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Last Updated on May 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332


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In the poem, the drowsy faun awakes from a deep afternoon sleep and thinks he's seen two nymphs move across the field. He is not sure if they actually exist, but he lusts after them nonetheless. The faun's desire is not rooted in whether or not the nymphs actually exist, but in the desire to know what the nymphs are like—thus, he is lusting over the idea of the nymphs. The notion that the nymphs could indeed have existed is enough for the faun to fantasize about his desires. The poem is driven by the faun’s desire for the nymphs, thus illustrating how desire can act as an overwhelming and powerful force.

The Subconscious

The dreamlike state of the faun and the descriptions of the nymphs are both rooted in the faun’s subconscious. The faun is unsure of his reality and explores his desires based on a subconscious urge. He is not sure if the nymphs exist, but his mind and body want them to—thus, his desire is born out of what his subconscious wants. The faun’s desire to pursue the nymphs and explore his sexuality are born from his subconscious, and the descriptions in the poem are based off of his intrinsic desires instead of reality.

Human and Animal Nature

Fauns are mythological creatures that are half man and half goat. They are known for being mischievous, sexually aggressive, animalistic, and crude. In the poem, Mallarmé explores the blurred lines between man and beast that are inherent to the faun. The faun has the ability to be introspective and ponder the nature of his desires, while his lust and clear primal urges are based in his animal nature. However, there is a blurring of these natures through his thought processes, which encompass both the thinking and behavior of a human and that of an animal. The animalistic aspect of the faun is not concerned with thinking about the feelings and desires of other individuals, such as the nymphs.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 679

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.