From Proust to Baudelaire

 I’m re-reading Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. During the first evening Swann spends with Odette at the Verdurin’s, he hears the Vinteuil sonata for piano. This imaginary sonata has a phrase which particularly caught Swann’s attention and gave him a great pleasure. This phrase appears several times in the piece and lingers in his mind after he went home. To describe the longing Swann has for this phrase, Proust compares it to a passer by :

Il était comme un homme dans la vie de qui une passante qu’il a aperçue un moment vient de faire entrer l’image d’une beauté nouvelle qui donne à sa propre sensibilité une valeur plus grande, sans qu’il sache seulement s’il pourra revoir jamais celle qu’il aime déjà et dont il ignore jusqu’au nom”

which means, (my flawed translation, sorry) :

He was like a man in whose life a passer-by he once saw just made enter the image of a new beauty which gives to his own sensibility a greater value, without his even knowing if he will ever have the chance to meet her again, she, he already loves and whose name he ignores”

This sentence reminded me of Baudelaire’s beautiful poem A une passante

La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;

Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son œil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

Un éclair… puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?

Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

I looked for translations of the poem and I found four, none of them fully satisfying. Of course, it is almost impossible to translate and keep the music of the original poem, the 12-foot verses, the rhymes, the alliterations and the twists in the syntax. So I chose the one which I think the closest to the original :

The deafening street around me roared.
Tall, slim, in deep mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed, lifting and swinging
With a pompous gesture the hem and flounces of her skirt,

Swift and noble, with statuesque limb.
As for me, I drank, twitching like a crazy man,
From her eye, livid sky where the hurricane is born,
The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,

A lightning flash… then night! O fleeting beauty,
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Shall I see you again only in eternity?

Somewhere else, way too far from here! Too late! Perhaps never!
For I do not know where you flee, you don’t know where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

Both the passer-by and the phrase of the sonata are transient. They are among a stream of people or a flow of notes and yet, they are so singular as to catch the eye of the poet or Swann’s attention. Baudelaire’s poem expresses the flash of the moment, as a photograph would capture it, and in the same time, the words, the punctuation, the syntax of the sentences picture the movement of this woman on the street, haughty and swiftly walking. As for the phrase of the sonata, it seems to fly above the other notes, like a butterfly above a field of wild flowers, musing, leaving, coming back. They are a tiny part of a whole scenery and yet will be better remembered than the entire sonata or the street that day. Proust often writes about memory, how our mind builds, stores and gives back memories.

For more on Swann’s Way, see

  1. June 11, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    Thanks for the link to Pechorin’s Journal, Bookaround, I’ve subscribed to his and your blog too and will follow both with interest.
    Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers


  2. June 12, 2010 at 8:18 am

    I’m glad you clicked on Pechorins Journal. It’s very good.


  3. March 19, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Bookaroundthecorner, this post is exactly the sort of thing that makes me want to reread Proust one day after I finish him. So many details. So many allusions. Although I’ve read several individual poems by him before, of course, I hope to finally read all of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal sometime this year. The poem you include above whets my appetite, thanks!


    • March 19, 2011 at 2:51 pm

      Thank you. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy reading Proust again. I’ll follow your blog to read your posts about the next volumes.

      I really like this poem and Baudelaire in particular. Even tedious analysis in school never managed to ruin him for me.
      If you like French poetry, I recommend Paul Eluard.


  4. December 22, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    I think the last part in Proust – “and whose name he ignore” – is very interesting and important. It seems to signify that the beauty of the moment is defined, at least in part, by the very fact that the passer-by is unknown, and will not be found again – she leaves only as an image in his memory. It’s something similar with A une passante – I ask myself sometimes if Baudelaire would really *want* to find his passerby again, and I don’t think he would.


    • December 23, 2012 at 11:29 am

      Proust is a collector of sensual experiences. Sounds, scents, images, touch, tastes, he catches various sensations and stores them for further analysis, enjoyment and remembrance.

      I think that Baudelaire describes the same kind of experience.
      And no, he doesn’t want to find his passer-by again; he’s just enjoying the view and letting his imagination run wild. Proust does the same in The Captive when he has a promenade with Albertine and looks at women on the street.

      We can all relate to that poem, because who hasn’t furtively looked at a perfect stranger on the street?


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