by Robert S. Robbins
Stéphane Mallarmé was a contemporary of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Verlaine but he is largely forgotten by today’s literary establishment. A poetic theorist, he was famous for formulating the symbolist aesthetic. A symbol is more than a metaphor for an object. A symbol elevates an object to a metaphysical value, reaching meanings far beyond the usual.
pg 54 Poem & Symbol
"The flower he holds up in his verse is not a flower - it is the one absent from all bouquets."
Mallarmé believed a poem should not describe an object itself, but rather achieve the effect produced by the object though a suggestive use of imagery. He therefore adopted a hermetic style, an alchemy of symbols which makes his work very obscure but deep in metaphysical resonance.
The major poems in Mallarmé’s oeuvre are: The Afternoon Of A Faun, The Clown Chastised, and The Virginal Vibrant and Beautiful Dawn (i.e. the swan sonnet). A curious reader is unlikely to find these poems anywhere so I will provide the text for the short poems here:
The Virginal, Vibrant, and Beautiful Dawn
Will new and alive the beautiful today
Shatter with a blow of drunken wing
This hard lake, forgotten, haunted under rime
By the transparent glacier, flights unknown!
A swan of long ago remembers now that he,
Magnificent but lost to hope, is doomed
For having failed to sing the realms of life
When the ennui of sterile winter gleamed.
His neck will shake off the white torment space
Inflicts upon the bird for his denial,
But not this horror, plumage trapped in ice.
Phantom by brilliance captive to this place,
Immobile, he assumes disdain’s cold dream,
Which, in his useless exile, robes the Swan.
The swan, caught in the ice of the lake and looking at it disdainfully, is thought to represent the poet crushed by the world and hating it. Baudelaire also used a swan to represent the artist in society. His swan had broken out of its cage and found itself unable to exist in the mud of the city streets. In a similar poem, an albatross captured on the deck of a ship symbolizes the poet being jeered at by the ignorant masses.
But in this poem, I think the swan symbolizes the proud artist immobilized by a willful refusal to soar the heights, doomed to a useless exile he disdains. The sonnet eloquently expresses the poet’s self-deprecatory frustration. Mallarmé sought to reach the ideal in art and blamed himself for not achieving it.
The Clown Chastised develops a similar theme:
The Clown Chastised
Eyes, lakes with my simple passion to be reborn
Other than the actor, evoking with gestures
For feather the ugly soot of stage lights,
I have pierced a window in the canvas wall.
Clear traitor swimmer, with my legs and arms
Leaping and bounding, denying the wrong
Hamlet! as if I created in the wave
A thousand tombs in which to virgin disappear.
Joyous gold of the cymbal fists have inflamed,
Suddenly the sun strikes the barrenness pure
Exhaled from my coolness like mother-of-pearl.
Stale night of the skin when you swept over me,
Ungrateful! Ignorant of my whole consecration,
That grease paint drowned in faithless glacier water.
In this poem, the artist attempts to deny his role, possibly to escape the eyes of the audience, or in other words, the social responsibilities of art. But he is punished by the loss of his divinity. His grease paint drowns in the glacier, implying a cold death of the spirit. Hamlet is mentioned to invoke the poetic soul with large aspirations who is impotent to realize his dreams. Like the swan sonnet, the poem suggests a refusal to accept the limitations of art and the hopelessness of transcending it.
Bibliography - Books In My Collection
Underlined titles are not hyperlinks
1. Collected Poems translated by Henry Weinfield ISBN 0-520-08188-9 ©1994 University of California Press
2. Toward The Poems Of Mallarmé by Robert Greer Cohn 65-25352 ©1965 University of California Press
3. Selected Poetry And Prose edited by Mary Ann Caws ISBN 0-8112-0823-0 ©1982 New Directions NDP529
4. Igitur by Robert Greer Cohn ISBN 0-520-04188-7 ©1981 University of California
5. Mallarmé Or The Poet Of Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre ISBN 0-271-00755-9 ©1991 Pennsylvania State University Press
6. Mallarmé And The Sublime by Louis Wirth Marvick ISBN 0-88706-279-2 ©1986 State University of New York Press
7. Introduction To The Psychoanalysis Of Mallarmé by Charles Mauron 63-8918 ©1963 University of California Press
8. Mallarmé by Wallace Fowlie ©1953 University of Chicago Press
9. Selected Letters Of Stéphane Mallarmé translated by Rosemary Lloyd ISBN 0-226-48841-1 ©1988 University Of Chicago Press
10. Poem & Symbol: A Brief History of French Symbolism by Wallace Fowlie ISBN 0-271-00696-X ©1990 Pennsylvania State University Press
11. A Throw Of The Dice: The Life Of Stéphane Mallarmé by Gordon Millan ISBN 0-374-27707-9 ©1994 Farrar Straus Giroux
12. Mallarmé And The Language Of Mysticism by Thomas Williams 77-90562 ©1970 The University Of Georgia Press
13. Mallarmé's Children: Symbolism And The Renewal Of Experience by Richard Candida Smith ISBN 0-520-21828-0 University Of California Press