Poetry and Translation as Exile in Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage” and Tsvetaeva’s “Plavanie”

Amy Leggette


Translation is no longer merely a practice or a problem in Comparative Literature; it is a paradigm of scholarly work in the field. Translation is a conceptual structure of global literary relations, a critical perspective on the future of the discipline ― or the “zone” of “A New Comparative Literature,” as it is announced in the subtitle of Emily Apter’s 2011 book, The Translation Zone. Yet translation is nonetheless a process; it is meaning in process, in transit, as it is conveyed across the separation of national languages, cultural discourses, geographical and temporal locations, and even idiosyncratic worldviews. Translation gets meaning across, but it does not necessarily arrive. Indeed, whether it should arrive at all is a complicated question: translation is a potentially rich encounter of difference, but not if it easily assimilates meaning, “domesticating” the original text (to borrow the terms developed by Lawrence Venuti) by effectively erasing all “foreignizing” traces of context. Translation is somewhere in-between, not only between languages or cultures, but even between worlds. For the French poet (and translator) Charles Baudelaire, translation is metaphysical, a movement across the separation between the real and the ideal, the worldly and the heavenly; it is the movement of poetry itself: “C’est à la fois par la poésie et à travers la poésie […] que l’âme entrevoit les splendeurs situées derrière le tombeau” ‘It is at once by poetry and through poetry […] that the soul discerns the splendors situated beyond the tomb’ (352).1 This movement, which Baudelaire apprehends in the notes to his translations of Edgar Allan Poe, is repeated in variations on the itinerary of desire in Baudelaire's own poems ― a voyage without end, leading “beyond the tomb” in “Le Voyage” (122-24), the closing poem of Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). The Baudelarian voyage provides a thematic structure for thinking about the relationship between poetry and translation: the movement between source and other in a state of non-arrival.


In “Le Voyage,” Baudelaire’s final voyage extends into the afterlife ― beyond the watery depths of death in the poem itself, and into the “afterlife” of translation, as Walter Benjamin calls it. “Le Voyage” suggests another departure, not only in the ambiguous ending of the poem, but also in a meta-textual gesture to fellow readers, an invitation to reprise the voyage in the “cadres d’horizons” ‘frames of horizons’ of their own experience. Not only is every translation a reading, as Harold Bloom famously argues, but every reading is a translation, a deferred voyage. By moving between the “frames” of Baudelaire’s poetics and her own, Marina Tsvetaeva reenacts the movement of the voyage in “Plavanie,” her 1940 translation of “Le Voyage” into Russian (2: 396-401). This translation departs from the original text in ways that reveal a continuity between the poetics of Baudelaire and Tsvetaeva: the concept of exile as a source of poetic identity and authority. In comparing these two texts, my intention is not to provide context for evaluating Tsvetaeva’s translation of Baudelaire’s poem or for discussing the problems of translation practice;2 rather, my method of close reading draws out specificities of each poet’s idiom and imaginary to develop intertextual connections between their poetics. In my analysis of “Le Voyage” and “Plavanie,” translation registers the separation that, for Baudelaire and Tsvetaeva, constitutes an essential condition of poetry.


Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage” begins at the origin of desire, the world in the eyes of a child. By locating desire in the gaze, the first stanza posits the dialectics of the voyage: 

Pour l'enfant, amoureux de cartes et d'estampes,

L'univers est égal à son vaste appétit.

Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!

Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!


For the child, enamored by his maps and etchings,

The universe is equal to his vast appetite.

Ah! how the world is large in the light of lamps!

In the eyes of memory how the world is small!

As the child gazes at the world from his own little corner (the circle of lamplight illuminating his collection), the circumscribed space of his imaginative play opens onto the world at large as large. The child does not know the world through first-hand experience of its immensity or its limits; his maps and etchings (representations of the world known through travel) feed a growing desire for what his eyes have not seen: he acquires a taste and an appetite for the world in its vastness. Here I am activating Baudelaire’s term le goût de l’infini (the appetite/taste of the infinite) to capture the alluring expanse of the unknown. By locating its originary source in the child’s perspective, in which imagination ― “la reine des facultés” ‘the queen of faculties’ (396) ― has free rein, Baudelaire defines desire as a way of seeing the world. Imagination opens onto the unlimited space beyond all fields of knowledge (the infinite of the unknown), but as lived experience delimits the world in relation to the known, the scope of vision narrows to points of reference. In other words, when the voyage consolidates experience as knowledge in the perspective of the veteran, the world shrinks; everything appears small in the eyes of memory. The juxtaposition of the child and the seasoned voyager thus establishes a spatial measure of desire in its fluctuations. The scope of vision, or the perceived dimensions of the world, reflects the state of desire as it is conditioned by the opposing forces that shape perspective: imagination and knowledge.          


The spatial representation of desire in “Le Voyage” encapsulates the entire dialectical movement of the voyage in Baudelaire's poetics. Yet with minor shifts in translation, this system of relations collapses into the space articulated in Tsvetaeva’s “Plavanie.” The child who pores over his collectibles does not imagine the world as an unbounded whole, but rather as a sequence of perceptual markers: “Za kazhdym valom — dal’, za kazhdoi dal’iu — val” ‘Beyond every billow ― a distance; beyond every distance ― a billow’. Instead of picturing the infinite, the child thinks in more finite terms, in manageable perceptual units, the outermost boundaries of “val” and “dal’” delimiting his visual field. As boundless space is organized into discernible dimensions in Tsvetaeva’s “Plavanie,” perceptual experience infringes on the privileged space of the imagination in Baudelaire’s voyage.


Moreover, the emphasis on perceptual bounds in “Plavanie” reflects Tsvetaeva’s personal concept of desire. As the child’s visual field stretches out to the limits of his perception, he apprehends the world in terms of distance, that is, in terms relative to his experiential position, to his point of view. The repeated image of “dal” (distance) carries specific resonances in Tsvetaeva’s poetics, establishing bearings for the voyage in her own system of associations. As Ieva Vitins observes, in the collected verse marked by Tsveteava’s experience of emigration, “the ‘dal’ with which emigration had become synonymous with Russia reasserted itself, now summoning her to the home that she had renounced” (656). Distance is inseparable in Tsvetaeva’s mature poetics from the longing for home ― always in sight, but at a distance ― as a spatial measure of absence experienced in the awareness of one’s location. This phenomenology of distance imbues Tsvetaeva’s rendering of the voyage in “Plavanie” with exilic desire, even prior to departure.


This discrepancy betrays the experiential contexts that differentially inform Baudelaire’s representation of the voyage and Tsvetaeva’s translation. The source of exotic perfume in Baudelaire’s poems is attributed by legend to his travels to India, a compulsory trip arranged by his stepfather, General Aupick. However, Claude Pichois reconstructs “the true story,” not from Baudelaire’s laconic account of his “first adventure,” but from letters concerning an aborted journey. The captain of the ship carrying Baudelaire as far as Ile Bourbon had to inform General Aupick that his stepson was too incorrigible in his “exclusive taste for literature” to continue the voyage: “our arrival in Mauritus merely increased his despondency […] Nothing in a land and society that were quite new to him attracted his attention or aroused his aptitude for observation [… H]is mind was set on his desire to return to Paris at the earliest opportunity” (77). Baudelaire’s only desire was for literature, preferring the limitless voyage of imagination to lived experience of the world. He did not suffer the distance from home for very long. For Tsvetaeva, the sea became an indefinite separation from home. After surviving several years of dire poverty and the dangers of revolution in Moscow, Tsvetaeva emigrated to Europe, first reuniting with her husband in Prague, then settling in Berlin and later Paris. She flourished as a poet in the initially warm reception provided by the Russian émigré community, but, for any number of reasons3 ― her disdain for material concerns, her behavior as an outcast, her husband’s political activity, her own provocations ― she found the conditions of emigration crippling for her poetry in the end: “The emigration makes of me a prose writer” (qtd in Feiler 203). While “Le Voyage” reflects Baudelaire’s preference for imaginary voyages, and “Plavanie” speaks to Tsvetaeva’s struggle to overcome distance, they both draw on separation as a source of poetry.    


In “Le Voyage,” Baudelaire evokes the condition of exile, not as a longing to return home, but as the promise of escape from places of memory. Departing voyagers are classified according to the circumstances of their flight:

Les uns, joyeux de fuir une patrie infame;

D’autres, l’horreur de leurs berceaux, et quelques-uns,

Astrologues noyés dans les yeux d’une femme,

La Circé tyrannique aux dangereux parfums.


Some, joyful in fleeing a wretched homeland;

Others, the horror of their cradles, and a few,

Astrologers drowned in the eyes of a woman,

Tyrannical Circe with dangerous perfumes.     

In each case, the voyagers spurn confining experiences, spatial identifications; in fleeing “berceaux,” “patrie,” and “femme” ― the localized histories of cradle, country, and coitus that constrict desire in the known ― they share a common repulsion for attachments that limit worldly contact. Yet this lived experience lingers in their joy, their horror, the danger of perfume ― in the movement of desire carrying them toward escape. In the negative desire fed by memory, the voyage affirms human plenitude: “Pour n’être pas changés en bêtes, ils s’enivrent / D’espace et de lumière et de cieux embrasés” ‘Not to be changed into beasts, they get drunk / On space and light and blazing skies.’ As the voyagers immerse themselves in the undefined dimensions of “espace” and “lumière,” they lose their bearings in boundlessness. All associations retained in their memory fall away in the voyage, a raw exposure to the world that removes the conspicuous trace of past relations: “La glace qui les mord, les soleils qui les cuivrent / Effacent lentement la marque des baisers” ‘The ice that bites them, the suns that bronze them / Slowly erase the mark of kisses.’ The voyage is a process of severing, through unmediated experience, the self-identifying ties of memory.


By setting off the contrast between voyagers on their course, “Le Voyage” reinforces the originary status of le goût de l’infini in the representation of desire. The speaker introduces the “vrais voyageurs” ‘true voyagers’ as those whose desire is not limited by any specific want or burden. Unlike the fugitives of memory, who begin their voyage with “le cœur gros de rancune et de désirs amers” ‘hearts heavy with rancor and bitter desires,’ the “vrais voyageurs” embark with “cœurs légers” ‘light hearts.’ They do not simply move out on the horizontal axis of escape, they also exhibit a vertical mobility in their buoyant hearts, “semblables aux ballons” ‘similar to balloons.’ They travel without any baggage, for their desire is an end unto itself: “les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent / Pour partir […] Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!” ‘the true voyagers are only those who leave to leave […] And, without knowing why, always say: Let’s go!’ The voyage fueled by pure desire moves toward the unknown without any frame of reference in lived experience. The “vrais voyageurs” have no map or itinerary, only the desire for what lies beyond the limits of knowledge ― that for which “l’esprit humain n’a jamais su le nom” ‘the human spirit has never known the name.’ They reject the possessive desire for knowledge in their quest for “vastes voluptés, changeantes, inconnues” ‘vast, changing, unknown voluptuousness.’ The desire to escape the bounds of knowledge is as boundless as “la forme des nues” ‘the form of clouds’ in the imagination, and it is not uni-directional, but at once evasion and aspiration. Le goût de l’infini cannot be limited to one axis because this desire resists the attachments that would locate it in space; the desire of “vrais voyageurs” routes the experience of the voyage not through the binding of memory, but through the fluid associations of imagination.


Baudelaire’s voyagers enact the movement of desire ― always en route, never arriving, never achieving its object. Leo Bersani explains this perpetual movement through the Freudian mechanism of displacement: “To desire is to move to other places. And those places are representations ― which is to say the images of fantasy” (61). The voyage moves along the trajectory of desire in the imaginary, drifting from one object of desire to the next. It moves toward an arrival that never comes, for desire never arrives anyplace, but “‘travels,’ moves from one representation to another” (86). Unfulfilled desire propels the voyage by continuous displacement toward a destination that is always “elsewhere” by stimulating the imagination to create new objects of desire ― “representations,” Bersani specifies, summoned to “replace the emptiness in even the most ecstatic fantasy by the ‘imaginary’ plentitude of satisfaction” (86). Through a flood of sensations, which swallow the real into the imaginary, the voyage provides an endless supply of substitutions for the object of desire. Lived experience yields to the work of the imagination, to the flow of experiences springing from fantasy and memory. The world offers itself to the imagination as the inexhaustible source of desire.


Where desire is continually displaced in the movement of Baudelaire’s voyage, associations persist in Tsvetaeva’s “Plavanie.” In “Le Voyage,” the speaker describes a release from lived experience through exposures to the unknown which “Effacent lentement” ‘Slowly efface’ the traces of past relations. A single prepositional phrase has Tsvetaeva’s voyagers carrying the indelible marks of personal history with them ― “Poka ozhogi l’dov i solhts otveshykh plamia / He vytraviat sledov volshebhitsynykh ust” ‘Until the burning of the ice and the flame of high suns / Remove the trace of the enchanting lips.’ In this expectant orientation of lingering, the new and the known commingle in the unknown. The voyage in “Plavanie” thus diverges from Baudelaire’s world at its very point of departure.


Rather than dislocation, Tsvetaeva’s voyage is a continual re-location of desire in relation to the poetic subject. The voyagers in “Plavanie” are deferred on their journey in a specified location: they must leave “V TSirtseinykh sadakh daby ne stat’ skotami” ‘Not to become beasts in Circe’s gardens.’ Here, the threat of Circe’s sensuality is localized “v teni / Tsirtseinykh resnits” ‘in the shade of her eyelashes’ and in her gardens ― a named space, a place from which they may not return fully human. Detained in Circe’s gardens, in a land that is not their own, the voyagers experience the hope of exile: “ostavivshikh polzhizni,! / Nadezhda otstoiat’ ostavshiesia dni” ‘a half-life remains, ! / The hope to endure the remaining days.’ By locating desire in space, “Plavanie” evokes the subjectivity of exile, which organizes perceptions in Tsvetaeva’s world, to represent the voyagers’ experience. Baudelaire’s voyagers come to know the sea sensually, “suivant le rythme de la lame, / Berçant notre infini sur le fini des mers” ‘following the rhythm of the wave, / Lulling our infinite on the finite of the seas’; however, they do not linger in this comfortable relation with the sea (they reject the association in fleeing the “berceaux” in the stanza after their departure). When Tsvetaeva’s voyagers climb onto the ship, the “Plavanie” speaker declares, “i proiskhodit vstrecha / Bezmerhosti mechty s predel’nost’iu morei” ‘a meeting occurs / Of immense desire with the bounds of the sea.’ The correspondence of “bounds” in this “meeting” orients the voyage in knowledge gained through the perception of space.


The departures from the source in Tsvetaeva’s translation organize the voyage from a relational point of view. “Plavanie” centers the experience of the voyage on plural subject as acts of perception take over the work of the imagination in Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage.” Rather than an opening of experience, the infinitely creative act of “L’imagination qui dresse son orgie” ‘Imagination that raises its orgy,’ the horizon emerges in “Plavanie” as objects are perceived, “zavidennyi dosornym” ‘seen by the scout.’ The speaker describes a visual layout unfolding around a seeing subject: “Nam chuditsia” ‘Seems to us,’ “iavliaet nam” ‘reveals to us.’ By orienting objects in the boundaries of perceptual space, the sensory language of Tsvetaeva’s translation maps the movement of desire in the voyage. Desire resists mapping in “Le Voyage,” but the perceptual mode of the voyage in “Plavanie” alters imagery to reproduce the structure of Baudelairian desire in Tsvetaeva’s poetics.


With the addition of environmental details, Tsvetaeva’s translation situates the voyagers in relation to referents in the surrounding space. The vocative in “Le Voyage” populates the space of the unknown with objects of desire. In “Plavanie” the lookout calls from a specified location, “sredi gor i bezdn i gidr morskogo ada” ‘amidst mountains and abysses and the hydras of maritime hell.’ From this fixed point in space, the call of the lookout distinguishes objects as they enter the visual field of those on the ship, and in Tsvetaeva’s rendering, captures the movement and the disillusionment of the voyage: “Rai! Liubov’! Blazhenstvo! — Rif” ‘Paradise! Love! Bliss! ― Reef.’ Excitement builds to a pause, a break in the rising intonation pattern, when the lookout identifies “Reef” and dashes hopes for something better. Further, Tsvetaeva’s voyagers identify with the space in which they are immersed; even in the act of sailing “bez tseli” ‘without a goal,’ these “Glotateli shirot” ‘swallowers of expanses’ absorb the immediate experience of dimensionality. And they form new self-defining attachments to every horizon, for the changing outline of the sky offers a hearth to the weary travelers: “kazhduiu zariu spravliaiut novosel’e” ‘they celebrate every sunset as a housewarming.’ Baudelaire emphasizes the infinite possibilities of the voyagers’ desires ― ”les désirs ont la forme des nues” ‘their desires have the form of clouds’ ― but Tsvetaeva calls attention to the intimate relations between the voyagers and the horizon: “Na oblako vzgliani: vot oblik ikh zhelanii!” ‘Look at the cloud ― there’s the face of their desires!’. In this “face” the voyagers recognize the known as the object of their desire, even as they embark on the unknown. By configuring desire in the perceived space of the voyage, “Plavanie” represents an exilic mode of displacement that resists forgetting.


Yet it is precisely by identifying with space that Baudelaire’s voyagers kill their desire with knowledge. Desire contracts in the face of knowledge, and the sense of boundlessness in “Le Voyage” resolves into defined space, a site of self-identification:

Amer savoir, celui qu'on tire du voyage!

Le monde, monotone et petit, aujourd'hui,

Hier, demain, toujours, nous fait voir notre image:

Une oasis d'horreur dans un désert d'ennui! 


 Bitter knowledge that one gains from voyaging!

 The world, monotonous and small, today,

 Yesterday, tomorrow, always, makes us see our image:

 An oasis of horror in a desert of ennui!

Voyaging is no more an escape from the self than looking in a mirror; it is a confirmation of self-knowledge, the facts of an impoverished existence of repetition. In light of this knowledge, the image of the world shrinks to the size of withered desire. The dialectical structure of the voyage, a spatial “orchestration” of desire, in James Lawler’s formulation (163), plays out the trajectory of desire that Baudelaire encapsulates in his concept of le goût de l’infini. This deep-seated urge accounts for all human behavior, simply the pursuit of desire to escape the burden of existential realities. In Les Paradis Artificiels Artificial Paradises,’ Baudelaire apprehends le goût de l’infini through deviance, the narrow diversions of misplaced drives: “les vices de l’homme, si pleins d’horreur qu’on les suppose, contiennent la preuve (quand ce ne serait que leur infinie expansion!) de son goût de l’infini; seulement c’est un goût qui se trompe souvent de route” ‘the vices of man, seemingly so full of horror, contain the proof (when it could only be their infinite expansion!) of his appetite for the infinite; only this is a desire that often goes astray’ (568). The testimony of the voyagers in “Le Voyage” substantiates Baudelaire’s theory of the human tragedy. No matter where they go, the voyagers encounter “le spectacle ennuyeux de l’immortel péché” ‘the tiresome spectacle of immortal sin.’ Rather than a sense of the infinite, they experience the finite in a world that is everywhere the same; everywhere sin iterates the same desire, the same futile effort to escape ennui ― “Tel est du globe entier l’éternel bulletin” ‘Such is the eternal bulletin from the entire globe.’ The world that once unfurled as endlessly as the canvas of the child’s imagination, inspiring a desire equal to his appetite, is now just a news bite, an unbearable tableau. “Le Voyage” brings the voyagers back to their own reflection, and toward their definitive resignation, “Ce pays nous ennuie” ‘This country bores us.’ The escape from ennui is not found in this world, but in the only remaining unknown.


Baudelaire’s world-weary voyagers turn to the dark waters of the shores of death as an end to the monotony ― and a new departure. They revert to a childlike state of joy as they approach death “Avec le cœur joyeux d’un jeune passager” ‘With the joyful heat of a young passenger.’ The recognition of death revives their desire: “Si le ciel et la mer sont noirs comme de l’encre, / Nos cœurs que tu connais sont remplis de rayons” ‘If the sky and sea are black as ink / Our hearts that you know are full of light.’ The expression of rekindled desire suggests a special relationship to death, familiarly addressed as “tu,” as someone with knowledge of their burning hearts and the cure to their suffering: “Verse-nous ton poison pour qu’il nous réconforte!” ‘Pour us your poison to comfort us!’. In the final lines of the poem, the undying volition of the voyagers opens onto the possibility of finding something new: “Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau / Plonger […] Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!” ‘We want, so much this fire burns our brains / To plunge […] into the depths of the Unknown to find the new!’. And yet the meeting of the rejuvenated voyagers and “Mort, vieux capitaine” ‘old captain Death’ suggests that their voyage has brought them to a familiar place, comforting and restorative. This ambiguity is echoed in ambivalence: “Enfer ou Ciel, qu'importe?” ‘Hell or Heaven, what does it matter?’. By refusing to name a final destination, the voyagers defer arrival to the very end, ensuring another voyage.


That the voyagers are bound for death in “Le Voyage” is beyond dispute, but Tsvetaeva’s translation conveys the presentiment that they may in fact belong in the beyond. Baudelaire’s voyagers despair as knowledge diminishes their desire, and the space of the unknown closes in on death ― an illuminated exit. But where the voyage disenchants, the “Plavanie” voyagers find a “nadezhnee” ‘more hopeful’ ennui. Instead of testifying to a world overrun by sin, Tsvetaeva’s voyagers cite the prevalence of suicide; “Materi-Zemli izvechnyi biulleten” ‘Mother Earth’s perennial news bulletin’ reports that people everywhere “Reshivshikh sokratit’ dokuchnyi zhizni den’ / I v opiia morei nyrnuvshikh bez razdum’ia” ‘Are deciding to shorten life’s boring day / And diving in the opium seas without hesitation.’ Death also precedes the voyagers’ “bitter knowledge” in an earlier sighting, the search “za prizrakom lad’i na prizrachnoi vode” ‘For the specter of the boat on the spectral waters.’ By foregrounding the shadow of death in the voyage, the hope of Tsvetaeva’s voyagers obscures the role of ennui, the exhausting burden of lived experience, in the death drive of Baudelarian desire.


In the movement toward death, “Le Voyage” follows the trajectory of desire suggested by Bersani’s model (the Freudian death drive) however, the voyagers in “Plavanie” take a different route to their final destination: they do not move toward death by deflecting desire onto the unknown, but by seeking the known. In “Le Voyage” lived experience disappoints in the face of the inexhaustible wonders created by the imagination, “De ce que le hazard fait avec les nuages” ‘What chance makes with the clouds.’ For the voyagers in “Plavanie,” nothing compares to “gradom — tem, / Chto iz nebesnykh tuch vozvodit Sluchai-Genii […] I tupilis’ glaza, uzrevshie Edem” ‘the city — that one, / That from heavenly clouds Chance-Genius erects […] And eyes lose focus having caught sight of Edom.’ Referring to “that” city as it appears in memory, a vision clouded by worldly associations, the “Plavanie” speaker expresses a nostalgic longing for the otherworldly, the “heavenly” realm — “that” incomparable “city.” As they come upon “Chernil’noiu vodoi” ‘the inky waters,’ Tsvetaeva’s voyagers experience familiarity through all the senses; they hear voices recognizing their desire for “kuda chernei chernila” ‘depths … where it is blacker than ink,’ and they feel a tangibly sympathetic presence, “K nam ruki tianet drug — chez chiornyi vodoem” ‘a friend extending his hand to them through the black reservoir.’ Through the experiential frame of exile, justified by the reunion with death in “Le Voyage,” Tsvetaeva translates the voyage as a return to the source.


In this way, Tsvetaeva’s reading of Baudelaire taps into the intertextual currents of exile in the voyage. The extent to which Tsvetaeva’s translation is a creative misreading of Baudelaire is worth debating, but this question does not concern me here so much as the dialogue between Baudelaire and Tsvetaeva in translation. The inky vastness at the end of “Le Voyage,” the image of waters “noirs comme de l’encre,” evokes the immortal world of poetry. Tsvetaeva interprets this passage of death as a return: desire leads to the otherworldly sources from which the poet is separated. She identifies Baudelaire as a fellow poet-exile in a sympathetic reading that leads her translation astray, yet at the same time, her reading hits on the underlying foundations of Baudelaire’s poetics in “Le Voyage”: exile as the metaphysical condition of the poet.


In this sense, Tsvetaeva’s translation intensifies the Romantic orientation of “Le Voyage” in accord with Baudelaire’s poetics — and her own. The concept of exile is not merely a subtext of “Le Voyage”; it is a law of Baudelaire’s world as fundamental as gravity, enabling the flights of poetry. The opening poems of the 1861 edition of Les Fleurs du mal establish this Romantic orientation in the winged figure of the poet-exile. The tropes of voyage and exile converge in “L’Albatros” (‘The Albatross’) as Baudelaire locates the authority of the poet in his exilic condition:

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées

Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;

Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,

Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.                                                   


The poet resembles this prince of cloud and sky

Who frequents the tempest and laughs at the bowman;

When exiled on the earth, the butt of hoots and jeers,

His giant wings prevent him from walking. (45)

Poetic genius functions like the wings of the sea bird: wings enable flight in airspace, but on the ground, they inhibit movement and mark the winged creature as an outcast. The poet resembles the sea bird — sovereign in the skies, ridiculed on the ground — because the gift of poetry (flight) alienates the poet from the mortal world. An outcast in this world, the poet is an exile from another world and, as such, feels the desire to escape more acutely. The winged figure comes to represent the duality of poetic genius in dialogue with the next poem, “Élévation”: “Heureux celui qui peut d'une aile vigoureuse / S'élancer vers les champs lumineux et sereins” ‘Happy is he who can with his vigorous wing / Soar up towards those fields luminous and serene’ (46). The flights of poetry offer an escape from the torment of separation from the higher sphere of existence to which poetic vision grants fleeting glimpses — a taste that never satisfies the poet’s appetite for the infinite.


The winged poet figures even more prominently in the mythopoetics lending an otherworldly authority to Tsvetaeva’s poetic identity. “Novogodnee” (“New Year’s Letter”) evokes the collective identity of poets in wings that not only enable flight, but also signal kinship: “My ― vol’nye liotchiki / Naw znak ― dva kryla!” ‘We are free pilots / Our mark ― two wings!’ (2: 87). As wings mark the poet as an outcast, the double-edged figure also represents the estrangement that Tsvetaeva embraces as her poetic license. In the poetic cycle “Bessonnitsa” (“Insomnia”) Tsvetaeva draws on her alienation from society as inspiration, celebrating solitude as privileged perspective. Rambling through a sleeping city, the speaker declares, “Nynche ya gost’ nebesnyi / V strane tvoei”  “Now as a guest from heaven, I / visit your country” (1: 283; Feinstein 19). Isolation leads to intimacy with the night, complete immersion in its immensity, which reminds the speaker that she is only visiting this world: “ya tol’ko / Rakovina, gde eshio ne umolk okean” “I am only a shell where the ocean is still sounding” (1: 285; Feinstein 21). The poet’s voice is merely an echo of the source, the very expression of separation as the origin of poetry.


In her elaborate mythopoetics, Tsvetaeva secures the authority of her voice by identifying with figure of the poet-exile. The cycle “Poets” invokes this shared identity: “Poet ― izdaleka zavodit rech’ […] Poety my ― i v rifmu s pariiami” “A poet’s speech begins a great way off […] We are poets, which has the sound of outcast” (2: 184-85; Feinstein 33). The extent to which Tsvetaeva performs this role of poet-as-outcast in her “rejection” is evident in Simon Karlinsky’s definitive account of her persona (177). In terms of Tsvetaeva’s poetics, the physical condition of exile is secondary; exile is first psychological, a poetic conversion of the trauma of dislocation, legible in the “exilic behavior” that Ute Stock observes in her meta-poetic verse (762). Poetry is the expression of distance, a reach toward “elsewhere,” but not just anywhere, Tsvetaeva specifies: poetry is the longing to return “home” (Stock 769). Like the voyager who cannot satisfy le goût de l’infini in earthly space, the poet-exile always longs for greater flights, to reach “that” other world where she belongs. The poet returns to this origin in death, Tsvetaeva explains, claiming immunity from mortal concerns: “As long as you are a poet, you cannot perish in the elements, for it would not be death, but a return to the bosom” (qtd in Dinega 207). An anecdote from Tsvetaeva’s notes on Pushkin suggests a link in her imaginary between the primordial elements, the sea and poetry: as a child, she misunderstood the first line of her favorite poem, Pushkin’s “To the sea” (“Farewell, free element!”), as a farewell to poetry because of the similarity between the Russian words for “element” (stikhiya) and “verse” (stikhi) (Feiler 232). As a translator, Tsvetaeva returns to this childhood discovery of the sea ― to the source that resounds even in her given name, Marina ― in the “farewell” of Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage.”


The voyage of the poet-exile, by air or by sea, does not end in death ― it begins again. Baudelaire gestures toward this departure in “Le Voyage,” extending the invitation to the voyage by and through translation:

Montrez-nous les écrins de vos riches mémoires …

Faites, pour égayer l’ennui de nos prisons,

Passer sur nos esprits, tendus comme une toile,

Vos souvenirs avec leurs cadres d’horizons.


Show us the cases of your rich memories …

To lighten up the ennui of our prisons,

Pass over our minds, stretched like a canvas,

Your memories with their frames of horizons.

In reading Baudelaire through the “cadres d’horizons” of her own experience, Tsvetaeva finds a kindred spirit at the end of her poetic journey. Her translation of “Le Voyage” would be a rehearsal of her own final voyage ― her death by suicide the following year. “Plavanie” coincides with her brutal homecoming, when she returned from emigration, having endured years of separation from her readers in Russia, only to find persecution and silence under Stalin’s regime (Karlinsky 231-32). Tsvetaeva speaks through Baudelaire’s poetics in her translation of “Le Voyage” by locating sites of self-identification, laying bare the desire of the poet-exile in the voyage. Translation opens multiple subject positions to negotiate the condition of exile that is at once a source and a threat to identity (Stock 764). As Tsvetaeva returns to the source by and through translation, she recuperates Baudelaire’s poet-exile, the translator of correspondences between worlds, who reveals the unifying impulse of beauty in a fragmentary reality:

C’est cet admirable, cet immortel instinct du Beau qui nous fait considérer la terre et ses spectacles comme un aperçu, comme une correspondance du Ciel […] C’est à la fois par la poésie et à travers la poésie […] que l’âme entrevoit les splendeurs situées derrière le tombeau; et quand un poème exquis amène les larmes au bord des yeux, ces larmes […]  sont bien plutôt le témoignage […]  d’une nature exilée dans l’imparfait et qui voudrait s’emparer immédiatement, sur cette terre même, d’un paradis révélé.             

‘It is this admirable, this immortal instinct of Beauty that makes us consider the earth and its spectacles as a glimpse, as a correspondence of the heavens […] It is at once by poetry and through poetry […] that the soul discerns the splendors situated beyond the tomb; and when an exquisite poem brings tears to the brim of the eyes, these tears […] are rather the testimony […] of a nature exiled in the imperfect and wanting to seize immediately, on this very earth, a paradise revealed.’ (352)

Poetry is “testimony,” the expression of an irrepressible desire for complementarity in the fragmentary, for an originary wholeness to which immediate reality merely corresponds. And the very impossibility of achieving this desire is what constitutes poetry as possibility, as movement toward ― vers, in French, inseparable from poetry in verse, le vers. The movement “by and through poetry” is a desired return (to the source) deferred into exile, a separation which, by and through translation, becomes a voyage in a world of signs. 


Works Cited


Apter, Emily. The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. Print.

Baudelaire, Charles. Œuvres complètes. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens.” Trans. Harry Zohn. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968. Print. 69-82.

Bersani, Leo. Baudelaire and Freud. Berkeley: U of California P, 1977. Print.

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York, Oxford UP, 1973. Print.

Dinega, Alyssa W. A Russian Psyche: The Poetic Mind of Marina Tsvetaeva. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2001. Print.

Feiler, Lily. Marinia Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.

Lawler, James. Poetry and Moral Dialectic: Baudelaire’s secret architecture.” Cranbury, NJ : Associated UP, 1997. Print.

Karlinsky, Simon. Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry. New York: Cambridge UP, 1985. Print.

Karlinsky, Simon and Alfred Appel, Jr. The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the West, 1922-1972. Berkeley: U of California P, 1977. Print.

Pichois, Claude. Baudelaire. Trans. Graham Robb. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1989. Print.

Scott, Clive. Translating Baudelaire. Exeter: U of Exeter Press, 2000. Print.

Stock, Ute. “Marina Tsvetaeva: The Concrete and the Metaphoric Discourse of Exile.” Modern Language Review 96.3 (2001): 762-777.

Tsvetaeva, Marina. Selected Poems. Trans. Elaine Feinstein. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.

---. Sobranie sochineni v semi tomakh. 7 vols. Moscow: llis Lak, 1994. Print.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2008. Print.

Vitins, Ieva. “Escape from Earth: A Study of Tsvetaeva’s Elsewheres.” Slavic Review 36.4 (1977):  644-657.

Wanner, Adrian. Baudelaire in Russia. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1996. Print.




Amy Leggette is an advanced doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Oregon. She received her B.A. in French from Rhodes College (2007). Her research centers on Nineteenth-Century French Literature, the Avant-Garde, and Poetics, and engages theories of genre and performativity in the formal analysis of literary texts. In her projects and pedagogy, she is interested in questions of subjectivity and textuality in the “new media” of the nineteenth century and today. She is currently in France working on her dissertation entitled “Scenes, Seasons and Spaces: Textual Modes of Address in Modern French, American, and Russian Literature.”



1. All translations are my own, except where otherwise cited.

2. Adrian Wanner’s comparative study of Russian translations of Baudelaire provides insight into translating practice and reception in its historical context in Baudelaire in Russia. Clive Scott discusses particular problems of the translation process that arise in Baudelaire’s works in Translating Baudelaire.

3. For a study of Tsvetaeva among other major writers in the émigré context, see The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the West, 1922-1972 by Simon Karlinsky and Alfred Appel Jr.



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