Month: March 2014

Dualism and the Concept of Fleeing in Mallarmé (Blog Post)

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The present post will address dualism in Mallarme’s poems, “L’Azur” and “Les fenêtres,” by analyzing the manner in which the poet uses the concept of fleeing to both distinguish and conflate these two worlds. In both poems, the verb “fuir” is repeated in various different conjugations and manifestations. This causes the reader to feel that the subject of the poem is trapped: he wants to leave where he is but finds that he cannot or that he does not know where to go. This, effectively, creates a dualism in both poems concerning where the subject of the poem finds himself and where he wishes to be (not there.) This distinction is then emphasized by Mallarmé with in more traditional dualistic terms, for example by reference to the soul and to different Ideal concepts, such as Beauty. In both poems, however, the distinction between these two worlds is blurred at the end and the reader is given to understand that the physical can be consumed by the Ideal and eternal. Let us now analyze some examples of this description, first in “L’Azur” and then in “Les fenêtres.”

In “L’Azur,” Mallarmé introduces the concept of fleeing in the second stanza, one may say, ambiguously. He begins the stanza with the word “fuyant” or “fleeing” but it is unclear to whom this word refers. It could refer either to the irony which was the subject of the first stanza or to the poet which is the subject of the second stanza. The reader is left feeling uncertain about what or who is fleeing. In the next line, however, we get a better idea of who is fleeing– the poet.  The poet describes the irony as scrutinizing his empty soul and, one could say, it is for this reason that he wants to flee. In this way, we get introduced to the subject’s soul which is one of the traditional markers of dualism. It should be noted that this dualism is emphasized by the fact that it is irony, an abstract concept, that is scrutinizing in a personified way the soul of the subject. In other words, an Ideal (in the Platonic sense) concept is acting upon the soul, another Ideal concept. This, however, is causing the subject, a physical entity, to want to flee a word that usually refers to the physical movement from one place to another. In this way, we see Mallarmé blurring the lines between the Ideal and the Physical or Real through the use of the concept of fleeing.

Throughout the rest of the poem, Mallarmé continues to develop this idea of dualism. The reader is given the idea that the cryptic Azur belongs in the Ideal world as it is described as “eternal” and, in the last two stanzas, as basically all-encompassing and all-powerful. Furthermore, l’Azur affects the soul of the poet as opposed to his body. The poet also realizes that trying to physically flee the all-powerful Azur is futile and, therfore, he gives in to the fact that he will be haunted by it. The repetition of “L’Azur” at the end, furthermore, gives the impression that the poet is not only being haunted by it, he is being consumed by l’Azur. This is, therefore, another instance of Mallarmé blurring the lines between the physical and ideal world as the poet, a physical being, is being consumed by L’Azur, an Ideal concept.

A very similar blurring of the two worlds is also seen in “Les fenêtres” where the concept of fleeing is, once again, prominent. In this poem, Mallarmé also makes a contrast between the idealized and physical worlds describing the setting in physical terms, as looking through a window, and describing the scene outside in great detail. This is contrasted by references made to the soul, the eternal and the infinite, as well as to other Ideal concepts such as Beauty and Bêtise (foolishness.) The reader is once again confronted with “l’azur” although this time it is in lowercase which implies that it is not the same all-powerful Ideal concept that one is introduced to in “L’Azur.” Mallarmé once again mentions fleeing which further emphasizes the dualism between the physical and Ideal worlds. Most importantly, at the end of the poem, he mentions fleeing with “two wings without feathers” and running the risk of falling into eternity. Much like “L’Azur,” “Les fênetres” ends with the hint of falling into eternity and being consumed by it. Once again, it would be a physical being that can fall into an eternal, Ideal realm.

In conclusion, Mallarmé often alludes to the idea of fleeing in his poems, especially in “L’Azur” and in “Les fenêtres.” The concept of fleeing usually has the effect of blurring the lines between the Ideal and physical worlds, a dualism which is also evident in much of his poetry. The use of “fleeing” also gives the reader the sense that the subject of the poem is trapped in the physical world yet could be consumed by the Ideal world.


– by MJL

The False Temptation of the Infinite in Mallarmé’s “The Windows”

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Stéphane Mallarmé’s “The Windows” depicts a quest for “the Infinite” (“The Windows” 28), represented in the “deep azure” of the sky encased by the glass of window panes (9). Yet while Mallarmé describes this Infinite in Christian religious terms and separates it from both the physicality of the human body (excluding the sense of vision) and the artificial human construction of clock time, he also suggests that the Infinite constitutes a false temptation for the speaker. Despite its allure as an ostensibly pure place of spiritual knowledge, it in fact is accessed only through sin; the speaker’s search for the Infinite ends not in transcendence, but in his or her own corruption and fall from grace.

The Infinite, as constructed in “The Windows,” is defined by its religious imagery: the speaker perceives it as a “chaste” (28) gateway to a “previous heaven where Beauty flowered great” (30), and the dying man in the hospital views it as a dazzling “horizon of light” (16). The poem’s eponymous windows similarly gain spiritual power, “bles[sing]…in their glass” those who watch the azure (27). Under the influence of the Infinite, the speaker wishes to be “reborn” as an “angel” (31), perhaps evoking rebirth as a believer in Christianity and continued existence in the afterlife, while the dying man dreams of purifying himself and returning to his “virgin skin of long ago” (11). In accordance with this Christian vision, the Infinite seems to promise eternal life and transcendence of the physical body to the twin figures of the speaker and the dying man. The dying man “[s]ees” lavish, “golden” landscapes unfurl through the window (17), forsaking the tactile nature of “holy oils” (13), the gustatory element of “cordials” (14), and a body-wracking “cough” (15) in favor of vision alone; the speaker similarly “peer[s] and see[s]” (29) a “gilded” (28) vision of the Infinite in the azure. In addition to transcending the physical body, providing a space of pure vision, the Infinite escapes the confines of manmade clock time and becomes “eternal” (27), blurring the present with a “long ago” past (11) and transforming daytime’s “sunshine on the stones” into “evening bleed[ing] along the tiles” (15). The implication is that the Infinite offers the same sort of eternal life as religion itself.

Although this description appears to construct the Infinite as a religious paradise, Mallarmé instead suggests that accessing this space is far from a divine endeavor. Both the dying man and the speaker are corrupted by their efforts to access the Infinite: the dying man quite literally turns his back on Christianity and ignores what he considers a “great bored crucifix” (4), and his desire for the azure of the Infinite is “fevered” and “greedy” (9). Indeed, his devotional act of kissing the glass – an act that he hopes will restore the “virgin skin” of his youth – “befouls” the window (11), sullying the purity of this spiritual space with “bitter[ness]” (12).

The overwhelming presence of the self also upends any notions of spiritual transcendence. In “Crisis in Poetry,” Mallarmé remarks that “[t]he pure work implies the disappearance of the poet as speaker, yielding his initiative to words” – privileging intangible, nonphysical entities over the self (“Crisis in Poetry” 75). The speaker of “The Windows” uses the Infinite not to transcend his or her own self, but to be more grounded in it. At what should be the peak moment of spirituality, when the speaker has been “blest” (“The Windows” 27) and “gilded by the Infinite” (28), he or she instead repeats the word “I”: “I peer and see myself an angel! I die, I long” (29). Later, he or she refers to the self as a sort of deity and replacement for God, using the invocation “oh Self” to beg for assistance from a higher power (37). Although the speaker blames the witchcraft-like “spell” of the “World Below” for his or her inability to fully transcend the physical senses (33), the reference to the “Self who knows gall stings” (37) connects the speaker to the dying man with his “bitter” kiss (12) suggest that the speaker’s self, like the dying man’s, is the chief source of corruption. Much like Lucifer in Paradise Lost, the speaker is doomed to “fall through eternal skies,” exiled from this religious paradise of the Infinite that he or she attempts to reach only through corruption (40).


Word Count: 725

Mallarmé: The Artist and the Ideal in La Fenêtre and L’Azur

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Mallarmé’s two poems set in the symbolist style, L’Azur and La Fenêtre, explore the artist’s relationship between the mundane and the ideal. 


La Fenêtre begins describing an old man in a hospital, near death. The opening stanza ties in the oppressive smell of the hospital and outside environment with religious imagery, as the “fetid incense arising like the banal whiteness of veils To the great bored crucifix on the empty wall, The crafty dying man his back sets straight.” The fumes that move toward the crucifix may indicate the inability of religion to create an ideal for the dead man. Instead the crucifix is “bored on the empty wall,” neglected and barren. 


The window, which the old man hungers for, represents the threshold between the ideal, or “beautiful” and the mundane reality of his death. He longs to “see the sunshine on the stones,” perhaps indicating his search for truth in the sun. His mouth is even described as being as avid as a younger person, connecting to the obsession with youth and dying which consumes many authors of decadent literature. 


The ideal on the other side of the window is filled with images of beauty, “golden galleys, beautiful as swans, On a ruddy, perfumed river, cradling to sleep The tawny, rich light of their echelons.”  These images are also ‘in vast nonchalance charged with memories,” which connects the ideal with a kind of nostalgia, the beauty that ignores present circumstances and instead remembers a sweeter past. 


The poet then attempts to reach outside of the window and attain the ideal himself by being reborn through art or mysticism. The poet gambles that he may reach this state by breaking the glass of the window and flinging himself into the unknown void of the ideal. However, the ability of the poet to reach this state is questioned by Mallarmé, as he says that there is a “risk of falling through eternal skies.” This fall both indicates the tenuous position of the artist, but may also question the existence of the ideal at all. There is a possibility in Mallarmé’s poem that all that is on the other side of the mundane is the void. A similar question is brought up in Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony as the gods are one by one cast unto the void. 


The second of Mallarmé’s two poems, “L’Azur,” shows a much more pessimistic take on the relationship between the artist and the ideal. In this poem, written several months after the first, Mallarmé is filled with the fog that besets an artist struggling to reach beyond mundane reality. In this poem, the “eternal Sky” that the poet formerly wanted to leap into, now “depresses” and the “the powerless poet who damns his superiority Across a sterile wilderness of aching Despair. This passage encapsulates the struggle of the artist to combat ennui and the terrible realization of his lack of power. Here the poet asks, “Where can I flee?” The ideal no longer is just through the window. Now the poet is beset by the fog and “ashen haze” which clouds his vision, as he says “Unceasing let the dismal chimney-flues Exude their smoke, and let the soot’s nomadic prison Extinguish in the horror of its blackened queues The sun now fading yellow away on the horizon!”  The fading yellow sun contrasts to the direct ray of light which is prominent in “La Fenêtre.” Now the artist “no longer has the art of decking tearful plaints, To yawn lugubrious toward a humble death…” The blue color of the azure sky now takes over. It “penetrates Like an unerring blade your native agony.” Now the poet asks “Where flee in my revolt so useless and depraved?” and the horror now takes the shape of “The Sky! the Sky! the Sky! the Sky!” 


At the end of L’Azur, the artist has given up hope for his ability to fly into the ideal. The poet is now left in the empty void, as all that is on the metaphoric other side of the window is the mundane fumes of the everyday. These two poems explore the power of the artist, and show a progression in Mallarmé’s poetry as he questioned the role of the poet. 


Word Count: 707

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. 

The Poet’s Dilemma in Mallarmé’s “The Windows” and “The Azure” (blog post)

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Mallarmé’s poems, particularly “The Windows” and “The Azure”, dramatize the poet’s continued struggle to access and embody the Eternal and the Ideal in his poetry. In both poems, the sky and the personified Azure symbolize the Eternal and the Ideal. While in “The Windows” the poet is portrayed as relentlessly searching for a means to access the Eternal, in “The Azure”, perhaps as a consequence of realizing the impossibility of his quest for the Ideal, the poet seeks refuge from the “unerring blade” of the Eternal. These conflicting attitudes towards the Ideal, one of obsessive seeking and one of despondent fleeing, can be interpreted as symptoms of the poet’s frustration with not being able to employ words / language in order to express the Ideal and the immaterial realm which symbolist poets such as Mallarmé sought to capture in their poetry. In Crisis in Poetry Mallarmé states that “verse makes up for what language lack, completely superior as it is” (75). Yet, by the end of the poem “The Azure”, in face of the triumphant Azure, the poet has no option but to “flee in… revolt so useless and depraved”, and accept his failure as a poet.

In “The Windows”, the window functions as “art” and as a “mystic state” becoming an interface between the physically experienced and observable “life” of “fetid incense” and “banal… veils” and the mystical unseen and the unknown. The dying man drags himself to the window in order to “see the sunshine on the stones” and to feel the warmth of the sun on his face. He is also “greedy for deep azure”, indicating his yearning to access the azure sky, which is an extended metaphor used to signal the Eternal and the Ideal. As he contemplates on the “vast nonchalance charged with memories” triggered by the view of the azure, he is “filled with disgust for the man… [who is] sprawled in comforts” and who is preoccupied with the material needs of his wife and offspring. At this point, the first-person “I” poet-narrator’s voice becomes interchangeable with that of the dying man in the hospital: “I flee and cling to all the window frames / Whence once can turn his back on life in scorn”. The window definitively becomes an access point to the Eternal and a means through which to escape mundane reality. Yet, despite this discovery, the poem does not end in triumph for the poet. As “The Windows” concludes, the poet realizes that his wings are “unfeathered” and that he is at risk of “falling through eternal skies”, prefiguring the poet’s changed attitude in “The Azure”.

The possibility of escape from reality and the hope for potential access to the Ideal present in “The Windows” are entirely replaced by negativity and pessimism in “The Azure”. The poem is saturated with words connoting negativity (depresses, damns, sterile, aching, Despair, destructive, powerless, empty, scorn, distressing, monotonous, Lethean, maliciously, Boredom, dismal, horror, dead, prison, cruel, tearful, wicked, agony, useless, depraved). At the very outset, the poet is portrayed as “the powerless poet” who, above all, now seeks refuge from the “Azure’s tranquil irony” and “the cruel Ideal”. For all his yearning, the poet has failed to access the Ideal, and the Azure has triumphed with a “wicked victory”, which penetrates the poet “Like an unerring blade”. He is haunted by this impasse and concludes the poem with a desperate cry to “The Sky”. Thus, “The Azure” can be interpreted as a poetic acceptance of Mallarmé’s incapability to pierce the veil of language and to create verse that can adequately embody the Ideal. The two poems “The Windows” and “The Azure” can therefore be read as expressions of the poet’s conflicting attitudes vis-à-vis the Ideal realm that he sought so hard to embody in his poetry.

Word Count = 631

Blogged by Lana


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.


Otherworldliness in Stéphane Mallarmé’s “The Windows”

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In “The Windows,” Mallarmé presents an affinity for a world apart from that of the material, the common man, and the surface meaning of objects. The man in the poem is devoted to a life beyond that of his dying body and nauseating, stupid world. In the opening stanza we see a disregard for and inversion of one of mankind’s favored symbols, the Catholic crucifix: “To the great bored crucifix on the empty wall,/ The crafty dying man his back sets straight” (Mallarmé 3-4). The “crafty dying man” could be the male subject of the poem, the old man in the hospital, or it could be referring to the aforementioned crucifix, and, thus, Christ. It makes sense that the crucifix shows up in a Symbolist poem because it is a powerful religious symbol that stands for an overlap between man and divine, the material and spiritual worlds. The subject of the poem’s salvation into another world, however, does not come from religion but rather the beauty of his own artistic and intellectual vision: “Sees golden galleys, beautiful as swans,/ On a ruddy, perfumed river, cradling to sleep/ The tawny, rich light of their echelons/ In vast nonchalance charged with memories!” (17-20). The ability of the man to see beyond the confines of the ugly, dying hospital and into the beauty of the other world is what justifies his existence. Symbolism is not just a style of poetry, but also the lifestyle of the subject, and, one can imagine, the artist. “The Windows” seems a manifesto of otherworldliness, not without a tirade against those who choose to live more materialistically: “So, filled with disgust for the man whose soul is callous,/ Sprawled in comforts where his hungering/ Is fed…” (21-23). In these lines, the author derides those who exist solely to satisfy the needs of their bodies, rather than their minds. The “soul,” here, is a stand in for the aesthetic sensibilities that the poet so highly values in himself. To me, the anger and bitterness function in an ironic way. While the subject of the poem would claim to live largely in the other world, the world of beauty and forms and the meaning behinds objects and symbols, he spends a good deal of time and emotional energy in the “lower world,” hating and making fun of the people around him. Indeed, the dying man’s disregard for his fellow man and the world that his body inhabits reaches an almost absurd level by the end of the poem. In the second to last stanza, he admits that he is not safe from the influences (such as stupidity and stink) of the world below him, even from an elevated position of tremendous artistic sensibility and appreciation for beauty: “But oh! the World Below is lord: its spell/ Still nauseates me in this safe retreat,/ And the reeking spew of Stupidity compels/ Me to hold my nose…” (33-36). One can not help but feel sorry for the old man, who is tied to the world he hates through that very hatred.


The Differences between Symbolism and Decadence

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Initially Symbolism and Decadence, both developed in the late 1800s,  seem to be similar if not synonymous movements. Both symbolism and decadence reject the realist depiction of life in its unsatisfying ordinariness. Both prize heightened spiritual experience, both condemn simplicity and dreariness in everyday life. Decadence and Symbolism both advocate lives spent seeking beauty and sensitivity. But Decadence and Symbolism are in fact two very distinct and in some ways disparate movements.

One manner in which decadence and symbolism differ is in their approach to nature. Decadence belittles nature in the name of man-made artistry and artifice.  As Des Esseintes says in Huysmans’ Against Nature, “There is not one single invention of (Nature’s), however subtle or impressive it may be thought to be, that the human spirit cannot create; There is no doubt whatever that this eternally self-replicating old fool has now exhausted the good-natured admiration of all true artists, and the moment has come to replace her, as far as that can be achieved, with artifice.” Symbolism on the other hand views nature as a means of elevation from the banal realities of life. Symbolists use natural imagery to describe transcendent ideas. Mallarme uses extensive natural imagery such as the sky, flowers, and sunsets. In Symbolism, reality becomes art whereas in decadence art becomes reality.

Decadence views books and poetry as a highly powerful art form with intense influential capacity. A book poisons Dorian Gray and Huysmans describes Des Esseintes’ library extensively. In Decadence, language can create images, and ideas, can create worlds, that don’t exist in reality. Mallarme, on the other hand, thinks that language is extremely lacking. He thinks that words cannot possibly express complex emotions and ideas. They can never properly convey what the mind can think. Yet since we have no other way of communicating these ideas and emotions we have to try our best to use poetry and symbolism to describe them. He says, “languages are imperfect in that although there are many, the supreme one is lacking.”

Decadence scorns the idea of ideals. Greater purpose is not found in Decadent writings. The protagonists of Decadent novels are focused on the accumulation of exotic luxuries and pleasure. This idea of never having enough applies to material excess and indulgent behavior in Decadent literature. On the other hand, in Symbolism, the focus is dreams and ideals. The word dreaming is repeated in Mallarme’s “Apparition” multiple times.  In “The Windows,” Mallarme talks about this disgust of contentment with comfort and this unquenchable desire for transcendence. He says, “So filled with disgust for the man whose soul is callous, sprawled in comforts where his hungering is fed.” The idea of the Azure in Mallarme’s poems represents the ever-present and incredibly frustrating ideal that the poet is always aware of but can never obtain. So in Symbolism the lack of satisfaction stems from a spiritual discontent.

Decadence glorifies the gory and the shocking. In the Temptation of Saint Anthony, Flaubert describes Saint Anthony attaining pleasure from watching violent and disturbing scenes. The immensity of feeling that horror evokes deems it beautiful in Decadence. Mallarme on the other hand finds beauty in purity. The imagery he utilizes is that of conventionally beautiful things such as stars, snow and fairies.

Decadence’s main focus is the description. Huysmans’ Against Nature is essentially an extremely detailed catalogue of Des Esseintes’ riches. Symbolism is more concerned with the emotions evoked from the work than the actual content of what it describes. The words are just “symbols” for greater ideas that use words as a vehicle for communication.

So while on the surface Decadent and Symbolist writings seem analogous, they actual have very different motivations, objectives, and methods used to obtain them.


A commentary on Mallarme’s ‘crisis in poetry’

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What is Mallarme referring to when he speaks of the “supreme” language that is lacking among the many that already exist? If thinking is to write without accessories—to use language to express, or narrate a ‘thought’ that falls short from describing what it aims to describe, then what and how does the unspoken ‘immortal word’ that Mallarme writes about reveal itself? Why is ‘truth itself in its substance’ unattainable? Why is language limited? By means of these questions I sense the immortal word fleeting, disintegrating into the appropriating terms that I’ve used in writing these questions. I am limited to a set of conventions and definitions that are inadequate for the topic—they restrain me from speaking of the ‘eternal’ for example. By invoking the word, I’ve evoked an idea that cannot be grasped by the transitory words that define it. The Oxford English dictionary definition of ‘eternal’ is ‘adj. infinite in past and future duration; without beginning or end; that always has existed and always will exist: esp. of the Divine being.” The word ‘eternal’ is a gateway to other words that allude to a concept which is not intuitive, or understood when ‘read’—the understanding is illusive since the word itself is tacit. To say these words are eternal does not make them eternal. This chasm between representation and reality is in line with Huysmans’ descriptions of Des Esseintes—a character that is lost in the sphere of representation and to whom reality is a mere backdrop for the other worldly. This ‘otherworldliness’ exemplified in the symbolist ‘apparition’ and the decadent ‘against nature’—points to a certain duality between thought and matter that extends to the flesh. Flesh is not all there is in the human experience—the cold and hostile reality that envelops matter is sustained by the spirit—Ideas, for both symbolism and decadence, are independent of matter and often ineffable.

Mallarme also alludes to the idea that verse exists in the gap between what is meant and what is written—poetry adds to language the evocative element that is often lacking. The everlasting Azure’s tranquil irony/ Depresses, like the flowers indolently fair,/ the powerless poet who damns his superiority/ Across a sterile wilderness of aching Despair. Mallarme clashes words together and grants them mobility. Flowers that are indolently fair depress the poet— flowers have acquired a disposition, they acquire human qualities through the substantive adjective that describes them, and as such, flowers become slothfully just. The poet is helpless when he faces this truth—he damns language for restricting his ability to describe what lies beyond representation and for limiting what he knows lurks beneath what he writes. If we refer back to Huysmans’ Des Esseintes, poetry is a vessel which he uses to evoke and ignite his wandering imagination—the reader of poetry is the receptor of a poet’s evocations, and as such, poetry revives Des Esseintes’ mundane reality. What one gleams from this connection is a complimentary relation between symbolism and decadence that paves the way to the limits of language and matter.

“I say: a flower! and outside the oblivion to which my voice relegates any shape, insofar as it is something other than the calyx, there arises musically, as the very idea and delicate, the one absent from every bouquet.” (76)

Is the delicate idea that is absent from every bouquet also absent from every word that describes flowers? Poetry, at least as seen by Mallarme, gyrates around the immortal word—poetry is saliva that foams and engulfs a tongue that does not move. If this immobile tongue, a supreme language that is not, were to click, it would unveil the pure notion of flowers that is absent from language. Poetry suggests the pure notion without indicating its absence- poetry is the moisture of the tongue that keeps it alive despite its immobility.

Many of the questions raised in this short text have gone unanswered, at least directly, for to answer any question directly would imply marring the revelations they bring forth. I have opened doors to uncertain observations in the honest attempt of demonstrating, at least implicitly, how conceptualizing obscures the concepts it aims to understand. Poetry however resides in the lyrical in-betweens of that which can’t be said and the rest.



Stéphane Mallarmé: Symbolism and Decadence (Presentation)

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This painting was done by Mallarmé's close friend, Edouard Manet
This portrait of Mallarmé was done by Mallarmé’s close friend, Edouard Manet in 1876
This photograph was taken by Nadar, Mallarmé's close friend, in 1896
This photograph was taken by Nadar, Mallarmé’s close friend, in 1896

Stéphane Mallarmé, born Étienne Mallarmé, was born in 1842 and died from a larynx problem in 1898 at age 56.  He supported himself with primarily with his post as an English teacher, although he attained much fame as a poet after moving to Paris in 1871.  Although his weak health and depressive nature kept him from finishing a lot of his work, he was famous among the artistic circles in fin de siècle Paris.  His famous Tuesday salon, Les Mardistes, featured artists and intellectuals such as: W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Stefan George, and Paul Verlaine.  He is generally considered a founding father of the symbolist school of poetry, and his poetry has had a lasting influence on cubism, futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism.

Symbolism:  Early Influences

Symbolism, like Decadence, was a reaction against naturalist and realist “anti-idealist” depictions of life.  Instead of depicting the gritty realities of everyday life, Symbolism embraced the imagination, the spiritual, the fantasy, and the dream.  Truth, according to the Symbolists, could only be represented indirectly through symbols, rather than objectively stated.

Symbolism emerged from a school of poetry called Parnassianism.  Parnassianism, influenced by Théophile Gauthier’s motto “L’art pour l’art,” was a reaction against the lyricism and over-sentimentality of Romantic poetry and the Romantic poet seen as a socio-political activist.  The poetry of the Parnassians is characterized by their emotional detachment and avoidance of the first personal pronoun in order to create a  sense of objectivity.  Parnassian poetry is praised for its word play and complexity, but is also often criticized as being “overworked” (the Parnassians loved the sonnet form and alexandrine lines).  Many Symbolist poets (including Mallarmé) published early work in the Parnassien’s journal, Le Parnassien Contemporain.

Distinguishing Décadence and Symbolism:

In 1886, Jean Moréas published the Symbolist Manifesto in a literary supplement of the French newspaper, Le Figaro.  Moréas declared Symbolism as “hostile to plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description.”  In a way, Moréas also rejected the idea of l’art pour l’art :  symbolism was to “clothe the ideal in a perceptible form” whose “goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the ideal.”  Once Moréas claimed the term “symbolist,” Symbolism began to distinguish itself from Decadence (Genova 84).

Links to the Symbolist Manifesto: (English); (French)

Symbolism can be said to have grown out of the Decadence aesthetic.  Whereas Decadence features ornamentation, Orientalism, precious imagery, consumerist materialism, and morbid content, Symbolism is oriented more towards the dream, the fantasy, and gestures with words (rather than with objects) to the ephemeral transcendent ideal.

Still, Mallarmé owed a lot to Decadence.  In 1874, Mallarmé founded his own journal, La Dernière Mode, which reviewed such decadent themes such as jewelry, fashion, restaurant menus, soirées and salons, and the theatre.  Mallarmé wrote and designed almost everything in this journal under pseudonyms such as “Miss Satin,” “Mme de Ponty,” and “Ix” (referring to Mallarmé’s poem “Le sonnet en yx“).  The journal constantly refers to itself as a magazine in its second year of publication (e.g. there were ‘letters to the editor’ even in its first issue).

Frontpage of La Dernière Mode

(For more information about La Dernière Mode, see Mallarmé on Fashion by Furbank and Cain)

Poetic method:

Mallarmé was deeply influenced by Baudelaire’s poetry, whose heavy use of imagery and polysemy to convey both a sensual and semantic atmosphere is something that Mallarmé refines constantly throughout his own work.

Mallarmé is famously quoted as saying, “Le vers ne doit donc pas, là, se composer de mots, mais d’intentions, et toutes les paroles s’effacer devant la sensation” (MOC I. pp. 663)  [Poetry should not make itself out of words but rather out of intentions; and all words should efface themselves before sensation]

Words are not to be taken at face value, but rather as gestures towards a truth in sketch form.  Mallarmé’s poetry is therefore associated with the Impressionist school of painting, famous for using gestural forms and colors to outline a truth rather than to represent it realistically.  (For a development of Mallarmé’s impressionism see James Kearns’ Symbolist Landscapes)

In an interview with Jules Huret in 1891, Mallarmé claimed that in poetry:  ‘Il faut… qu’il n’y ait qu’allusion.  La contemplation des objets, l’image s’envolant des reveries suscités par eux, sont le chant: les Parnassiens, eux, prennent la chose entièrement et la montrent: par là ils manquent de mystère.  …Nommer un objet c’est supprimer les trois quarts de la jouissance du poème qui est faite du Bonheur de deviner peu à peu; le suggérer, voilà le rêve’ (MOC II. 99)

[There must only be allusion.  The contemplation of objects, the image evaporating before the dreams they elicit, make the song (poem).  The Parnassians, they take the thing in its entirety and show it all, in this way they miss the mystery.  To name an object is to eliminate three fourths of the joy of the poem, which is made of the happiness of guessing little by little; to suggest an object- there’s the dream]

Mallarmé also emphasized the importance of emotion in poetry, proposing that “an idea is always wedded to an emotion. Ideas must be felt.  A symbol is a synthesis of signs into a union of concept and feeling” (Smith, 37).

The emphasis on suggesting, rather than naming, creates an intense emphasis on the way that words and ideas become more and more complex and nuanced throughout a poem.  To create this evolution of words is a process that took Mallarmé an extreme amount of time.  For example, in a letter to Henri Cazalis dated 7 January 1864, Mallarmé says that for the poem “L’Azur,” “Je te jure qu’il n’y a pas un mot qui ne m’ait coûté plusieurs heures de recherché, et que le premier mot, qui revêt la première idée, outré qu’il tend lui-même l’effet general du poème, sert encore à preparer le dernier.  L’effet produit, sans une dissonance, sans une fioriture, même adorable, qui distrait,–voilà ce que je cherche” (MOC I. pp. 654).  [I swear to you that there is not a word that did not cost me several hours of research, and that the first word, which dreamed the first idea, as well as extended the general effect of the poem, still serves to prepare for the last word.  The effect produced, without a dissonance, without an embellishment (even adorable, that distracts)– that’s what I’m looking for]


Mallarmé was heavily criticized (and still is to this day) for being too obscure.  Of course, Mallarmé himself considered his poetry only accessible to an elite group of readers.  He claimed, “Si un être d’une intelligence moyenne, et d’une preparation littéraire insuffisante, ouvre par hazard un livre ainsi fait et pretend en jouir, il y a malentendu, il faut remettre les choses à leur place” [If a being of medium intelligence, and an insufficient literary preparation, opens by chance a book thus made and claims to enjoy it, he has misunderstood it, it’s necessary to put things in their places] (Abott 55)

Damian Catani defends Mallarmé’s poetic elitism in the modernist context, however, claiming, “Mallarmé did not seek to derive a universally pertinent source of solace exclusively from language, but from those more concrete, tangible manifestations of modern life that were invariably shaped and motivated by economic or political factors, were instantly recognizable by ‘la Foule,’ [the crowd] and which unlike language, demanded no degree of concentrated intellectual engagement.  Mallarmé’s reason for embarking on non-linguistic avenues of enquiry… is related to his awareness … of living in an interregna, a period of historical transiton in which ‘la Foule’ is not yet ready to grasp his aesthetic in its abstract theoretical form’ (The Poet in Society 13).


Mallarmé published 11 poems in the 1866 edition of Le Parnasse Contemporain, .  His poems appeared alongside Charles Baudelaire (who died in 1867), Sully Prudhomme, Paul Verlaine, Théophile Gauthier, and Mallarmé’s close friend Henri Cazalis.  Mallarmé’s poem “Hérodiade” (or Salome) was his only poem published in the 1871 edition.

This is the publication to which Huysmans makes reference in A Rebours while describing Des Esseinte’s private library,

“A number of sheets bound in onager skin which had been glazed under a hydraulic press, dappled with water-coloured silver clouds, and supplied with endpapers of Chinese flowered silk, on which the slightly faded flower sprays possessed that etiolated charm which Mallarmé praised in such an enchanting poem.  These pages, nine in all, had been taken from uniqued copies of the first two Parnasses, printed on parchment, and were preceded by the title: Quelques vers de Mallarmé, penned by an amazing calligrapher in coloured uncial characters picked out, like those of old manuscripts, with flecks of gold” (159).

The collection Poésies, which includes the poems “L’Azur,” “Les Fenêtres,” and “Hérodiade,” was first published in 1887 by La Revue indépendante.  After Mallarmé’s death the collection was republished in 1899 to include Mallarmé’s comments about each poem’s background and choices.  For example, we learn there that Mallarmé wrote “Les Fenêtres” six months after his father’s death.

Mallarmé was also celebrated in the third article of Paul Verlaine’s publication, Poètes maudits  (Damned poets) in 1904, along with Arthur Rimbaud and Marceline Desbordes-Valraore.  (Link to this article on Wikisource found here)  This type of championship, continued by younger poets, helped to keep Mallarmé’s popularity and poetic legacy alive (Genova 47).

Artistic Influence:

Mallarmé’s poetry was an inspiration for many different artists working in the late 19th century.  His poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” (1876) inspired Claude Debussy to create his symphonic work, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in 1894:

Which in turn inspired caricatures of Mallarmé as the faun demi-god Pan:  luque

German composer Paul Hindermith wrote a string accompaniment for Mallarmé’s “Hérodiade” in 1944.

(This performance includes a very clear version of Mallarmé’s ‘Hérodiade’ read in French)

Readings:  It may be helpful to get a sense of the richness of the aural and musical quality of Mallarmé’s works to listen to a reading.  Here are some links on Youtube:  L’Azur:  (or, for a more bizarre version try,

Discussion Questions:

Mallarmé was greatly influenced by Baudelaire, and often used his form of the prose-poem.  What connections do you see between their work?  Differences?

Does Des Esseintes’ decadent description of Mallarmé hold up to your own experience of his poetry?

“This poet who, in an age of universal suffrage and a period when money reigned supreme, lived apart from the world of letters, protected by his contempt from the stupidity surrounding him, taking pleasure, far from society, in the revelations of the intellect, in the fantasies of his brain, further refining already specious ideas, grafting on to them thoughts of exaggerated subtlety, perpetuating them in deductions barely hinted at and tenuously linked by an imperceptible thread.  He tied this braid of convoluted, euphuistic ideas with a stylistic knot that was tenacious, solitary, and secret, full of contracted phrases, of elliptical expressions, of daring tropes” (160)

“Alert to the most remote analogies, he would often employ a single term simultaneously giving, by association, the form, scent, colour, quality, and brilliancy of the object or being for which a host of different epithets would have been needed to reveal all its aspects, all its nuances, if it had simply been given its technical name.  Mallarmé thus contrived to eliminate the terms of the comparison which arose of its own accord in the reader’s mind, by analogy, as soon as he had penetrated the symbol, and, avoiding the diffusion of the reader’s attention on to each quality individually suggested by a sequence of adjectives, he concentrated in on one single word, on a totality, and produced, as in the case of a painting, an effect that was unique and comprehensive, a whole” (160)

How does rereading this description of Mallarmé make you think of Des Esseintes and his own aesthetic, given the differences between Decadence and Symbolism?

What aspects of fin de siècle culture we have seen before reappear in Mallarmé’s texts?  How do they relate to Mallarmé’s poetics and aesthetic style?


Abott, Helen.  Between Baudelaire and Mallarmé: Voice, Conversation, and Music.  London: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009.

Catani, Damien.  The Poet in Society:  Art, Consumerism, and Politics in Mallarmé.  New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

Furbank, P.N. and A. M. Cain.  Mallarmé on Fashion: A Translation of the Fashioin Magazine La Dernière mode, with Commentary.  Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2004.

Genova, Pamela A.  Symbolist Journals:  A Culture of Correspondence.  Studies in European Cultural Transition vol. 13. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl.  Against Nature.  Trans.  Margaret Mauldon.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.

Kearns, James.  Symbolist Landscapes: The Place of Painting in the Poetry and Criticism of Mallarmé and his Circle. London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 1989.

Moréas, Jean.  Le Manifeste du Symbolisme.  Le Figaro Supplément Littéraire (18 Sep 1886) : 1-2.  <;

Scott, David.  Pictorialist Poetics.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Smith, Richard Candida.  Mallarmé’s Children: Symbolism and the Renewal of Experience.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Verlaine, Paul.  “Stéphane Mallarmé.”  Les Poètes Maudits (3) 1904: 1-3.  Wikisource.


Nadar photograph:

Manet portrait:

La Dernière Mode print:

Caricature as Pan: