This essay considers Baudelaire's “Le Cygne” in terms of the crucial place the poem should occupy in any theoretical reflection on literary and historical “modernity.” Despite the proliferation in recent years of references to Walter Benjamin in the reception of Baudelaire's poetry, there are still very few examples of the kind of interpretation that Benjamin's allegorical model of understanding would require in a sustained reading of a text like “Le Cygne.” The essay explores why Benjamin's thinking about allegory seems to be resisted by literary critics in their reading of Baudelaire's poetry. It suggests that Benjamin's conception of allegory cannot adequately be addressed without first registering the impact that the allegorical dimension of poetic language exerts upon fundamental philosophical concepts such as subjectivity, experience, and historicity itself. If Benjamin insists on associating allegory with modernity in Baudelaire's poetry, this is because history can be said to become modern only at the moment that the thinking subject's own experience sustains an irreversible alteration that might best be characterized as “allegorical,” for want of a better term. The resistance of literary critics to Benjamin's notion of allegory thus turns out to be a deeper philosophical resistance to the possibility that, after Benjamin's writings on Baudelaire, subjectivity, history, and poetry could never be understood in the same ways.
The essay begins by noting how Benjamin's thinking about history is conditioned by his response to the poverty of experience in modernity. For Benjamin, recourse to the poetic language of allegory becomes a historical necessity; without it the experience of poverty is in danger of remaining inaccessible for knowledge. However, the kind of knowability that this poetry can grant may itself resist coherent theoretical formulation. The essay turns to “Le Cygne” in the wake of Benjamin's own consideration of that poem in an attempt to determine more specifically the allegorical principle that alone could enable the poverty of modern experience to become legible, both poetically and historically, in the text.