19 pages 38 minutes read

Charles Baudelaire, Transl. Eli Siegel

The Albatross

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1861

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Albatross” is a poem written by the French poet Charles Baudelaire, first published in his poetry collection titled Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) in 1857. A work that uses an elaborate metaphor to illustrate the poet’s plight, “The Albatross” exemplifies Baudelaire’s vision of the poet as an outsider and visionary, one whose unique perspective on the world remains unjustly unappreciated by the masses. In the poem, sailors capture and brutally mistreat an albatross, a bird that represents the poet. The poem transforms an oceanic bird into a symbol of the poetic imagination while using evocative language to illustrate the poet’s degradation at the hands of a cruel and unjust society.

Baudelaire, whose scandalous poems and bohemian lifestyle ostracized him from bourgeois society, embodied the poet’s outsider status. Although his poems were censored and misunderstood during his lifetime, his influence on world literature has been long-lasting.

Poet Biography

Hailed by the Surrealist poet Arthur Rimbaud as “the king of poets, a true god,” Charles Baudelaire was a mid-19th century French poet, critic, and translator. Known in his lifetime as a provocateur and a dandy, Baudelaire wrote poems that shocked his contemporaries on the French literary scene.

Baudelaire was born in 1821 in Paris, where he lived for most of his life. He had a complicated upbringing: His father died when Baudelaire was five years old, and his mother married a career soldier who went on to become a French ambassador. Baudelaire received a sizable inheritance from his father at age 21, but this money became a source of tension between the young poet and his stepfather when Baudelaire ran up debts due to his free spending and bohemian lifestyle. Although his mother and stepfather wanted him to achieve financial security through a career in law or diplomacy, Baudelaire chose to pursue literature. He spent much of his life in debt, often seeking loans from family and friends.

Baudelaire supported himself by as a critic of art, music, and literature; he particularly praised the works of French painter Eugène Delacroix, German composer Richard Wagner, and American writer Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe, especially, Baudelaire found his literary soulmate, sharing that author’s taste for the macabre. Baudelaire translated Poe’s work into French and is credited with giving Poe a wide readership in France at a time when he was unknown in the United States.

In 1857 Baudelaire published his greatest literary achievement, a collection of poems titled Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). The book met controversy upon publication, becoming the subject of an obscenity trial due to its treatment of taboo themes. Baudelaire and his publisher were successfully prosecuted and fined, and six poems from the book were officially censored. The French courts did not remove the ban on these poems until 1949. The collection had a small enthusiastic readership among the Parisian literati, with French novelists Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert among the work’s admirers.

In his later years Baudelaire continued to work on translations, reviews, and poems, including a series of prose poems. Stricken by poverty and illness, Baudelaire died in 1867 at the age of 46. Baudelaire was not widely praised by major writers until the 1920s, when the French Surrealists made him into a literary hero and the English Modernist poet T. S. Eliot brought him to the attention of English readers. Baudelaire is now considered the 19th century poet who signaled the rise of modernity.

Poem Text

Often, to amuse themselves the men of the crew

Lay hold of the albatross, vast birds of the seas—

Who follow, sluggish companions of the voyage,

The ship gliding on the bitter gulfs.

Hardly have they placed them on the planks,

Than these kings of the azure, clumsy and shameful,

Let, piteously, their great wings in white,

Like oars, drag at their sides.

This winged traveler, how he is awkward and weak!

He, lately so handsome, how comic he is and uncomely!

Someone bothers his beak with a short pipe,

Another imitates, limping, the ill thing that flew!

The poet resembles the prince of the clouds

Who is friendly to the tempest and laughs at the bowman;

Banished to ground in the midst of hootings,

His wings, those of a giant, hinder him from walking.

Baudelaire, Charles. “The Albatross.” 1857. Trans. Eli Siegel.

Aesthetic Realism Online Library.


The poem opens by describing a grotesque pastime of sailors at sea. In order to “amuse themselves” (Line 1), these sailors capture albatrosses, which are large oceanic birds known for their impressive wingspans. The albatross might be “vast” (Line 2), but this gargantuan size also makes it slow and “sluggish” (Line 3). The bird follows the ship on its journey over the briny water, or the “bitter gulfs” (Line 4).

The second stanza elaborates upon the scene of the bird’s capture. The sailors force the great bird down from the sky to “the planks” of the ship (Line 5). The poet conveys the incongruity of seeing majestic, sky-dwelling creatures (“kings of the azure,” Line 6) bound to the ship’s deck looking “clumsy and shameful” (Line 6). The albatross—clearly out of place on the ground—struggles to regain its composure, as the “great wings in white” that once allowed it to soar are now cumbersome (Line 7). These wings “drag” alongside the bird “Like oars” (Line 8), creating a parallel between the albatross and the ship.

In the third stanza, the poet further describes the pitiful state of the captured albatross. In two exclamatory lines, the speaker characterizes the captive bird as “awkward and weak,” “comic,” and “uncomely” (Lines 9-10). Once again, the speaker conveys how jarring and disturbing the scene is: The albatross was “lately so handsome” in the sky (Line 10), but now the bird has lost its elegance. The sailors indulge in their cynical sport by “bother[ing] [the bird’s] beak with a short pipe” (Line 11). They mock the albatross by “limping” in imitation of the distressed bird (Line 12).

The final stanza takes a surprising turn by comparing the captive albatross to a poet. The speaker suggests that poets share the albatross’s admirable qualities, including its ability to thrive in dangerous conditions (“friendly to the tempest and laughs at the bowman,” Line 14). However, like the albatross, the poet cannot survive the cruel treatment of society. Just as the bird flails in desperation on the deck of the ship, the poet, once “Banished to the ground” and taunted by people’s “hootings” (Line 15), loses the admirable qualities that make him unique. In the final line, the speaker reveals that the poet, too, possesses metaphorical wings that act as an encumbrance once the poet is dragged into the harsh world of the everyday.