Monday, January 03, 2011

Of Love and Its Island

Embarkation for Cythera, is one of Antoine Watteau's most admired paintings; it evokes an allegorical voyage, about to commence, towards the island of Cythera, associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. 

In modern poetry the Embarkation for Cythera appears to be a theme of equally luxuriant mythologies.

Its various poetic avatars are steeped in the intoxicating scent of roses, feverish amorous states, a ritual voyage across the sea only to arrive at the realization that the island in question, blackened and in mourning, is at best a figment of  imagination, and at worst a place for the expiation of one’s sins.

I’d like to start off with Paul Verlaine’s "Cythera" (
Cythère) a poem that is part of his cycle of poems "The Gallant Celebrations" (Fêtes Galantes), a short poem that is best read within the context of the cycle.
The poem has an ascending, lurid sensual note, balanced off by humor in its ending:

“and love, overwhelming everything, except
hunger, sherbets and preserves….”

Jules Laforgue's "Cythera" (
Cythère) is an exquisitely ‘loose’ and modern poem:

“The florescence without comment
of this hermetical Cythera
nestled inside the sea as a grove”

“And the fauna and flora being as they were
we were as they were; the roses of the senses
and the blossoming of  the poses”

We owe two other stunning poems, each one of them a paragon of poetic art to the theme of the Embarkation for Cythera.

The first one is a perfectly crafted ballad (a poem written in a canonical form, in this case a three eight line stanza followed by an envoi –or refrain) by Théodore de Banville – "The Ballad of the Lost Children" (La Ballade Aux Enfants Perdus)

"I know very well that Cythera is in mourning!

No matter! Let’s go towards a fictitious realm
Let’s search for the beach where our idle desires
Will soak up the sacred mystery and joy
Cut out for a choir of contemplative souls:
Let’s embark for the wondrous Cythera!"

The second one is Charles Baudelaire’s "The Voyage to Cythera" (Un voyage à Cythère), a poem that has been translated into English in numerous versions and is likely the best known poem  associated with this theme.

"What is this sad, black island – It’s Cythera,
we were told, a realm famous in all songs
A banal Eldorado of old men.
After all, it is simply a barren world. "

The poem’s  imagery and metaphors evolve into a gruesome and poignant ending: a hanged man, whose decaying flesh is devoured by birds, is an impersonation of the poet's ego:

"And oh, enshrouded in a thick veil
My heart was buried in this allegory.

In your island, oh Venus! I had found standing
only the symbolic gibbet from which my image was hanging”

In his Ballads In Blue China, Andrew Lang has included a "Ballade of the Voyage to Cythera":

"Come, for the air of this old world is vile,
Haste we, and toil, and faint not at the oar;
"It may be we shall touch the happy isle."

I found an interesting poem titled "The Embarkation for Cythera" in an excerpt of David Ferry’s book “Of no country I know” online:

Here is its ending:

“…each lady
Fingered her necklace, and the sweet music tattled
from the spinet of her desire; each lord

Touched at his sleeve for the ace he has hidden there.”

Finally, a fragment of a poem by the Canadian poet John Glassco in an online article:

The embarkation for Cythera
Is eternal because it ends nowhere:
No port for those tasselled sails! And for our love
No outcome,
Only the modesty
The perfection
Of the flight or death of a bird."

It's only fitting that we end this post, true to the letter of a fête galante, with music. 
The piece, Embarkment for Cythera belongs to Francis Poulenc.


Blasphemous Aesthete said...

Come, for the air of this old world is vile,
Haste we, and toil, and faint not at the oar;
"It may be we shall touch the happy isle.

I loved this one amongst all of them. Because, it has hope, not of the black island, but to reach somewhere, somewhere we may be grounded.

Happy New Year Irina.

Blasphemous Aesthete

Irina said...

Thanks for stopping by Blasphemous Aesthete.

I'm glad that you liked the quote and the poem, since I thought it an inspired one too!

Happy New year and look forward to reading your posts in 2011!

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