Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

The source of a poet’s immortality, and the reason for Baudelaire’s special importance to Mallarmé, lies in the durable impact of his verse. When Mallarmé begins by calling Baudelaire’s body a “temple,” a place containing something that is holy, he draws on an idea common to the Romantic poets and to Baudelaire: that the poet, born with a special capacity for visionary insight, had a duty to use this talent to enlighten those around him. In saying that Baudelaire’s mouth “divulges” mud and rubies, Mallarmé adds to the idea that these are a hint at some form of revelation.

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The image of the fierce Egyptian jackal-god, Anubis, combines a reference to the supernatural importance of the poet’s mission with an indication of the violence that is linked to it, as the mud was linked to the rubies. The cry of Anubis’s “flaming muzzle” is a “fierce bark.” By barking, he adopts the manner of an animal, but a bark is nonetheless an utterance. A poet’s speech, no matter how unintelligible, should be taken seriously. It was surely a serious matter to Mallarmé, who documents his own striving for poetic expression as he confronts his still-white page.

The poet’s message often shocks the public, as Baudelaire’s did when the first edition of Flowers of Evil was condemned for immorality, not only because of its violence but also because it chose as its subject aspects of life others would prefer not to see. Baudelaire’s verse documented the “cities without evening” where the setting sun saw the streets fill with prostitutes and where the street lamps created an artificially extended day.

Yet, while it may have been shocking, the poet’s message remains sacred. Thus, Mallarmé senses the need in the sestet for some votive offering to “bless” Baudelaire’s ghost. The presence at the tomb, however, is called not a “ghost” but a “Shadow,” the capitalization attesting its importance, recalling the imagined shadows projected by the gas light in the second quatrain. Like a shadow, it has a form of presence in absence, just as Baudelaire’s influence has survived his physical body.

The shadow may also be a ghost in the sense that, for Mallarmé, it becomes a haunting presence. To him, Baudelaire had brought “a tutelary poison.” The image is one Baudelaire himself had used, but in his poem, “Poison,” he defines it as “the poison that flows/ From your eyes.” Addressed to a woman, these lines attest her intoxicating influence. Both poets may have defined “poison” as an emblem of some temptation, but while Baudelaire desired the woman, Mallarmé desired to write. The poison for him was “tutelary” in that it drew him to imitate Baudelaire’s poetic productivity.

The poetic enterprise tempts Mallarmé. He must “breathe” its poisoned air, but poison necessarily brings the threat of death. The poet fears not the inevitable death of the body, but the intellectual death that may result from the failure of his poetic creation. A key word in the last tercet, “if,” posits the tenuousness of this exercise. Still, Mallarmé, grouped together with Baudelaire in the “we” of the last line, must take up this challenge despite its dangers.

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