Thursday, September 19, 2013

Are there flowers at all? - Swinburne's elegy for Baudelaire

One more great Swinburne poem before I give up on him for now, “Ave Atque Vale,” his 1868 elegy for one of his favorite poets, Charles Baudelaire, who had died in 1867.  How will Cecil Lang help me with this one?  “It will be read with pleasure by any reasonably well-informed person, but the choicest appreciation is reserved for those who can take the elegiac tradition for granted and whose pulses beat, like Swinburne’s own, with the poetry of Aeschylus, Dante, and Baudelaire” (The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle, 517).  And people say academic writing has no personality.

The title, from poem 101 of Catullus, is something like “Hail and Farewell.”  Horace Gregory’s translation of Catullus ends:

I shall perform an ancient ritual over your remains, weeping,
(this plate of lentils for dead men to feast upon, wet with my tears)
O brother, here’s my greeting: here’s my hand forever welcoming you
and I forever saying:  good-bye, good-bye.

Loose, but accurate.  I mean it describes Swinburne’s poem well, although not, obviously, his language.  The Roman lentils are replaced with flowers – of evil!

Hast thou found any likeness for thy vision?
    O gardener of strange flowers, what bud, what bloom,
    Hast thou found sown, what gathered in the gloom?
What of despair, of rapture, of derision,
    What of life is there, what of ill or good?
    Are the fruits grey like dust or bright like blood?
Does the dim ground grow any seed of ours,
    The faint fields quicken any terrene root,
    In low lands where the sun and moon are mute
And all the stars keep silence? Are there flowers
    At all, or any fruit?  (Stanza VII)

The conceit that fills most of the poem’s eighteen stanzas is simple enough.  Swinburne is directly addressing the dead Baudelaire, assuming that he is in the Greek underworld.  What do you see there, Charles, the first line above asks?  Any poetry?  “Are there flowers \ At all” – that is a sad line.

The usual Swinburne stuff recurs: Proserpine, the sea, Tannhauser (I did not write about Swinburne’s bizarre Tannhauser poem), an entire stanza about Sappho (“the supreme head of song”).  The flowers and fruits are something different, imported from Baudelaire’s poetry:

Sleep; and if life was bitter to thee, pardon,
    If sweet, give thanks; thou hast no more to live;
    And to give thanks is good, and to forgive.
Out of the mystic and the mournful garden
    Where all day through thine hands in barren braid
    Wove the sick flowers of secrecy and shade,
Green buds of sorrow and sin, and remnants grey,
    Sweet-smelling, pale with poison, sanguine-hearted,
    Passions that sprang from sleep and thoughts that started,
Shall death not bring us all as thee one day
    Among the days departed?  (Stanza XVII)

The description of Baudelaire’s poems – his flowers – could well be about Swinburne’s own verse.  A wonderful poem.


  1. Swinburne had a talent for snatching the gist of a poem, its few key images and to use them to generate a whole new work of art. In this case, to write his homage to Baudelaire, he uses some of Baudelaire's verses:

    My youth has been only a dark and wuthering storm,
    Interrupted here and there by brilliant sunbeams;
    The thunder and the rain have done me so much harm.

    In my garden there are almost no red fruits which still stand.
    And who knows if the new flowers of my new dreams
    will be able to find on this pebble-like, washed out land

    The ghostly nourishment which will keep them alive.
    Alas, alas, Time has devoured the whole of our life.

    Ma jeunesse ne fut qu'un ténébreux orage,
    Traversé ça et là par de brillants soleils;
    Le tonnerre et la pluie ont fait un tel ravage
    Qu'il reste en mon jardin bien peu de fruits vermeils.

    Et qui sait si les fleurs nouvelles que je rêve
    Trouveront dans ce sol lavé comme une grève
    Le mystique aliment qui ferait leur vigueur?

    --O douleur! ô douleur! Le Temps mange la vie.

  2. An editor pointed to the use of "La Géante" in stanza VI, but otherwise I only picked up fragments of Baudelaire. My pulse does not beat with Baudelaire, which from a cardiovascual health point of view is probably good.

    Where is that translation from?

    Now I realize where I said the flowers are new or different, that I am completely wrong. Swinburne's garden poems use the theme, of course. It is amazing how much he makes out of recombining so few elements.

  3. The translation is from a few lines of Baudelaire's L'ennemi and it's a 5 minute quickie done by yours truly (hence the wuthering private joke :) ). I didn't like the one found at Gutenberg because it was too free and too slavish at the same time.

    I too like Swinburne a lot more than Baudelaire, but we are members of a very small minority (the two of us plus Borges and Swinburne!).

  4. I was wondering - who could possibly have used "wuthering" (and so appropriately)?

    Thank you so much - and on my birthday, too. That reminds me, I need to assemble my birthday post.

  5. On the death of Algernon Charles Swinburne in 1909, W. B. Yeats (then 38 years of age) was reported to have declared to his sister "I am king of the cats." (Stolen from the wiki of all pedias).

  6. I have read that. I wonder what Yeats meant. I suppose some poets are cats and others are not.

  7. Yeats was referring to an old Irish folktale which he collected on his book of fairy tales and S V Benet wrote a short story about. The gist of the tale is (taken again from the wiki encyclopedia):
    A man travelling alone sees a number of cats preparing to bury a small coffin and golden crown. He reaches his destination and recounts what he saw, when suddenly the housecat cries "Then I am the king of the cats!", rushes up the chimney and is never seen again.