Periodic Poetry: Mallarmé

Stéphane Mallarmé is quite possibly an untranslatable poet. Not so much because the vocabulary is abstruse or because any of the “poetic” elements, like meter or rhyming scheme, would deter us. In any event, there could not be a more challenging assignment in that regard than the translation Pound accomplished with Li Bai. Indeed, Mallarmé himself accomplished the near impossible feat of putting the meter and rhyme of Poe’s “Raven” into French.

No; the problem is that Mallarmé uses words to evoke a dream-like state, where meanings are not particularly important and the sound quality evokes a mood more than mental images. Mallarmé sought to create a new poetical language. Early on (when he was 22) he described his attempts:

“I’ve at last begun my Hérodiade. With a sense of terror, for I’m inventing a language which must of necessity burst forth from a very new poetics, which I coud define in these few words: paint, not the object, but the effect it produces. … the lines in such a poem mustn’t be composed of words but of intentions, and all the words must fade before the sensation.” (to Henri Cazalais, Sunday evening [late summer-fall 1864] in Rosemary Lloyd (ed & trans), Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarmé (Chicago: c1988), p39.)

It is no wonder that the French impressionists Debussy and Ravel found his texts perfectly amenable to their musical conceptions. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), a gossamer-voiced symphonic poem, is a musical “translation” or “reflection” (without lyrics) of Mallarmé’s poem. The orchestral piece’s somewhat aloof relationship with tonality mirrors Mallarmé’s phrases, which are not firmly anchored in literal meaning. Given the central role Debussy’s poem plays in the origin of modern art music, one can begin to see Mallarmé’s impact on arts beyond poetry.

Mallarmé’s approach, as well as others who followed, was named Symbolism by Jean Moréas, but there was no one-to-one correspondence between symbol and the Something Else being represented; the symbol is described only to suggest its affinity with the Something Else. Mallarmé’s youthful explanation of what he was trying to do is a sufficient explanation. It is possible to analyze too minutely meaning in Symbolism; doing so results in destroying the message. Mallarmé’s work is designed to be diaphanous, not limpid. And so the result is obscurity. It is this intentional obscurity that makes translation something of a pointless endeavor. If something is designed to have an unclear meaning in the original, how is it possible to translate it, given that translation is principally the task of rendering the meaning of a text in another language? If words are not used principally for their meaning, then what is to be translated? Charles Mauron notes:

“Indeed, it is as though, in spite of the translator’s efforts, or rather in proportion to his fidelity, Mallarmé, in half his works at least, still persisted in speaking a foreign language. Foreign in French to a Frenchman, he remains foreign to an Englishman in English. Or rather, it is the reader who feels as though he had suddenly become a foreigner.” (Introduction to Roger Fry (trans), Stéphane Mallarmé Poems (NY: c1951 from Chantto & Windus ed of 1936), p5.)

Later in life Mallarmé tired of being described as obscure. To the important English critic Edmund Gosse he wrote:

“The only quibble I have to make [to Gosse’s review of Mallarmé’s Vers et Prose in The Academy, January 7, 1893] is on obscurity; no, my dear poet, except through awkwardness or clumsiness, I’m not obscure, from the moment the reader seeks in my poetry what I enunciate above [that poetry, like music, is designed to have meaning ‘not mentioned in the text’], or the manifestation of an art which uses — let’s say incidentally, I know the profound reason for this — language; and of course I become obscure if the reader makes the mistake of thinking he’s opening a newspaper!” (January 10, 1893, Lloyd at 190.)

But in fact, when he was groping for his language and his approach to poetry, he expressly announced that poetry should be a closed club, like religion. In an article for l’Artiste, September 15, 1862, entitled “Hérésie artistique: l’Art pour tous” (Artistic Heresy: Art for All), he said: “Everything sacred which wishes to remain so is enveloped in mystery.” All art is like religion. And poetry, no less so than music, must have its secrets. As Guy Michaud summaries: “The public should be cured of the notion that authentic poetry can be read by anyone at all, without preparation or culture … It is indispensable to restore dignity to poetry and preserve it from all easy, vague, and stupid admiration. Thus the access to it must be made difficult.” (Mallarmé (trans Marie Collins and Bertha Humez) (NY: 1965), p15.)

Notwithstanding the studied Obscurity, or perhaps because of this Obscurity, Mallarmé exerted a powerful influence on Twentieth Century French Literature. To highlight how broad the strewn field resulted from this meteor: Literary theoretician Maurice Blanchot developed a theory of literary language based on Mallarmé’s writings. Existentialist Sartre wrote a long critical appraisal of Mallarmé in 1953 and called him the “poet of Nothingness.” Film-maker Alain Resnais used the writing of Alain Robbe-Grillet in his film L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) to create a Mallarmé-like dreamlike unreality of the ordinary where things appear to represent Something Else, but what that is is obscure. Robbe-Grillet’s application of his theories of the nouveau roman, far from breaking with the aesthetic contributions of Mallarmé, in fact continued them, because subordinating plot and character to a highly subjective point of view almost by necessity requires a language that dream-like evokes but does not reveal the otherness being explored. Resnais is able to use classic framing and methodical pacing to elicit the complement — the familiar framing of images works like Mallarmé’s use of mythological and symbolic references to suggest affinities to something never explained.

I won’t even attempt to assess Mallarmé’s impact on the early English modernists, it cannot be overestimated (Edmund Wilson’s excellent study Axel’s Castle (NY: c1931) addresses just that question) or his inflence on visual arts, also substantial (an excellent on-line study with illustrations is found in Marshall C. Olds, “Visual Culture: The Later Mallarmé and japonisme,” French Language and Literature Papers at the DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2004)).

But enough of where things went because of Mallarmé, it’s time for the poem. But first an explanation (and then, after the poem, the interminable chronicle that usually goes with these poems). Those familiar with Virgil’s precept, the governing agent of this site, will be surprised that the poem selected is not one of his tombeaux, say Verlaine’s or Poe’s. But none of those works are really about tombs, because the symbols of symbolists are really not meant to symbolize. Or perhaps one of the later works should be expected, works more characteristic of his visible effects on French literature. But even if it were an easy task in to reproduce the blanks and spaces and other typographical effects he employs (it is not), we’re not only concerned here with effects. And so the selection this week is from one of the very earliest of the “mature” poems, written at a time when choices lay ahead and causes were closer to the surface. And it helps that it is seasonal.

Tristesse d’été

from Le Parnasse contemporain (June 30, 1866)

by Stéphane Mallarmé

Le soleil, sur le sable, ô lutteuse endormie,
En l’or de tes cheveux chauffe un bain langoureux
Et, consumant l’encens sur ta joue ennemie,
Il mêle avec les pleurs un breuvage amoureux.

Dans ce blanc Flamboiement l’immuable accalmie
T’a fait dire, attristée, ô mes baisers peureux,
«Nous ne serons jamais une seule momie
ous l’antique désert et les palmiers heureux!»

Mais ta chevelure est une rivière tiède,
Où noyer sans frissons l’âme qui nous obsède
Et trouver ce Néant que tu ne connais pas!

Je goûterai le fard pleuré par tes paupières,
Pour voir s’il sait donner au cœur que tu frappas
L’insenibilité de l’azur et des pierres.

Summer Sadness

[translated by DK Fennell

The sunshine upon the sand heats a listless bath
In the gold of your hair, my dozing wrestler,
And, dissipating the perfume on your antagonist cheek,

It mixes with your tears a lovesome potion.

In that white burning the motionless stillness
Made you say, rueful (o my timid little kisses)
“We will never be a solitary mummy
Under the ancient desert and the contented palms!”

But your hair is a lukewarm river
In which to drown without shudders the Thing that haunts us
And to discover that Nothing which you’ve not known!

I will taste the paint your eyelids have wept
To see if it knows how to give the heart you’ve stamped
The callousness of azure and stones.

[Text note: In H Mondor and G Jean-Aubry (eds), Œuvres Complètes de Stéphane Mallarmé (Paris: 1951), the second line of the poem begins with “En” as it appeared in the posthumously published Poésies (1899) and above, rather than “Pour” as in Le Parnasse contemporain as originally published in 1866.]

At the beginning of 1862 (the year he would compose the first draft of “Tristesse d’été”) Mallarmé was facing a profound petit bourgeois crisis: he wanted to leave his insufferable supernumerary’s position at the Registry in Sens. But this position was the entry level of a career at the Registry – a career that Stéphane’s father pursued and his father before him. Both were quite successful, which can perhaps be explained by deft skill in bureaucratic maneuvering, because they managed to endure and thrive in monarchy, republic and empire alike. Their success undoubtedly allowed them to secure the position for Stéphane in December 1860 despite his mediocre secondary school record. Though thoroughly shaped by their bourgeois ideals and aspirations which he still shared, Stéphane could not bring himself to remain in the job and rationalized that he could achieve as much success in another field, teaching.

He devised an escape plan using the one subject he excelled in, foreign languages. But he planned to become a poet. The year before he had been given a copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal that great obscene mist that descended on French letters. In October 1861 Emmanuel des Essarts arrived in Sens fresh from the capital and brought with him works of Leconte de Lisle and Théodore de Banville. Mallarmé’s sensibilities were awakened. He would now steep himself in Art for Art’s Sake.

He wrote his (maternal) grandfather of his plan, seeking approval. Stéphane had lived with this grandfather (and his wife) after his own mother died when Stéphane was young. Now that he was back in Sens with his father, he was seeking approval because his father was on the decline, slowly dying in fact, and had just received leave to retire. Evidently the grandfather would be the source Stéphane would depend on for his plan:

“The Records Office, unless you really enjoy it, doesn’t just devour your time, it devours your individuality as well. Whereas with teaching, the more a teacher works and earns, the more intellectual value he acquires as a man. …

Once you’ve passed the exam, you’re appointed a teacher with a fixed salary of 2,000 francs, leaving aside supplementary payments or money earned from coaching. In the Records Office, I wouldn’t be earning 1,6000 francs for another 5 years and then only provided I earned them in some village. Father is about to retire and 5 years is a long time to wait, when you have expenses and you’re not earning anything.” (to M. Desmolins, January 17, 1862, Lloyd at 5.)

The plan was to take a leave, not quit (“My superintendent has sworn to me that there’s no reason to resign and so, just in case there are great mysterious circumstances that I haven’t foreseen, I’d have a door open in the Records Office until June, when I have my first exam.” to M Desmolins, January 31, 1862, Lloyd at 7). He would then study English with a tutor. It was safe, reasonable and thought-through. How could anyone object? But the response he received hurt his feelings. He had evidently hoped for an enthusiastic endorsement, but Stéphane said: “[The reply] gave the impression that you were saying to me ‘I’m allowing you to do this, but if you do it you’ll disappoint me and I won’t be pleased with you.’ Which seemed worse to me than if you’d said: ‘I forbid you.’ That but tortured me.” (to M. Desmolins, January 31, 1862, Lloyd at 6.) He nevertheless allowed his step-mother to convince him that his grandfather was simply permitting him freedom to chose without trying to influence him either way. That was enough.

Mallarmé was now to begin a life of some intellectual freedom, but not the kind of decadence that Baudelaire reveled in. Although he allowed Des Essarts to take him to meet artistically-inclined young people with an excursion to Fontainebleau, he remained tethered to his middle class sensibilities. How closely he considered the cost of things can be inferred from how he presented his plan to his grandfather. How deeply his petit bourgeois identity burned him can perhaps be guessed at from the story of his pretending to be “Count of Boulainvilliers” years earlier when he was sent to an upscale boarding school in Auteuil on his mother’s death (Michaud at 7.)  At Fontainebleau he met Henri Cazalis, who would become a long time confidant in matters of the wallet as well as of the heart and pen. He would reveal more of his technique to Cazalis than anyone else in his life.

Life at Sens, even without having to drudge at the Registry, was not particularly satisfying. He was 20 but had no real experience with life. He rarely spoke to his step mother: “She’s a relatively young woman” (he told Cazalis, June 4, 1862, Lloyd at 10) “who has never understood what a young man is like …” He had no money: “Here I live a strange kind of existence: every one considers me a wastrel and honors me as if I had three mistresses, but I never have a cent in my pocket and don’t even sleep with the maid. I’m a gilded bohemian.” His father was evidently entering senilile dementia — “”My poor father has been very ill for a long time, and as he no longer has much notion of the cost of money and would give me 1,000 francs as willingly as 10 cents, a certain sense of propriety prevents me from asking him for anything, for whatever purpose.” His step-mother “has only one word on her lips: the horrible word Economy!” Mallarmé was writing poetry in the style of Baudalaire. While the original was in Paris leading the life of a dissolute profligate and expecting his mother and step father to foot the bill, his disciple in Sens was locked up at home, penniless, like a child. Much as he wished, Mallarmé could not even visit Cazalis and the girls who adored his poetry for a Sunday picnic. “[I]f I had any tears left, I’d cry about it! … Fancy having to say that happiness is sometimes contained in the glitter of two gold coins! Often it’s in even less.”

But the second bourgeois crisis was about to descend on him. At the end of June he “noticed a young girl who is fairly pretty, distinguished, sad.” (to Cazalis, August 4-5, 1862; Lloyd at 13.) He had tried to be coy with her. But having no experience with women, he ended contacting her by writing a letter confessing his love! “For the last three months I’ve loved you violently and for several days now I’ve idolized you even more wildly. Will you accept my love?” (to Marie Gerhard, June 26, 1862; Lloyd at 12.) She was a governess named Marie Gerhard. In addition to his taste for English poetry, Mallarmé developed a liking for English girls at the outing he had at Fontainebleau: “The fact is that English girls are adorable. That sweet golden hair, those drops of water form Lake Geneva, set in candor, which they’re pleased to call their eyes, like other women; their figures, which are so Grecian in their harmony: not a pretentious wasp’s waist, but the figure of an angel who has just folded her wings under her blouse!” (Lloyd at 9.) When he first saw Marie he thought she was English, but she turned out German. Their fate was sealed by circumstances: “She’s unhappy here, and bored. I’m unhappy and bored. From our two melancholies we could perhaps make a single happiness.” (to Cazalis, August 4-5, 1862; Lloyd at 13.)

So Mallarmé persuaded her to come with him to London — a trip that he evidently persuaded his grandfather would be helpful in his language teaching career. And since she was no less a prisoner of the middle class than he (worse, she was German), they decided to tell no one they would be going off together. And they rashly assumed no one would find out.

It was about this time he produced the draft of “Tristesse d’été,” all full of the confused non-sense that an inexperienced, firmly middle class lover, a child essentially, could conceive. Add to it that the draft had the veneer of a Baudelaire production, without any of the depth of feeling that a real dissolute cynic could bring to the assignment, and the result is, not surprisingly, an unfocused set of unconvincing images:

Le Soleil, sur la mousse où tu t’es endormie
A chauffé comme un bain tes cheveux ténébreux,
Et, dans l’air sans oiseaux et sans brise ennemie,
Évaporé ton fard en parfums dangereus.

De ce blanc flamboiement l’immuable accalmie
Me fait hair la vie et notre amour fiévreux,
Et tout mon être implore un sommeil de momie
Morne comme le sable et les palmiers poudreux!

Ta chevelure, est-elle une rivière tiède
Où noyer sans frissons mon âme qui m’obsède
Et jouir du Néant où l’on ne pense pas?

Je veux boire le fard qui fond sous tes paupières
Si ce poison promet au cœur que tu frappas
L’insensibilité de l’azure et des pierres!

[The Sun, on the foam [moss?] where you fell asleep / has warmed, like a bath, your dark hair, / and, in the air without birds and enemy breeze, / evaporated your make-up in dangerous perfumes. // The unchanging lull of this white blaze / makes me hate the feverish life and our love, / and all my being seeks a mummy sleep / dull as powdery sand and palm trees! // Your hair, is it a tepid river / in which to drown without shivers my soul which obsesses me / and to enjoy Nothing where one does not think? // I want to drink the make-up which melts under your eyelids / if this poison promises to the heart you wounded / The insensitivity of blue and the stones!]

This studied pose bears no resemblance to his relationship with Marie. On November 8 they left for London. He planned to stay for a year to study English. By December, however, the combination of their poverty, the shame she was feeling for hiding their relationship and probably the indecision of Mallarmé himself caused Marie to decide to leave him. The decisive point was the discovery that his family knew of the out-of-wedlock relationship. The loneliness he anticipated was too much for Stéphane: “Oh, my dear friend, I cry and I cry as I write all this to you! I’ve been crying since this morning; I don’t have a moment’s respite, as soon as I set eyes on her, I burst into tears.” (to Cazalis, December 4, 1862; Lloyd at 15.) He admitted that she was right, that she had sacrificed “everything” for him, that she would now be ruined, and that she was “more than an angel, she’s a saint.” And he simply couldn’t get married:

“I’m crying so much as I write to you that everything I see is red. And to say that nothing can be done about it! I could rebel against my family, but they have against me a weapon which is he law, for I’m not yet 21. And then there’s my poor grandfather who’s very ill. I’ve just received a good letter from him. What still hurts me when I think of it and what tortures her her is that my family must be cursing her. My mother has heard her described, by my enemies at Sens, as an astute, clever, educated person who is much older than I. With descriptions like that she’s going to think that I’ve been tricked by a hussy! … Those who I love, even Emmaneul [des Essarts] himself, told me her kisses were or could be, motivated by self-interest!” (Lloyd at 18.)

This drama must have continued for a month, for she left on January 9. She eventually settled in Belgium. Mallarmé’s father died in April. His family, the ones he cared about, were nearly all gone (his mother, his sister, and now his father). He must have decided that he could now afford the shame or maybe there was none any longer. On his way back from France, he picked up Marie in Belgium. He now knew what he had to do and what would follow from that: “If I married Marie to make myself happy, I’d be a madman. Besides, can happiness be found on earth? And should one seek it, seriously, anywhere but in dreams? That’s not the real aim of life: the real aim is duty. Duty, whether you call it art, struggle, or whatever. … No, I’m marrying Marie solely because she couldn’t live without me …You are the ony person in the world who knows I’m making a sacrifice: in front of my other friend,s I’ll put on a show of believing that I see this union as a means of building my own happiness — so that Marie will seem greater in their eyes.” (to Cazalis, April 27, 1863; Lloyd at 20.) They would marry on August 10.

Life would begin to fold in on Mallarmé; the only thing that mattered now was Art. He lost his liberal beliefs (“political illusions” he called them): “I don’t like workers: they are vain. For whom, therefore, would we create a Republic? For the bourgeoisie? Look at them en masse, in the gardens and the streets. They are hideous, and it’s quite plain they have no soul. … Henri, don’t you think that the man who made the Venus de Milo is greater than the one who saves a race, and wouldn’t it be preferable that Poland should fall rather than see that eternal marble hymn to Beauty lying in pieces?” (to Cazalis, July 24, 1863.)

His contempt for everyone increased when he received his teaching post in Toulon. “[H]ere, I’ve no desire to know anyone. The inhabitants of he grim village to which I’ve been exiled live in too close an intimacy with pigs for me not to hold them in horror. The pig is the spirit of the house here as elsewhere the cat is.” (to Albert Collingon, December 12, 1863; Lloyd at 25.) “[H]ere one sinks into the very depths of despondency. Nothing happens: you turn around and around in a narrow circle like the brainless horses of fairground circuses, accompanied by the most god-awful music! If there were no law courts, I’d set fire to the ignoble houses I see irrevocably from my window, at every hour of the day, stupid and mindless; and at certain moments how I’d put a bullet into the stupefied skulls of those miserable neighbors who do the same thing day after day and whose irksome lives offer, to my tear-filled eyes, the horrendous spectacle of immobility, that fount of boredom.” (to Cazalis, [March 23,] 1864; Lloyd at 28-29.) To this must be added the humiliation of a provincial teacher; mocked even by his students: “I command little respect and I’m even sometimes worsted by paper darts and catcalls.” (to Cazalis, [July 1865], p52.)

The evident disappointment he found in having his own plan fulfilled became a prod for work; he was producing poetry (although constantly complaining about his indolence or indisposition). “I want — for the first time in my life — to succeed.” (to Henri Cazalais, Sunday evening [late summer-fall 1864]; Lloyd at 39.) His isolation and his own nervous temperament combined to focus his mind on his goal of purifying language. He used his misery in his art: “Le poëte impuissant qui maudit son génie / A travers un désert stérile de Douleurs” [The impotent poet who curses his genius / through a sterile desert of Pain], he says in “L’Azur.” He was constantly pruning; he was “constantly banishing a thousand lyrical flourishes and fine lines which constantly haunt my brain …” (to Cazalis, January 1864; Lloyd at 26).  He obsessed over strange images that had meaning only to him; images that would become Symbols in his poems. “The sky is dead!” he explained one iteration of Azure to Cazalis; “That’s precisely what gives joy to the Impotent. Weary of the ill that gnaws at me, I want to savor the common happiness of the herd, and await an unsung death.” (Lloyd at 27).

He learned Marie was expecting a baby in Autumn, and he became reconciled with his lot. “[W]hat remains to be decided is whether one should have a wife or not? An utterly personal question. The answer for me, for example, is yes, because I need a carpet spread by her between the earth and my naked feet …” (to Cazalis, [July 13, 1866]; Lloyd at 65.) The news made him recognize his own short-comings; in the past he blamed his surroundings for everything: “I’m very much afraid that she may be, like her father, a splenetic and miserable creature.” (to Cazalis, July 1864; Lloyd at 36.) In the event, the cynical sophisticate became the doting father: “My daughter is a marvellous doll who delights all the old biddies of the neighborhod. She is highly intelligent and declares, at the top of her lungs, that she will definitely not read M. Legouvé’s Deux Reines.” (to Eugène Lefébre, [February 1865]; Lloyd at 46.)

Through it all he transformed from a Romantic enthusiast to a tortured but diligent poet. The transformation is visibly evident in how he recast “Tristesse d’été” from its 1862 draft to the version that was published in Le Parnasse contemporain. Neither represent his relationship with Marie, but they both arose from his experiences with her. The draft was a pose when he was in the throws of a first affair. He believed he was a cynical dissolute. Time wore on him so that by the time it was published the poem became a relationship that he imagined in his mind, in which the woman was aloof, intellectual and desirable. Who knows where she came from. Perhaps she was a real person — there was “one charming woman” in Toulon, “but she only comes a few days each month and stays in the neighborhood”; the rest were “an infamous herd of cows who resemble women only in so far as they lack what is necessary to be a man.” (to Cazalis, July 1864; Lloyd at 36-37.) Likely the woman in the poem was simply a construct from what he had been brooding about concerning the relations of man and woman.

The poem was published at a time that he was about to begin a new intellectual journey. “I will tell you that I have been in the purest glaciers of Esthetics for the last month — that having found Nothingness, I found the Beautiful – and that you can’t imagine in what lucid altitudes I have been venturing …” (to Cazalis, [July 13, 1866]; Michaud at 51.) Cazalis thought Mallarmé had become a Buddhist; “It foreshadows the Apocalypse.” (Michaud at 53.) The Apocalypse was surely to come, but it came in the form of Hegel — the man around whom so much of the Nineteenth Century turned. Many would find a turning point in Hegel. In what way did Mallarmé? That, my friends, is well past this week’s poem and will be taken up when we next take up Mallarmé.

  1. August 22nd, 2010
  2. February 10th, 2011
  3. December 19th, 2012
  4. July 4th, 2017

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