Jottings Logo - John Fraser



Saying Simply

Reading Mallarmé


I put a great deal of effort... into getting that speech... into verse. He put a great deal of effort... into turning it back... into prose again.” (W.B. Yeats, misquoted from memory, about an actor in one of his plays)


For the first go, we’ll focus on the following poems by Mallarmé “Les fenêtres” (1863/1866), “Las de l’amer repos...”(1864/1866), “Brise marine,”(1865/1866), “Soupir,”(1864/66) “Le Pitre châtié.”[1864?/1887] That may not sound like much, but it should keep us occupied. The first of those dates is the reported date of composition, the second of the first publication.


I want us (which I don’t think is simply a synonym for “you”) to bring to our task only our abilities as readers of poems. I do not want us to talk about what Mallarmé “really” meant in/by this or that poem, line, word, as if we already knew how Mallarmé’s mind worked. I do not want us to talk about “l’Azur.”

As we all know by now, poems are not simply voicings of “ideas” or “beliefs” or “thoughts,” or “opinions,” which is to say, of coherently articulated structures which can be extracted from a poem as though we were operating with knife and fork on a fish on our dinner plate.

We do not have to choose between celebrating a poet’s uttered profundities (as in the bardic view of poets like Milton and Wordsworth), or condemning a poem because we disapprove of what it “says” (as in the critical/romantic dismissal of Pope as not a poet at all), or, more sophisticatedly, showing how aspects of a poem significantly don’t fit with, and may in fact be in conflict with, the statement that the poem is presumed (but by whom?) to be making.


When we say “Mallarmé,” or “Poe,” or “X” ( shorthand for “the-author-of-that-poem-about-hash-in-the last- issue-of-Fathom”) we are talking all the time about what I have no trouble with describing as a textual construct.

We are talking about what we have pieced together from reading this poem and that poem and this letter, and those diary entries, and that article, and this person’s report of what the writer said to them or was reported to them as having said, and what we ourselves recall the writer’s saying to us at a party, or during the question period at one of the Friday afternoon gatherings. And so on and so forth.

It is easy to forget this, in the interests of stability.

It is easy for things to settle down into a sort of wodge, an approximate working definition of someone with whom we have been contiguous, whether briefly or over an extended period, or a much more elaborate definition, one at least with much more elaborate transactions behind it, such as we find when we go to a substantial dictionary article in search of “facts” about, say, Poe and his writings.


But really we should always start out suspiciously, or at least not wholly trustingly, not because we think there’s always some guilty secret or fatal untruth to be uncovered, but because we recognize how those generalized constructs (“Poe’s thought”) are simply constructs,

- that they are the result of numerous readings or misreadings by a variety of persons looking at “texts” (“The Black Cat,” a relative’s comments garnered by a Charleston journalist in 1855, and so on),

- that there is no definitive account to be found anywhere,

- and that there is simply no substitute for reading the texts oneself, with the assistance, if needs be, of other texts that one is inclined to put some trust in, whether a comment by a critic or friend whose opinions one has come to take seriously (at least they aren’t obviously dumb) or an entry for a word in a dictionary, or even, with a good deal more than a grain of salt (since all of us can misremember or oversimplify), what the author her/himself has said in print about a work.


So, back to the “fact” of this handful of texts to which the name “Mallarmé” (but it could have been Blériot, or Dupuis, or Inconnu) is attached, and which we know to have been published/written in the 1860s by someone born in 1844.

(Well, not quite. The text of“Le Pitre châtié” is later and a good deal different from the manuscript one that we have from the 1860’s, and which I am deliberately withholding from you at the moment, and which I do not want you to go in quest of to find out what the poem “really” means.).

Read them, pencil in hand, consulting your dictionary and (with discretion) the translations from Flores, and doing the usual formalist things like marking caesuras, and the ends of sentences, and underlining striking phrasing, and seeing whether the start of a new stanza follows naturally from the end of the previous one or represents some kind of jump.


I suppose that in effect I’m saying (among other things) make your own translation of each poem, or at least the kind of approximative translation, with options and uncertainties, that exists partly in one’s head.

This is always a good way into a poem, insofar as it requires one to understand at an elementary level how particular phrasings come to mean what they appear to mean, and to recognize when one is puzzled by that relationship.


As I said last time, a Martian or Venusian might be puzzled on being told that some politician “has a chip on his shoulder.”

And a conscientious French person trying to translate a passage from Macbeth might be pulled up short when Lady Macbeth says, “But screw your courage to the sticking point/ And we’ll not fail,” or Macduff says, apropos of the just-reported killing of his wife and children “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam/ At one fell swoop.”

And if you were to offer the normal airy approximation, he/she might still persist and say, “But why ‘screw’? I know that you can screw something that is loose to something that is firm, like a post or wall. But how can you screw something to a point? And is this point here one that is sticking itself or that sticks other things? Also (please forgive my ignorance of your lovely language), why does Macduff say swoop? Does a fell swoop mean a fallen one? Is fell a participle? What, please is falling here?”, etc etc.


Again, rehearse (as distinct from actually speaking out all of them for the tape) your own recording of each poem, to test how well you are now in possession of it. And record some actual lines.


You don’t have to set out with the belief that these are necessarily great poems, or necessarily entirely successful ones, any more than one should when reading any poem by anyone.

Wait and see. Attend. Listen. It might help to hear/read them with poems by Baudelaire and Verlaine in one’s mind’s ear. Poems, like individual words, become partly defined in relation to others that they overlap in some ways and yet differ from in others.

“Les fenêtres,” one might say on a first reading, is rather “Baudelairean.” But what might one mean by that? And if it had been published anonymously, would you wish to argue that it was in fact by the author of the poems by Baudelaire, such as “Au Lecteur,” that we have discussed?

Again, how does “Brise marine” differ from the first part of Baudelaire’s “Le voyage”? And might you feel that the author of “Soupir” had read “Clair de lune”, or vice versa?


After Christmas we’ll consider a handful of the more difficult poems by Mallarmé.


Return To Top
Saying Simply Verlaine Mallarme Suspiciousness Referentiality Holderlin Yeats Hopkins Hopkins2 Woolf