Fifty years after the death of Edgar Allan Poe, American admirers of Poe planned a memorial volume, and the organizer of the volume, Sara Sigourney Rice, began to spread the news of the project. The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who had fervently admired Poe most of his life, offered to contribute to the volume. His poem “The Tomb of Edgar Poe” appeared in the volume; it was later revised for appearance in Mallarmé’s own works.
The poem is a sonnet. The octave, the first eight lines, outlines the career of Poe; the last six lines, the sestet, expresses Mallarmé’s indignation at the treatment of Poe at the hands of his contemporaries and concludes with a prediction of the future of Poe’s reputation. In the first quatrain, Mallarmé declares that Poe frightened his century because of the presence of death in his voice.
The first line, “Such as into himself eternity changed him,” suggests that death has purged Poe of all accidental and neutral features and has left only the essential Poe. The following three lines say that Poe, like all great creators, actually forced his civilization into existence, as with a naked sword. The century, however, limited and uncreative, remained terrified of the voice that created it, since that strange voice was filled with death. The next four lines describe Poe’s contemporaries as recoiling from the poet (“the angel”) like a Hydra, a mythical monster with many heads. They try to slander Poe by spreading the rumor that his work was nothing but the product of an alcoholic and a drug addict.
The countrymen of Poe are then called enemies of solidity and of symbolic suggestivity—both sources of poetic power. Mallarmé here expresses the hope that, even if this poem cannot recover the reputation of Poe, the tombstone of Poe (here regarded as a meteorite) may act as a milestone or terminus to the commentary of the envious, frightened, petty people of this world on the poetry that gives them their civilization and their ways of thought. That is, “blasphemy” against poets and thinkers should never go farther than the attack on Poe has gone. Mallarmé in his notes referred to Poe as an aèrolithe, a meteorite, that in its descent to earth burned out all of its nonessential elements and came down to humankind in a state of purity that they cannot understand.
The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, rhyming abbaabba, ccd, ede, and in many ways it is in traditional form. Like most of the mature poetry of Mallarmé, this poem is highly concentrated. The meaning must be extracted carefully from the packed lines, and from the sometimes unorthodox syntax. Part of the problem in reading Mallarmé is that he keeps throwing metaphors at his subject; in this poem, almost every line contains a new metaphor, and many of them have no connection with one another.
There is a general opposition of hard versus soft in the poem, however; the hard granite and stony permanence of the creations of Poe are contrasted with the soft sliminess and ugly amorphous gestures of Poe’s enemies, who naturally think of evil liquids in connection with the poet. Therefore, the tombstone of Poe is also a “solid” metaphor expressive of the life and power of the poet. The identification of Poe with his tombstone, of the tombstone with a meteorite, and of the meteorite with a milestone provides the poem with a thematic backbone.
Another source of “solidity” is to be found in the use of perfect participles in the poem, as...
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inépouvanté, bu, chu, and épars (which is an adjective derived from a verb). Perfect participles represent completed action, and therefore they convey the idea of “frozen” activity, which is the ideal form for Symbolist poets such as Poe and Mallarmé himself.
Otherwise it is a fairly orthodox French sonnet in Petrarchan form, employing feminine and masculine rhymes in a traditional fashion. It is part of French poetic form to have a certain number of rhymes with weak endings mingling with some strong endings. In the octave of the sonnet, therefore, one finds the feminine rhymes (silent e is not silent in French) change and étrange, and ange and mélange, and the masculine rhymes nu with connu and tribu with bu.