The Poem

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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

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/...

(The entire section is 533 words.)