The Afternoon of a Faun

by Stéphane Mallarmé

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770

“The Afternoon of a Faun,” completed in 1876 by French author Stéphane Mallarmé, is a pastoral poem (eclogue) conveying fleeting sensations, moods, and sensual dreams in the bosom of nature, which is perceived impressionistically.

The faun—who is an ancient deity descended from the god of the wild, Pan—wakes up on the shores of Sicily. It is very hot outside, and he is feeling languid. He tries to remember the dream in which he has pursued two nymphs (minor female deities). He is uncertain whether his memories of these nymphs are from a dream or reality. What he first says about the nymphs expresses his doubts about his experience:

I’d love to make them linger on, those nymphs.So fair,their frail incarnate, that it flutters in the airdrowsy with tousled slumbers.Did I love a dream?My doubt, hoard of old darkness, ends in a whole streamof subtle branches which, remaining as the trueforests, show that I’ve offered myself (quite alone, too)the roses’ ideal failing as something glorious—Let me reflect . . .what if these women you discuss,faun, represent desires of your own fabuloussenses!

His perceptions are all ambivalent. The branches that the faun seems to see may be either real or illusory, and he has no way of discerning the difference. Now that he is awake, he doubts the reality of the world around him. Perplexed, he talks to himself in an attempt to separate reality from imagination.

The faun has tried to make love to one of the nymphs. He proves himself the victim of his own desire, for now he is left alone and confused, and the nymph, real or not, has disappeared. He does not know who has fled from him and whether those that he saw fleeing had been swans or naiads (other female deities). To console himself, he plays his flute; when he is done, he says,

Proud of these sounds of mine, I’ll speak perpetuallyof goddesses; I’ll lift more of the draperyup from their shadows with idolatrous displays:so, when I’ve sucked the gleam of grape-flesh, to erasethis disappointment that my sleight has scattered,I raise the void cluster, laughing, to the summer sky;avid for drunkenness, I blow into its light-filled skins,and stare through them until the fall of night.

This is an extraordinarily multifaceted image of the faun’s experience. The faun has lost something that he has deemed real. To compensate for the loss, he resorts to art, and this art offers him unspeakable treasures in the realm of imagination. On the other hand, the “void cluster” of grapes helps him to deal with his experience with the nymphs because he is able to get drunk and therefore is able to move beyond his initial fascination with these beings.

Finally, this image provides an illustration of the virility of the faun. He is not troubled by his failure, as he is actively seeking new impressions and victories. The following allegorical lines convey the idea that desire itself is more exciting than its actual fulfillment:

No matter! Other nymphs will draw me nonetheless,their tresses tangled on my horns, to happiness:how, purple, freshly ripe, the pomegranates riseand burst and murmur with the bees, my passion knows;our blood, allured by what may seize its fancy, flowsfor the swarm of desires eternally released.

Toward the close of the poem, as the afternoon dissolves into the evening, the faun addresses Mount Etna:

Etna! across your very slopes, then, Venus goes, and on your laval ground she rests her artless...

(This entire section contains 770 words.)

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toeswhen sad slumbers are sounding and the flame has ceased.I’ve seized the queen!The punishment is certain . . .

A the beginning of the eclogue, the faun cannot believe that the nymphs are only a dream, and he tastes the bitterness of his failure. Here, here he has relinquished his hold on the coveted illusion; he is confronted with another image, and a more powerful one at that. Or is it merely a vision again?

Venus herself, the queen of love and desire, appears to him. He believes that he has seized the queen, whose desirability far outweighs that of the lower female deities. Yet this momentary triumph gives way to a realization that it is blasphemy, for it is forbidden for him to possess the queen.

In line with the author’s symbolist creed, the faun fails to attain that which seems so real and yet is too sublime. Mallarmé offers us an invaluable opportunity to realize that basic reality, so uncertain and fluid, is nothing compared to the beauty of true poetry.