Apostrophe in Stéphane Mallarmé’s “The Azure”

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In “The Azure,” Stéphane Mallarmé uses apostrophe, a device of figurative language whereby the poet addresses an absent person or force that is often an abstract concept, to invert the typical effect that beautiful things have on the viewer. While a typical person would take comfort or happiness in the sight, of, for instance, a clear sky, the subject of “The Azure” feels the opposite. The far-superior aesthetic tastes of Stéphane Mallarmé’s subject causes the sight of beautiful things to depress rather than inspire because they remind him of the world of ideal Platonic forms that he will never reach: “The everlasting Azure’s tranquil irony/ Depresses, like the flowers indolently fair,/ The powerless poet who damns his superiority” (Mallarmé 1-3). Here, the “powerless poet” is doomed by “his superiority” in that his good taste sentences him to a life of longing for something that he can never possess. In the following excerpt, the poet calls on the fogs to obscure his vision of the sky, in an inversion of the typical human-aesthetic desire to see clear skies: “Oh fogs, arise! Pour your monotonous ashes down… To darkly drench the livid swamp of autumn days” (9, 11). The divergence between the desires of the poet and the average man is probably designed to highlight the “superiority” that is articulated in the first stanza. Further on in the poem, Stéphane Mallarmé makes yet another inversion—he addresses (and adds a positive epithet to) a force of nature that mankind typically scorns: “And you… Sweet Boredom, to block up with a never weary hand/ The great blue holes the birds maliciously have made…” (13, 15-16). In conjunction with personification of the birds (assigning a malicious intent to nature), an atypical apostrophes functions here to set the poet apart from the reader. Maybe it will make the reader question his happiness the next time he or she looks up and is comforted or made happy by the sight of a beautifully clear, blue sky. Maybe the reader will be reminded that the beauty signifies a world of ideal Platonic forms of which he or she will never be a part. Towards the end of the poem, the poet sort of gives up on the idea of ignoring or forgetting about the beauty that is all around him. The blue sky “triumphs” and seems to gloat in its possession of an impossible, unobtainable beauty: “But vainly! The Azure triumphs and I hear it sing/ In bells, Dear Soul, it turns into a voice the more/ To fright us by its wicked victory…” (27-29). The use of apostrophe recalls the dichotomy between material and immaterial realms. That is the dichotomy that brings pain to the poet. Apostrophe is a call from across that chasm, from the poet in the material world to the siren call of the immaterial world as it is represented in a beautiful sight like the sky. One can only wonder why “the powerless poet” keeps writing about what is distressing him so much.

–SVZ

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