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The Albatross
L'Albatros
A Poem From Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil)
By Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Albatross: Graceful, Clumsy
Summary
Themes
Poem in French
English Translations
Verse Format
Rhyme Scheme
Albatross as a Symbol
Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Topics
Biography of Baudelaire
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
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Type of Work and Publication

.......Charles Baudelaire's "The Albatross" is a French lyric poem. The Paris firm of Poulet-Malassis and de Broisse first published "The Albatross" in 1861 as one of more than one hundred thematically related poems in the second edition of Baudelaire's, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). "The Albatross" appeared under its original French title,"L'Albatros," in a section entitled "Spleen et Idéal" ("Spleen and the Ideal"). 
.......Les Fleurs du Mal was one of the most influential and controversial works of the nineteenth century. Among its themes are beauty and ugliness in life, boredom, death, disillusionment and despair, the role of the poet, and cultural decadence. The book frequently uses symbols to represent themes and ideas. 
.......After Baudelaire published the first edition of the poems in 1857, a court decreed that several of them were obscene and blasphemous. He had to remove six poems before publishing the second edition. 

The Albatross: Graceful Flier, Clumsy Walker

.......The albatross is among the most graceful and effortless fliers of all seabirds. It can glide in the wind for hours, never flapping its wings. However, in calm weather, it tires easily because of its large body. At such times, it frequently lands on the ocean to rest. 
.......Albatrosses, which have webbed feet and a hooked beak, range mainly in the cool air of southern oceans and the northern Pacific. Although they spend most of their time in the air, they land on islands to breed and nest. On land, they are clumsy walkers and even trip on their own feet.
.......At sea, albatrosses feed mainly on fish, krill (a crustacean resembling a shrimp), squid, and garbage from ships. They drink sea water.
.......The wandering albatross of the South Pacific has the largest wingspan of all birds, often exceeding eleven feet. 

Summary

Note: In the first two stanzas of the poem, Baudelaire uses the plural of the French words for albatross and bird. For example, he uses des albatros (some albatrosses) and oixeaux (birds) in line 2. In the last two stanzas, he uses the singular to refer to the bird. For example, in line 9 he uses ce voyageur (this voyager) and il est (he is).
.......To amuse themselves, sailors often capture albatrosses, the large sea birds that lazily follow a ship gliding over the bitter ocean depths. After the crewmen take control of them on the deck, these humiliated kings of the azure skies drop their great white wings, like the oars of a boat, as they move about clumsily. 
.......How awkward and feckless this winged voyager seems! Only a moment before, he was majestic and beautiful as he soared. Now he is ugly and laughable. 
.......One man pokes a pipe at his beak to bedevil him. Another mimics his ungainly walk. 
.......The poet is like this prince of the highest skies. He too soars through storm clouds and laughs at the archer drawing his bowstring. But on earth, he is an exile among the hooting crowds. His great wings prevent him from walking. 

Themes

The Beautiful Ugliness of Life

.......When it glides across the skies, the albatross is stunningly graceful and beautiful. But when its webbed feet touch down on earth—or on a human creation such as a ship—it walks clumsily, like a staggering drunk, and becomes the object of ridicule. When the poet writes inspired verses that soar heavenward, their grace and beauty charm the literate and cultured reader. But when the poet touches ground and puts his work in the hands of the hoi poloi, they think it walks with a staggered gait. The poet becomes like the albatross: ridiculed, laughed at, ugly. 

Cruelty

.......There are those who ignore the goodness of a man or a woman (or an animal) and focus on the bad in order to vent their cruelty through ridicule and mockery. Some people delight in finding flaws in a writer, a painter, an opera star, a neighbor, a boss, a politician, a clergyman, and so on. They mercilessly criticize those flaws or gossip about a person's private iniquities. The sailors in "The Albatross" are examples of such cruel people. 
 

L'Albatros
Par Charles Baudelaire

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

A peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l'azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d'eux.

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!
L'un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L'autre mime, en boitant, l'infirme qui volait!

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l'archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher.

English Translations

.......Click on the following links to see different English translations of the poem.

Norman Shapiro
William Aggeler
Roy Campbell
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Verse Format

.......Baudelaire wrote "The Albatross" in a traditional French format, Alexandrine. In this verse format, each line consists of twelve syllables. Syllables 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 are unaccented. Syllables 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12 are accented. In the middle of the line, between syllables 6 and 7, is a brief pause, called a caesura. Occasionally, an Alexandrine line contains thirteen syllables, the last one unaccented. In English versification, an Alexandrine line is equivalent to iambic hexameter. The tenth line of the poem demonstrates the format of twelve alternating unaccented and accented syllables:

1....2...3...   4..... 5.... 6........7...  8.......9.....10........11.. 12
Lu...i,  na  guère  si   beau,  qu'il est     co  mique    et  laid!

Rhyme

The rhyme scheme of "The Albatross" is abab, as in the first stanza.

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.
Albatross as a Symbol

.......Baudelaire uses the albatross to symbolize the dual nature of each human being—that is, each human, as an inheritor of original sin, is an amalgam of good and negative qualities as. Here is a key line: "Lui, naguère si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!" ("He recently was so beautiful; now he is laughable and ugly.")

Figures of Speech
Les Figures de Rhétorique

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Allitération (Alliteration)

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'équipage (line 1)
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage (line 3)
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers (line 4)
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d'eux (line 8)
Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées (line 13)
Métaphore (Metaphor)
ces rois de l'azur (line 6)
Comparison of albatrosses to kings
Comparaison (Simile)
    ces rois de l'azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d'eux (lines 6-8)
Comparison of the wings of albatrosses to dragging oars. (The use of comme, meaning like, makes the comparison a simile rather than a metaphor.)
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • If you are studying French, write your own English translation of "The Albatross."
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem and a ballad?
  • Write an informative essay that explains Alexandrine verse. Use library and Internet research.
  • What are other examples of alliteration besides those listed above?

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