Among Stéphane Mallarmé’s poems, The Afternoon of a Faun has become especially well known, probably because of the 1894 musical composition by Claude Debussy that it inspired. In interpreting the text, the reader might wish for the immediacy of music that, unlike the poem, need not be translated into a specific meaning.
The poem represents an extended monologue by a faun who awakes from a nap on a warm summer afternoon and reacts to the sight of two beautiful nymphs. Because a faun, a mythic creature traditionally portrayed as half man and half goat, is associated with strong sexual desires, the faun desires the nymphs in their traditional form as beautiful maidens. A problem occurs, however, when he is not sure whether or not they exist. They may have crossed the field just as he woke up, or they may have been creatures of his dream.
Just as the faun must sort through his perceptions to determine whether he really saw the nymphs, the reader must sort through Mallarmé’s multiple images to understand what is happening. From the opening line, when the faun refers to “these nymphs,” one wonders what the reference means since there has been no previous context. Then nature images, roses for the nymphs and night for the faun’s doubt, build up the more detailed vision.
At the end of the poem, the faun has not regained his sight of the nymphs and thus bids them farewell. Other images referring to the faun himself, ripe fruit suggestive of his sensuality and his own heavy body succumbing again to sleep, replace the former images of female beauty. The evolution of the faun’s thought is conveyed by the symbolic values of the images.