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Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and the Changing Role of the Poet

Charles Baudelaire is often considered a late Romantic poet. Even Baudelaire sought to equate himself with archetypal Romantic figures like Byron, Hugo, and Gautier; the latter once claimed that Baudelaire had “found a way to inject new life into Romanticism” with the publication of his magnum opus, Les Fleurs du Mal. However, the novelty that Baudelaire was allegedly introducing to ostensibly Romantic verse was essentially a reflection of the changing social environment. It involved a new characterization of the role of the poet, as demonstrated in Baudelaire’s poem “The Albatross.”

Baudelaire represents a shift into modernity that redefines the poet as a marginalized outcast, not a public spokesman. The art of the poet is demystified amid a tide of thought that similarly contributed to the rise of state secularism, atheism and a general modern godlessness. This de-sanctification, in conjunction with other modern malaise such as a socio-economic system based increasingly in the relative doldrums of specialization, heralded an increasingly common deficiency of the soul and weariness of the mind known as ennui.

The progressively less relevant, less confident poet is subject to the harassment of the masses for his values in the face of the very modern moralities and industrial utility that have caused deep dissatisfaction of these masses. The Coleridgean, visionary poet is dead and in his place is left an ardent defender of art; one that is misunderstood and erudite, awkwardly hobbling amidst a people newly absorbed into the soul-deadening depths of ennui; one that is essentially an albatross displaced from his native, mysteriously infinite elements of the sky and the sea and relocated to a materiality of land (or in this case an extension of land, in the form of a ship). On land his virtues are considered defects and his “mild” (line 3) nature makes him subject to the abuse of people looking to amuse and distract themselves.

“The Albatross” appears third in Baudelaire’s seminal collection of verse, after a note “To the Reader” and a “Benediction.” The poem is evidently still dealing with broad, encompassing and introductory themes that Baudelaire wished to put forth as part of the principle foundations of his transformative text. The titular bird is decidedly analogized with “The Poet,” (13) in very broad terms, and is described as ungainly and “unseemly,” (10) tripping over his own “great white wings,” (8) or poetic and aesthetic thought processes, when thrust into a finite, material reality of the ship, or practical matters of the nineteenth century. These huge wings that appear to the sailors as nothing but “useless oars” (8) in the utilitarian context of the ship are precisely what, in the poetically infinite element of the sky, allow the albatross to “[scoff] at archers, [and love] a stormy day” (18). Or, to complete the analogy, the wings are what allow the poet to surmount criticism and contemplate the sublime.

This correlation between the poet and the albatross appear at first to be a timeless description of the poet who has always been a “kinsman in the clouds” (13) and inevitably awkward among more mundane company. This poem appears to pay tribute to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in its utilization and even elevation of the albatross. However, Baudelaire’s subtle analogical steps away from the affected folkloric resonance of Romanticism in his fable-like redefinition of the Modern poet is what is really at stake in this poem.

A brief look at how the great birds, decidedly analogous with poets, are treated by the respective seafarers illuminates an evolving social landscape into which the poet is supposed to adapt. Left in place of the fervor, excitement, and antique spirituality that marked the late eighteenth century is callousness, listless boredom, and modern profanity that makes the albatross, “once handsome,” (10) revered and marveled at in the proper aerial element, a comical plaything, harassed “on the planks” (5) by the “hooting,” (15) soulless sailors of modernity.

It might be noted that the albatross in Coleridge’s poem is abruptly killed by one of the sailors, whereas it is only mocked and poked fun at in Baudelaire’s poem; the more revealing difference lies, however, in other related details. The mariner’s action in Coleridge is described as regrettable and senseless by his companions. His thoughtlessness serves as their motivation to ostracize and reprimand him for his unforgivable, inexplicable lapse of moral clarity. In Baudelaire there is no indication that the sailors have even a latent respect for the bird and their conniving malevolence is indicated as happening “often,” (1) labeling it widespread and recurring; a diversion for sailors unimpressed by the bird’s ease in the air and threatened by its soaring, symbolic proximity to a God that they were on the brink of losing or more likely that they have already lost.

In addition to having a pervasively spreading faithlessness and fading spirituality that lends itself to the uninspired feeling of discontentment and fatigued emptiness of the soul that seems to plague the modern, industrial age, the crew serves as a paradigm of the modern phenomenon of division of labor. Each member on the ship has individual tasks that he carries out quotidianly, as is generally understood, but that is also implicitly referenced in the brief description of the individual actions of two of the sailors in lines eleven and twelve. While specialization theoretically benefits utility in the modern era, the mind-numbing repetition of tasks contributes to the overall feeling of ennui that is the immediate source of the sailors’ cruelty towards the bird and the more encompassing reason for the increasing rift of misunderstanding and incomprehensibility between the “crowds” (15) and the poet.

In “Rime,” the albatross-poet perches on the ship before its enigmatic slaughter, representing the benevolently condescending, increasingly egalitarian sentiment of the Romantic poet willingly immersing himself, from time to time, in the tedium of ordinary society. On the other hand, in “The Albatross,” the great bird is trapped by a bored crew that parades him about in his landed ineptitude. It is then logical to ask why such a majestic traveler of the sky, seemingly self-sufficient, would allow itself to be beguiled and ensnared by a crew of mere seamen. Is it because the albatross too, though to a much lesser degree, suffers from a disquieting ennui, the apparently inescapable affliction of modernity? Is the poet-albatross allowing himself to be trapped, to some extent, out of a need to silently antagonize his earth-bound counterparts with the knowledge that he belongs to something higher than they do? Is he necessarily infected in the process when forced on the “pipe” (11) that Baudelaire associates in the opening poem of Les Fleurs du Mal with a personified figure of Ennui?

The problem then becomes that the poet-albatross, no longer able to soar as a seer, and marginalized by an age obsessed with and plagued by an attraction to utility, has difficulty grappling with poetic moralities, different ideas, and higher values, materialized as obstacles among the masses. The Modern poet’s attempts to relate to the crowd have been put aside. The crowd wants less and less to do with him in a productive sense and, as a result of the soul-deadening loss of spirituality and in the depths of a state of ennui, would have great difficulties relating, anyway. As a result the poet of Modernity appears “comical and weak,” (9) and is forced to live “hurt and distraught” (6) on the margins of society.

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