Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Toast” upholds well the Symbolist dictum that truth should be hinted at indirectly or evoked through a succession of sensory, rather than rational, clues. The poem indicates the identity that Mallarmé believed exists between poetic creation and making sense of one’s journey through life. In poetic creation, as in life, the proper attitude, according to the speaker of Mallarmé’s poem, is one of celebration, of joyous acceptance of “whatever it was that was worth” having set out in the first place. Paradoxically, however, when that “whatever it was” [A n’importe ce qui] is examined in the light of rationality, it disappears into evanescent foam, or the distorted remembrances of a slightly drunken man offering a toast to equally inebriated companions. This is the essence of the Symbolist technique: to allude as provocatively as possible to a concept that motivates living or the writing of poetry but to stop short of exactly naming that concept, allowing the ivresse of the reader following in the mood the poet has created to discover the meaning himself or herself.

“Toast” also provides a demonstration of the method of palimpsest, or the simultaneous layering of multiple levels of meaning. That is, the poem was originally composed to encourage a group of drinkers to contemplate the relationship between poetry and the voyage of life. The ship and journey referred to indicated the lives of the poets listening to Mallarmé’s toast. Later, and now inextricably, the poem serves as an invitation to the reader to participate in the evocation of moods throughout the collection of Mallarmé’s poetry in Les Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé. Therefore, the poem serves as the symbol of the toast itself; it also serves as the symbol of how Mallarmé would have those poets present approach their lives and careers. In its position as the lead poem in Mallarmé’s book, it encourages the reader to adopt the joy of the 1893 poets while reading the following collection. Finally, the poem itself is the object that opens the collection; it is the prow that precedes. “Toast” is a perfect definition of what a “symbol” was to the Symbolists: a poetic object that simultaneously calls attention to itself and to something beyond itself as equally valid sources of meaning, but that refuses to name that “something beyond” concretely.