Stéphane Mallarmé—as he is always known, although his birth certificate records his first name in its more usual French form of "Etienne"—was born into a middle-class family on 18 March 1842 in Paris. After a generally undistinguished school career he spent a year in London, from November 1862 to November 1863, to gain a certificate entitling him to teach English, and on his return to France he took a teaching post in the small town of Tournon just south of Lyon. He was to remain a teacher, although a reluctant and not very good one, first at Tournon for three years, then at Besançon for a year, at Avignon for a further four years, and finally at various schools in Paris. After several unsuccessful attempts, he at last managed to obtain early retirement on health grounds in November 1893. By then his reputation as France's greatest living poet was firmly established through the publication of his poems in various literary magazines and partial collections and through the admiring essay on him that Verlaine wrote in his celebrated volume Les Poètes Maudits (The Accursed Poets, 1884). The "mardis," weekly Tuesday evening meetings that he held in his Paris apartment from 1880 onward, were eagerly attended by the leading figures in literature, painting, and music. His retirement meant that he was able to spend more time at his country retreat at Valvins on the banks of the upper Seine, where he died unexpectedly on 9 September 1898 at the age of fifty-six.
Although he had been a fairly prolific writer of fairly unremarkable poems in the early 1860s, he produced far fewer but far more significant and original works during the rest of his career. The relatively small number of poems Mallarmé wished to preserve—some fifty in all—were collected in one slim volume of Les Poésies de S. Mallarmé, which appeared early in 1899, although twice as many poems, which he left unpublished, have been added to some modern editions, along with a considerable quantity of "vers de circonstance—amusing and ingeniously rhymed verses that he delighted in addressing to friends. He was also the author of a dozen prose poems and several other prose works. Near the end of his life he wrote a work that deserves particular mention because of its extreme originality and the notoriety it has achieved: Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance, 1914), which originally appeared in the May 1897 issue of Cosmopolis.
Mallarmé's Poésies, unlike Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), does not appear to be arranged in any significant way. If, however, the poems are studied in chronological order, according to the dates when they were begun (there is sometimes a gap of as much as twenty years between a poem's initial inspiration and its final publication), the same principal theme emerges from them as from Les Fleur du Mal—the poet's longing to turn his back on the harsh world of reality and to seek refuge in an ideal world. This attitude may have been inherited from the Romanticism of the early years of the nineteenth century, but in Baudelaire's case it has also been suggested that it arose from personal factors, namely the double blow of his father's death and his mother's second marriage eighteen months later. Mallarmé's childhood was similar in that his mother died in 1847, when he was five years old, and his father remarried fifteen months later. A third blow was the death of his sister, Maria, two years younger than himself, in 1857. It is not surprising, therefore, that, with an urgency greater even than that of Baudelaire, Mallarmé should have wanted to escape from a world that had treated him so cruelly.
It is interesting to note that in one of his earliest poems, "Apparition" (Apparition), written in 1862, when he was twenty, the girl he is on his way to meet and who is no doubt his future wife, Maria Gerhard (her first name and the fact that she was seven years older than Mallarmé may be psychologically significant), is metamorphosed in the final lines into the maternal figure remembered from long ago:
Qui jadis, sur mes beaux sommeils d'enfant gâté
Passait, laissant toujours de ses mains mal fermées
Neiger de blancs bouquets d'étoiles parfumées.
(Who, in the blissful dreams of my happy childhood
Used to hover above me sprinkling from her gentle hands
Snow-white clusters of perfumed stars.)
Mallarmé married Gerhard in August 1863, but although the marriage was a lasting and, to all outward appearances, a tolerably happy one, this attempt to find in love a means of transforming the ideal into reality was short-lived. In "Les Fenêtres" (The Windows), written in 1863, it is replaced by an outright rejection of the real and an overwhelming desire to flee toward the ideal: "Je fuis et je m'accroche à toutes les croisées / D'où l'on tourne l'épaule à la vie" (I flee and cling to all those windows / Where one can turn one's back on life).
This new attitude could well be explained by yet another blow that Mallarmé suffered: less than a month after his twenty-first birthday and just before he wrote "Les Fenêtres," his father died in April 1863. It may be for this reason that, in contrasting the pain and ugliness of the real world with the beauty and happiness of the ideal world, Mallarmé uses, in the first half of the poem, the allegory of a dying man turning his back on the sick room and longing for a new life in the sky beyond the windows:
Son oeil, à l'horizon de lumière gorgée,
Voit des galères d'or, belles comme des cygnes
Sur un fleuve de pourpre et de parfums dormir.
(He sees, on the horizon filled with light,
Golden galleons as lovely as swans,
Moored on a broad river of scented purple.)
In the second half of the poem, where the allegory is interpreted, it is no longer through love that the ideal world is to be attained:
Je me mire et me vois ange! et je meurs, et j'aime
—Que la vitre soit l'art, soit la mysticité—
A renaître, portant mon rêve en diadème,
Au ciel antérieur où fleurit la Beauté.
(I can see my reflection like that of an angel!
And I feel that I am dying, and, through the medium
Of art or of mystical experience, I want to be reborn,
Wearing my dream like a diadem, in some better land
Where beauty flourishes.)
In the final lines, however, the poet fears that he does not possess these artistic or mystical powers—or at least that such powers as he may possess in his "ailes sans plumes" (useless wings) are inadequate for the task of soaring up toward the ideal world.
This feeling of inadequacy rapidly became increasingly acute, so much so that in "L'Azur" (The Sky), written in January 1864, there is a complete reversal of the theme of "Les Fenêtres." Mallarmé now turns his back on the unattainable ideal world and instead of pouring scorn on ordinary mortals "vautrés dans le bonheur" (wallowing in happiness), as he had put it, he now wants, on the contrary, to belong to this "bétail heureux des hommes" (contented herd of human beings). The reason for this volte-face is that whereas Mallarmé had at first merely longed for the ideal world in a vague kind of way and had done no more than suggest that art might be one way of attaining it, in the six months separating "Les Fenêtres" from "L'Azur" he had tried to define his ideas more clearly and had failed.
He had discovered that to write something other than mere descriptive verse dealing with objects in the real world, to try to give poetic form to an immaterial world was an apparently impossible task. Yet, it was one he could not escape, as the last two verses of "L'Azur" make clear, for although the preceding verses describe Mallarmé's failure to write poetry evocative of the ideal world, they lead up to an account of his failure to shake off his obsession with that world and culminate in the agonizing final cry: "Je suis hanté. L'Azur! L'Azur! L'Azur! L'Azur!" (I am haunted by the sky, the sky the sky, the sky!).
In fact, Mallarmé did manage to free himself from his obsession in his next two poems, "Las de l'amer repos" (Bitterly weary of my idleness) and "Les Fleurs" (Flowers), in which, reluctant to abandon poetry completely, yet tired of vainly struggling to evoke an ideal world, he chooses a middle course and consoles himself with writing facile, descriptive verse about the world around him, with its flowers, its lakes, and its crescent moons. His escape was to be a temporary one, however, for in "Le Pitre châtié" (The Turncoat Chastised), written initially in March 1864 and extensively rewritten much later, the poet is punished because he has been a traitor to his true vocation. In "Soupir" (Aspiration), written a month later, the wheel comes full circle, and Mallarmé is again in something of the same state of mind he had been in at the end of "L'Azur," except that he is now reconciled to his fate and sadly recognizes that, however long and difficult his task may be, he has no alternative but to try to define his ideal world and to find means of evoking it in his poetry.
If "Soupir" to some extent echoes "L'Azur," so too does one of the most celebrated and compelling of Mallarmé's poems, the sonnet beginning "Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui" (Will this be the day, dawning lively and lovely), which, although published in 1884, undoubtedly dates from some twenty years earlier. Behind the image of a swan longing to soar into the sky but trapped in the frozen waters of a lake, the poem's theme is clearly that of someone haunted by an ambition he is powerless to achieve. As each day dawns he is full of hope that he will at last manage to launch himself toward his goal, but he repeatedly finds not only that he is unable to do so, but also that the more he hesitates, reflects, and ponders, the more he succumbs to a fatal inactivity. Inspiration of the kind he wants has deserted Mallarmé, yet he refuses to yield, as he had done in "Las de l'amer repos" and "Les Fleurs," to the temptation of writing verse of an easier kind; he thus remains a "fantôme qu'à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne" (pale ghost condemned to this fate by the purity of his ideals).
Instead he turns to poetry dealing indirectly and allegorically with his problem in two of his best-known works, "Hérodiade" (Herodias) and L'Après-midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun, 1876). Both of these dramatic poems underwent many changes and modifications over the years, and "Hérodiade" was in fact never completed, but there is little doubt that the scene between Herodias and her nurse (the only part published under Mallarmé's supervision) dates from 1864 to 1865, and that, in its essential features, L'Après-midi d'un faune (which, almost thirty years later, was to inspire Debussy's celebrated Prélude) dates from 1865 to 1866.
The heroine of "Hérodiade" is the biblical character more generally known as Salome, but Mallarmé may have preferred the alternative name so as to emphasize that he was concerned not with the sensuous dancer of popular legend but with an ascetic figure who is repelled by the slightest contact with the sensual world, and who, in the later, uncompleted stages of the play, was to demand the head of John the Baptist because he had inadvertently caught a glimpse of her naked body. This reversal of the character generally attributed to Salome may mean that Mallarmé is using her as a symbol of his own situation. He implied as much when, in a July 1866 letter toa friend, he wrote "Je m'y étais mis tout entier sans le savior" (My whole being was expressed in it without my knowing it), and Herodias's rejection of the easy pleasures of the senses with which the nurse tempts her seems to continue the theme of the immediately preceding poems in which Mallarmé had persistently turned his back on the superficialities of the real world. There is, however, a change of tone, for the period of failure, despair, and resignation is over. It is true that complete success has not yet been achieved, but Mallarmé is at least convinced, judging by Herodias's firmness of purpose and the expectant note on which the scene ends, that he is now on the verge of defining the nature of his ideal world: ". . . sentant parmi les rêveries / Se séparer enfin les froides pierreries" (. . . feeling vague, uncertain dreams / crystallize at last into something sharper and clearer).
Although L'Après-midi d'un faune was written as a relaxation after "Hérodiade," and although Mallarmé never actually said that into this poem too he had put all his thoughts and feelings, it could nevertheless be argued that such is in fact the case. One of the two nymphs in the poem, which is far more complex and obscure than its popularity would suggest, seems to represent the world of the senses and therefore to resemble Herodias as the nurse wants her to be, while the purer of the two may well symbolize the world of the intellect and therefore resemble Herodias as she wants to be. Since the faun or satyr of the title is able to master neither of them, one might hazard the conclusion that Mallarmé is again presenting his own predicament of a poet moving away from the material world but having not yet reached the immaterial world, and who is consequently incapable of dealing satisfactorily with either.
Mallarmé's unresolved dilemma is the theme of yet another poem, "Brise marine" (Sea Breeze), written in May 1865, when he was about to begin L'Après-midi d'un faune. The birth of his daughter, Geneviève, in November 1864 led him this time to link, perhaps rather oddly, the difficulties of family life and those of trying to write "ideal" poetry. He is again seized with the longing to escape from these problems, not doubt in the literary as well as the physical sense, but as in "Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui," he refuses in the end to yield to the temptation to escape, symbolized by "les chants des matelots" (the songs of sailors).
If, however, the cold light of reason—Herodias's "clair regard de diamant" (crystal-clear gaze)—is turned upon the problem of the existence of the ideal world, the inevitable conclusion is that beyond the real world there lies nothing but an empty void. Yet, if at the same time and despite the evidence of the senses, the conviction is firmly held that the ideal world does exist, then the inescapable conclusion is that it somehow lies hidden in this empty void. This belief is expressed symbolically in "Sainte," written in December 1865 and first titled "Sainte Cécile jouant sur l'aile d'un chérubin" (Saint Cecilia Playing on an Angel's Wing), in which the material image of a viola has faded from a stained-glass window but has been replaced, as shafts of light radiate from the setting sun, by immaterial images: first of the feathers of an angel's wing and then, in a second mutation, by the strings of a harp on which the fingers of Saint Cecilia can create music, thus drawing sound from silence.
Mallarmé's desire to do likewise and to compose poetry evocative of the ideal world is only implicit in this poem, but in three sonnets that together form a single poem (written, in all probability, in 1866, although not published until 1887), he describes much more personally a spell of intense creative effort, lasting from dusk until dawn, although it ends in failure. In the first sonnet, "Tout Orgueil fume-t-il du soir" (Just as the sun sets proudly behind the clouds at evening), the flame of fresh inspiration does not leap, as he had hoped, from the ashes of his abandoned, traditional kind of poetry; in the second sonnet, "Surgi de la croupe et du bond" (Surging up from the rounded base and rising flank), no rose springs from the vase that he imagines himself to be; in the third sonnet, "Une dentelle s'abolit" (A lace curtain becomes invisible), his creative faculty, symbolized by the two images of a bed and a mandolin, fails to give birth to a new kind of poetry.
Mallarmé's correspondence from this period helps to explain his ideas. In a letter dated July 1866 he proclaims: "Je suis mort et ressuscité avec la clef de pierreries de ma dernière cassette spirituelle. A moi maintenant de l'ouvrir en l'absence de toute impression empruntée" (I have died and have come to life again with the precious key to my final spiritual casket. It is now my task to open it without the aid of any borrowed impressions). This idea of not being dependent on impressions made by material objects, of being truly creative in the sense of no longer merely describing something that already exists, is further developed in another letter written in May 1867, in which Mallarmé contends that he has become simply a kind of prism through which the light from the ideal world is refracted and transformed: "Je suis maintenant impersonnel . . . une aptitude qu'a l'univers spirituel à se voir et à se développer à travers ce qui fut moi" (I am now disembodied . . . simply a means whereby the spiritual world can be made perceptible and can develop through what once was me). It is worth noting that in both of these letters, especially the first one, Mallarmé, either by accident or design, makes of himself a Christlike figure, which further suggests he is concerned not with the material but with the immaterial world.
By 1867, therefore, when he was only twenty-five years old, Mallarmé had worked out what he wanted to do as a poet, and this goal was to remain unchanged throughout the rest of his life. Nearly twenty years later, in his preface to René Ghil's Traité du Verbe (Treatise on the Word, 1886), he said that his aim was to perceive, beyond a real flower, the ideal flower that can never be found in this world: "Je dis: une fleur! et, hors de l'oubli où ma voix relègue aucun contour, en tant que quelque chose d'autre que les calices sus, musicalement se lève, idée même et suave, l'absente de tous bouquets" (I say: a flower! and, out of the oblivion into which my voice consigns any real shape, as something other than petals known to man, there rises, harmoniously and gently, the ideal flower itself, the one that is absent from all earthly bouquets). This point is made equally clearly in another phrase in the same preface, in which Mallarmé contends that the whole purpose of poetry is to create ideal forms, unsullied by any contact with reality: "La notion pure, sans la gêne d'un proche ou concret rappel" (pure concept, unlinked to any related or material form).
Despite the obvious difficulty of using language for these creative purposes and not for what he scornfully called "reporting," Mallarmé soon acquired a boundless confidence in his ability to achieve his goal. In 1868 he wrote the first version of the sonnet "Ses purs ongles très haut dédiant leur onyx" (The uplifted fingernails of an onyx figure), thirteen lines of which emphasize the total emptiness of a room, which is then transformed, in the final line, into a vast, starlit universe. The work is symbolic both of Mallarmé conjuring up ideal forms from the empty void and of his confidence that his period of sterility was over.
This same confidence is apparent in the companion sonnet, "Quand l'ombre menaça de la fatale loi" (When Failure Threatened to Destroy), which, although first published in 1883, undoubtedly dates from this period, fifteen years earlier. It exhibits the same sudden transition from the dark and funereal confines of a closed room to the huge expanse of the night sky, although it occurs this time much earlier in the poem, at the beginning of the second quatrain, and leads to the confident declaration:
Oui, je sais qu'au lointain de cette nuit, la Terre
Jette d'un grand éclat l'insolite mystère
Sous les siècles hideux qui l'obscurcissent moins.
(Yes, I now know that far into the night the Earth
Is flinging a strange and mysterious shaft of light whose
Brilliance will only be increased as the grim centuries pass by.)
When, in the final line of the poem, Mallarmé describes the earth as having been transformed into a shining star by the birth of his genius, the reader is reminded of the star of Bethlehem, thus continuing the implied analogy between the poet and Christ in the phrases from his letter of 1866 and 1867.
Since Mallarmé was convinced of his newfound ability to reveal a whole universe of ideal forms, one might have expected from him a sudden burst of poetic activity in 1868. The opposite was the case, however, for he wrote no new poems for five years, until the death of Théophile Gautier inspired "Toast funèbre" (Funeral Salute) in 1873. Then came a further silence of three years, broken by an invitation to write the "Tombeau de Poe" (Elegy for Poe) in 1876 and, in the following year, on the occasion of the death of the wife of one of his friends, by the composition of "Sur les bois oubliés quand passe l'hiver sombre" (When the dark days of winter pass over the forgotten woods). Another long silence of eight years followed before the publication of "Prose—pour des Esseintes" (Prose—for des Esseintes) in 1885.
Several factors could explain this extraordinary lull in Mallarmé's poetic production. His moves from Tournon to Besançon in 1866, to Avignon in 1867, and to Paris in 1871, plus the birth of his son, Anatole, in the latter year, must have made his already constrained financial circumstances even more difficult, which is presumably why he took on such surprising extra commitments as editing a few issues of a short-lived fashion magazine, La Dernière Mode (The Latest Fashion), in 1874; publishing a language manual, Les Mots Anglais (English Words), in 1878; and translating George W. Cox's English treatise on mythology as Les Dieux Antiques (The Ancient Gods) in 1880 and a children's story, The Star of the Fairies, by Mrs. W. C. Elphinstone-Hope, as L'Etoile des Fées in 1881. Besides undertaking these time-consuming tasks, Mallarmé also engaged in more appropriate activities such as publishing in 1872 his translation of poems by Edgar Allan Poe and in 1876 his own poem, L'Après-midi d'un faune, as well as a substantial article on his friend, the painter Edouard Manet.
This extra work would alone suffice to explain why Mallarmé wrote so few poems between 1868 and 1885, but two other points may be added. The first is that he was working on what he called his "Grand Oeuvre" (Great Work). The term is significant in that it means not only a magnum opus in the literary sense, but also, as Mallarmé said in a letter dated May 1867, the secret formula sought by the alchemists of medieval times to transmute base metal into gold—an obvious symbol of what Mallarmé was seeking to achieve in his poetry.
The second reason for Mallarmé's unproductiveness lies in the nature of the task he had set himself. Creating ideal forms meant adopting an inevitably slow and elaborate process of avoiding overt description in favor of suggestion, allusion, and ambiguity so as not to become too closely tied to reality—which explains why there are so many differences of opinion over the interpretation of his poems. In "Ses purs ongles," for example, the constellation of seven stars that rises in the northern sky in the final line of the poem is not named, nor indeed are the words constellation and star ever mentioned. Mallarmé merely refers to a "septuor de scintillations"—seven glittering points of light created by himself and absent from any known sky. The rhymes contribute to the theme of ideal forms springing from an empty void, since only two rhymes are used throughout the poem: -ix and -or, the first of which is the sound of the letter x, the generally accepted symbol of the unknown, while the meaning of the second rhyme in French is "gold," the equally accepted symbol of the ultimate ideal.
Similarly, in "Tout Orgueil fume-t-il du soir," the setting sun is never explicitly mentioned but is merely implicit in the torch of the second line, which swings down toward darkness. The fact that the torch is "étouffée" (stifled) rather than extinguished suggests that the poem is really concerned with the poet falling silent. As in "Ses purs ongles" the syllable -or plays a significant role, occurring three times in the first three lines—in the words "orgueil," "torche," and "immortel"—thus suggesting the ideal toward which Mallarmé is striving.
He fails, however, to achieve his goal, as is implied by a further triple occurrence of the syllable -or in two despairing lines near the end of "Une dentelle s'abolit," the third sonnet of the trilogy: "Mais, chez qui du rêve se dore / Tristement dort une mandore" (But, despite the poet's golden dreams / within him a mandolin sadly sleeps). In the second of these lines Mallarmé contrives to repeat the sound of the word "mandore" in the words "tristement dort," thus emphasizing his sadness that his creative faculty lies dormant. A final example of Mallarmé's art of connotation occurs in the second of the trilogy of sonnets, "Surgi de la croupe et du bond," in which the word "verrerie," which means not only a piece of glassware but also a place that produces glass, plays on the words "verre" (glass) and "vers" (line of poetry) so that it can be taken to refer to someone who produces verse.
While Mallarmé was patiently developing this complex technique, he was also reflecting on his basic belief that in the apparent emptiness of space an ideal world lies concealed—that infinity can be conjured up from the void. An obvious variation on this theme is that eternal life can come from death, that when a man is reduced to nothingness he can nevertheless live on in some way. This concept is no doubt why Mallarmé was attracted to the elegy, especially those addressed to creative artists, since they are examples of men who have died, yet who live in on their works. "Toast funèbre," "Le Tombeau de Poe," and "Sur les bois oubliés" are therefore not purely occasional poems; although inspired by particular circumstances, they are also closely related to Mallarmé's ideas.
Just as he had proclaimed in "Quand l'ombre menaça" that his own genius would shine more and more strongly through the centuries, so he claims on Gautier's behalf in "Toast funèbre" that "le splendide génie éternel n'a pas d'ombre" (the splendid, eternal genius shall never be shrouded in darkness), and, on Poe's behalf, in the often quoted opening line of the "Tombeau de Poe," that death has finally changed the poet into the eternal artist rather than the mortal man: "Tel qu'en lui-même enfin l'éternité le change" (Transformed at last into his true self by death). Even in "Sur les bois oubliés," although the poem is not addressed to a creative artist, emphasis is laid in the moving final lines on the power of the word, which is able to bring the dead wife back from the grave:
Ame au si clair foyer tremblante de m'asseoir,
Pour revivre il suffit qu'à tes lèvres j'emprunte
Le souffle de mon nom murmuré tout un soir.
(I am a soul longing to sit beside the bright hearth, and
To be brought back to life; all I need is to hear from your lips
The murmur of my name repeated throughout the night.)
The poem with which Mallarmé broke his virtual poetic silence of seventeen years in January 1885 bore the enigmatic title "Prose" and was dedicated to Floressas des Esseintes, the decadent hero of J. K. Huysmans's novel A Rebours (Against Nature, 1884). For the over-refined tastes of des Esseintes the prose poem was the supreme literary form, and it may be for this reason that Mallarmé, tongue in cheek, decided to call what is clearly, for all other readers, a poem in verse: "Prose—pour des Esseintes." Otherwise, however, the poem has a serious purpose, for it is a renewed declaration by Mallarmé, parallel to his confident, and even overconfident declaration seventeen years before, in "Quand l'ombre menaça de la fatale loi," that his period of silence is now over, that he has at last perfected his technique of conjuring up the ideal world, that his "Grand Oeuvre" is finally to see the light of day:
Gloire du long désir, Idées
Tout en moi s'exaltait
De voir la famille des iridées
Surgir à ce nouveau devoir.
(This was the glorious culmination of what I had longed for, those ideal flowers that I had sought, and my heart leaped within me to see the whole family of the flowers of the goddess Iris rise up in their turn at the prospect of my accepting the task of revealing their existence.)
While Mallarmé was writing "Prose," however, he was also yielding to the charms of Méry Laurent, the former mistress of, among others, the painter Edouard Manet, who had died in April 1883. In fact, at the time "Prose" was published in January 1885, Mallarmé wrote to a friend enclosing a copy of a poem that he had presumably just completed, "Quelle soie aux baumes de temps" (What silken flag of the balm of immortal glory), the theme of which is the reverse of his promise in "Prose," to at last set down on "eternal parchment" his vision of the ideal world. He is now more than willing to exchange the role of poet for that of lover and to abandon his dreams of glory in favor of the pleasures to be found in Méry's company:
Non! La bouche ne sera sûre
De rien goûter à sa morsure
S'il ne fait, ton princier amant,
Dans la considérable touffe
Expirer comme un diamant
Le cri des Gloires qu'il étouffe.
(No! My mouth cannot be sure
Of fully savoring its kisses
Unless your princely lover
Finally stifles his dreams of glory
Burying them like a diamond
In the great mass of your hair.)
Similarly, in "Victorieusement fui le suicide beau" (Triumphantly abandoned now my one-time ambition to die in splendor), a first version of which was sent to Verlaine at the end of 1885, and in "M'introduire dans ton histoire" (When I first entered your life), published in June 1886, he is only too delighted to give up burning the midnight oil working at his "Grand Oeuvre" in favor of spending his nights with Méry.
In 1885 as in 1868, therefore, Mallarmé's optimistic declaration of faith in his ability to attain his ideal world is followed by a failure to do so. This time, however, instead of lapsing into silence, he wrote and published poems about Méry Laurent, reflecting the successive stages of their relationship, which gradually changed from the sensuality of "Quelle soie aux baumes de temps," "Victorieusement fui le suicide beau," and "M'introduire dans ton histoire," with its deliberately equivocal opening line, through the almost fraternal tenderness of "O si chère de loin" (You are so dear to me even from afar), the fading desire of "Mes bouquins refermés sur le nom de Paphos" (Having closed the book I have been reading about Paphos) and the spent passion of "La chevelure vol d'une flamme" (Her hair was once like a leaping flame) to the "amitié monotone" (placid friendship) of the final line of the last poem of the cycle, "Dame sans trop d'ardeur" (Lady, without excess of ardor), dated 1 January 1886.
These love poems are of considerable merit and are typically Mallarmean in their technique—"La chevelure vol d'une flamme" crams into the fourteen lines of the sonnet an equal number of words evocative of the radiance of Méry's red hair and of Méry herself, while "O si chère de loin" compares her to an ideal nonexistent perfume evoked by an extraordinary accumulation of negatives: ". . . quelque baume rare émané par mensonge / Sur aucun bouquetier de cristal obscurci" (. . . Some perfume so rare that it has never been given off / By any bouquet of flowers in an invisible crystal vase). Yet, they clearly mark a turning away from the ideal world toward the world of reality. Not surprisingly Mallarmé experienced the inevitable reaction and felt a certain tinge of regret that he had failed to carry out his promise, a regret that was all the more acute because he was then well over forty and in failing health, so that his chances of taking up his task once more and carrying it through to completion were becoming increasingly slim. Even in one of the Méry poems, "Mes bouqins refermée," his thoughts turn toward the nonexistent breast of a legendary Amazon despite the presence of the voluptuous charms of his mistress, thus signaling a momentary longing for the ideal rather than the real.
His regret is most strongly expressed, however in the 1886 elegy to Wagner, who had died in 1883. He called it "Hommage" rather than "Tombeau" and acknowledged that Wagner had succeeded where he had failed, and that the ideas metaphorically gathering dust in the corners of his mind would never see the light of day: "Le silence déjà funèbre d'une moire / Dispose plus qu'un pli seul sur le mobilier" (The funereal silence of a shroud is already beginning / To spread its folds over the contents of my mind).
Perhaps because of this mood of pessimism, which must have been increased by the death of his son in 1879, of Wagner and Manet in 1883, and of Victor Hugo in 1885, feeling that his own life was nearing its end—although he in fact had still twelve more years to live—Mallarmé collected the poems he had so far published in various literary magazines and produced two volumes in 1887, Album de vers et de prose and Les Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé.
By 1893, however, he had recovered some of his optimism in the sonnet at first titled "Toast" (since it was recited as such to his friends at a literary banquet) and later "Salut," in which he once more reaffirmed his faith in his goal. But this time he defines the latter in no more than the vaguest terms, as "n'importe ce qui valut le blanc souci de notre toile" (whatever has inspired the steadfast purpose that has driven us forward). Instead of the overwhelming confidence of "Quand l'ombre" and "Prose" that he will reach his goal, Mallarmé now feels uncertain whether what awaits him is success, failure, or some lonely limbo between the two. "Salut" can therefore be classed as a kind of elegy, in that it is really a reflection on what fate may await Mallarmé after his death—the loneliness of an uncompleted task, the shipwreck of failure, or the goal of success.
The same is true of the sonnet published in the magazine Pan, 1895, "A la nue accablante tu" (Unannounced to the lowering cloud), in which Mallarmé expresses an uncertainty of a rather different kind, not about his ultimate fate, but about the true worth of what he has achieved. He now seems convinced that his work will never survive, but in a moment of unusually profound pessimism he also wonders whether this outcome will mean the loss to posterity not of a great poet, but of a mere versifier.
Uncertain and despondent though he may have felt at times during these years, Mallarmé nevertheless recovered sufficiently from his pessimism on occasions to write elegies to Baudelaire in 1895, to Verlaine in 1897 and to Vasco da Gama in 1898. This last poem, "Au seul souci de voyager" (To life's sole goal of sailing onwards) was written to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of da Gama's voyage to India, but Mallarmé also saw, in the great explorer's persistence in sailing into the unknown against all odds, an image of his own unwavering pursuit of the ideal world, despite disappointments and setbacks.
This acceptance of the "souci de voyager" (goal of the traveler) as a substitute for the more ambitious "souci d'arriver" (goal of arrival) can also be perceived in what is no doubt the most original and hermetic of all Mallarmé's works, Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard. So as to indicate the structure of this fairly lengthy and extremely complex piece of prose made up of some 650 words covering twenty-one pages, Mallarmé uses different kinds of lettering. The main clause, printed in bold capitals, is interrupted after "jamais" by a subordinate clause in smaller capitals, which, in turn, is interrupted by a long and intricate passage in ordinary roman type. Only after these two parentheses does the verb "n'abolira" appear, and it too is followed by a long parenthesis in italics before the object of the verb, "le hasard," makes its appearance. A final qualifying clause is then introduced, first in italics and then in roman type, to bring the work to a close.
In addition to this visual indication of the relative emphasis to be given to the various sections of the text, Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard also has a pictorial element. The words and sentences are sparingly and unevenly distributed across the comparatively large area of the double page, which Mallarmé uses as his "frame" instead of the single page, so that the lines of print, sometimes trailing across the paper like a drawing of the wake of a ship, sometimes grouped together like black dots on white dice (a wake is white; a drawing of it is black), and sometimes more widely scattered like black stars in a white sky, reinforce the three kinds of imagery that dominate Un coup de dés, much as the sounds ix and or complement the imagery of "Ses purs ongles." There is indeed a close relationship between these two works, although the optimism implicit in the constellation rising triumphantly out of the empty room in 1868 has given way almost thirty years later to a calm resignation implicit in a similar constellation quietly presiding over a catastrophic shipwreck.
This wreck is no doubt that of Mallarmé's hope of attaining his goal, but he finds a twofold consolation for not having succeeded in producing his "Grand Oeuvre"; first in the thought that, even if he had launched this work upon the world, it could still have passed unnoticed, for the fact of throwing a pair of dice does not abolish the chance that they may not be seen; and second in that, even if the dice are not thrown, even if the "Grand Oeuvre" is not published, nevertheless the ideas that have gone into its making will themselves constitute a less obvious throw of the dice and may by chance survive. The final line, "Toute Pensée émet un Coup de Dés" (Every thought means a throw of the dice), is the modestly optimistic conclusion, printed in appropriately modest lettering, of this extraordinarily original and complex work.
Now that more than a century has elasped since Mallarmé wrote those words as the final line of Un coup de dés, it seems safe to say that the hope they express has been realized, and that, even though he did not manage to complete and to publish his "Grand Oeuvre" and thus give it a chance of survival, nevertheless the few works that he did publish, particularly the volume of Poésies that he prepared just before his death and Un coup de dés, have ensured him a place as one of the brightest stars in the constellation of writers who make the second half of the nineteenth century such a brilliant period in French literature.
Translation, particularly that of poetry, is a notoriously knotty business, demanding as it does at once the negation and the preservation of the original. Fidelity is of little account, since the invocation of or commitment to fidelity merely begs the question as to what dimension of the poem one promises to be faithful. The German translator and translation theorist of the Romantic era, Friedrich Schleiermacher, offered three versions of translation: these range from the ‘conversations of the marketplace’ (those word-for-word translations familiar now to users of GoogleTranslate), through the attempt to recreate entirely in the target language the work of the original, to ‘bringing the reader to the original’ by incorporating into the translation the strangeness of the original language. All represent different notions of equivalence, each based on a specific function for translation or a different model of making and reception; each has its problems. That the marketplace version, concerned primarily with the transfer of useable information from one language to another, seems self-evidently inadequate as any kind of model for literary translation depends on at least two presuppositions about literature, both of which remain pertinent to any effort to translate Mallarmé. The first is that literature, poetry above all, is not concerned in its essence with communication of information or content, as a purely commercial translation must seek to be. The second is that literary modes of expression are intimately bound up with languages that are at once natural and national. The poetic element in language is inseparable from, if not the ‘essence’ or spirit of the language, then at least the texture that derives from its historical evolution and usage, its specific morphologies and syntax, its etymologies and sonorities. Hence, while Schleiermacher’s second version of translation would aim at recreating the poem entirely in a way that would harmonize it with the textures and histories of the target language, his third would estrange that target language by imposing upon it some of the values and textures of the original, potentially unleashing new possibilities in the former.¹ That, at least, was what Walter Benjamin hoped for when he remarked of translation ‘that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.’² For Benjamin, working still in the Romantic tradition instantiated by Schleiermacher, any possible kinship of languages, and thus the possibility of any translation, ‘rests in the intention underlying each language as a whole – an intention, however, which no single language can attain by itself but which is realized only by the totality of all their intentions supplementing each other: pure language.’ And it is Mallarmé whom Benjamin then cites on the disabling lack of the ‘supreme’ language in which the imperfection of the many natural languages would be cured by the one in which truth manifested immediately, ‘par une frappe unique‘.
The supreme test of any translation theory that claims the possibility that translation might either creatively estrange the target language or at least ‘supplement’ it would surely be the translation of Mallarmé into English. Anyone who has attempted to translate French poetry into English will be familiar with the suspect but nonetheless operative dictum that French is a far more abstract language than English. A language which invites the prospective cook to ‘supprimer les pédoncules des tomates’ rather than to remove their stems will be found hopelessly Latinate by the Anglo-Saxon ear. That the association of a Latinate diction with abstraction or with a conceptual vocabulary has a history specific to the English language and the peculiar ethnic and class formations that determined its evolution does not obviate the difficulty faced by the translator for whom—as Benjamin indicates—even words as simple as ‘bread’ and ‘pain’ establish utterly different networks of association and, of course, sound, despite sharing the same intended object. It is not, indeed, only a matter of the vocabulary: French, like other Romance languages, lends itself more easily to rhyme than does English, despite the extraordinary feats of Shelley or Tennyson in this regard. Above all, though French is by no means as thoroughly grammatically inflected as, say, German, it is subject to a much greater degree than the highly ‘analytical’ language English, to case, gender, and conjugation. Such syntactical constraints are also resources that enable poetic effects such as those which Mallarmé in particular was devoted to elaborating. As Paul Valéry, his most devoted disciple, recognized:
Anyone then who did not reject the complex texts of Mallarmé became insensibly involved in learning to read again. To wish to endow them with a sense that was not unworthy of their admirable form and of the trouble that such precious verbal figures had certainly cost led infallibly to associating the labour pursued by the spirit and its combinatory capacities with poetic delight. Consequently, Syntax, which is calculation, regained the rank of Muse.³
Valéry’s account of the young admirer’s learning to read Mallarmé accords with the latter’s poetic program to which Manson alludes in citing from his ‘Crise de Vers’ in a luminous and generous ‘Afterword’. Mallarmé sought to shape a poetic ‘music’ in which relation displaces reference, just as the mere material sonorities of ‘brass, strings, wood’ give way to ‘the totality of relations’ that compose the actual symphony, or the poem. Mallarmé in the same essay suggests a specific account of the musicality of his own verse, one which helps to explain what Alain Badiou has referred to as the insistent ‘obliquity’ (as opposed to hermeticism) of his poems:
All becomes suspension, fragmentary arrangement with alternation and face-to-faceness, converging in the total rhythm, that which would be the poem silenced, in its blank spaces.4
Suspense, delay, the suspension of reference or the spacing of subject and predicate through extended apposition or implied parenthesis that allow for multiple potential directions for meaning (les sens du sens) – all are characteristic of Mallarmé’s work and of the peculiarly elusive quality of his lyric works in particular. Embedded as these effects are in the possibilities allowed by French syntax, they pose the most intractable difficulties for the English translator. By the same token, the effort to approach this dimension of Mallarmé’s work can lead to the most estranging effects on the English language, to that aspect of French, or of this particular poetic work at least, that most fully tests and supplements the resources of English as a medium for poetry.
What Manson remarks of his decision neither to emulate the French alexandrine nor to substitute for it the pentameter as its English equivalent could be extended to what seems to be the procedure, or at least the outcome, of most of the translations in what is surely a momentous achievement in English poetic translation. Where his metrical decisions come to ‘form an interference pattern between English pentameter and French alexandrine’, one might say that the translations by and large constitute a similar interference pattern between French and English as a whole. Given that the translations have been composed over some twenty years, it is hardly surprising that the procedures that produce this effect of interference, of a third term between Schleiermacher’s creative options, will vary from poem to poem. Generally speaking, Manson refuses the temptation to produce mellifluous, smoothed-out versions of Mallarmé that conform to the expectations of English syntax and even rhyme. Compare for a moment some quatrains from Manson’s translation of the ineffably ‘oblique’ ‘Prose, pour des Esseintes’, with the corresponding version in Keith Bosley’s Penguin Mallarmé:
Telles, immenses, que chacune
Ordinairement se para
D’un lucide contour, lacune
Qui des jardins la sépara,
Gloire du long désir, Idées
Tout en moi s’exaltait de voir
La famille des iridées
Surgir à ce nouveau devoir,
All so immense that each one ordinarily paraded
in a lucid contour, lacuna se-
parating it from the gardens.
Glory of the long desire, Ideas
all of them in me leapt to see
the family of the irides
arise to this new duty
So that they all, enormous,
Were adorned with clear outlines
Commonly, a hiatus
Between them and the gardens.
Ideas, glory of long
Longing, my all leapt to see
The tribe of the iris throng
To fulfill this fresh duty
It may be admitted that Bosley’s versions of Mallarmé are themselves a remarkable achievement, succeeding in finding time and again admirably unforced rhymes and half-rhymes to match rhymes in the original French that are, as Manson remarks, ‘a fundamental property of Mallarmé’s poetry.’ Nonetheless, the overall effect of Bosley’s translations is to transpose Mallarmé’s work, in all its knotty syntactical and semantic difficulty, into a legible surface that reads like a slightly halting Wordsworthian lyrical ballad. Manson sets himself a different task, insisting from the start that ‘a translation of Mallarmé should at least be allowed to sound like interesting modern poetry.’ For him, ‘the strict (or even the very lax) use of rhyme and regular metre is one of the surest ways of forbidding that from happening.’ Instead, he opts for what he calls ‘unashamedly semantic translations of a poet whose best writing seems designed to put a semantic translator to shame.’ In consequence, Manson’s versions of Mallarmé seem to obey for the most part the logic of the scriptible, in Roland Barthes’ sense, rather than aiming for easy legibility.6 That is, they map for us as readers the track of his own arduous and intense reading of Mallarmé and oblige us in turn to follow the track of that reading, with all its hesitations and even, occasionally, false starts. Thus, while Bosley’s ‘were adorned’ might be the closer translation of se para according to the dictionary, Manson’s reading as ‘paraded’ nicely picks up on his retention of Mallarmé’s ordinairement in ‘ordinarily’, with its echoes of the ordinal series as well as the ceremonial regularity of the liturgy. The witty decision to divide the word se-parating then not only allows for the internal rhyme between paraded and –parating, but performs precisely what the word does while recuperating the French rhyming pun on se para and sépara.
Though muted rhyme emerges (arises?) in the following stanza, by and large ideational or conceptual rhyme of this kind, rather than strictly aural rhyming, is the mode in which Manson transposes Mallarmé’s prominent and quite insistent rhymes. This is not inappropriate, since for Mallarmé rhyme tends to provoke and perform intellectual work, not merely mark and control repetition. Compare Mallarmé’s procedure to that of the possibly most remarkable of English rhymers, Tennyson, and the difference is profoundly marked. To remain with the stanzas cited above, the rhyme on chacune and lacune underscores not only Mallarmé’s precise notation of the way in which each flower, by virtue of its size and intense color, produces a halo-like effect that ‘separates it from the gardens’, but also the differential relation that individuates chacune/each one only through the establishment of an empty space within which that singularity can appear. This in turn is surely a reflection on the conditions of verse itself, where the ‘ordinal’ series of lines requires the blank spaces around it to signify at all, a dialectical condition Mallarmé famously exploited from the inaugural ‘Rien’ (‘No thing’, in Manson’s version) of ‘Salut’ to the radical spatial experiment of the Coup de Dés. Manson’s achievement, surely enabled by the decision to eschew systematically rhymed translation, is to find an alternative set of echoes and correspondences at the conceptual level of the poetry that function at least partially as rhyme does for Mallarmé.
More taxing, though, than the issue of rhyme for the English translator of French poetry is that of syntax. Manson’s consistent translation of grimoire, which derives from grammaire but can mean spell-book (‘gramarye’ in medieval English) or scribble, as ‘grammar’ captures what is at stake. As Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has noted in Musica Ficta, one of Mallarmé’s earliest writings, ‘Artistic Heresies—Art for All’ insisted on the necessity for art to retain its ‘mystery’—like religion and like magical rites, it demands initiation and veiling.7Sortilege, sorcery or the reading of lots, is one of Mallarmé’s favoured analogies for poetic practice. But poetry is threatened by its apparently easy availability to the general and uninitiated public and can only be warded by its auratic difficulty of access, the lacuna by which it is hedged. Valéry notes both the approximation of Mallarmé’s verse to ‘magic formula’ and the quality of incantation that it invoked, as well as the ascetic labour that it demanded both of the poet and the reader.8 Mallarmé’s difficulty is of course notorious, but it is not, for example the kind of difficulty that might face the reader of the early Yeats, where most difficulty can be resolved by turning to a handbook of Irish myths or of Theosophical symbols. Difficulties of that kind there certainly are in Mallarmé, and Manson’s tactful and unburdened ‘Scholia’ go a long way towards relieving the reader of such contingent difficulties. But the crucial source of difficulty lies precisely in what Mallarmé terms suspens, suspension or delay, which is the practical poetic means for enacting ‘mystery’ or warding against that too instantaneous consumption of the work which would convert it into a mere commodity form, a source of distraction or of information. The effect of delayed and gradual precipitation of meaning is frequently enabled in the poems, and indeed in the prose, by Mallarmé’s exacting extension of the syntactical possibilities of French almost to their limits. To take a relatively simple instance, the exquisite ‘Éventail (de Madame Mallarmé)’:
Avec comme pour langage
Rien qu’un battement aux cieux
Le future vers se dégage
Du logis très précieux
Aile tout bas la courrière
Cet éventail si c’est lui
Le même par qui derrière
Toi quelque miroir a lui
Limpide (ou va redescendre
Pourchassée en chaque grain
Un peu d’invisible cendre
Seule à me rendre chagrin)
Toujours tel il apparaisse
Entre tes mains sans paresse
Manson’s translation would be hard to better:
Fan (of Madame Mallarmé)
With for language nothing
but a beat in the sky
the future verse breaks free
of the most precious dwelling
quiet wing the courier
this fan if it is the
same through which behind
you some mirror gleamed
limpidly (where invisible
ash pursued to the last grain
will fall back again
only to cause me pain)
may it always appear so
between your unlazy hands
While it risks sacrificing for a moment the ongoing analogy between the spread of the fan and the wings of a dove, biblical messenger and iconic angel of annunciation, Manson’s ‘beat in the sky’ (for the more exact ‘beating [as of wings]’) finely inserts a Mallarmean conceptual pun on poetic rhythm that anticipates the breaking free of verse. The poem, in whose title one might discern a muted pun on évènement, event, is about the advent of the poem through the most oblique of glimpses, that of a fan seen as a momentary reflection passing across a mirror in the depths of a room. It is also a poem that seems to count the cost of poetic refinement, of its limpidity, precisely in a parenthesis that inserts both mortality and the temporality of delay into what might otherwise be an instantaneous epiphany. In French, the arrival of the subject of the parenthesis is delayed by inversion: the verbal phrase ‘va descendre’ precedes, even if rhyme predicts its subject ‘Un peu d’invisible cendre’, melancholy reminder of death or of what cannot be taken up into the limpidity of the deeply reflected poem. In English, that effect of delayed advent of the subject is virtually impossible to reproduce without extreme syntactic strain that would do violence to what is far from violent in the French. Perhaps that is why, here, Manson allows a rare rhyme pattern to emerge, the three rhymes in ‘–ain’ introducing something like an effect of delay into the English despite the necessity to begin the parenthetical clause with its subject. For rhyme does not only predict the phonetic patterns of the verse, as Manson reminds us in his afterword; it introduces, by its insistent recursive patterns, hesitation and slowing as the ear harks back as well as forward to establish the regularity of the rhyme scheme.
There is of course an erotic as well as mortal frisson embedded in this temporality of suspension, as ‘Quelle soie aux baumes du temps’ makes abundantly clear in final lines that reproduce the syntactic inversions of ‘Éventail’:
Non. La bouche ne sera sûre
De rien goûter à sa morsure,
S’il ne fait, ton princier amant,
Dans la considérable touffe
Expirer, comme un diamant,
Le cri des Gloires qu’il étouffe.
No. The biting mouth will not
be sure of tasting anything
if your princely lover does not make
the cry of Glory he stifles
expire, like a diamond
in the considerable tuft.
Again, English syntax seems incapable of supporting the inversion that French allows, this time the suspension of the object, le cri, rather than the subject. These are relatively simple examples, though they do indicate the intrinsic difficulties of a syntactical rather than a semantic translation. What they do not reveal is the extent to which this quality of delay in Mallarmé’s poetry enables another musical effect—and as the passage Manson cites from Crise de Vers suggests, music for Mallarmé has less to do with material soundscape or with individual notes or timbres than with the formal accomplishment of music, what he refers to as ‘orchestration’. Music, like poetry, takes place in time, but the suspension of the development of any motif or the recurrence of a given theme demand that the auditor hold in mind, as across a broad space, several musical ‘ideas’ at one time. Mallarmé’s verse at its most complex—and most notably in the Coup de Dés, which notoriously spatializes several thematic threads, using typographical scoring to assist the reader’s forward movement—seeks to extend to the maximum the condensation of ideas that a single phrase can accommodate, including ambiguities and contradictions.
As Lacoue-Labarthe argues, it is to the challenge—both aesthetic and national— of Wagner’s music, or rather to its ‘total art’, that Mallarmé responds by seeking to compose a poetry that would achieve a purer musicality, an ‘archi-music’.9 Not surprisingly, then, it is in his ‘Hommage’ to Wagner that we can find one of his most complicated and ironically layered orchestrations. Manson’s note to this poem alerts us to Mallarmé’s own judgment that the poem is imbued with ‘the melancholy of a poet who sees the old poetic confrontations collapse, and the magnificence of words fade, before the sunrise of contemporary Music, of which Wagner is the latest God.’ But, like melancholy in general, the poem has a biting edge that belies its writer’s humility in the face of music. Much as does the early essay, ‘Artistic Heresies’, the poem takes its distance from a poetry that pleases the crowd:
Our so old triumphal frolic of the grammar,
hieroglyphs the multitude exalts in
to spread with a wing the familiar shiver!
Bury it for me rather in a cupboard.
Manson adroitly captures here, in the implicit play on exalts and exults and in the use of the familiar ‘cupboard’ for what might tempt a poet less attuned to Mallarmé’s own shifts of register to armoire, the poet’s dismissive contempt for the vulgar. Such vulgarity is what has reduced poetry, including even the ‘nouveau frisson‘ of Baudelaire, to an all-too-accessible art, devoid, as Manson’s notes observe, of the comparatively arcane script that is musical notation. The octet devoted to this ‘crise de vers’ is correspondingly relatively straightforward. It is in the sestet, where the poet must confront the rise of Wagner, that Mallarmé engages in a tour-de-force of syntactic complexity:
Du souriant fracas originel haï
Entre elles de clartés maîtresses a jailli
Jusque vers un parvis né pour leur simulacre,
Trompettes tout haut d’or pâmé sur les vélins,
Le dieu Richard Wagner irradiant un sacre
Mal tu par l’encre même en sanglots sibyllins.
From the original smiling uproar hated
among them, of master clarities, has burst
as far as a parvis born for their simulacrum,
gold trumpets swooning out loud on vellum,
the god Richard Wagner irradiating a sacrament
unmuted even by ink in sibylline sobs.
It is not only that the past tense verb, a jailli, must wait three lines before finding its subject, the god Wagner, but moreover that almost every word in the sestet seems to refer at once forward and back, leaving a peculiar uncertainty as to referent. Ironically, the most difficult of all to assign a fixed place to are ‘elles de clartés maîtresses’ [‘those, mistresses of clarity’] who, if haï [hated] is past participle in the passive mood rather than an adjective simply qualifying fracas along with souriant and originel, would appear to hate what could either be the Wagnerian music that is on the horizon or the ‘frisson familier’ of the multitude. But if elles points forward to trompettes, as logically it should, given that that is the only feminine plural noun other than maîtresses that appears in the poem, then it is the very signature of Wagnerian music, its triumphal, brassy climaxes, that would seem to value the clarity eschewed by Mallarmé, master of the obscure and the oblique.10 That this is a real crux is confirmed by comparing Manson’s with two other translations, that given in Lacoue-Labarthe’s Musica Ficta by Felicia McCarren and, once again, Bosley’s:
From the smiling, hated, originary fracas,
Amongst themselves, masterful clarities
To a parvis created for their simulacrum,
Out of the smiling ancient din detested
Among themselves by powers in brightness vested,
Up to a court made for their imitating, (Bosley)
English syntax seems unable to accommodate the ambivalent energies that course through this poem, a poem that suggests, at least in one possible reading, that Wagner is no more than a simulacrum of art, that the ‘central pillar’ indeed subsides as the curtain falls in the theatre. Poetry, in praising Caesar, also buries him, implying the secret superiority of the music of ambiguous orchestration over the brassy climaxes of an over-dramatic total art.
One of the great virtues of Manson’s translations is that they do not obscure the turbulence, even at times the turbidity of Mallarmé’s poetry. There is a tendency in English translations of his work to imagine a greater degree of purity and abstraction than is actually there. At times, especially as in the work of Brian Coffey, the Irish modernist poet who made extensive and very fine translations of Mallarmé, that tendency towards abstraction becomes the integral basis for a poetic devoted to a reduction and simplification of the writer’s own poetic in English. Manson, on the other hand, captures continually the dimensions of Mallarmé that are so often overlooked, so powerful is his reputation for asceticism and other-worldliness. Mallarmé is, in fact, a highly erotic poet, given, as Manson’s scolia often enough point out, to double entendres and to a quite systematic meditation on the relation between erotic desire and poetic creation. He is also, as even the few citations here of his verse would indicate, an exceptionally sensuous as well as sensual poet, even if that sensuality succumbs to a fin-de-siecle headiness often enough. But what there is of decadence is at the very least counterpointed by a sailor’s startling investment in sea and spray, as both ‘Brise marine’ and Un Coup de Dés testify. His work furnishes, accordingly, a rich field for ‘interference patterns’, drawing to the fore through translation qualities of English that are the more marked the less the translator seeks to reproduce the superficial abstractions and refinements of the verse.
This could be evidenced all over Manson’s translations and it is possible here to give only one instance, drawn from that icon of symbolist decadence, the fragment of the unfinished Hérodiade. In the first part, the ‘Old Overture of Hérodiade’, the ancient nurse speaks, in rhymed alexandrines, lines that resume so many of the properties of Mallarmé’s verse:
Ombre magicienne aux symboliques charmes!
Cette voix, du passé longue évocation,
Est-ce la mienne prête à l’incantation?
Encore dans les plis jaunes de la pensée
Traînant, antique, ainsi qu’une toile encensée
Sur un confus amas d’encensoirs refroidis,
Par les trous anciens et par les plis roidis
Percés selon le rythme et les dentelles pures
Du suaire laissant par ses belles guipures
Désespéré monter le vieil éclat voilé
S’élève, (ô quel lointain en ces appels celé!)
Le vieil éclat voilé du vermeil insolite,
De la voix languissant, nulle, sans acolyte,
Jettera-t-il son or par dernières splendeurs,
Elle, encore, l’antienne aux versets demandeurs,
A l’heure d’agonie et de luttes funèbres!
Magician shadow with symbolic charms!
This voice, long evocation of the past,
is it mine, ready for the incantation?
Still dragging in the yellow folds of thought,
antique, as a cloth of incense
on a confused mass of cooling church utensils,
through ancient holes and through the stiffened folds
pierced rhythmically and the pure lace
of the shroud, allowing through its fine crochet
the old veiled brilliance desperately to climb,
it is raised: (o, what a distance hidden in these calls!)
the old veiled brilliance of the unwonted gilding
of the voice, languishing, null, without acolyte,
will it throw down its gold among final splendours,
over the antiphon to plaintiff hymns
in the hour of agony and death-struggles!
In accord with the grounding principles of his translations, Manson lets drop both the alexandrine line (or any pentametric equivalent) and the rhymes of the couplets. What occurs then in the transposition seems an instructive instance of the ways in which interference patterns operate to draw out or highlight quite distinct qualities in each language. The French is a classic instance of Mallarméan delay, the steady pace of the alexandrine and the arresting repetition of the rhymes allowing the build up through seven lines of apposition and parenthesis before the main active verb, s’éleve, is reached, then a further parenthesis before the complex subject of the whole sentence (Le vieil éclat voilé du vermeil insolite,/ De la voix languissant) is attained. It accords precisely with the sterility and paralysis that afflicts the nurse as she waits for the entrance of Hérodiade, better known to English readers as Salomé. Manson’s lines, abnegating the restraining resources of rhyme and regular metre, seem rather to engage in a hurtling feat of vertiginous enjambement arrested only by a brief submission to the exigencies of English syntax and usage in the ‘it is raised’, before launching again into a further onrush of appositions. A breathless energy overtakes the lines that draws to the surface what an incantatory reading (as indeed, for instance, Bosley’s translation of the same passage more nearly is) fails to remark, the wild (farouche or fauve) and sensuous energies that lurk in Mallarmé’s apparently world-weary texts.
I would readily admit that I am influenced in this reading of Manson’s translation by hearing him read aloud from his then ongoing translation of the Hérodiade at the 2006 Soundeye Festival of Poetry in Cork. Mallarmé is famous for a line from his ‘Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe’ that T.S. Eliot steals in ‘Little Gidding’: ‘Donner un sens plus pur au mots de la tribu.’11 Manson’s achievement in these translations seems to me in part the rigorous avoidance of any attempt to emulate a poésie pure, or to engage in ‘purifying the dialect of the tribe’. Rather, he allows Mallarmé’s often too muted demotic accents to rub shoulders brusquely with his recherché idiom in a way that releases into English something utterly different that is none the less an impeccable homage to the Master. For this reason, it is perhaps permissible to lament that Manson did not include, even as an appendix, the versions published earlier, along the way, in various periodicals and in one chapbook collection, Before and After Mallarmé (Survivor’s Press, 2005). These earlier translations – deliberately rougher and freer in their way, which include Manson’s wonderful writing-through of Mallarmé’s most famous, or most memorable, poem ‘Salut’ [‘Rien, cet écume, vierge vers….’] – demonstrate beyond all that Mallarmé does not suffer from being a little roughed up, whether by irreverence or by interpolation. It opens with the slight but haunting sonnet ‘Tout l’âme résumée’, which was apparently the first that Manson tried to translate. There, the final lines include a hesitation that is precise in its way:
so if the volatile chorus
of love-songs leap to your lip
begin by spitting
back the real because sick
too precise sense [erasure]
your vague literature
There is, of course, nothing ‘vague’ about ‘spitting back the real because sick’: it plays exactly against the tropism towards the abstract that this sonnet might seem to represent, even if its opening lines resume perfectly the sensuous and meditative pleasures of the dedicated smoker. Manson transposes some of the wit of the poem into English puns that sadly do not survive into the collected translations, the cigar ‘burning sagely’, the smoke rings ‘snuffed out.’ And yet that bracketed erasure bears with it the sense of what continually happens in the reading of Mallarmé’s poetry in all its delays and suspensions: a peculiar sense of being haunted by lines whose sense has already been altered, erased, or abolished, in what has slipped into place in their wake:
Tout l’âme resumée
Quand lente nous l’expirons
Dans plusieurs ronds de fumée
Abolis en autres ronds
All soul (summed up
when slowly we expire it
in divers rings of smoke
snuffed out by other rings)
Manson’s translations of Mallarmé never pretend to the Romantic ambition of recreating the poem from its origins, nor do they entirely estrange the English language from itself. What they do achieve is the creation of a contemporary English poetry that stands in tension with Mallarmé’s own in a way that deepens and highlights the potentialities of both. They will stand as a mark, singular and idiosyncratic rather than blandly definitive, of what translation can and should attain to.
Peter Manson’s translation of Mallarmé’s Poems in Verse is published by Miami University Press, Ohio. It is available from Small Press Publishers and Amazon.
1 For Schleiermacher’s theory of translation, see his ‘Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens’ [‘On the Different Methods of Translation’], in André Lefevere, ed. Translating Literature: The German Tradition from Luther to Rosenzweig (Assen, Amsterdam : Van Gorcum, 1977), pp. 80-86.
2 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens’, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 73.
3 Paul Valéry, ‘Je disais quelquefois à Stéphane Mallarmé…’, in Oeuvres, ed. Jean Hytier, volume 1 of 2 (Paris: Gallimard, 1980), p. 646.
4 Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘Crise de Vers’, in Oeuvres Complétes: Poésie-Prose, ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry (Paris; Gallimard, 1945), p. 367. For Badiou’s remarks, see Alain Badiou, ‘A French Philosopher Responds to a Polish Poet’ in Handbook of Inaesthetics, trans. Alberto Toscano (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 29.
5 Keith Bosley, trans. and intro., Mallarmé: The Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 137.
6 For ‘le scriptible’, or the ‘writerly’ as opposed to the ‘readerly’ (reader-friendly) text, see Roland Barthes, The pleasure of the text, trans. Richard Miller and Richard Howard (New York : Hill and Wang, 1975).
7 See Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Musica Ficta (Figures of Wagner), trans. Felicia McCarren (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 43.
8 Valéry, ‘Je disais quelquefois…’, p. 649.
9 Lacoue-Labarthe, Musica Ficta, p. 82.
10 Lacoue-Labarthe points out that its instrumentation itself that undermines the ‘pure musicality’ of music itself, being ‘only a means to fake or reproduce’: Lacoue-Labarthe, Musica Ficta, p. 79.
11 ‘speech impelled us/ To purify the dialect of the tribe’: T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, in Four Quartets (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), p. 39.