The Afternoon of a Faun Analysis
by Stéphane Mallarmé

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The Afternoon of a Faun Analysis

"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.

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

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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...

(The entire section is 3,163 words.)