“The Albatross ” – By Charles Baudelaire

Français : Portrait de Charles Baudelaire.

Français : Portrait de Charles Baudelaire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Often, for their amusement, bored sailors
take albatrosses, vast sea-birds, that sleep
in the air, indolent fellow travellers,
following the ship skimming the deep.

No sooner are they set down on the boards,
than those kings of the azure, maladroit, shamefully
let their vast white wings, like oars,
trail along their sides, piteously.

Winged traveller, gauche, gross, useless, laughable,
now, one of them, with a pipe stem, prods you
who, a moment ago, were beautiful:
another, limping, mimics the cripple who flew.

The Poet bears a likeness to that prince of the air,
who mocks at slingshots, and haunts the winds:
on earth, an exile among the scornful, where
he is hampered, in walking, by his giant wings.


I am not sure if the translation here is actually faithful to the original Baudelaire in French but I love this piece for the beauty of its imagery . It touches us deeply – especially those of us who are not familiar with French.

For example

“he is hampered,in walking, by his giant wings” is simply beautiful. The albatross has giant wings and when it is in the air,it is graceful and dignified ,the way it floats along the ship. On the ship’s board it is clumsy with its wings ,almost comic in its pathetic attempts to walk with its webbed feet. It is the sailors who prod it with their pipe stem and mimic its walks if it is a cripple . An albatross is meant to fly, not walk on the ship’s board. Laughing at its clumsiness is a human folly that fails to realize the absurdity of a situation caused by the stupid actions of the humans themselves.

The poet is hampered, like the albatross,in his walking by his giant wings. In the air, the albatross mocks at the slingshots and haunts the winds.Its wings hardly seem to move as it softly floats along the ship and appears to be in sleep, following the ship ,a luxuriously lazy fellow-traveler to the sailors in the ship. The poet is hampered by his own wings, large as they are and beautiful in the sky. But bring him down to the hard board of a workaday world where he proves to be a disaster, a clumsy fool awkward in his gait and speech.

vast sea-birds /that sleep in the air ” is an amazing expression. “vast sea birds ‘ can be syntactically vast sea- birds or vast-sea birds. The first hyphenation conveys the vastness of the sea-bird but the second expression has a much richer meaning in the sense of a bird from the vastness of a sea.

“sleep in the air”
is the relative lack of its motion experienced by the inmates of the ship when the speed of the albatross is equal to the ship’s. The bird just floats in the air on the momentum of a periodic flutter of its wings.

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“Anecdote of the Jar ” -By Wallace Stevens

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The poem is like Keats’ ode to the Grecian Urn but only on the face of it. The jar is here a symbol or not a symbol depending upon the reader’s own thought.It can be just a jar in a painting surrounded by wilderness as if it is a hillock and a wilderness is growing around it . The jar is round and gray as everything else in the poem is , devoid of nature. Keats’ Grecian Urn contains ashes of time , with the evanescence of human existence caught immortally in timeless art. This one is empty , both inside and on the outside. On the outside it is bare and gray,containing no art.But it does sport nature in the form of a slovenly wilderness that rises up to it. But once it rises up it it is no longer wild but is just stays sprawled around as if it is art or stillness painted on a two-dimensional plane.

The jar is round upon the ground and tall and of a port in air. But unlike a hill it does not give of bush or bird. It essentially remains art although it imitates nature. Keats’ poem was an ode .This is a mere anecdote- a narrative told by a poet as part of a conversation. The poet is not praising anything. He is merely illustrating whatever he is saying by a story, which is what this one is.

On the face of it the meter seems in a mess with lines spilling out of four iambs in some . There is order dealing with art and lack of it as we deal with nature -“slovenly wilderness” .There are lines of four iambs and lines going beyond this structure exactly as it would happen in art and nature.

The interesting thing about the poem is the anecdotal nature of the poem-the way some one narrates an event to illustrate a point. The scene of action was Tennessee with the narrator placing a jar on a hill in Tennessee.What made the slovenly wilderness surround the hill? Imagine you paint a jar and in the background is a hill, bare and round. Will not the wilderness rise up to the top ,sprawled around and become less wild?

There is fun and attempts at parody by different critics on the apparently disjunctive syntax and the reader’s difficulty of making overall sense out of the poem. Like for example the two negatives in the last two lines -they send you in a spin. A sneaking suspicion comes as to if Wallace is actually pulling your legs. Surely it cannot be a jar of pickles with Wallace laughing about it behind your back.

Supposing if that were to happen, would it detract from its merit as a poem? I do not think so. The poem stands on its own merits in the beauty of the imagery. May be it is a poem about poem writing or any art. May be, it is a post-structuralist perspective in art or even a spoof on deliberate obfuscation resorted to in contemporary poetics. It may even be a regret of an American poet who feels cut off from the rich classical traditions of Europe like for example in the ode to a Grecian urn.

“Madam Life’s a Piece in Bloom”- by William Ernest Henley

Madam Life’s a piece in bloom
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She’s the tenant of the room,
He’s the ruffian on the stair.

You shall see her as a friend,
You shall bilk him once or twice;
But he’ll trap you in the end,
And he’ll stick you for her price.

With his kneebones at your chest,
And his knuckles in your throat,
You would reason — plead — protest!
Clutching at her petticoat;

But she’s heard it all before,
Well she knows you’ve had your fun,
Gingerly she gains the door,
And your little job is done.

For its inclusion in the Oxford Book of Death you need not go far to look for reasons because the imagery for Life and Death used by Henley is simply brilliant.

“She is the tenant of the room
He is the ruffian on the stair”

She is soft and good-natured and peace loving. She is a flower in bloom. He is a ruffian ,who has not yet gained entry into the apartment .He is still waiting on the stair for the door to be opened by Madam Life.

He is a ruffian given to violence, Once he gains entry he will be at your throat, with his knuckles and his knee-bones hard on your chest, squeezing the life out of you.

The violence associated with death is evoked by a visual scene created of a ruffian with murderous intent-his knee-bones on your chest and his knuckles at your throat,squeezing the life out of you.You are pitifully pleading with him for your life, desperately clutching at Madam Life’s petticoat.

I have yet to see such a graphic description of death.

“And your little job is done” -A chilling last line,isn’t it?