Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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...

(The entire section is 679 words.)