Baudelaire and the Urban Landscape in ‘The Flowers of Evil’: ‘Landscape’ and ‘The Swan’
Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Parisian Scenes’ is as much an exploration into the role of the poet as an illustration of a man’s wanderings through the streets of Paris. The poems ‘Landscape’ and ‘The Swan’ show a definitive evolution in Baudelaire’s perspective, his internal conflict developing alongside his relationship with the city. ‘Landscape’, as an opening poem to the collection, sees an optimistic Baudelaire struggle to find a coexistence between the harmony of the natural world and the constant flux of the rapidly urbanizing environment he finds himself in. It is from this we see the poet move into the city’s bowels in ‘The Swan’ in an attempt to challenge the urban in a more direct manner, though even this seems to provide little comfort, Baudelaire leaving his journey more alienated from his own city than ever before. It is from these poems we can understand the means in which Paris becomes a vector through which Baudelaire can explore to what extent the poetry of the city can truly represent his relationship with the urban environment, whilst simultaneously exploring the reality of the modern poet, one of dissatisfaction and chaos.
Baudelaire’s interpretation of Paris within ‘Landscape’, as an ethereal fantasy saturated with natural imagery, appears seemingly ideal but unreflective of reality, enabling him to recognize the limitations of this interpretation. He first sees himself in ‘Landscape’ as a watcher from afar, positioned in his ‘attic room’ above the throngs below. This elevated position is representative of his omnipresent nature, surveying ‘all the city’s masts’ and the ‘great magnificent sky’. The close proximity of the urban environment to the natural world, both within the poem and in the narrator’s vision, blends the boundary between the two, the urban landscape coexisting peacefully with nature. Baudelaire goes as far as to profess his desire to write ‘eclogues’, the classical pastoral style of poetry exalting the beauty and simplicity of nature. Nevertheless, Baudelaire recognizes the Paris described cannot truly represent the city below. The poem is centered heavily around an aerial lexis, the narrator gazing at ‘chimney-pipes’, ‘steeples’ and ‘belfries’. He can only view the surface of the city, unable to grasp the magnitude of life below rooftop level. His desire to lie alongside ‘astrologers’ seems particularly apt, an astrologer fated to marvel at distant celestial beings but unable to view the reality of the scene he observes with clarity. This lack of immersion forces the poet to rely on his own mind in the creation of fantastical worlds, building a ‘fairy palace’, ‘conjuring’ the idyllic scenes he sees, ignoring the ‘riot that rages vainly’ against the window pane. The word ‘conjuring’ connotes something insubstantial, an illusion designed to mask the truth. This refusal to confront the city ultimately leaves him dissatisfied, alone in his room ‘transmuting furious thoughts’. The anger seething below the seemingly peaceful images of fairytale landscapes and ‘voluptuous delight’ demonstrates the narrator’s dissatisfaction at his current state. However, it is not until the poet is able to depart from this attic room in ‘The Swan’ and immerse himself within the city that he is able to explore accurately his own role as a poet of the urban environment.
Descending to the street below, Baudelaire finds his idyll corrupted and discovers the reality of the urban scene, oddly demonstrated through his return to symbolic classical reference. The narrator opens his poem with an invocation to the tragic Andromache and the ‘fraudulent Simois’. These classical references seem out of place in the modern city but are a stark contrast to the celebrated ‘eclogues’ of ‘Landscape’. Here they are classical ruins, accentuated by the reference to the wolf-mother, who raised Romulus and Remus, now forced to nourish the modern age, her orphans in this rendition ‘dry and wasted blooms’ suckling ‘bitter milk’. All beauty has perished: the milk soured and the flowers wilting. The natural imagery of ‘Landscape’ is wholly departed, the flowers decaying alongside the inhabitants of the city. The city he now finds himself in is ‘busy’ and ‘jumbled’, a stark contrast to the city of ‘Landscape’, described as ‘magnificent and vast’. A conflict is brewing within Paris, the street cleaners pushing ‘their storms into the silent air’ suffusing the city with a tension that threatens to break. Paris appears in a state of flux and contrast, Baudelaire caught between the two opposing worlds of ‘Landscape’ and ‘The Swan’.
The allegorical torment suffered by the swan, lost within the changing Paris, allows Baudelaire to explore his role in a shifting urban environment and enables him to recognize the torment he has found within himself in. The physical manifestation of the animal itself is symbolic of the poet within the city. When in flight, soaring above the scene, the swan is a sublime image of grace, akin to Baudelaire himself in ‘Landscape’, aloof and all-seeing. However, on earth, all grace is lost, ‘flapping excitedly’ with a ‘convulsive neck’. All apprehension of grandeur has vanished. Although physically free from captivity, the swan is unable to escape its own manufactured alienation and intellectual imprisonment. Much like Baudelaire, who mourns the loss of ‘old Paris’ in favor of the ‘modern Carrousel’, the swan stands aside a ‘dried out ditch’, dislocated and homeless in this new world. The animal itself appears to exist in an oxymoronic state, his ‘white array of feathers in the dirt’, ‘bathing his wings in dust’. All the traditional images of beauty associated with the bird have been tainted, surrounded by an oppressive aridness. This state of chaos within which the swan exists, ‘both ridiculous and sublime’, mirrors that of Paris and the poet himself, torn between the two colliding worlds, at home in neither.
Baudelaire’s resolution arrives in the closing stanzas of ‘The Swan’ where, using the theme of exile, the poet begins to channel these feelings of dislocation to voice those whom society has neglected and provide a commentary on the plight of the modern intellectual. His reference to a ‘negress, thin and tubercular’ contributes to this feeling of desolation. An exile similar to himself, she cannot recall her ‘splendid Africa’, obscured as it is by a ‘giant barrier of fog’. She is left to tread her journey, alone and lost in the streets, much like Baudelaire, now entirely dislocated and ill at ease with both the Paris of fantasy and the Paris that lies before him. The truth of the city lies just out of reach, the ‘fog’ both literal and mental. It is from this disorder Baudelaire is able to recognize the impossibility of peaceful coexistence between the two worlds. The poem closes with a heralding ‘full note of the horn’ and a call of camaraderie to the ‘captives, the defeated…many others more!’ Baudelaire has plunged into the disarray of the Parisian streets and now transcends them, calling upon all the exiles of history, ‘all those who have lost something they may not find’. He moves from the Swan to Andromache to the woman to the ‘sailors left forgotten on an isle,’ a reference to Odysseus and his men trapped upon Circe’s island; a traditional image of those lost and without a homeland. However, this new position of clairvoyance is not one of happiness, the ‘negress’ still ridden with illness, the sailors still trapped, the swan still in ‘endless longing’, but rather the recognition of the inevitability of suffering within the urban landscape. Baudelaire joins a motley group of individuals from whom hope is all but gone, with each, despite their apparent proximity within verse, isolated from the other, each suffering their own personal tribulations. There is no sanctuary or resolution to be found within the poem, rather only a weary acceptance that life within the city is one of unforgiving strife. Baudelaire can clearly see the conflict within himself and the city and is left dissatisfied and dejected, his ‘soul in exile’, finding no place for the Flaneur in this world of constant change.
The course of the two poems trace a journey as Baudelaire attempts to reconcile his contending interpretations of Paris. Baudelaire cannot fully accept the tranquility of ‘Landscape’, forcing him from his attic to the city below in an attempt to understand the grotesque reality of the city he inhabits. When neither prove satisfying, the poet turns to himself, desperately trying to find his own place. The Paris Baudelaire finds himself in is a Paris of the widowed like Andromache, the tormented, like the fallen swan, and the lost, like the consumptive ‘negress’. All are exiles, garnered by Baudelaire as symbols of the urban and moral decay around him. From this decay, the city and its inhabitants become vectors through which Baudelaire can face the conflict within himself, split between his opposing personalities. It is not until he is able to accept the innate confusion of urban living and the multi-faceted image that Paris presents, as both a modern city of fervent development and historical site of ancient tradition, that he can find a resolution within himself. Baudelaire is an exile both from the past and present, doomed to wander alone, ultimately finding himself a prisoner of his own mind, his morbid self-awareness his only companion in the face of a rapidly urbanizing city.
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Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Parisian Scenes’ is as much an exploration into the role of the poet as an illustration of a man’s wanderings through the streets of Paris. The poems ‘Landscape’ […]