The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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!”

“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.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 664 words.)