Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"The Afternoon of a Faun," written by French author Stéphane Mallarmé in 1876, details the experience of a mythical faun who has just awoken to the faces of two nymphs. It draws on Greek mythology and focuses on the sexual experience of the faun.
The faun who narrates this poem is a half-man, half-goat figure from Greek mythology. He has just awoken from sleep, and he cannot be sure whether the two beautiful nymphs he spotted were just the remnants of a dream or were the first things he saw when he woke up, as they have fled. Though both nymphs were beautiful, the first seemed cold, while the second was much warmer, and the sight of her thrilled him.
He mentions that he is in Sicily, in the marshes where he might cut the reeds he needs for his pan pipe, a little flute-like instrument consisting of several reeds of varying lengths (to produce varying notes) bound in a row. Nymphs are known for their youthful beauty and are often associated with sex.
The faun thinks a great deal about sex as he recalls the appearance of the two nymphs, and there are many suggestive images. He recalls the story of Syrinx, a nymph known for her chastity, but with whom the god of nature, Pan, wanted to have sex; when she asked river nymphs for protection, they changed her into the very reeds that the faun now uses to fashion his pan pipe. This allusion makes it clearer that the faun has a sexual encounter with the nymphs about whom he is daydreaming.
The faun considers the reeds for much of the poem, as if mulling over Pan's failed sexual encounter with Syrinx and his own lust for the two nymphs he saw (or dreamed). He finally accepts that the nymphs are not going to return, and so he will be left with his lustful passion, finding no release of it. He invites sleep to come for him again because he knows now that the nymphs, if they were real, will not be returning. He bids them farewell and says that he will await the darkness of sleep, the darkness into which they evidently vanished when he awoke at the beginning of the poem.