The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334

“Toast” is a sonnet whose fourteen lines are broken into two groups of four lines and two groups of three lines. Stéphane Mallarmé delivered this “toast” at a banquet on February 9, 1893, to encourage his companions to drink in celebration of the magazine La Plume. The poem has a festive, optimistic tone befitting the purpose of its original composition. The poem’s French title, “Salut,” conveys the double and perhaps triple meaning that Mallarmé intended better than does the more static English translation, “Toast.” Salut is the word used to describe a speech one delivers as a prelude to drinking, but salut is often also an imperative part of that speech, in which the speaker encourages his companions to raise their glasses with this word, as one might say in English, “Cheers!” or “Bottoms Up!”

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“Toast” is both a representation of the toast that Mallarmé gave and an encouragement to the reader to “drink,” to enjoy the feelings that the poem evokes. In effect, the poem itself (and the other poems in Mallarmé’s collection Les Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé, 1899) becomes the intoxicating liquor for the reader, inviting him or her to take in their essences. This mixture of the sensory impressions associated with drinking and poetic creation was a favorite Symbolist technique. Since Mallarmé chose this poem to open the last collection of works that he assembled before his death in 1898, the poem finally serves as an encouragement to the reader to “drink” in the poems that follow in the collection.

“Toast” does not provide a strong narrative pattern, nor does it seek to establish (as a sonnet often does) a problematic situation followed by a resolution; instead, it seeks to establish an image of life as a journey—one that can be aided by the power of poetic composition. The poem does not comment on the success of such a journey, only on the fact that it does exist and that everyone should feel joy in following such a path.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

The principal set of metaphors in “Toast” concerns the comparison of the microcosmic world of the tossing foam in the speaker’s champagne glass with the macrocosmic world of the ocean, or life, on which the speaker and his listeners are journeying. The speaker suggests that like Homer’s Odysseus and his crew, he and his drinking companions are traveling through the foam of the sea, passing “a troop/ Of many Sirens upside down.” Furthermore, like the Odysseus of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” this speaker himself is somewhat older than his companions, for he notes, “We are navigating, my diverse/ Friends! I already on the poop/ You the splendid prow which cuts/ The main of thunders and of winters.” In the original toast to his drinking companions, Mallarmé was referring to his age with respect to his companions: They were the ones who were breaking the new waves of poetic creation, while he surveyed their developments from a position in the rear (the rear deck, or the poop, of a ship). Taken as the opening poem in his book, one may realize that Mallarmé is speaking to the poem itself, after having created it for a toast, for placement at the head, or prow, of his collection of poems. In this respect, Mallarmé and his poetic crew (his earlier written and published poems, now being arranged into an edition of complete works) look to this little poem “Toast” as the “splendid prow” which cleaves the waters of the public’s reception, preparing the way for the rest of the collection.

Mallarmé also emphasizes the evanescence or insubstantiality of poetic creation in this short poem. The opening lines, with their repetition of the concept of absence in “Nothing!” and “nought,” indicate Mallarmé’s fascination with the idea of “nothingness.” To understand this difficult concept, one must return to the basic situation of the poem. The speaker delivers a toast, while holding his champagne glass; the occasion is relaxed and happy, not one where deep analysis of spoken or written speech is usual. Yet Mallarmé is delivering more than a happy prelude to drinking; he is also linking the idea of poetic creation with the travels of an Odysseus figure. The foam is both the champagne froth and the waves on the sea where Odysseus travels. Mallarmé specifically seems to deny that one can make such a comparison by noting that the foam and his “virgin verse” (unspoken before the toast and, in 1893, unpublished at the time of its delivery) refer to nothing other than the cup. Yet he immediately continues the comparison by noting the presence of “Sirens upside down.”

Mallarmé justifies this apparent contradiction again without leaving the central metaphor of the poem. A toast such as this is not only the prelude to drinking but frequently is also one of a series of toasts given throughout an evening. The speaker indicates that he is, in fact, already a bit drunk, “A fine ebriety [ivresse] calls me/ Without fear of its rolling/ To carry, upright, this toast.” (Ivresse can also be translated simply as “drunkenness.”) Here Mallarmé blends the drinking party with the voyage again. The speaker, as a result of his drunkenness, rolls a little as he stands to deliver the toast, yet he is without fear of spilling his glass. Some form of control allows him to maintain his upright posture, even while he sees “Sirens upside down” beckoning him to spill his glass and forget his toast. Therefore, although the speaker is not, perhaps, tremendously coherent (he seems to contradict himself in what the poem or the toast should refer to), he is able to convey something of his self-control or self-discipline as he reminds his companions why they have set out on such a voyage, toward “Solitude, reef, star/ To whatever it was that was worth/ Our sail’s white solicitude.” That self-control lies in the desire to pursue goals beyond the ordinary, but the pursuit is undertaken happily.

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Themes