Verlaine's poem, written in heroic couplets, begins with an image of the modern Seine; it is the filthy river that rolls by the morgue in Zola's Therese Raquin, but which nonetheless inspires the poet. As Baudelaire's discovery of the swan ignites his imagination, so the Seine, filled with corpses and emitting vapors, provokes Verlaine to claim that "nothing drifts along your icy stream/ so powerful as your face to make me dream." Verlaine's river-inspired dream takes him across time and continents, and the elasticity of space and time, in addition to his use of classical allusion, contributes to the mythopoesis of the poem. In the long second stanza, Verlaine transports the reader to the Tiber, the Guadalquivir in Spain, the Bosphorus, the Pactolus, the Rhine, the Nile, the Mississippi, and the Ganges, and with each river there is a suggestion of both its modern and mythical/historical significance. Although he evokes these rivers and their various histories in order to contrast the Seine with them, the cumulative effect is one of mythologizing the very idea of the river, and the Seine is swept into this flow of imagery. When Verlaine returns the reader to the contemporary Seine, it is with a condemning "You, Seine, have nothing," yet only seven lines later he admits that the sunset over the river "fetches the dreamers forth from lair and den,/ to lean on the Pont de la Cite and dream." The poet alternates between praising and vilifying the river, and by extension the city, through this and the following stanza, always returning to the power of "Paris, the Flood, and the Night" to move the poet to song, even as the "sinister Trinity" steals hope, ambition, mind and even memory from him. Works Cited
Unlike "The Swan," "Parisian Nocturne" does not rely on a preponderance of classical allusion to mythologize Paris, but such allusions do appear. Venus, both star and goddess, hovers over the night-shrouded city at the beginning of the third stanza, recalling the "amours" that have stirred in response to the previous stanza's evening song. Verlaine equates the modern Parisian with an "Orestes lacking Electra" in the fourth stanza; this allusion suggests both the exiled youth and the matricide adult of the myth but devoid of the loving sister who serves also to remind him of his duty. The poet may consider modern man separated not only from his family but also from his sense of purpose, "drunk with affliction" and unable to do anything but "plunge into space." The biblical reference in the penultimate stanza is more challenging to interpretation, for the insertion of "mene, tekel, upharsin" from Daniel 5: 25-28 seems incongruous with the surrounding metaphors and imagery. Aramaic for "it has been counted, weighed, and divided," Daniel interprets the mysterious words as a condemnation of King Belshazzar's deeds and an order that his kingdom will be divided. Coming between the phrase "sinister Trinity" and the line "You are all three, O dark Ghouls of misfortune," it is unclear whether Verlaine intends the biblical phrase to apply to the trinity of Paris, the Flood, and the Night, or to the river itself. Whatever interpretation is settled on, the use of the biblical allusion contributes to the mythological construct of the city and the river for its suggestion of ancient and divine analogues.
In addition to the mythical and historical allusions, Verlaine makes use of allegory, and to a far greater degree than Baudelaire in the Tableaux. At the end of the fourth stanza, as quoted above, Verlaine forms a trinity of "Ghouls" from Paris and the now-capitalized "Flood" and "Night." This serves to transform them from merely evocative nouns into active figures stalking the stage of the poet's invented Paris. As animate characters they seem hostile to the allegorical "Man" of the fifth stanza, and Man's own elevation from individual to representative type here suggests a corollary with Man in medieval morality and mystery plays, seeking salvation while tempted and taunted by the figures of Vice and Death. Death, too, is represented by an allegorical figure, although Verlaine prefers the poetically resonant Great Worm to the more mundane term "death." The use of this term for mortality--common in Renaissance and 18th century verse--also implies a connection with the great worm Ourobouros that swallows its own tail. Allegory and mythology collide here, compounding their significance in the mythopoesis of Verlaine's Paris. The worm or serpent is then refigured into the river Seine itself in the final stanza, returning the poet to the banks of the contemporary river, rife with corpses, from which he started. The circularity of the poem is recapitulated in this image, suggesting again the mythic and endless cycle of the river and its function in the city.
Exiled in the city they both adore and revile, Baudelaire and Verlaine mythologized Paris through the use of allusion and allegory to explore their own sense of disenfranchisement from modern life. Their conflicting reactions to the city drew inspired them to create a mythopoetic Paris, yet neither could lose themselves in their dreaming city entirely. As Verlaine wrote:
one can only choose between three horrors,
if he'd fear less to perish by the terror
of Gloom, or be in perilous Waters swirled,
or in your rouged arms, Paris, queen of the world!
Both poets sought to recreate Paris in mythic terms, to tear it from the false mythology of its modern trappings and invent instead an unreal city of poetic dreams. Neither used the mythopoetic mode to elevate Paris into some ideal city, and neither attempted to hide the sordid elements that provided them their inspirations.
--Baudelaire, Charles. The Flowers of Evil. Marthiel and Jackson Mathews, ed. New York: New Directions, 1955.
--Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1995.
--Starkie, Enid. Baudelaire. New York: New Directions, 1958.
--Turnell, Martin. Baudelaire: A Study of His Poetry. New York: New Directions, 1972.
--Verlaine, Paul. Selected Poems. C. F. MacIntyre, ed. and trans. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1948.
*"The Sun", Trans. David Paul, in The Flowers of Evil, Marthiel and Jackson Mathews, ed. pg. 106.
All quotations from "The Swan" are from the translation by Anthony Hecht in The Flowers of Evil, Marthiel and Jackson Mathews, ed. pp. 109-111.
All quotations from "Parisian Nocturne" are from the translation by C. F. MacIntyre in Paul Verlaine: Selected Poems, C. F. MacIntyre, ed. pp. 41-47.