Stéphane Mallarmé’s The Afternoon of a Faun is first and foremost poetry, but its origins link it to the theater. At the time of its composition, Mallarmé described it as a “heroic interlude,” a fragment of a dramatic presentation. In the same letter, however, he also refers to its lines as “verses,” and when the text was ready for publication, he submitted it for inclusion in the third collection of Le Parnasse contemporain in 1874. Rejected for inclusion in this volume, the poem finally appeared in its own limited edition in 1876.
Mallarmé’s subtitle calls the work an “eclogue,” a word derived from the idea of a poetic fragment that in later usage came to designate a work with a bucolic setting. While both senses of the word fit the text that follows, that alone does not prepare the reader to understand the first lines on an initial reading.
In the manner of the French classical theater, the faun’s speech draws on events that have already begun and translates past action into dramatic discourse. The first line, “These nymphs, I want to perpetuate them,” indicates from the initial descriptive adjective a need to refer to circumstances that the faun knows but that the reader must intuit. The French phrase “je les veux perpétuer” uses archaic word order and links the speech to past time, underlining both the dramatic conventions and the mythological persona that define the faun.
As with much of Mallarmé’s poetry, the reader must imagine the action. Here, however, Mallarmé supplies more obvious clues than he does in his difficult poems. Idyllic images immediately lead the reader into a reverie resembling that of the faun. Given the reader’s participation in the creation of the poem, the experience is all the more likely to touch the reader personally.
The faun apparently just awakens from a dream in which he sees the nymphs. Mallarmé immediately forces the reader to exert his or her interpretive faculties by the use of nontraditional language to describe this experience. When the nymphs appear in “leur incarnat léger,” the pale rosy color that might normally be a descriptive adjective takes on the substance of a noun. The faun himself is “drowsy with bushy sleep.” The adjective “touffus” may allude to the woodland setting in which the faun sleeps, but its other possible use in describing an involved style of writing suggests the faun’s confused state of mind. He asks, after a pause, whether he loves a dream, since the empty woods around him suggest that he is alone. As he reflects on his memory, however, a number of specific details attest to the reality of the experience. There were clearly two nymphs. The first, he recalls, had the cold blue eyes of chastity. The other was defined by the music of her sighs. The faun expands on the musical sound, similar to the tone he can produce on his panpipes, and on the breath that produced it, warm as a summer breeze.
Emboldened by these specific memories, the faun invokes the “Sicilian shores” that his vanity would “pillage” to tell him what actually happened. Here Mallarmé introduces the first of three italicized segments of the poem in which the faun, playing both parts of the still theatrical dialogue, seems to answer his own question. However, the answer remains incomplete. The faun recalls only that he was cutting reeds to play music when he suddenly saw an “animal whiteness” that could have been either swans or naiads.
Then the memory, along with the italics, disappears. The faun remains alone under a hot sun, thinking that his own sexual longing may have inspired the fantasy. As he awakens, presumably returning to the present, he finds himself beneath an “ancient flood of light.” The light of the sun, constant over time, represents to him a link with the past and recalls the state in which he had awakened in the first lines of the poem, troubled by a doubt that came from “old night.” Both images suggest the hold the past still has upon him. Still contemplating his memories, the faun finds evidence of a kiss in the bite mark of a tooth in his breast. Still he hesitates,...