For those fond of intertextual references, 'Ave atque Vale' by Algernon Charles Swinburne, an English poet's lament for the French poet Charles Baudelaire, is something of a goldmine, being absolutely overflowing with references and allusions to classical mythology and legend. Most of these can be decoded with a little bit of research, but two have still eluded my intellectual grasp. I will detail one of these here, and leave the other one below it as a bonus question.

The sixth verse of this rather long poem goes like this:

Now all strange hours and all strange loves are over,
Dreams and desires and sombre songs and sweet,
Hast thou found place at the great knees and feet
Of some pale Titan-woman like a lover,
Such as thy vision here solicited,
Under the shadow of her fair vast head,
The deep division of prodigious breasts,
The solemn slope of mighty limbs asleep,
The weight of awful tresses that still keep
The savour and shade of old-world pine-forests
Where the wet hill-winds weep?

Who is this 'pale Titan-woman'? I understand that there were twelve Titans, six pairs of brother-sister spouses, mirroring the better-known twelve Olympians, but none of the six Titanesses really fits Swinburne's description. My best guess is that, although the Titans were really only part of Greek mythology, the Romans used to identify the Titaness Rhea with their goddess Magna Mater, and Swinburne further identified Magna Mater with a more recent conception of Mother Earth. Thus the dead French poet, having been buried, has in a sense 'found place at the great knees and feet' of Mother Earth. Can anyone confirm that hypothesis?

Bonus question: Who or what is 'our God' in Swinburne's 'Ave atque Vale'?


3 Answers 3


The general interpretation of this line is that it's an allusion to Baudelaire's poem La Géante (The Giantess).

From Walter Martin's translation in an omnibus edition:

When Mother Nature filled the early world
With mammoth creatures suckled at her teat
I could have lived near some gigantic girl,
Like a little cat, sprawled at a queen's feet,

And watched her body ripen and grow wise,
Her soul grow strong in terrifying games,
Or from the smoke clouds darkening her eyes,
Guessed when her heart was going up in flames;

Wandering through her wilderness at ease,
I could have conquered those enormous knees,
And some hot summer when she lay at rest

Stretched out across the fertile earth, I'd put
My head down in the shadow of her breast-
A sleepy hamlet at the mountain's foot.

The lines "found place at the great knees and feet of some pale Titan-woman" are echoed by Baudelaire's "near some gigantic girl, like a little cat, sprawled at a queen's feet."


Swinburne’s ‘Ave atque Value’ (1868) is subtitled “In Memory of Charles Baudelaire”, who died in 1867. The poem contains allusions to a number of Baudelaire’s poems, and when looking for a “pale Titan-woman” two of them stand out.

First, ‘La Géante’:

J’eusse aimé vivre auprès d’une jeune géante,
Comme aux pieds d’une reine un chat voluptueux. […]

Parcourir à loisir ses magnifiques formes;
Ramper sur le versant de ses genoux énormes,
Et parfois en été, quand les soleils malsains,

Lasse, la font s’étendre à travers la campagne,
Dormir nonchalamment à l’ombre de ses seins,
Comme un hameau paisible au pied d’une montagne.

I would have liked to live near a young giantess,
Like a voluptuous cat on the feet of a queen. […]

To consider at leisure her magnificent features;
To climb on the slope of her enormous knees,
And sometimes in summer, when the unhealthy suns

Weary, and she reclines across the countryside,
To sleep nonchalantly in the shadow of her breasts,
Like a peaceful hamlet at a mountain’s foot.

Charles Baudelaire (1857). ‘La Géante’. In Les Fleurs du mal, pp. 50–51. Paris: Poulet-Malassis et de Broise.

‘La Géante’ has some striking similarities to ‘Ave atque Vale’: compare “great knees and feet”; “under the shadow of her fair vast head”; “the deep division of prodigious breasts”; “the solemn slope of mighty limbs asleep”.

Second, ‘L’Idéal’:

Ce qu’il faut à ce coeur profond comme un abîme,
C’est vous, Lady Macbeth, âme puissante au crime,
Rêve d’Eschyle éclos au climat des autans;

Ou bien toi, grande Nuit, fille de Michel-Ange,
Qui tors paisiblement dans une pose étrange
Tes appas façonnés aux bouches des Titans!

What I need is a heart deep as an abyss,
That’s you, Lady Macbeth, a soul mighty in crime,
Dream of Aeschylus hatched in the climate of the south;

Or you, great Night, daughter of Michelangelo,
Who twists peacefully in a strange pose
Your charms modelled on the mouths of Titans!

Charles Baudelaire (1857). ‘L’Idéal’. In Les Fleurs du mal, p. 49.

In this poem Baudelaire describes Michelangelo’s statue ‘Night’ (c. 1530), on the tomb of Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici in the Medici Chapel, Florence. He associates the figure of ‘Night’ with two other powerful and monstrous women: Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare’s play, and (depending on how we interpret “Rêve d’Eschyle”) the queen Clytemnestra from Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon.

The verbal parallels of ‘L’Idéal’ with ‘Ave atque Vale’ are less striking than in the case of ‘La Géante’, but here we have “Titans”, and Michelangelo’s statue is certainly “pale”.

In stanza VI, the poet [Swinburne] imagines Baudelaire’s spirit in the Medici Chapel, as a lover at the feet of Michelangelo’s statue, whose gravity and solemnity form a sharp contrast to the strange loves cultivated during his lifetime.

Lene Østermark-Johansen (2010). ‘Between the Medusan and the Pygmalian: Swinburne and Sculpture’. In Victorian Literature and Culture 38:1, p. 30.

Sculpture in smooth white marble of a nude reclining figure, head bowed, hair in a single plait curled around the neck, large muscles, small globular breasts, right elbow on left thigh, left arm hidden behind the figure.
‘Night’ by Michelangelo. Photo by Richard Mortel (2019). CC-BY.


This poem also has many callbacks, most notably the title, to the Roman Catullus' poem of the same name. That poem contains the line "fortūna mihī tētē abstulit ipsum", "Fortuna has stolen you yourself from me". While "fortuna" could be translated as abstract "fortune, fate", most commonly it is translated as referring to the goddess of fate, Fortuna.

Reference to a "Titan-woman" is a clear parallel to Catullus' reference to a goddess. Whether meant to actually refer to Fortuna is unclear. Fortuna is not technically a titan, but it could be imagery to emphasize Fortuna (fate) as a cruel monster.

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