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Voices in Poetry

The question as regards this particular poem is: “Whose voice are we hearing?” In the poems we have considered up to this point, there was no question; both ‘Demain dès l’aube’ and ‘beauté formol’ are written in a first-person voice that we are clearly supposed to take as that of the poet.

Here is the poem ‘Odelette Anacréontique’ by the 19th century poet Théophile Gautier. We should note at the start that this is written in short, eight-syllable lines. It was often the case that this form was chosen for lighter pieces of verse, the alexandrine being left for more serious works. Much of Gautier’s work is playful and whimsical, so his choice of this form comes as no surprise.

Whose Voice are we Hearing?

The question as regards this particular poem is: “Whose voice are we hearing?” In the poems we have considered up to this point, there was no question; both ‘Demain dès l’aube’ and ‘beauté formol’ are written in a first-person voice that we are clearly supposed to take as that of the poet. In ‘L’Albatros’ and ‘Le dormeur du val’, on the other hand, there is no personal voice; the poet takes the stance of a third person observer. We may recognize, of course, that in writing about poets in ‘L’Albatros’, Baudelaire is referring to himself and we may know that Rimbaud personally came across the scene described in ‘Le dormeur du val’, but there is no explicit first-person involvement.

With Gautier, however, there is a first person. There is a ‘je’ in the first line, and thereafter the first-person possessive adjectives ‘mon’ and ‘ma’. Still in that first line, however, the writer addresses ‘mon poëte’, who is presumably Gautier himself, so whose voice are we hearing here? We can only conclude, given that this is a love poem, that it is the voice of Gautier’s lover – or rather, it is the voice that Gautier is giving to his lover, saying the things that he imagines they might say in a piece of erotic wish-fulfilment. Effectively, Gautier puts into his lover’s mouth a message that in thoroughly modern terms goes something like this: “Don’t come on to me so strongly. Back off and calm down and I will come to you quite soon and give you everything you want.” This is just the message that Gautier wants to hear, and it is a clever and cheeky piece of writing. It is not without problem, however. If there really was a lover (or hoped-for lover) whom Gautier had in mind, they are left without agency and without voice. It is still actually Gautier’s voice – controlling and manipulative – that we hear.

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How to Read French Poetry

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