Stéphane Mallarmé World Literature Analysis
As a central figure in Parisian literary circles for much of his life, Stéphane Mallarmé was influenced by and in turn influenced other poets. During his lifetime, poetry was evolving from the regular forms and clearly expressed emotions of Romantic verse to the fluid and often more obscure forms that would produce modern free verse and the prose poem.
The major influence on Mallarmé’s early poetry was the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. The first edition of Baudelaire’s collection Les Fleurs du mal (1857; Flowers of Evil, 1931) was withdrawn from circulation in 1857 because censors ruled that six of its poems were obscene. When the second, censored but greatly expanded edition appeared in 1861, Mallarmé was among the numerous poets in both France and England who were deeply impressed by Baudelaire’s use of imagery.
During 1841 and 1842, Baudelaire sailed around Africa to Mauritius. While Baudelaire had originally resisted making this trip, the memories of tropical landscapes he retained from it later seemed to represent an earthly paradise contrasted with the cold and foggy climate of Paris. Contrasting groups of positive and negative images in Flowers of Evil reinforce the meaning of each image because of its role in the larger context.
Mallarmé took from Baudelaire both the pattern of repeating images to build up nuances of their meanings, and, especially in his early poetry, a good number of the images themselves. “Brise marine” (1866; “Sea Breeze”) uses generalized ocean imagery to evoke a departure from Mallarmé’s everyday life. He says he would like to flee to a place where birds are drunken as they fly over unknown seas. The birds draw on an image Baudelaire used repeatedly for the attempt to transcend the limits of the earth. The birds’ flight represents both a rising toward heaven and the poet’s flight of poetic inspiration. Drunkenness for Baudelaire also meant much more than intoxication. It could be any kind of intense engagement and often involved a kind of escapism.
The scene from which Mallarmé departs also involves concepts from Baudelaire. In the second part of “Sea Breeze,” Mallarmé suffers from feelings of “ennui”—a word that means much more than boredom and which Baudelaire had identified with a monster that caused human suffering. Mallarmé’s suffering here involves images of domesticity, including his garden, his wife, and his daughter. However, another image intrudes that had not appeared in Baudelaire’s work, the empty whiteness of the page. This image, entirely Mallarmé’s own, represents his fear of being unable to write, to soil the white page. This fear might lead him to flee, even if his departure at the end of the poem is associated with the disaster of a shipwreck.
The ideas and expression of “Sea Breeze” are easy to understand compared with those of “Hérodiade” (1869), a poem Mallarmé began early but rewrote often, publishing only a part of it during his lifetime. The poem draws on the biblical story of Salome as told in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. In the biblical story, however, the primary action is that of Herodias, the wife of King Herod. Here the entire poem concerns her daughter’s dance and the subsequent beheading of John the Baptist. The narration is not clearly spelled out but conveyed in three scenes using the dramatic voices of the dancer (here renamed Hérodiade), her nurse, and John the Baptist.
The first scene, a long monologue by the nurse, suggests through an elaborate series of nature images the drama about to unfold. The second, a dialogue between Hérodiade and her nurse as Hérodiade prepares to dance, uses many abstractions, including images of gardens, light, and feminine beauty to suggest the dual suffering of Hérodiade, who does not want to dance, and of John the Baptist, who will die. The third scene, a brief lyric ostensibly uttered by John’s head as it falls from his body, conveys the tension of the moment but ends with a hint of salvation.
The new style developed in this poem relies on images to evoke emotions and on shifting sun and shadow to represent the passage of time without ever stating exactly what is going on. In such a composition, it helps to have a biblical story as background. Mallarmé can elaborate on it while relying on the readers’ prior knowledge to furnish the exposition. In later poems, Mallarmé would require his readers to work out the meanings from relationships among images often used in unconventional ways and with no background story.
The sonnet “Le Vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd hui” (1885; “The virgin, vivacious and beautiful today . . .”), a poem with no separate title but which is referred to by its first line, incorporates all of this difficulty, along with another trait of Mallarmé’s writing described as his broken syntax. For example, “today,” a word often used as an adverb, is used here as a noun since it is modified by an adjective. With such substitutions, plus frequent rearrangement of normal word order, Mallarmé made his poems even more mysterious.
This sonnet continues the theme of the white page haunting Mallarmé with poetic sterility. Here a complete white-on-white image develops of a swan trapped in the ice of a frozen lake because he had failed to migrate in time to a warmer climate. The day cited in the first line is actually the rising sun of a new day that the swan hopes will melt the lake and set him free. Readers know that this hope will not be realized, however, and that the swan will remain frozen in the ice, just as the poet must continue to struggle with his inability to write.
Failure to write would not have been so bad if Mallarmé had not had a dream of a Great Work through which he...
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