Unreal City, City of Dreams:
Mythopoesis in Baudelaire's "The Swan" and Verlaine's "Parisian Nocturne"


Throughout the
Tableaux Parisiens, Baudelaire progressively constructs a Paris of the mind that takes on epic and unreal proportions through the poet's allusions to classical mythology, history, art, and geography.  "Stumbling on rhymes as on crooked setts, colliding/ With a sudden clear line which dreams were past finding,"* Baudelaire combs the city for the scenes by which he will mythologize Paris in a way that, despite the classical allusions, conflicts with Haussmann's own neo-classical restructuring of the capital. Five years after the publication of the mythopoetic Tableaux sequence, Paul Verlaine exploited the mode for his own view of Paris in his first book of poems, Poemes Saturniens.  While Verlaine's "Parisian Nocturne" evokes a more sinister and degraded city than Baudelaire's poems do, the mythological and allegorical references still serve to refigure Paris in fantastical ways that make it equally inspirational to the artist and equally unreal.

The
Tableaux Parisiens first appeared in the 1861 edition of Baudelaire's Le Fleurs du Mal; ten of the eighteen poems in the Tableaux were from the new verses composed for this edition, while the rest were moved from the section titled Spleen et Ideal.  The rearrangement of the poems into the Tableaux parallels the poet's own refiguring of the city within the sequence, and the careful ordering of the poems emphasizes the artifice of this mythologized city as much as each of the vignettes individually. Martin Turnell suggests that Baudelaire not only fashions the people and places of the city according to his vision but actually creates the series of events and scenes of the Tableaux purely from imagination (Turnell, 176).  This seems an unnecessary whimsy on the part of the critic; while the poet may be remembering things he has encountered on his many strolls through the city, there is no need to assume that

he has fabricated the experience of Paris entirely.  Instead, Baudelaire interlaces the raw sensory impressions of the real city with the symbolically significant and the mythically evocative to construct a Paris of the imagination.

While Baudelaire's mythopoetic mode is employed frequently in the
Tableaux--in such poems as "The Little Old Women," "To A Passer-By," and "Parisian Dream"--it is most clearly seen in "The Swan" ("Le Cygne").  The initial image of the poem is a weighty classical allusion that prepares the reader for both the forthcoming series of mythical figures and for the overall theme of the poem: exile and loss.  The attributes of Andromache fuse with the figure of the swan; both symbolize heroic grief, stoic sadness, ruined beauty, and tragic exile, and both reflect the poet's own sense of disenfranchisement in the changing streets of Paris.  The exiles, both modern and classical, who populate the poem become the major figures of the verses that immediately follow "The Swan."  "The Seven Old Men," "The Little Old Ladies," and "The Blind" are all concerned with the lost and disconnected in Haussmann's new Paris, and these poems of outcasts are foreshadowed and made mythically resonant by their constructed counterparts in "The Swan."

Baudelaire's outcasts and exiles in the poem are also, counter-intuitively, prisoners.  When the poet recalls Andromache, it is not in her marriage to Hector but in her servitude to Pyrrhus, and the eponymous swan has just escaped its cage in the menagerie when Baudelaire associates him with the classical widow.  The "consumptive negress," in a modern analogue to Andromache, pines for her homeland from the city to which--it is suggested--either she or her ancestors were forcibly brought.  The final image of exile and imprisonment is comprised of the nameless and featureless, the "One memory [that] sounds like brass in the ancient war:/I think of sailors washed up on uncharted islands,/Of prisoners, the conquered, and more, so many more."  Without specific referents, the poet here nonetheless evokes classical epics, whether
The Iliad in the "ancient war," or The Odyssey and Aeneid in his sailors and prisoners.

Baudelaire thus associates modern Paris (with its dominant new neo-classical facades), obliquely and suggestively, with ruined Troy and its false representation in Pyrrhus's homeland, and perhaps with Mykonos on Crete in his reference to "the man of Ovid."  These allusions create a myth of Paris as a city of exile, of imprisonment, and of tragedy.  Only his use of "that motherly she-wolf," evoking the foundation of Rome by the orphans Romulus and Remus, has any positive connotations. But Baudelaire makes an allegory of the wolf with the appositive use of "Sorrow," suggesting that Paris, like Rome, is founded in strife, loss, and abandonment; the allusion to the great capital of the ancient world is undercut with bitter irony.  As an aside, this irony figures in the symbolic use of the eponymous swan as well, since the bird was sacred to Apollo--as god of music--because it was believed to sing sweetly at the point of death (Cirlot, 322).

Where Baudelaire uses the figures of modern Paris and classical mythology to mythopoetically refigure the city, Verlaine focuses on the Seine in his "Parisian Nocturne" for the same effect.  Clearly his use of the river that divides Paris owes a great deal to Baudelaire's evocation of mythical and classical rivers in the
Tableaux, and when the twenty-year-old Verlaine published his first book of verse, Poemes Saturniens, in 1866, his debt to Baudelaire was obvious.  C. F. MacIntyre, in his prolific notes to the sources in "Parisian Nocturne," points out that "lines 39 ff. had been written in Baudelaire's "Le Crepuscule du soir," that "lines 75 and 76 are Baudelairean correspondences, and the Electra of line 94 comes from 'Le Voyage'" (MacIntyre, 206).  But the poem is not mere pastiche; Verlaine's mythopoetic figuring of the river in its modern setting as both analogue and antithesis to the classical rivers to which he alludes is more reminiscent of the high modernist style that would follow in the works of Eliot and Woolf.   (To Continue, click here….)