The Afternoon of a Faun

by Stéphane Mallarmé
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Last Updated on May 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312

"The Afternoon of a Faun" is a poem filled with lust, desire, nature, dream-states, the folly of love and lust, and the pain of their departure. The poem describes the faun, a creature from Greek myth, as the archetype of masculine lust and desire. The faun is also a creature of nature: half beast, half man, fully mischievous and filled with want. In the poem, upon waking from a heavy, warm slumber, the faun cannot ascertain whether or not he has just seen two nymphs cross the field in which he was sleeping or if the nymphs were simply a dreamlike vision created in the faun's lustful mind.

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The nymphs are spoken of in tenuous, fleeting terms that are resonant of loss of love, rejection, and unfulfilled desire. The faun speaks of the nymphs not in terms of love, but in terms of raw desire and physical attraction, in keeping with classical portrayals of fauns. In wondering whether the nymphs actually exist, the faun is blending his primal, subconscious, dreamlike sexual desires with the reality of the waking world. The faun does not know if the nymphs exist, but this is irrelevant, as he is able to fantasize about them regardless of their existence.

Perhaps the nymphs exist, and perhaps they don't. The faun can fantasize about them either way, because they represent a constant, steady desire for a creature such as a faun, who is filled with the thoughts of man and the impulses of nature and beast. There are certainly aspects of accepted misogyny in the poem, as the masculine faun lusts after the feminine nymphs, whose own desires and wants are not questioned or considered throughout the entire poem. Toward the end of the poem, the faun accepts that the nymphs may not have actually existed and bids them farewell, content to be lulled back into the dream world.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

The Afternoon of a Faun is Stéphane Mallarmé’s most well-known poem. In slightly more than a hundred lines, it presents the dreamlike erotic reveries of a faun—a mythical creature of classical legend that, like the satyr, has a combination of animal features (such as horns and goatlike feet) and human features./POE_16479650000335

The poem opens with the faun becoming excited by two nymphs; he is disoriented, however, having just awakened. Finding himself alone, he realizes that the nymphs must have existed only in his dream. “Let me reflect,” he muses. He addresses himself as “Faun,” as if he were another being, and recalls the two nymphs: One is chaste, blue-eyed, and full of illusions; the other, more experienced, is “all sighs” and is like a warm breeze on his fleece. Suddenly changing direction, the faun describes himself as a musician playing his flute (satyrs and fauns were often imagined, like the god Pan, to be in the woods playing reed pipes). His playing is the “serene artificial breath/ of inspiration, which regains the sky” like evaporating rainwater.

The faun next addresses nature directly, asking the marshes to narrate how he was “cutting the hollow reeds” when he saw a flight of “swans, no! Naiads” (water nymphs). It is now midday, and the faun reflects on the fate of the one “who seeks the la”—both a musical tone and the French feminine article (“the”). After thinking of a kiss and lips that “purr,” he weaves dreaming together with his playing of the pipes, thinking of entertaining nymphs with his solo and his “credulous song.” He then decides to suck the juice out of grapes and be drunk until evening.

In the second half of the poem, his encounter with the two nymphs is described in more detail. To his own surprise, he comes upon them as they are sleeping by the water, entwined in each other’s arms. He seizes them both, “not untangling them,” and runs with them to a spot in the sun, ready for sexual delights. He must separate them, however (separate the “disheveled tangle/ of kisses” that the gods have put together), to pursue his pleasure, and he admits that parting them was his “crime.” Moreover, it destroys the faun’s lustful hopes, because they are then able to get away. It does not matter, he concludes philosophically, since there will be other nymphs in the future. He describes his passion as ripe, bursting pomegranates; his blood burns for those who will receive it. Suddenly he imagines embracing Venus, the queen of love herself, but just as quickly realizes that there would surely be punishment for such an outrageous act. The faun concludes by deciding to return to sleep, but he pauses to bid an enigmatic farewell to the two nymphs: “Sweet pair, farewell. I shall see the shades you became.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

It was probably Paul Valéry, a poetic disciple of Mallarmé, who coined the term Symbolism, and The Afternoon of a Faun is a Symbolist poem. The Symbolist poets used words for their magical suggestiveness; The Afternoon of a Faun calls to mind Charles Baudelaire’s “forest of symbols” because of its dense, complex style. It exemplifies Mallarmé’s aesthetic that “to name is to destroy; to suggest is to create.” The poem is indirect; it presents a cluster of images and ideas that the reader must help assimilate into a coherent work of art. Words and phrases are put together in ways that defy syntactic logic. Rational thought can flounder when it encounters a Mallarmé poem, and in reading Mallarmé one must keep one’s sense of humor and spirit of adventure close at hand.

Beneath the poem’s title appears the word “Eclogue”; an eclogue is a pastoral or bucolic poem that is traditionally in the form of a dialogue. Mallarmé indicates who will be speaking first: “The Faun.” As the poem progresses, however, the reader realizes that this is a dialogue of one. The faun is debating with and reminiscing to himself alone, with alternating sections of the poem appearing in regular type and in italic type (in quotation marks) to indicate that different aspects of the faun are speaking. He is alternately relating his story and commenting on it—and on his present condition—as he does so. The sections in which he is specifically remembering his dream encounter with the nymphs are in italics.

There are recurring image patterns of heat and water, which are played against each other. The events (or perhaps the nonevents) transpire during a hot day, representative of the sexual heat being expressed; both the nymphs and the music that the faun creates on his pipe are linked to water. Overall, the tone of the poem is dreamy, erotic, and playful. Its images are sensual and strong— “the splendid bath of their hair disappears/ In the shimmer and shuddering”—although it is sometimes difficult to find the connections between them and therefore to make sense of them. The disjointedness does seem to convey the confusion of the faun himself, who is unsure if he was awake or asleep and who may be intoxicated during at least part of his interior monologue. His perpetually unsatisfied libido rules his reality and his fantasies; he sometimes sounds like a dreamy, lovesick adolescent. Before the Freudian concept of the libido, or sexual drive, had been established, and before the idea of stream-of-conscious narrative had been popularized, Mallarmé prefigured both in his faun’s monologue.

Themes and Meanings

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The primary effect of The Afternoon of a Faun is a dreamy eroticism combined with a sense of whimsy; the musical and sensual pleasure of Mallarmé’s use of words is the hallmark of the poem. C. F. MacIntyre declared in French Symbolist Poetry (1958) that Claude Debussy’s orchestral tone poem based on the poem is “one of the best guides into the mysterious realm of Mallarmé” and that Debussy “understood the intention better than the critics do.” Although it may indeed be a mistake to try to read too much into the poem, The Afternoon of a Faun does make some intriguing comments on love, loss, and the creation of art.

The poem’s pastoral, Arcadian setting—its woods, water, and flowers—and mythological allusions enhance its portrayal of erotic desire. The faun is a satyr or Pan figure, a whimsically oversexed creature, who fantasizes about sexual exploits with nymphs, yet the poem may also remind one of the more powerful Zeus, who assumed various forms in order to seduce women. As the faun relives his fantasy or dream, he finds himself in the world of the fabulous and in the role of storyteller. He recounts in detail the erotic sequence of arousal, passion, attempted conquest, and, finally, failure to consummate his lust. Words that form the language of love fill the poem—along with the verb “to love” (aimer) are such words as “chaste,” “adore,” “Venus,” “kiss,” and “nude.”

Yet although the setting, with its soft colors and rich (“green gold”) verdure, is ideal for a love scene, the poem emphasizes the challenges of love and the fact that the sexual act is not completed. The two nymphs that the faun is excited about have disappeared, and he is not even sure that they ever existed. The faun begins by announcing that he wants to “perpetuate” them, but the only thing that can be perpetuated is a dream or fantasy. Moreover, central to the memory is the “crime”—the loss of the nymphs at the very moment of copulation. One may note that the act the faun was attempting to perpetrate was also a crime; he was about to have sexual intercourse with the two nymphs after abducting them from the water’s edge where they had been peacefully sleeping, intimately entwined in each other’s arms. “Love” seems a less appropriate word than “lust” to apply to the poem.

One theme that underlies the poem concerns the act of artistic creation. Art, to Mallarmé, was created only with considerable sacrifice. He was always fascinated by the power of art (and of words, in particular), and the Symbolist poets in general sought to combine words in new ways that would produce mysterious effects similar to the magical effects and emotions that music can produce.

Mallarmé’s faun is both a storyteller (in a sense, a poet) and a musician. The encounter with the nymphs may not have been real, but the story of it takes on its own reality; moreover, the music the faun plays is a crucial part of the poem. The only water or wind that is moving, the faun says early in the poem, is “poured” or exhaled from his twin pipes. Then he relates (after first asking the marsh itself to tell the story) that he was cutting reeds for his pipe when he saw “an animal whiteness,/ reposing”—a whiteness that became swans, then nymphs, flying up. Soon the faun decides to forget his frustrations (“But enough!” he cries) by playing his pipes, his “confidant.” He will play a long solo to entertain whatever “beauties” may be about.

Then, in an allusion, Mallarmé unites the nymphs and the music: “Try then, instrument of flights, oh evil/ Syrinx, to flower again by the lakes where you wait!” Syrinx was a nymph who was turned into reeds after running from Pan; she was then turned into the very pipes upon which Pan played. Through this allusion the faun’s frustration, the creative power of art, and the dream that is the poem become one.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 229

Fowlie, Wallace. Mallarmé. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953. The first part of this study analyzes the dominant themes in Mallarmé’s work. In the second part, Fowlie discusses specific texts. Chapter 5 is devoted to a discussion of the genesis of the poem The Afternoon of a Faun as well as to a close reading and interpretation.

Gill, Austin. The Early Mallarmé. 2 vols. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1979. Two chapters in volume 1, discussing Mallarmé’s early compositions, focus on his use of the god Pan and provide background to The Afternoon of a Faun.

St. Aubyn, Frederic Chase. Stéphane Mallarmé. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1989. Discusses The Afternoon of a Faun in chapter 5, “The Secret Terror of the Flesh,” and provides a close and accurate reading of the text.

Shaw, Mary Lewis. Performance in the Texts of Mallarmé: The Passage from Art to Ritual. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993. In chapter 8, Shaw analyzes The Afternoon of a Faun with an emphasis on its theoretical elements. An examination of the evolution of Mallarmé’s text reveals the work’s distinctly theatrical genesis.

Woolley, Grange. Stéphane Mallarmé: 1842-1898. Madison, N.J.: Drew University, 1981. Begins with a lengthy biographical sketch followed by short essays on various poems. The discussion of The Afternoon of a Faun provides information on the poem’s sources and critical reception and concludes with a narrative analysis.

The Poem

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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, knowing that beauty can deceive and that he seems to have confused it with his own “credulous song.” Perhaps all that happened is that he had a banal glimpse of the two fleeing creatures.

Even if the vision led to an imagined encounter, the faun knows how to relive the event. He addresses his panpipes, “the instrument of flight,” asking them to make the lakes “flower again.” The pipes may evoke the flight of the nymphs, but they also enable the faun’s imagination to take flight in the sense that the images of the nymphs will bloom through his artistic re-creation. This imaging of the nymphs draws on important analogies between Mallarmé’s work and the poems of Charles Baudelaire. In Les Fleurs du mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931), Baudelaire developed a vision of a female figure as muse that both inspired and tormented the poet. Similarly, Mallarmé’s faun says that he will “speak at length of goddesses,” whom he seems to dominate (he “removes the belts from their shades” to reveal their physical being) at the same time that he allows them to dominate him. In a further association with Baudelaire, the vision of the nymphs reminds the faun of intoxication. He will reveal the intimate picture of them just as he saw light through the empty skins of grapes when he spent a long afternoon “sucking out the brightness” of their apparently intoxicating juice. The fusion of images of bright light, fruits of nature, and the female figures emphasizes the role of woman as muse. She inspires the faun’s visions that are linked to his music and provides an analogy to the creation of the poet’s songs.

The inspiration provided by the nymphs leads to Mallarmé’s second italicized section, much more explicit than the first, in which the faun recalls finding the two nymphs asleep and ravishing them. Nature images in this section reinforce the sensuality of the experience. At first, the faun sees only fragments of the nymphs’ bodies as his eye pierces the reeds. Then he runs toward them as toward a mass of blooming roses. More Baudelairean themes occur as he likens the light reflected in their hair to jewels and evokes the secret perfume of the flowers.

Between this and the final italicized section, the faun pauses to reflect on the “wrath of virgins” that he provokes. The nymphs’ resistance increases his desire, but apparently they do not resist long, as fear “abandons their innocence.” Despite references to their trembling and tears, the passage ends with emotions that are “less sad.” The nymphs seem moved by the desire of the faun. Whereas the nymphs awaken to desire, the faun begins to see the harm of his attack.

The final italicized section begins with his reference to “my crime.” Devoted to pleasure as he is, however, the faun cannot think of seduction in negative terms. A number of positive references seek to justify his action as he “gaily vanquished their fears” with an “ardent laugh under the happy folds” of the nymphs. He even sees a divine sanction for the seduction in that “the gods had kept their kisses so well mingled.”

By the end of this scene a reversal takes place. The nymphs, no longer blushing, are inspired to passion by the faun’s advances. However, the encounter ends. The nymphs, whom the faun now describes as his “prey,” free themselves, leaving “without pity for the sob still intoxicating” him. The faun may have sought to exploit the nymphs, but he now sees himself as the victim of the emotions he releases. The faun does not remain emotionally engaged for long. Immediately after the italicized memory ends, he looks to the future and to others who will bring him new happiness, “knotting their tresses around the horns on my forehead.” Each passionate encounter, far from representing a unique event, forms a part of the lascivious pattern of nature. The faun sees his passion as resembling a ripe pomegranate surrounded by bees that represent “the eternal swarming of desire.”

The faun’s erotic insouciance echoes the traditions linked to such creatures in classical times. The faun invokes this past tradition as the setting of the festival of nature that will take place on “Etna, visited by Venus.” The goddess arrives to touch the mountain’s lava with her “naïve heels.” Thus she recalls the innocence of the nymphs, but her hovering light, as she barely touches the ground, parallels that often attributed to the muse by the Romantic poets. Ethereal though the nymph may be, the faun sees her as yet another woman because, when sleep finally extinguishes the flame of his desire, he concludes this section with the exclamation, “I hold the queen!” This declaration of possession, almost as if he were referring to the queen in a deck of cards, reasserts the faun’s dominance.

The poem asks whether the fatigued sleep is a punishment for the faun’s actions, to which he answers that it is not, but that he merely “succumbs to the proud silence of noon” for a midday nap, his mouth open to the sun, the producer of wine. In the last line of the poem, an adieu to the nymphs before the faun goes to sleep, he declares, “I will see the shadow that you become.” He will sleep and dream, again, of his vision of the nymphs. The time invoked by this final section seems to conflict with the title of the poem. If, after the major events described, the faun falls asleep in the noon sun, the “afternoon” of the title has not yet begun. The question arises as what the true subject of the poem is. The faun will probably spend the afternoon re-creating the events in his dream. If the afternoon is the true subject, the major importance attaches not to the event but to its re-creation, the element evocative of the composition of the poet.

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