Stéphane Mallarmé Critical Essays

Stéphane Mallarmé Poetry Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

“Everything in the world exists to end up in a book,” wrote Stéphane Mallarmé in 1895. It is this attitude toward reality and toward the importance of the book that makes Mallarmé the preeminent Symbolist poet. For him, reality exists only in the symbol, which, in poetry, is constructed out of language. This position, apparently influenced by Hegelian idealism, does not mean that poetry is necessarily about language—although a number of Mallarmé’s poems are about language and poetry themselves—but rather that language provides the only systematic and rational framework, the only escape from randomness, in a world in which there is no sign of a personal God. Mallarmé’s poetry is a kind of metaphysical poetry, in that it aspires to go beyond the physical reality of everyday life to uncover the mysterious world of a pure ideal that can exist nowhere except in the mind and in language.

Even though many of Mallarmé’s poems seem at first to be completely obscure, in most cases careful reading will reveal that a kernel drawn from everyday life has been transformed into a spare, unsentimental, timeless formal variation (in the way that a composer makes a variation on a musical theme). The effect is neither an enshrinement of a particular moment, place, or picturesque character nor an appeal to emotional sympathy. It is still less a moral or political message. Instead, such poems invite the reader to experience the power of the mind and of language.

For Mallarmé, the most important experience is the experience of the poem itself, and if such a statement seems commonplace and even trite, it is because Mallarmé’s influence has been so pervasive. For him, however, the experience of the poem was particularly concrete and precise, and he frequently wrote about acts and objects connected with writing and reading with a kind of religious awe. The word livre (book) and such kindred terms as grimoire (book of magic incantations) and bouquin (old book) have in his vocabulary an importance rarely found in other bodies of poetry except in religious texts, where “the book” is the sacred scripture explaining and justifying the world. Mallarmé attempted during his life to create a nonreligious scripture.

Most of his poems, however, are playful occasional pieces such as “Eventail de Madame Mallarmé” (“Madam Mallarmé’s Fan”); brief poems written in honor of other artists, such as the “Hommage” to Richard Wagner and “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe” (“The Tomb of Edgar Poe”); erotic poetry based on elliptical sexual fantasy, such as The Afternoon of a Faun and “Victorieusement fui le suicide beau” (“The Beautiful Suicide Victoriously Escaped”); or the long series of poems lamenting the difficulty of escaping from the base material world and of writing the higher kind of poetry. The last category includes the well-known “L’Azur,” sometimes called the “Swan Sonnet,” “Les Fenêtres” (“The Windows”), and “Le Pître châtié” (“The Clown’s Punishment”). Only the three longer poems, Herodias, Igitur (read to friends in unfinished form and published posthumously), and Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance (published in the magazine Cosmopolis in May, 1897, but not published in book form until 1914) give some idea of the form of Mallarmé’s more ambitious projects.

There is nevertheless a stylistic and thematic coherence in Mallarmé’s work, which proceeds by a kind of condensation and subtraction. The extremely difficult but logical grammar absorbs the reader in the enigmatic possibilities of meaning, thus fixing attention on the poem’s language. Objects and persons named in the poems are described as absent or “abolished.”

“All the Soul Indrawn . . .”

A good way to begin with Mallarmé’s poetry is to look at his brief poem “Toute l’âme résumée . . .” (“All the Soul Indrawn . . .”), which is a witty response to a survey on free verse. Mallarmé compares making poetry to smoking a cigar. The successive rings of smoke are “abolished” by those that follow, and the ash keeps falling away from the “bright kiss of fire.” Poetry is not what is left behind, Mallarmé implies; it is rather the process itself, momentary but renewed. Because the word âme can mean both “soul” and, with some etymological delving, “breath,” and résumée means both “summed up” and “drawn in,” Mallarmé has put into play a metaphor for the content of poetry which eludes the traditional distinction between form and content, vehicle and tenor. The breath is what permits the cigar to keep burning; it is also the proof that one is alive. Yet this thing, which is so essential to smoking and to life, is empty. Similarly, the burning tip of the cigar, the thing showing that the cigar is “alive,” is the fire that can survive only by emptying itself of the ash. Like smoking, Mallarmé suggests, poetry should be regarded as pure activity, without product and without connection with any external reality. After making this comparison explicit in the third quatrain, which advises writers to exclude vile reality, Mallarmé concludes with a distich that pointedly inverts the usual literary and rhetorical values of his day: “A too precise meaning scratches out/ Your vague literature.” The more definite and specific the reference a poem makes to reality, the less it can be considered precisely literary.

“My Old Books Closed at the Name of Paphos”

Another celebrated poem centered on the powers of literature, considered this time from the point of view of the reader, is “Mes bouquins refermés sur le nom de Paphos” (“My Old Books Closed at the Name of Paphos”). The speaker of the poem tells of closing his book and looking out on a snowy landscape where he imagines a Mediterranean scene. There is a parallel between the foam of the sea splashing against a ruin in the first quatrain and the white snow presented as part of the reader’s material reality in the second quatrain. The speaker makes clear, however, that he will not wail a funereal lament (nénie) if the snowy reality does not coincide with his imagined seascape. The tercets make clear why the speaker so calmly accepts the divorce of dream from reality. The absence of things, which one notices because literature draws one’s attention to such lacunae, is presented as a superior value. Mallarmé’s negative approach, his preference for hollowing out a dream world by “abolishing” elements of the everyday world, appears in the speaker’s claim: “My hunger, which is satisfied here by no fruits/ Finds in their learned lack an equal savor.” To be satisfied by “no fruits” is not the same as being unsatisfied. It is a state in which the learned vision imposes a preference for the dream.

The second tercet goes even further, recalling that absence is not merely in the speaker’s present world but in the scene imagined as well. Apparently addressing a lover, he confesses: “I think longer, perhaps desperately,/ Of the other, with the seared breast of an ancient Amazon.” The scene is not only absent but also organized around an absence, the missing breast of one of the legendary warrior-women who founded the city of Paphos. Even these two absences are...

(The entire section is 3011 words.)