Charming: The Masking of the Intangible in Mallarmé’s “The Crisis in Poetry”

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In his discussion a “Crisis in Poetry,” Mallarme discusses how poetry is a way to express the intangible– the emotional truth, to say, behind spoken language. He calls languages imperfect, in that “the diversity of tongues on earth keeps everyone from uttering the word which would be otherwise in one unique rendering, truth itself in substance” (75, Mallarme.) This eternal imperfection of expression between human beings (through verbal conversation) struck me as the driving force of the poet. The dissatisfaction with common expression is so deeply rooted in us, as spoken word is momentary, sometimes careless, and often hastily crafted. The poet, according to Mallarme, seeks to crystallize the pure emotions that day-to-day speech cannot quite catch.

            One never can say what one means to say, or it would lose its “charm,” a word so often used by the charismatic Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This charm that Lord Henry speaks of: is it the masking of the intangible? Is it the packaging itself of this emotional truth, as unsettling or wonderful as it might be?  In a certain way, poetry is the “perfected aesthetic” of modern language– the superficial beauty, if translated to physical terms, which can evoke that slippery, inexplicable emotion that the poet, the artist, is constantly attempting to capture. The reader looks to poetry as a sort of mirror, and instead finds a depth that must be scavenged for the “pure notion” that Mallarme prizes.

“You noticed, one does not write luminously on a dark field; the alphabet of stars alone, is thus indicated, sketched out or interrupted; man pursues black on white” (76).

            The blackness of this ink on paper can be interpreted as the deep well that is created with each poetic phrase, the realm in which the emotional truth exists. The reason why one does not write “luminously,” or completely revealingly, is because the poet shades and masks his truth in his art, and the reader seeks out this dark, mysterious space with the desperate hope of finding the intangible.

             By reading Mallarme’s discussion, I was brought back to Lord Henry’s influential speeches to Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

“But a chance tone of colour in a room or a morning sky, a particular perfume that you had once loved and that brings subtle memories with it, a line from a particular poem that you can come across again, a cadence from a piece of music you had ceased to play– I tell you Dorian, it is on things like these that our lives depend.” (155, Wilde).

            Here, Lord Henry refers to several sensations that are converted to triggers for a memory: the waft of a perfume is considered analogous to the line of a forgotten poem; similarly, both can arouse dormant sensations and thoughts that are often hidden in oneself. Once again, this idea of a elusive, masked truth arises again: There are inevitably thousands of feelings and memories that are so deep seated within the body’s “slowly built-up cells,” (155) that we can easily forget or misplace them. The role of the line of poetry is to not only to inspire sensation, but also to revitalize potentially tucked-away truths. So much of the objective “beauty” or charm of a poem is the packaging, which can be created through form, phrasing, and emphasis. This aesthetic mask ultimately serves to stir the reader in a particular manner, such that he/she can reveal the intangible, unspoken truth to the self.

– E.P. 

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