She, Passing By
(From the French of Charles Baudelaire)
Around me the deafening roar of the street.
Tall, slim, dressed for mourning, yet a goddess in grief,
this woman passed by, with dignified hand
upholding, for balance, the hem of her dress,
nimbly and stately; that calf – sculpturesque.
And I drank, shakingly, nervous fool that I am,
some tempest-born heaven, there in her gaze;
the communion that spellbinds, the ardour that slays.
One flash of lightning… followed by night! Ah, fugitive beauty,
under that glance I was, headlong – alive!
But… shall I not see you, ever, again?
Some place, far away, all too late, maybe never?
For where the other one went, neither could tell …
Oh, you I might have loved – and you knew it well!
From ‘Mysteries: Poetic Reflections on Womankind and Love’
Note: Perhaps more than many of Baudelaire’s poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, this captures the ‘fleeting, ephemeral experience of life’ in the great hive of mid-19th century Paris.
Here is an encounter as brief as the one described in The Bridge not Crossed (Dialogues without Words 1) and sharing, certainly in the case of the male in this poem, something of the timidity of both players in the Japanese one. Here is an intimacy that was there for seconds and lost in as many; and there is the suggestion of real, if not realised, intimacy in the exchanged glances.
Baudelaire does not tell us the hour in which this swift brush between the two is set. I imagined it to be at night, in keeping with the element of the macabre which runs through his collection; but there is no reason at all why it should not have taken place in bright daylight. For the same reason, I first imagined the female character to be looming and dominant, advancing like a piece of animated statuary, something of a Morrigan, but again (I have revised this conception of her) she is better viewed simply as a lady of some self-assurance – she has experienced loss, and the time for recovery has come. There are certainly two distinct personalities; the woman is not shy of giving a scouting glance; the man appears hesitant and indecisive. For him these are explosive, bewildering seconds, during which the intention of the look he receives does not register straight away … he seems unable, or is never prepared on the instant, to read and grasp the meaning of such signs. Whatever, in those seconds he realizes that all is lost – the sight of the black-stockinged calf, the knowing look, have done nothing but root him to the spot, and all he can do is follow her retreating figure with pleading eyes. Pursue her? No. He has the underlying passions, but lacks the force of character.
But let’s move from explosive moments to quieter ones. This is not really a dialogue, but a tranquil transference of the most secret and silent thoughts as one human being observes another, and a scene which I find quietly captivating. The observer is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who is possibly best known for his children’s book Le Petit Prince / The Little Prince, which has been translated into many languages, including Welsh. Saint-Exupéry pioneered the French Air Mail service during the 1920s and 1930s and the scene takes place after he has just landed, alone, in Chile’s Punta Arenas, ‘a town born of the chance presence of a little mud between the timeless lava and the austral ice’, and the most isolated and most southerly habitation the world:
‘I landed in the peace of evening. Punta Arenas! I leaned against a fountain and looked at the girls in the square. Standing there within a couple of feet of their grace, I felt more poignantly than ever the human mystery… A girl’s reverie isolates her from me, and how shall I enter into it? What can one know of a girl who passes, walking with slow steps homeward, eyes lowered, smiling to herself… ‘ .
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1943) served as a pilot in the French Air Force, mainly in North Africa, from 1921 to 1923, after which he flew for the Air Mail Service in North Africa – often flying over hostile territory held by the independent tribes, once crash-landing and almost dying of thirst – and Argentina. He was a pilot during World War II (his account of this he relates in his Flight to Arras). When Germany occupied France he escaped to the USA, returning to North Africa in 1943 as a reconnaissance pilot for the US forces. It was on one such flight that he disappeared; it is thought that he was shot down by a German fighter plane. The quotation above is from his 1939 classic Terre des Hommes, translated in the same year as Wind, Sand and Stars.
She, Passing By