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"À une passante"
In his Charles Baudelaire: a Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Benjamin includes a chapter in which he maps the rise and fall of the flâneur's role in nineteenth-century Parisian culture. Because nearly every piece of scholarship on the subject of the flâneur assumes prior knowledge of Benjamin's writings on Baudelaire, I will include a brief analysis of one of Baudelaire's most flâneuristic poems. Baudelaire's "Á Une Passante" is part of a larger section of his Les Fleurs du Mal entitled "Tableaux Parisiens." Benjamin wrote about many of the poems in this collection, but this poem is particularly succinct in its embodiment of the flâneur's perspective, capturing in few lines the hopelessness of flânerie's passion:
Amid the deafening traffic of the town,
Tall, slender, in deep mourning, with majesty,
A woman passed, raising, with dignity
In her poised hand, the flounces of her gown;
Graceful, noble, with a statue's form.
And I drank, trembling as a madman thrills,
From her eyes, ashen sky where brooded storm,
The softness that fascinates, the pleasure that kills.
A flash . . . then night!--O lovely fugitive,
I am suddenly reborn from your swift glance;
Shall I never see you till eternity?
Somewhere, far off! Too late! never, perchance!
Neither knows where the other goes or lives;
We might have loved, and you knew this might be!
In this poem Baudelaire, assuming the role of flâneur, addresses a passing stranger--a widow as judged from her garb--for a brief instant and then mourns her loss as she vanishes from his sight. In a city as large as Paris it is possible to see a person but once; thus each street encounter bears with it the fleetingness of youth, spring, or any other Romantic ideal. The feminine beauty of this passing stranger resident in her "swift glance," contains an ephemeral element that pulls the observer closer to death and the subsequent appreciation for life. Benjamin writes in "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire":
In a widow's veil, mysteriously and mutely
borne along by the crowd, an unknown
woman comes into the poet's field of vision.
What this sonnet communicates is simply
this: Far from experiencing the crowd as an
opposed, antagonistic element, this very
crowd brings to the city dweller the figure
that fascinates. The delight of the urban poet
is love--not at first sight, but at last sight.
The widow figure in this poem serves as a physical reminder of individual forces that make up the crowd. The figure is emblematic of anticipated potential and possibility--all future-oriented qualities in which she will never have the opportunity to fail. She, "with statue's form," is not so much a finished work of art as she is a roughed-out image in a block of marble. Baudelaire may fill in the details in whatever way reflects his own artistic needs. This passing stranger is more than a blank canvas upon which the flâneur paints his personal view of humanity: she is an instrument of his creative process--the box of colored chalk from which he draws those human traits and characteristics that color and reflect his own mind. The flâneur loves the passing stranger in the same way that he loves any source of inspiration or literary device--for its effectiveness as a representation of his own consciousness. According to Benjamin, "The delight of the city-dweller is not so much love at first sight as love at last sight" (Baudelaire 45). This "last sight" evokes in the flâneur a level of emotional involvement unequalled by that through which he wanders, those seemingly permanent structures that guide his search--the surrounding architecture that mocks through its durability any notion of self the poet might entertain. The passerby becomes his muse in the way a statue might, but a statue that will not be there if he returns.
In this brief poem, many issues surrounding flânerie are addressed. First, there is the city background, the "deafening streets" that prevent the poet's encounters from being more than brief and superficial. Also present, and typical of the flâneur narrator, is the poet's vampiric relationship with the passerby. He drinks from her eyes, "trembling as a madman thrills." Then, in the wake of the acknowledged distance between the two passersby, the poet acknowledges the potential of their relationship and its destiny of remaining forever unexplored. This exchanged glance becomes an instrument of empathy between the two people, establishing a level of intimacy that can only exist in the constantly shifting impersonal streets--the great hyperbolic trope of the human condition.
À une passante
La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d'une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l'ourlet;
Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l'ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.
Un éclair... puis la nuit! Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m'a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l'éternité?
Ailleurs, bien loin d'ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j'ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j'eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!
To a Passer-By
The street about me roared with a deafening sound.
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed, with a glittering hand
Raising, swinging the hem and flounces of her skirt;
Agile and graceful, her leg was like a statue's.
Tense as in a delirium, I drank
From her eyes, pale sky where tempests germinate,
The sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills.
A lightning flash... then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?
Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!
William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
The deafening street roared on. Full, slim, and grand
In mourning and majestic grief, passed down
A woman, lifting with a stately hand
And swaying the black borders of her gown;
Noble and swift, her leg with statues matching;
I drank, convulsed, out of her pensive eye,
A livid sky where hurricanes were hatching,
Sweetness that charms, and joy that makes one die.
A lighting-flash then darkness! Fleeting chance
Whose look was my rebirth a single glance!
Through endless time shall I not meet with you?
Far off! too late! or never! I not knowing
Who you may be, nor you where I am going
You, whom I might have loved, who know it too!
Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)
To a Woman Passing By
The deafening road around me roared.
Tall, slim, in deep mourning, making majestic grief,
A woman passed, lifting and swinging
With a pompous gesture the ornamental hem of her garment,
Swift and noble, with statuesque limb.
As for me, I drank, twitching like an old roué,
From her eye, livid sky where the hurricane is born,
The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,
A gleam. then night! O fleeting beauty,
Your glance has given me sudden rebirth,
Shall I see you again only in eternity?
Somewhere else, very far from here! Too late! Perhaps never!
For I do not know where you flee, nor you where I am going,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!
Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974)