A Voyage to Cythera

by Charles Baudelaire
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

“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.

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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 “Boredom” rocked humanity’s will, and the drunken angel recalls the angel of “Benediction” who observed the child’s drunkenness.

When the island of Cythera, once sacred to Venus, becomes visible to the travelers, it is devoid of its former charms, “proud ghost of the antique Venus.” Baudelaire recalls the island’s past, “Where the sighs of adoring hearts/ Roll like incense on a rose garden,” and the perfume recalls Baudelaire’s own seduction. Like Baudelaire, the island has changed. On its banks now stands a gibbet, upon which hangs the body of a man already being devoured by beasts of prey. Faced with this grotesque image, Baudelaire recognizes in it the emblem of his own condition: “On your island, oh Venus! I found standing/ Only a symbolic gibbet where hung my own image.” His spiritual death was linked to women, even as this man’s death was to the island that represented love. In his fallen state, the poet can only reach out to God: “Oh Lord! give me the strength and courage/ To contemplate my heart and body without distaste.” The strength for which he prays may indeed provide the courage with which he will face death in his ultimate departure in “The Trip.”

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