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Can poetry be cinematic?

In Baudelaire’s poem, the way in which he controls the development of the image is done in a way that I can only describe as cinematic.

In Hugo’s C’est la nuit : la nuit noire, a cluster of vocabulary is used to give a particular impression. Now, we will look very closely at the precise ordering of images in Baudelaire’s A une passante.

One of the most striking features of Baudelaire’s poem is the way in which he controls the development of the image in a way that I can only describe as cinematic. Let me try and explain what I mean.

Cinematic poetry

We start, as so many films do, with a noisy, chaotic street scene. The sense Baudelaire focuses on first is sound, with no visual detail. We do not see him, as he is the observing eye, the camera’s lens. That camera then does start to focus on something.

Brilliantly, Baudelaire does not start simply with ‘une femme’. Rather, we have four adjectives or adjectival phrases in a row before it is revealed to what they refer. At first there is just a sense of height, shape and colour, a slender black shape, which finally resolves itself into the image of a woman. From that mere shape we pass to movement, the two present participles ‘soulevant’ and balançant’ representing the sway of her motion.

We have the extraordinary juxtaposition of adjectives ‘agile’ and ‘noble’, the first in particular being a surprising way of describing a woman in mourning walking in the streets of Paris. That phrase ‘en grand deuil’, incidentally, may make the mind spin off down all sorts of speculative avenues. Why is she in mourning? Is she recently widowed, and thus potentially ‘available’ to a single man? Have her parents died, and has she perhaps inherited money from them?

Is she, as one recently bereaved, in need of comfort? These may seem mildly inappropriate speculations, but they come in the context of one other extraordinary detail, the innocent-seeming phrase ‘sa jambe de statue’. A woman in full mourning in 19th century France would have been swathed in black, but the description implies that a shapely white leg is visible, like that of a marble statue. The swaying of the outer clothes reveals what is underneath – perhaps deliberately? The effect on the poet is electric, carrying a strong erotic charge.

She rapidly draws closer to the camera position, as the next point of focus is her eye, both stormy and enticing, promising both pleasure and pain. We stay with the storm imagery for ‘un éclair’, as if a flash of lightning had lit her up for a moment, then she has gone past and is receding from us down the street, a ‘fugitive beauté’. All this happens very quickly and Baudelaire describes it with an economy of language that makes it all the more powerful. Coming from nowhere, this encounter is a veritable ‘coup de foudre’. For the rest of the poem, he is as if planted in the street, dreaming of what might have been.

The effect of the poem depends, then, on a very precisely controlled series of words and phrases which develop a particular, dynamic image. It is a masterly performance.

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How to Read French Poetry

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