“A Voyage to Cythera” shows the full evolution of the motif of departure in Baudelaire’s work. In earlier poems, the poet shared the innocence exemplified by the child at the opening of “The Trip.” Thus, in “By Association” he saw no reason not to abandon himself to the imagined departure inspired by the woman’s perfume. “The Swan” reflects his recognition of separation from the ideal, but in a context of sadness rather than despair. The images of death in “A Voyage to Cythera” finally document the extent of the poet’s fall.

Baudelaire borrowed the circumstances of this poem from a story that Gérard de Nerval had told of his own visit to Greece in his Voyage en Orient (1851; Journey to the Orient, 1972). The poem opens with the familiar scene of a happy sea voyage: “My heart, like a bird, fluttered joyfully/ And soared freely around the rigging.” The joyful bird representing the poet’s heart recalls the use of the same image in “Elévation” (“Elevation”), a poem at the beginning of Flowers of Evil, and serves to show from what heights the poet has fallen. Immediately, the imagery of this joyous scene suggests the fall: “The ship rocked under a cloudless sky/ Like an angel drunk on radiant sunlight.” The negative implication appears, not in the literal meanings of the words, but in special nuances that Baudelaire has attached to them. The rolling ship echoes the rocking action by which...

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