The Invitation to the Voyage

by Charles Baudelaire

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The Poem

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“The Invitation to the Voyage” is number 53 in Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil, 1909), part of the book’s “Spleen and Ideal” section. Written in direct address, the poem uses the familiar forms of pronouns and verbs, which the French language reserves for children, close family, lovers and long-term friends, and prayer.

Charles Baudelaire was a master of traditional French verse form. In this poem, he chose to employ stanzas of twelve lines, alternating with a repeating two-line refrain. Each stanza is divided into distinct halves built on an aabccb, ddeffe rhyme pattern. An initial pair of rhyming five-syllable lines is followed by a seven-syllable line, another rhyming couplet of five-syllable lines, then a seven-syllable line which rhymes with the preceding seven-syllable line. The pattern of five-and seven-syllable lines is repeated with new rhymes then followed by the refrain couplet of seven-syllable lines. The regular alternation of long and short lines produces a gently syncopated rhythm, difficult to duplicate in translation.

The poem opens gently, addressing the beloved as “My child, my sister.” She is invited to dream of the sweetness of another place, to live, to love, and to die in a land which resembles her. The tone is intimate, the outlines gently blurred. The lady and the destination are described with ambiguity: The suns there are damp and veiled in mist; the lady’s eyes are treacherous and shine through tears. The refrain promises order, beauty, luxury, calm, and voluptuous pleasure in the indefinite “there.”

In the second stanza, the poet describes an interior scene, a luxurious bedroom where time, light and color, and scent and exoticism combine to speak the secret language of the soul. The description is made in the conditional form; this dream interior has not yet been realized. Again, the refrain returns with its promise of order and beauty, now in reference to the room which has just been described.

The last stanza presents a landscape, an ideal scene of ships at anchor in canals, ships which have traveled from the ends of the earth to satisfy the whims of the lady. Although vagabond by nature, they are gathered to sleep on canals which, unlike the untamed sea, are waters controlled and directed by human agency. As in the first stanza, the tone is generalized; the poet speaks of sunsets in the plural. The light of the sunsets, which dresses the fields, canals, and town, is described in terms of precious stones (“hyacinth,” as a color, may be the blue-purple of a sapphire or the reddish orange of a dark topaz) and gold, recalling the luxury of the second stanza. The stanza ends in warm light and sleep as the refrain returns with its promise of order, beauty, and calm.

Forms and Devices

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“The Invitation to the Voyage” makes full use of the music of language as its carefully measured lines paint one glowing picture after another. A successful translation must approximate as much as possible the verbal harmony produced in the original language, with its gentle rhythm and rich rhymes. Equally important appeals are made to the senses of sight and smell in the images employed by the poet.

The three stanzas of “The Invitation to the Voyage” correspond to three visual images, three landscapes. The first is vague and hazy, a “somewhere” where the poet emphasizes the qualities of misty indistinctness and moisture. There is sunlight, but it is diffuse. The “suns” of the imaginary landscape are doubled by the lady’s eyes. The beloved and the imaginary landscape are alike mysterious and indistinct.

In the second stanza, the interior scene is also distinguished by...

(This entire section contains 522 words.)

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its light, reflected from age-polished furniture and profound mirrors. It is also distinguished by the rare perfume of flowers mixed with amber. As with the light, the amber scent is “vague.” The emphasis is on complexity of stimuli: many-layered scents and elaborate decoration enhanced by time and exotic origin. The intimate tone of the first stanza is preserved through this descriptive passage; it is “our” room which is pictured, and the last line of the stanza echoes the “sweetness” of the beginning of the “Invitation” by describing the native language of the soul as “sweet.”

In the third stanza, a second exterior landscape is presented, with many elements of a Dutch genre painting: ships, with their implied voyages behind them, slumbering on orderly canals, the hint of a town in the background, the whole warmed by the golden light of the setting sun. The eye is invited to enjoy this picture, a glowing visual image painted with words. The environment is not the enclosed, hothouse atmosphere of the second stanza. The light is wider, more expanded, the poignant hyacinth and gold of sunset. Still, the gem quality of the “hyacinth” light recalls the opulence of the second stanza, as the “sunsets” of the third stanza echo the “suns” of the first.

The three visual images presented by the main stanzas of the poem are connected in many ways. The most obvious is the repeated refrain, with its indefinite “There,” which refers simultaneously to each separate scene and to the imaginary whole. With each return of the refrain, the poet tightens the embrace that holds the poem together in an intimate unity.

The complex pattern of rhyme in the original version is also an instrument of the poetic unity, especially since it is doubled by an interior structure of repetition and assonance. The fourth and fifth lines begin with the same word, aimer (“to love”). No less than nine lines begin with d and fourteen with l. Moreover, there is a striking incidence of l, s, and r sounds throughout the poem, forming a whispering undercurrent of sound. Even when this effect is lost in translation, the formal structure of the poem and the strength of its images ensure that the reader will be struck by its unified construction.