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:
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
Only the modesty
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.