‘A Former Life,’ or Les ‘La vie antérieure’ by Charles Baudelaire is a four stanza poem that is separated into two sets of four lines and two sets of three. The poem was originally written in French and the version used in this analysis was translated to English by F.P. Strum. ‘A Former Life’ was published in Les Fleurs du Mal, or The Flowers of Evil in 1857 and then again in 1861. One final edition was published in 1868 after Baudelaire died. The original French, along with other translated versions, can be read here.
The structure of this piece is difficult to analyze due to the translation. In this version of the text, there is no constant rhyme scheme that lasts throughout the lines, although there are moments of rhyme. These occur within the individual stanzas. The first quatrain rhymes, ABAB, and the second, ABBA The third and fourth stanzas, which are tercets, rhyme together: ABBACC.
The lines which make up, what in the English translation is the final rhyming couplet, emphasize the connection that the speaker has to his own imagination. Baudelaire is generally considered to be the speaker within this piece, and the world he describes as his own imagination. It is from this place that is described with such vibrant images in the first two stanzas, that his poems are born. They are a combination of the real and the imagined. Symbolism is quite important within this piece as well, with the sky, sea, slaves, and landscape all most likely relating to parts of the speaker’s creative process and mental being.
Summary of A Former Life
The poem begins with the speaker stating that a long time ago he used to live in an entirely different way. He resided beneath a large “portico” from which he could observe the sea and the sunset. These two features came together to brighten and unify the scene. He describes the landscape transcendently as if it is a paradise. It is clear that this is not a real place. It exists within the speaker’s imagination and holds great sway over his creative life. The landscape, specifically the movement of the sea and sky is a metaphor for the ways his creative practices come together.
In the second half of the poem, the speaker introduces “slaves” into the narrative. He is also being tended to by “naked” people who care for nothing but his own wellbeing. They are “perfumed” and fan him with palms. It is not entirely clear what Baudelaire was referring to by populating his imagination with these slaves. But it is likely that they symbolize his written works.
Analysis of A Former Life
Long since, I lived beneath vast porticoes,
By many ocean-sunsets tinged and fired,
Where mighty pillars, in majestic rows,
Seemed like basaltic caves when day expired.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker, who some have suggested is Baudelaire himself, begins by introducing the reader to what he claims is a memory. He is recalling a time in his life that seems separate from the world in which he is now living. The difference is so stark the title refers to this time as a “former life.” It has no connection to his present one.
In the past, there was a time in which he “lived beneath vast porticoes.” A portico is a type of structure that consists of a roof supported by columns. It often extends out over a porch. The second line adds an “ocean-sunset” to the scene. So far the two elements the speaker has introduced lend the narrative a dreamlike quality. One might begin to wonder if this “former life” really happened. The sunsets are said to have “tinged” the scene. They are not the main focus of the past moment, only something that increases its vibrancy.
In the second two lines, the speaker describes how the sunset impacted his own view of the pillars. The pillars lined the edges of the porch and when caught in a certain angle of the sun, appeared like “basaltic caves.” As the sun sets the whole structure is bathed in just the right amount of sunlight to make it cave-like. It is mysterious and beautiful. So far the speaker’s tone is wistful, he is feeling nostalgic over his past life, or perhaps the dream of a different life. The purpose of these imaginings and their true meaning becomes clear are the poem progresses.
The rolling surge that mirrored all the skies
Mingled its music, turbulent and rich,
Solemn and mystic, with the colours which
The setting sun reflected in my eyes.
In the second quatrain, the speaker continues his description of what this world looks like. Without directly referring to it by name, he has moved on to the ocean. He speaks of its “rolling surge” that is “mirrored” in the sky. The speaker sees the movement of the ocean waves as being reflected by the clouds in the sky. These two features of the scene complement one another and provide the entire landscape with a feeling of unity.
The sea is also said to be somewhat magical. It has its own “music.” These sounds, such as the crashing of waves, are “turbulent” but they are also “rich.” They add a lot to the scene. Finally, the speaker turns back to the sky and the sun. It is said to be “Solemn and mystic” as it sets. The colors it casts, alongside the deep blue of the ocean, are “reflected” in the speaker’s eyes. They are becoming a part of him, allowing him to access this memory at a later date.
On close reading, one will realize that these lines go deeper than simple, yet beautiful images of the sky and sea. These are two different forces that are mingling within the speaker’s mind. They each represent the real world and the imaginary one that Baudelaire thrives in through his writing. This accounts for the mystical quality that all the stanzas have and the speaker’s desire to remain there. He is seeking out the “music” of the sea, willing it to continue mingling with the real world in his eyes.
And there I lived amid voluptuous calms,
In splendours of blue sky and wandering wave,
Tended by many a naked, perfumed slave,
The third stanza of ‘A Former Life’ changes the direction of the narrative. He is no longer focused on a simple, yet the transcendent description of the landscape. The speaker has now moved on to how these memories impact him today. He recalls how this was a place he “lived,” in the past tense. The imaginary world he crafted and depicted within his poetry was there, ”amid voluptuous calms.” He was at peace there and enjoyed the “splendours” before him.
A reader will notice in these lines the increasing number of references to sex. They begin with the word “voluptuous,” a word that is usually used to refer to a woman’s body. Then continue on into the third line of this stanza in which the speaker describes how “naked, perfumed slave[s]” tended to him. The pleasures of the poem have turned more personal. Or at least that is one interpretation. These slaves are part of his mind, the imaginary part which was responsible for most of the inspiration behind his writing. Therefore, these slaves could be forces within that image, or perhaps even the poems themselves.
Who fanned my languid brow with waving palms.
They were my slaves–the only care they had
To know what secret grief had made me sad.
The final tercet continues the description of the slaves who tend to the speaker. They spend their days “fan[ing]” his “languid,” or lazy and bored, “brow.” To complete this task they use “waving palms.” It is interesting to consider the possibility that Baudelaire considered his written works this way, as though they are there to serve him. He gave birth to them in his mind and now they tend to his every need.
In the concluding phrase, he states that the people or forces of his mind, which tended to him had only one real care. They were consistently concerned with his own mental state and what it could be that “made [him] sad.” If one considers the slaves as symbols for Baudelaire’s own poetry, then this last line fits perfectly. He is able to transfer his mental grief into his poetry and send it out into the world.