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The Swan
Le Cygnet
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
Dedication
Summary
Themes
Poem: French With Notes
English Translation 1
English Translation 2
English Translation 3
Verse Format
Rhyme Scheme
Baudelaire as a Symbolist
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Baudelaire
Index of Study Guides
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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 Swan" is a French lyric poem focusing on the reaction of the poem's speaker to the demolition of sections of old Paris to make way for urban renewal. The Paris firm of Poulet-Malassis and de Broisse first published "The Swan" 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 Swan" appeared under its original French title," Le Cygnet," in a section entitled "Tableaux Parisiens" ("Parisian Scenes"). 
.......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.

Dedication

.......Baudelaire dedicated "The Swan" to Victor Hugo (1802-1885), author of Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Les Misérables, and other well-known novels and plays. After reading "The Swan," Hugo called it a nouveau frisson, a new thrill in French literature. 

Summary

.......While crossing the Carrousel Bridge in Paris, the speaker thinks of Andromache, the widow of ancient Troy's greatest warrior, Hector. (During the Trojan War between Troy and Greece, an even mightier warrior—the Greek hero Achilles—slew Hector. The Greeks went on to defeat the Trojans and burn Troy. (For additional information on the Trojan War see The Iliad). 
.......Andromache mourned not only the loss of her husband but also the loss of her city. The Simoïs River on the plain at Troy reflected her grief, and its waters swelled with her tears. The son of Achilles took her home with him as a trophy of war, along with Helenus, the brother of Hector.
.......What makes the speaker think of the story of Andromache is what he sees around him in Paris: the urban renewal that is pulling down the old Paris just as the Greeks pulled down Troy. No longer does he see familiar sights, such as vendors' stalls. Instead he sees heaps of columns and cornices, weeds, blocks of stone overgrown with moss, and various other relics of the old city. 
.......Once upon a time, caged animals were exhibited in the area where rubble now clutters the streets. One morning, when Paris was coming to life with street sweepers and people going to work, the speaker saw a swan escape its cage and toddle on the stone pavement to the gutter to get a drink of water. But rain had not fallen for a long time, and the gutter was dry. Nevertheless, the swan—perhaps recalling a pond or tarn that was its haunt—nestled into the dust and seemed to ask, "When will it rain? When will the thunder boom?"
.......The swan raised its head to the sky, as if pleading for answers. Its keeper came upon it then, fixed a rope about its neck, and goaded it with a broom handle back to its cage.
.......The new face of Paris saddens the speaker. It is a scaffold that builds the new on the ruination of the old. But his memories of the old outweigh all the scaffolds, all the stone blocks, all the new palaces. For him, the concrete reality of the present does not alter anything.
.......In front of the Louvre, the image of the swan comes back to him. It is struggling frantically this way and that, like all exiles yearning for home. He also sees the image of Andromache once again. When Troy fell to the Greeks, she and Hector's brother Helenus were carried  off by Achilles' son, Pyrrhus (also known as Neoptolemus), to become his property. She bore him three sons. After the death of Pyrrhus, she became the wife of Helenus. The speaker also sees an image of a starving, sickly black woman being pulled along in chains while she longs for the palm trees of her native Africa.
.......She and others like her can never recover what they have lost. They must nourish themselves on the breasts of sorrow. Orphans, prisoners, sailors marooned on an island, those vanquished in battle—the speaker thinks of them all. 

Themes

.......Among the themes of "The Swan," as well as other Baudelaire poems about Paris in Les Fleurs du Mal, are the following.

Alienation: Baudelaire becomes an alien in his native city when urban renewal replaces the familiar sights and landmarks he knew in earlier times. He is like the swan, which was taken from its native lake; the slave woman, who was taken from her native land; and orphans, who were taken from their parents by death. 
Despoiled Beauty: Just as the Greeks despoiled Troy and its women, the Parisians of the second half of the nineteenth century despoiled the old Paris—or so Baudelaire says in his poem. He compares the old Paris to the beautiful Andromache, wife of the slain Trojan hero Hector. The Greeks killed her husband and destroyed her city, then one of them carried her off. Baudelaire believes urban renewal is killing the old Paris, mythical and legendary in its own way, just Achilles slew Andromache's husband.
Despondency: Andromache, the swan, and the black slave woman all suffer despondency after they lose something precious and sacred. Andromache loses her husband, her city, and her freedom. Likewise, the swan and the slave also lose their freedom, as well as the comfort and security of familiar climes. 
Defiant Memory: The past remains alive in the memory of Baudelaire and other sensitive souls who refuse to forget. The memory of the old Paris eclipses the experience of the new paris. As the speaker says, "Mes chers souvenirs sont plus lourds que des rocs" (My dear memories are heavier that rocks). 
 

Le Cygne
Par Charles Baudelaire
À Victor Hugo

I
Andromaque,1 je pense à vous! Ce petit fleuve,
Pauvre et triste miroir où jadis resplendit
L'immense majesté de vos douleurs de veuve,
Ce Simoïs2 menteur qui par vos pleurs grandit,

A fécondé soudain ma mémoire fertile,
Comme je traversais le nouveau Carrousel.3
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,4
Vers le ciel ironique et cruellement bleu,
Sur son cou convulsif tendant sa tête avide
Comme s'il adressait des reproches à Dieu!

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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 Louvre5 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,6
Auprès d'un tombeau vide en extase courbée
Veuve d'Hector,7 hélas! et femme d'Hélénus!8

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;

À 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!9
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!

Notes

1.....Andromaque (Andromache): Wife of Troy's most formidable warrior, Hector, in the war against Greece. The Greek warrior Achilles, the greatest soldier in the world, killed Hector before the walls of Troy and, behind his chariot, dragged the body of Hector around the walls of Troy to humiliate the Trojans. Later, the Greeks defeated the Trojans and burned their city. The son of Achilles, Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus, meaning fair), took her and Hector's brother Helenus home with him as as captives to the Greek state of Epirus, in northwestern Greece. In Greece, Andromache bore Neoptolemus three sons. When Neoptolemus died at Delphi, Greece, Andromache and the throne of Epirus were awarded to Helenus, who married Andromache. After Helenus died, Andromache returned to her native land. There, her son Pergamus founded a city.
2.....Simoïs: River flowing past ancient Troy (in present-day Turkey). In the Aeneid, Virgil refers to a false Simoïs in Epirus.
3.....Carrousel: Pont du Carrousel, a Paris bridge crossing the Seine. It opened in 1834. 
4.....l'homme d'Ovid (literally, the man of Ovid): Allusion to Cycnus, a close friend of Phaeton, in a tale by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-AD 17) in his Metamorphoses. Phaeton was the son of the sun god Helios. After Phaeton died, Cycnus grieved so deeply that the gods changed him into a swan to relieve his suffering.
5.....Louvre: Paris art museum that formerly served as a royal residence.
6.....Pyrrhus: Neoptolemus. (See Andromaque.)
7.....Hector: Son of Priam, king of Troy. Hector was the greatest Trojan warrior in Troy's war against the Greeks. He was slain by the Greek warrior Achilles. For additional information, see Andromaque and The Iliad.
8.....Hélénus: Helenus, the brother of Hector. According to the Roman poet Virgil, the son of Achilles (Neoptolemus) captured him and Andromache at the end of the Trojan War and took them back to Greece. For additional information, see Andromache.
9.....tètent la Douleur comme une bonne louve (drink sorrow as they would drink the milk of a kindly she-wolf): Allusion to the myth of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. According to this myth, a she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus when they were infants. 
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The Swan 
English Translation 1
Reprinted From The Poems and Prose Poems of Charles Baudelaire
James Huneker, Editor (New York: Brentano's, 1919).

I
Andromache,1 I think of you! The stream, 
The poor, sad mirror where in bygone days 
Shone all the majesty of your widowed grief, 
The lying Simoïs2 flooded by your tears, 
Made all my fertile memory blossom forth 
As I passed by the new-built Carrousel.3
Old Paris is no more (a town, alas, 
Changes more quickly than man's heart may change); 
Yet in my mind I still can see the booths; 
The heaps of brick and rough-hewn capitals; 
The grass; the stones all over-green with moss;
The débris, and the square-set heaps of tiles. 
There a menagerie was once outspread; 
And there I saw, one morning at the hour 
When toil awakes beneath the cold, clear sky, 
And the road roars upon the silent air, 
A swan who had escaped his cage, and walked 
On the dry pavement with his webby feet, 
And trailed his spotless plumage on the ground. 
And near a waterless stream the piteous swan 
Opened his beak, and bathing in the dust 
His nervous wings, he cried (his heart the while 
Filled with a vision of his own fair lake): 
"O water, when then wilt thou come in rain? 
Lightning, when wilt thou glitter?" 
Sometimes yet 
I see the hapless bird—strange, fatal myth— 
Like him that Ovid writes of,4 lifting up 
Unto the cruelly blue, ironic heavens, 
With stretched, convulsive neck a thirsty face, 
As though he sent reproaches up to God! 
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II
Paris may change; my melancholy is fixed. 
New palaces, and scaffoldings, and blocks, 
And suburbs old, are symbols all to me 
Whose memories are as heavy as a stone. 
And so, before the Louvre,5 to vex my soul, 
The image came of my majestic swan 
With his mad gestures, foolish and sublime, 
As of an exile whom one great desire 
Gnaws with no truce. And then I thought of you, 
Andromache! torn from your hero's arms; 
Beneath the hand of Pyrrhus6 in his pride; 
Bent o'er an empty tomb in ecstasy; 
Widow of Hector7—wife of Helenus!8
And of the negress, wan and phthisical, 
Tramping the mud, and with her haggard eyes 
Seeking beyond the mighty walls of fog 
The absent palm-trees of proud Africa; 
Of all who lose that which they never find; 
Of all who drink of tears; all whom grey grief 
Gives suck to as the kindly wolf gave suck;9
Of meagre orphans who like blossoms fade. 
And one old Memory like a crying horn 
Sounds through the forest where my soul is lost . . . 
I think of sailors on some isle forgotten; 
Of captives; vanquished . . . and of many more. 
Notes

1.....Andromache: Wife of Troy's most formidable warrior, Hector, in the war against Greece. The greatest Greek warrior, Achilles, killed Hector before the walls of Troy and, behind his chariot, dragged the body of Hector around the walls of Troy to humiliate the Trojans. Later, the Greeks defeated the Trojans and burned their city. The son of Achilles, Neoptolemus (also called Pyrrhus, meaning fair), took her and Hector's brother Helenus home with him as as captives to the Greek state of Epirus, in northwestern Greece. In Greece, Andromache bore Neoptolemus three sons. When Neoptolemus died at Delphi, Greece, Andromache and the throne of Epirus were awarded to Helenus, who married Andromache. After Helenus died, Andromache returned to her native land. There, her son Pergamus founded a city.
2.....Simoïs: River flowing past ancient Troy (in present-day Turkey). In the Aeneid, Virgil refers to a false Simoïs in Epirus.
3.....Carrousel: Pont du Carrousel, a Paris bridge crossing the Seine. It opened in 1834. 
4.....him that Ovid writes of: Allusion to Cycnus, a close friend of Phaeton, in a tale by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-AD 17) in his Metamorphoses. Phaeton was the son of the sun god Helios. After Phaeton died, Cycnus grieved so deeply that the gods changed him into a swan to relieve his suffering.
5.....Louvre: Paris art museum that formerly served as a royal residence.
6.....Pyrrhus: Neoptolemus. (See Andromache.)
7.....Hector: Son of Priam, king of Troy. Hector was the greatest Trojan warrior in Troy's war against the Greeks. He was slain by the Greek warrior Achilles. For additional information, see Andromache and The Iliad.
8.....Hélénus: Helenus, the brother of Hector. According to the Roman poet Virgil, the son of Achilles (Neoptolemus) captured Helenus and Andromache at the end of the Trojan War and took them back to Greece. For additional information, see Andromache.
9.....Gives suck to as the kindly wolf gave suck: Allusion to the myth of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. According to this myth, a she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus when they were infants. 

The Swan 
English Translation 2
Roy Campbell
Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

I
Andromache! — This shallow stream, the brief
Mirror you once so grandly overcharged
With your vast majesty of widowed grief,
This lying Simois your tears enlarged,

Evoked your name, and made me think of you, 
As I was crossing the new Carrousel.
— Old Paris is no more (cities renew, 
Quicker than human hearts, their changing spell).

In mind I see that camp of huts, the muddle 
Of rough-hewn roofs and leaning shafts for miles, 
The grass, green logs stagnating in the puddle, 
Where bric-a-brac lay glittering in piles.

Once a menagerie parked there. 
And there it chanced one morning, when from slumber freed, 
Labour stands up, and Transport through still air 
Rumbles its sombre hurricane of speed, — 

A swan escaped its cage: and as its feet 
With finny palms on the harsh pavement scraped, 
Trailing white plumage on the stony street, 
In the dry gutter for fresh water gaped.

Nervously bathing in the dust, in wonder 
It asked, remembering its native stream, 
"When will the rain come down? When roll the thunder?" 
I see it now, strange myth and fatal theme!

Sometimes, like Ovid's wretch, towards the sky 
(Ironically blue with cruel smile) 
Its neck, convulsive, reared its head on high 
As though it were its Maker to revile.

II
Paris has changed, but in my grief no change. 
New palaces and scaffoldings and blocks, 
To me, are allegories, nothing strange. 
My memories are heavier than rocks.

Passing the Louvre, one image makes me sad:
That swan, like other exiles that we knew,
Grandly absurd, with gestures of the mad,
Gnawed by one craving! — Then I think of you,

Who fell from your great husband's arms, to be 
A beast of freight for Pyrrhus, and for life, 
Bowed by an empty tomb in ecstasy — 
Great Hector's widow! Helenus's wife!

I think, too, of the starved and phthisic negress 
Tramping the mud, who seeks, with haggard eye, 
The palms of Africa, and for some egress 
Out of this great black wall of foggy sky:

Of those who've lost what they cannot recover: 
Of those who slake with tears their lonely hours 
And milk the she-wolf, Sorrow, for their mother: 
And skinny orphans withering like flowers.

So in the forest of my soul's exile, 
Remembrance winds his horn as on he rides. 
I think of sailors stranded on an isle, 
Captives, and slaves — and many more besides.

Le Cygne
English Translation 3
Lewis Piaget Shanks
Flowers of Evil (New York: Ives Washburn, 1931)
I
Andromache, of thee I think! and of
the dreary streamlet where, through exiled years,
shone the vast grandeur of thy widow's love,
that false Simois brimmed with royal tears

poured like the Nile across my memory strange,
as past the Louvre new I strolled, apart.
—Old Paris is no more (for cities change
—alas!—more quickly than a mortal's heart);

only my memory sees the capitals,
the shafts unfinished once, in pools of rain,
the slimy marble blocks, weeds, market-stalls
with old brass gleaming through each dusty pane.

that corner houses a whole menagerie once;
and here one day I saw, when 'neath the fair
cold heavens, Toil awoke, and over the stones
the storm of traffic rent the silent air,

a swan which from its cage had made escape
patting the torrid blocks with webby feet,
trailing great plumes of snow, while beak agape
fumbled for water in the parching street;

wildly it plunged its wings in dust again,
mourning its native lake, and seemed to shrill:
"lightning, when comest thou? and when, the rain?"
strange symbol! wretched bird, I see it still,

up to the sky, like Ovid's fool accurst,
up to the cruelly blue ironic sky
raising its neck convulsed and beak athirst,
as though reproaching God in each mad cry.

II
towns change... but in my melancholy naught
has moved at all! new portals, ladders, blocks,
old alleys — all become symbolic thought,
in me, loved memories turn to moveless rocks.

so, crushing me, the Louvre gates recall
my huge white swan, insane with agony,
comic, sublime, like exiles one and all
by truceless cravings torn! I think of thee

Andromache, a slave apportioned, whom
proud Pyrrhus took from hands more glorious,
in ecstasy bent o'er an empty tomb;
great Hector's widow, wed to Helenus!

I think of thee, consumptive Nubian,
wading the mire, wan-eyed girl, agog
to find the absent palms of proud Soudan
behind the boundless rampart of the fog;

I think of all who lose the boons we find
no more! no more! who feed on tears and cling
to the good she-wolf Grief, whose tears are kind!
—of orphans gaunt like flowers withering!

thus, in the jungle of my soul's exile,
old memories wind a horn I've heard before!
I think of sailors wrecked on some lost isle,
of prisoners, captives!... and many more!


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Verse Format

.......Baudelaire wrote "The Swan" 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 fourth 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
Ce Si   mo ïs   men teur   qui par   vos pleurs   gran dit

Rhyme

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

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
Baudelaire as a Symbolist Poet

.......Encyclopedias often classify Baudelaire as a symbolist poet or as the inspiration for the symbolist movement in poetry. 
.......Symbolist poets maintained that the external, objective world was only a reflection of true reality. Therefore, they used symbols to suggest the nature and mystery of this true reality and the inner experiences, attitudes, and emotions of a human being responding to it. This hidden reality was beyond the ken of empirical science, they believed. In composing poetry, the symbolists adopted Edgar Allan Poe's tenet that the sound of a poem—its musicality—was extremely important in conveying the meaning and mood of a poem. (Baudelaire spent many years translating the works of Poe.) Therefore, the symbolists stressed judicious selection and arrangement of words. 
.......In "The Swan," Baudelaire exhibits symbolist ideals in the following stanza, which rejects change and says that the new palaces and blocks of stone are mere allegories, or symbols. The key passage is highlighted:

Paris change! mais rien dans ma mélancolie
N'a bougé! palais neufs, échafaudages, blocs,
Vieux faubourgs, tout pour moi devient allégorie...............(everything for me becomes an allegory)
Et mes chers souvenirs sont plus lourds que des rocs.
.......Baudelaire also exhibits symbolist ideals in his references to Andromache, the swan, and the black slave woman as symbols of the abstract world of emotional anguish. Finally, he exhibits symbolist ideals in his use of rhyme and rhythm to help convey his meaning. For example, in the first stanza fleuve (river) rhymes with veuve (widow). As a the widow of Hector, Andromache cried a river of tears.

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)

vos douleurs de veuve (line 3)
fécondé soudain ma mémoire fertile (line 5)
qu'en esprit tout ce camp (line 9)
aux carreaux, le bric-à-brac confus (line 12)
Anaphore (Anaphora)
Vers le ciel quelquefois, comme l'homme d'Ovide,
Vers le ciel ironique et cruellement bleu (lines 25-26)
Apostrophe
«Eau, quand donc pleuvras-tu? quand tonneras-tu, foudre?» (line 23)
The swan addresses water (eau) and lightning (foudre).
Métaphore (Metaphor)
Ce petit fleuve, / Pauvre et triste miroir (lines 1-2)
Comparison of the river (fleuve) to a mirror (miroir)

Ce Simoïs menteur (line 4)
Comparison of the Simoïs River to a liar

Synecdoque (Synechdoche)
le Travail s'éveille (line 15)
Literally, this clause means "labor awoke." Labor (Travail) stands for workers.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • If you are studying French, write your own English translation of "The Swan."
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem and a ballad?
  • Write an informative essay that explains symbolist poetry. Use library and Internet research.
  • Write an informative essay that explains Alexandrine verse. Use library and Internet research.
  • Make a list of the words (French or English) in the poem that signify the speaker's melancholy mood. 
  • What are other examples of alliteration besides those listed above?

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