The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

The form of A Dice-Throw does not resemble that of other poetry. Instead of arranging words in regular verses and meter, Stéphane Mallarmé seems to have flung them in random patterns and in four different typefaces across a series of ten double (that is, verso joined to the following recto) pages. Close analysis reveals, however, that the positioning of the words is closely linked to their meaning, while the patterns they form have been recognized as schematic representations of themes of the poem.

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The subject of the poem, the dice-throw, is the act of poetic creation. Mallarmé reveals this most specifically with one sentence at the end of the final page, the only sentence syntactically distinct from the body of the poem, that states, “Each thought throws the dice.” Prior to this, an extremely elaborate construction spread over ten double pages has interwoven several lines of thought all syntactically connected and all related to the poetic process.

The central sentence, or main clause, of the poem is spread in four pieces on pages I, IV and VIII. (Critics have designated the double pages of the poem with roman numerals.) This sentence, entirely in large capitals, reads: “A DICE-THROW/ NEVER/ WILL ABOLISH/ FATE.” If the dice-throw represents poetic creation, its inability to abolish fate, or le hasard, which also contains a suggestion of randomness, reflects the inability of the poet to express the absolute in his work.

This limitation tormented Mallarmé. Much of his poetry documents his attempts to transfer to the hauntingly white page before him a refined poetic vision for which language seemed an inadequate vehicle. Mallarmé dreamed of the creation of an absolute Book, a distillation of human thought, for which he sought to create a new form of poetic expression. The Book was never completed, but the poem “A Dice-Throw” is seen as Mallarmé’s most evolved text created in this attempt to record the absolute.

Syntactically, the balance of the poem represents an attempt to modify the over-arching negative sentence. Thus the structure mirrors the struggle of the poet attempting to modify the impossibility of poetic creation. The first modifier begins at the bottom of the first page, immediately after the principal negation, “NEVER.” In smaller capitals, Mallarmé inserts: “even when thrown in eternal circumstances/ from the depth of a shipwreck.”

The mention of depth in a line at the extreme bottom of the page reveals a playful aspect of Mallarmé’s otherwise serious poem. Phrases often present ideas linked to their relative position on the page. As readers proceed to page II, they find the words there arranged in a pattern suggestive of a high-masted ship listing to one side in apparent shipwreck.

The shipwreck was Mallarmé’s emblem of failure, reflecting the failure of his creation. Throughout the rest of the poem, images of poetry and shipwreck, of hope and despair, alternate, aptly conveying Mallarmé’s renewed but doomed attempt.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

Because Mallarmé’s irregular placement of words on the page abandoned the poetic conventions of rhyme and meter, he must rely for unity on syntax, the interweaving of related images, and visualizations based on these images. If such an extended utterance is to be related to a single sentence structure, parallel or alternate possibilities may serve to unite a number of separate visions. Thus Mallarmé introduces a number of sections with subjunctives (“SOIT que,” page II), “as if” (page V), or “if” (page VII), followed by the subjunctives and conditional of page VIII. All these tentative verb forms reflect Mallarmé’s own hesitation in the creation of his poem.

Despite the tenuousness of their context, Mallarmé’s central images present specific pictures. Their interpretation, however, remains difficult when multiple images intertwine on the same page. Page II, for example, combines images of ship and sea with those of flight and bird. In selecting these particular images, Mallarmé continues to draw on the example of Charles Baudelaire, who had strongly influenced Mallarmé’s early work. The “Abyss” reflects the vastness of Baudelaire’s sea, but when Mallarmé adds “the Abyss/ whitened spreads furious,” the suggestion of storm-whitened waves ties in with his concept of shipwreck.

The phrases following the image of the Abyss, however, do not seem to relate to the sea: “under an incline/ soar desperately/ a wing/ its own.” The “incline” seems to refer to the positioning of these phrases on the page. They form a part of what may be the tilting of the mast of the ship. In the larger context of the poem, however, where phrases consistently traverse each page from upper left to lower right, the slanting motion may also follow that of the thrown dice.

Meanwhile the motif of the bird, introduced with “soar” and “wing,” suggests the flight that for both Baudelaire and Mallarmé could be that of the poet’s inspiration. This flight advances, with Mallarmé again playing with his words as “par/ avance” leaps across the barrier of the book’s spine to enter the previously blank recto page, but immediately encounters “a difficulty in bringing up the flight.” The frustrated flight falls back in a way that parallels the shipwreck to be “hidden in the depth” as images of the wreck “like the hull/ of a ship” sink literally to the bottom of the page.

The similar visualization of sloping lines as the basic form of the dice-throw, the listing ship, and the bird’s flight implies a common thread linking these elements. All become for Mallarmé emblems of the poetic process, a creativity he cannot describe directly but can suggest through multiple images that convey an idea of it through their common elements.

As the bird attempted to take flight and failed, following pages convey similar poetic attempts. The enigmatic figure of “THE MASTER” seems ready “to throw it” but “hesitates” (page III), and amid a lengthy italicized section floats “the lost solitary feather” (page VI) of the poet’s pen. Solitude and loss are never total, however, as a single “except” breaks into this otherwise blank verso page leading to a continuing of the text and of the poet’s hope.

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