The Poem

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...

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Forms and Devices

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...

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The Poem

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,...

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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.