chapiteaux ébauchés et de fûts,
Les herbes, les gros blocs verdis par l’eau des flaques,
Et, brillant aux carreaux, le bric-à-brac confus.

Là s’étalait jadis une ménagerie ;
Là je vis, un matin, à l’heure où sous les cieux
Froids et clairs le Travail s’éveille, où la voirie
Pousse un sombre ouragan dans l’air silencieux,

Un cygne qui s’était évadé de sa cage,
Et, de ses pieds palmés frottant le pavé sec,
Sur le sol raboteux traînait son blanc plumage.
Près d’un ruisseau sans eau la bête ouvrant le bec

Baignait nerveusement ses ailes dans la poudre,
Et disait, le coeur plein de son beau lac natal :
“Eau, quand donc pleuvras-tu ? quand tonneras-tu, foudre ?”
Je vois ce malheureux, mythe étrange et fatal,

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 !


Paris change ! mais rien dans ma mélancolie
N’a bougé ! palais neufs, échafaudages, blocs,
Vieux faubourgs, tout pour moi devient allégorie
Et mes chers souvenirs sont plus lourds que des rocs.

Aussi devant ce Louvre une image m’opprime :
Je pense à mon grand cygne, avec ses gestes fous,
Comme les exilés, ridicule et sublime
Et rongé d’un désir sans trêve ! et puis à vous,

Andromaque, des bras d’un grand époux tombée,
Vil bétail, sous la main du superbe Pyrrhus,
Auprès d’un tombeau vide en extase courbée
Veuve d’Hector, hélas ! et femme d’Hélénus !

Je pense à la négresse, amaigrie et phtisique
Piétinant dans la boue, et cherchant, l’oeil hagard,
Les cocotiers absents de la superbe Afrique
Derrière la muraille immense du brouillard ;

A quiconque a perdu ce qui ne se retrouve
Jamais, jamais ! à ceux qui s’abreuvent de pleurs
Et tètent la Douleur comme une bonne louve !
Aux maigres orphelins séchant comme des fleurs !

Ainsi dans la forêt où mon esprit s’exile
Un vieux Souvenir sonne à plein souffle du cor !
Je pense aux matelots oubliés dans une île,
Aux captifs, aux vaincus !… à bien d’autres encor !

To Victor Hugo


Andromache, I think of you! This little river, poor, sad mirror, from which once shone the immense majesty of the pain of your widowhood, this lying Simoïs augmented by your tears,

Suddenly made my fertile memory conceive, as I crossed the new Carrousel. The old Paris is no more (the aspect of a town changes more swiftly, alas! than the heart of a mortal man);

I no longer see, except in the mind’s eye, all that camp of shanties, those heaps of half-done capitals and drums, the grass, the gross blocks, green from puddle-water, glistening on the tiles, the chaotic builders’ clutter.

Here once was laid out a menagerie; there I saw, one day, at the hour when, under the cold, clear sky, Labour wakes, when the streets utter up a sombre storm into the silent air,

A swan, escaped from its cage, which, webbed feet scraping at the dry paving, was dragging its white plumage across the rugged ground. By a dry stream bed the beast opening its beak

Was nervously bathing its wings in the dust and saying, heart full of the fair lake of its birth: “Water, when then shall you rain? When shall you peal out, lightning-stroke?” I can see this wretched swan, this strange and fateful myth,

Towards the sky sometimes, like the man in Ovid,
towards the sky, ironic and cruelly blue,
on its convulsive neck stretch out
its avid beak as though reproaching God!


Paris is changing! But in my melancholy nothing has moved! New palaces, scaffolds, blocks, old quarters, everything for me turns into allegory and my precious memories are heavier than rocks.

And thus before the Louvre here an image oppresses me: I think of my great swan, with its crazed gestures, like the exiles, ridiculous and sublime and gnawed by an unrelenting desire! And then of you,

Andromache, from the arms of a great husband fallen, as base livestock, into the hands of glorying Pyrrhus, beside yourself, bowed by an empty tomb, widow of Hector, alas! And wife of Helenus!

I think of the negress, wasted and consumptive, paddling in the mud and seeking, with haggard eyes, for the absent palm-trees of glorious Africa beyond the immense wall of the fog;

Of whoever has lost that which is found again never, never! Of those who quench their thirst with tears, those who take suck from Pain as from a kindly she-wolf! Of the wasting orphans drying up like flowers!

Thus in the forest where my mind exiles itself an old Memory rings out with a full blast on the horn! I think of mariners, forgotten on an isle, of captives, of the vanquished … of many others still!


More Poems by Charles Baudelaire

More poems by this author will be added shortly.