22. A Sonnet, a Poetics—Mallarmé: “Le vierge, le vivace …”*

A poem by Mallarmé, the second of the tetrad titled “Plusieurs sonnets” in the 1899 Deman edition, “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui” (Mallarmé 1998:36 [1] ) has generated abundant commentary; it has been understood in contradictory ways. It could serve as a model, and lead to a re-examination of the conditions under which a meaning is established and then gains legitimacy, if it is discussed according to the rules of literary hermeneutics. The interpretive process pleads in favor of a univocal meaning; we see confirmation of this in all literatures. The semantic construction that is elaborated merges with the work in the making. The interpreter comes to occupy the place of the author. The demonstration has almost necessarily as a corollary the search for the reasons that have led to the rejection of this initial fixation of meaning. The sonnet is a poem about poetry, even about the particular poem that is in the process of being written.
If the semantic system exists, and if it imposes itself by its logic and its coherence, the contrary hypothesis of a free, even deliberately arbitrary, scaffolding, is eliminated ipso facto. These are two distinct viewpoints. To the extent that the denial of a poem’s meaning, sacrificed to a free or personal reading, depends on conditions that antedate the reading, these conditions do not concern the particular manner and structure of the text. The constitution of meaning is doubtless at the heart of artistic creation, and it presupposes that the production of the text is controlled and autonomous, disengaged from the real. It seems indeed that this condition of disengagement, which does not count for Mallarmé any more than it does for many others, is primordial: it is intimately linked to the exercise of the art, to the very reason for the production of the object. One must either accept the principle it entails or else reject it. If one holds to the principle, it is appropriate to go back and look in technical terms at the process of composition ad se, and, in a second phase, to measure its autonomy, which is always historical and relative—ad nos.
It is hard to follow the thread to the point of making a vision of the whole appear by identifying the progress of a thought that is shaping and discovering itself in the linking of words. One is led to note, moreover, the multiple and often contradictory approaches that are often based on a different conception of the text. The hypotheses underlying these approaches have to do only partially with the initial reading, which is carried out by the author and which results from his work of writing. One would have to be able to discuss the deviations; yet the commentators seem to let themselves be guided by the text and at the same time seem to leave it behind, without really seeking the coherence of the whole. Thus the interpretations are divided up according to various points of view. An overall expectation spells out the pros and cons of each approach, but often the idea behind a given approach misses the unity of composition inscribed in the textual material.
I am not pointing a finger at any commentator in particular; I am seeking rather to pin down the principles of an explanatory practice. I am prepared to except, in part or in full, the studies (and there are surely some with which I am not familiar) to which the critiques formulated do not apply. The stakes are not negligible. Are the questions put to the text the right ones? Does the logic being reconstructed exist? Why is doubt so often one’s response to the most fruitful hypotheses? The present hermeneutic situation calls for a confrontation of readings. I have chosen to reproduce this confrontation in part, recalling parenthetically, in the course of my analysis, a certain number of propositions made by the critics. The textual material remains the same; however, the principles followed bring about remarkable differences. Juxtaposing these readings makes their differences self-evident.
Stanza 1:
Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui!
The type of poetry Mallarmé has adopted here implies an intention. This intention is entirely deposited in an irreducible movement toward abstraction. This aim brings the poet all the more overtly into competition with philosophy, in that we are not dealing with a form of philosophical poetry. It suffices to consider the rigor in the poetic redefinition of the notions and their connections within the framework of a system. The syntax is not disjointed; it is not subject to the arbitrariness of untrammeled violence (legitimized in Finas 1961:32). The aujourd’hui (“today”) placed at the threshold of the composition can be posited as a precise temporal entity. The context leads us to see represented in the poem something like an order of things, the dynamism of life or the reality of nature, life in its constancy and its perpetuation, opposed to art. The aujourd’hui does not mark a particular moment in lived experience. It stretches infinitely to the point of reigning uninterrupted, without past or future.
For Jean-Pierre Richard, in the section of L’univers imaginaire de Mallarmé titled “La métamorphose manquée” where this sonnet is discussed (1961:251–256), this aujourd’hui, far from designating the temptation of immediate experience, evokes on the contrary, as it does for others, the plenitude of a Dionysian eruption, an accomplishment promised but put off by the sterility of winter. There is no question, then, of a division of domains or of antagonism: “this eruption had only been dreamed; it has not yet come about; … a counter-dynamism of retention has in fact arisen in opposition” (253). The present in this reading is the ideal; the past, which comes up further on, in the second stanza, then intervenes to disturb the present: the poet no longer manages to “bring out any present, or rather any eternity. Today, if it were to happen, would manifest an eternal being …” (253). This is exactly the opposite, it seems, of what ought to be said. Eternity lies in the art, and ecstasy in the writing. In reality, one does not exit from time; the poet enters into a different temporality, countering the present, in which the intellect rather than nature is triumphant. The hindrance of “retention” mutates into a highly positive element.
Along these same lines, Yves-Alain Favre comments: “the first line suggests dynamism and momentum, confidence and hope” (1998:518n1). The form of the utterance va-t-il nous déchirer … ? (“will it rend [for us] … ?”) refers to the deceptive and seductive return of the same living ideal, sacrificed to immobility; in Favre’s reading, the question designates a “hope of liberation” that is also disappointed. The break is conceived as unhappy and negative; it interrupts the initial momentum. It would be more accurate to acknowledge that what is at stake, on the contrary, is the condition under which poetry comes into being, by removing itself from the grip of life. The threat is circumvented by the exclamation (the implied answer is “no”). The objection may still be raised that intoxication would no longer be attributed to the essence of an irrepressible upsurge; the exaltation would translate only a mad illusion, a “desperate spurt” before the engulfment and paralysis of the ice (518n2).
The series of three adjectives recalls a poetic form established by Shakespeare’s sonnets (see Sonnet 105: “Fair, kind and true,” discussed by Peter Szondi [1978]). The relation among the three words (positioned between the article and the noun) becomes clear in the face of the idea that brings them together, that of the imperious power of becoming. The origin remains unaltered; it is not confused with a source from which everything springs; unbroken, it supplies a necessary base for deployment. The duality leads to the aesthetic quality of the productions that emanate from it. This is not to deny that virginity is in itself the opposite of the fecundity of raw life, but the seal is broken. The two words vierge (virgin) and vivace (vivacious) form an antithetical couple. Negativity is already at work; it is denied, instead of being maintained, surmounted in this synthesis in which nature lends itself to a first aesthetic emotion. From the very analysis of the proliferation, an element emerges to which a liberating transgression holds exclusively.
Aujourd’hui is self-evident; it contributes an essential element, something other than a psychological experience; the word lends itself to becoming the starting point for reflection; it is the basis for a debate, even an entire dialectics. The secondary, abstract transpositions of linguistic transcendence remain threatened in their very conversion by the power of reality. The primary reality remains present and constitutes a formidable partner. A spontaneous plenitude is still observed, even when it has been excluded by the writing. The surpassing relies on the world, at this initial stage, the world as it is, and as it delights. Tension is exercised within the limits of a precarious correlation; the first impression constantly threatens to take over again. Thus the exclamation translates an anxiety (va-t-il nous déchirer …?); it signals toward a competing end point, toward beauty, which demands to be transferred. The artist is concerned with the threat exercised by the living. The power with which he arms himself is induced by death; this power draws its resources, against the devastating proliferation, from the presence of non-being. The reign of negation is always endangered by the unleashing of the forces it denies.
It is poetry that is exiling itself. The nous (“we”) of line 2 is unambiguous: it is an ethical dative that calls for attribution. [2] It could apply to the readers, to everyone (see Bénichou 1998:323, “une émotion sympathique” [an empathetic emotion]); however, one must specify that, in this case, it clearly seems that poets are the ones who compose another world with their art, even if we recognize that they do so for the benefit of men, as Mallarmé affirms on occasion, when he situates his art “in the spirit of the times” (Bénichou 1998:25–29). The empire of poets is constructed with death. The confrontation is inevitable. Evil reaffirms itself ceaselessly in the context of the antagonism that opposes it to life. Negation comes afterward: a beautiful thing that comes after the beautiful, after perception.
And yet the new reign is able to maintain itself; it consolidates itself in the opposition, for self-protection. The closed, congealed haven of the frozen lake designates this site: the world of verbal creation. The lake is not “forgotten” in some lost place; it is its forgetting, remote as it is from every place in this world; the object designated by the past participle oublié (“forgotten”) is charged with symbolic value. The separation has been produced with the help of the antithetical structure that is taking shape. The implied passive can be understood to refer to the quality of being forgotten itself, equivalent to fait d’ennui (“made of boredom”). This is “l’oubli fermé par le cadre” (“the forgetting closed in by the frame”) in “Ses purs ongles …” (“Her pure nails …”), the sonnet that appears on the facing page (Mallarmé 1985:69). Reflection on the grammatical resources of the language accompanies the literary creation, and the two are inseparable. Language is exploring itself.
The autonomy of the reign is affirmed. The hardening, in order to welcome, is doubled; it has its own progeny. One sees that the abstract domain, marking out its boundaries, is divided (in lines 3 and 4). The stop produces a break; the movement is fixed, immobilized (see below, line 13). Language lives on this paradox; one negation takes shape, another asserts itself within the first and is reaffirmed in the antithesis. One sees the very surges of poetic invention being constituted and annulled; they find their form through alteration, through the determination of a difference. Flight indicates a departure, or at least the vague desire for a loss far away; the negation (n’ont pas) succeeds in producing this movement by a stop. Negation blocks, it retains against nature. The glacier is stratified in its transparency, emerging from a succession of luminous concentrations. Forms accumulate; they become clarified, superimposed, aspirated, coordinated, and condensed by the light of the poem.
The distinction between the two orders in stanza 1, the transfer into the universe of words, leading to a break with the phenomena of nature, has not been recognized, despite the emphasis placed on the “reflective” and the model of Mallarmé’s “Hérodiade,” as is well demonstrated by Richard’s analysis of the text. Reflection has not been applied to the objective transition in which the freeing of art is brought about. To the aesthetic passage into language, from one world to another, all in all metaphysical, commentators have preferred the chronicle of a personal experience and the psychology of failure. The impotence that was discovered finally had to be valorized as a negative but indispensable stage; what Richard called the necessity of a metamorphosis was due to a psychic interiority. The terms then take on a diametrically opposed function.
Thus the aujourd’hui is not immediacy, never entirely surmounted; it will be indifferently the surging forth of art, promising successes, then drying up. The poem is called upon to supply the interpretation of this malady. The schema is therapeutic; the illness is placed in the foreground, it ends up with a self-­accusation. Is not the poetic subject guilty? He is responsible. One option, of religious origin, is enriched by a moral notation, extrapolated from the text, to the point of the poorly deciphered apotheosis of the second tercet. Subjective impotence is substituted for the quite objective negation, situated in art. Pathology is introduced into an essential negativity, whereas the drying-up itself is productive.
With the methodical withdrawal into immobility called for by the poet, aesthetic composition becomes the virtually absolute condition for liberation. There is no other transcendence, except in art. When commentators place the emphasis, on the contrary, on the description of a fatal breakdown, the lake and the freezing take on completely different meanings. Rather than evoking the enclosed space of a welcoming and a deliverance through the negation of natural movement, these have been seen as an isolation cell and become the symbol of a hindrance, an impediment. Their morbid vision has deported the reading into inappropriate zones. The resistance to the world of appearances and the defense of an autonomous space have been missed; instead, one sees painful introspection, a psychic form of descent into hell. Pathology has been substituted for the analysis of the conditions of poetic production, rich with all the symbolic and substitutive tendencies that are discovered here.
Bertrand Marchal’s presentation in the Pléiade edition (1998, 1:1186) is grounded from the start in three preliminary assumptions. The swan “is a prisoner of the ice.” This is not stated in the text (Marchal does not indicate otherwise). Then the ice is identified with impotence and sterility—unnecessarily. Finally, this mental state is extended to the poem as a whole with agonie (“death throes,” line 9), horreur (“horror,” line 11), and mépris: (“scorn,” line 13), terms that are grouped together without any consideration of the proximate or remote context. The words respond to one another from a distance, but in a more constructed fashion. The compositional framework is more constraining, more specific: the sol (“ground,” line 11) is not ice; it is determined differently in the context.
Marchal does say that, in stanza 1, the swan can be read only in counter-relief (see also Bénichou 1998:322): it cannot be read at all, not even in counter-­relief (see above). How can one then conclude that the bird is caught in the ice, a prisoner of the lake? Marchal understands that it is already present in the aujourd’hui, by virtue of the wing-stroke, in the direction of success; then he finds it again in the break that he too takes as an expression of sterility, “in the logic of the double metaphor,” the “today” and the fatal lake.
The swan, as an emblem of poetry, cannot simply be integrated into the antagonism of stanza 1. It is announced indirectly by the flight—by one of the figures preferred in the writing of the virtual, prolepsis. The dynamism proper to becoming can be manifested poetically, with a rival “wing-stroke”; the effects are situated in the orbit of the most familiar poetry, the poetry least affected by the transposition. The feelings and the pathos aroused by the immediacy do not allow for the methodical transfers that Mallarmé prefers. At the other pole, in the separate verbal enclosure symbolized by the rigidity of the lake, the same “wings” translate the force of the retention. The negation evokes their mode of existence, a reinvention, the symbolic retranslation of experience, proceeding from the non-reproduction of the real. They “have not fled.” This is to say that they have flown without fleeing. It is neither a lack nor a failure nor a matter of impotence, but rather a manifestation of happiness, the fortunate fixedness that has come out of the void.
The religious critique may not be expressed directly, where poetic creation is involved—this is true also for the sonnet cited above (“Ses purs ongles …”), which was originally subtitled a “sonnet that is an allegory of itself” (according to Marchal, who may be mistaken). [3] The recognition of the void sets aside the false divinizations and the poetic or poeticizing language that has remained attached to the real, in the first place in the dominant tradition of Romanticism. This void forms, more directly, the relay for a new symbolization; it creates the liberating suspense in which resemanticization is organized (for the conflict between religion and poetry, I refer to my study of “Toast funèbre” [Bollack 2006]).
Stanza 2:
Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.
The swan appears in counterpoint. It has not been directly at issue up to now, except implicitly through the aviary gestures that situate the poetic momentum. The adventure is initiated here by a narrative. What came before set forth the framework, the preliminaries. The opposition is introduced with the emergence of the bird; its deliverance is accomplished in a strongly marked distancing. The theme is reversed with the triumph of winter, every threat set aside. No overflowing of the perceptible in proliferation. The swan guarantees purity, a withdrawal accomplished. As the choice of the passage to liberated language has been made, the swan is the master of the kingdom, the author of the surpassing, the conqueror of a truer world. The transition has enthroned immobility. The liberating aim of the words has been turned back with the swan; this aim escapes the destructive succession of natural creations.
The lui (“he”) can thus be reclaimed; the awakening reminds the bird of his power and his status. He belongs to another order, which stems entirely from the sphere of art. The distancing is due to the story that is introduced by the song, if not by the writing. The swan does not free himself directly from language, which is still attached to nature. The operation is accomplished within language itself; by this means, the swan detaches itself from itself. The emphasis on the pronoun through assonance and rhyme (the u-i has been abundantly discussed, most often apart from questions of semantic coherence) does not open up access to the spiritual sphere of a consciousness or an interiority, but it distinguishes the order of the achievement; the surpassing of the outside is doubled on the inside. Separation from the living does not suffice in itself; it is motivated by a desire for freedom. The end remains a driver, required in the conquest of a domain where a wholly literary frankness submits to its own laws.
The stabilization of language depends on the mastery of the past. This process establishes another time for itself, a time that must have been. The vision that results from the transfer rests on memory; it goes back on itself. One could still call it philosophical. The reflection emanates yet again from a study of the processes of poetic composition. Anteriority proves to be inherent to the act of writing. Poetry recollects; time is its time. Time is the primary privilege of the bird.
The swan is riveted to time gone by. The act of returning to the past eludes the grip of the present; art rests on this act. Thus it is also the act that has constituted the art. Without the act, there would be nothing that could be remembered. The act—the swan—challenges history for this power.
Thus a new temporality arises, in the face of the uninterrupted dynamism of becoming evoked in stanza 1; it has been created by a primordial act of the intellectual rather than the natural order. At the origin there was the invention of an object to be fixed in place, which was neither a production nor its reproduction; more simply, the thing was situated. The swan liberates itself, the act belongs properly to it; its exit is more radical than the surpassing granted to other creatures. It can rise higher, aspire freely to a destiny. The future is invented symmetrically; anteriority has a counterpart, at the other pole. Thus art structures itself in temporality; the future brings together the elements of its consecration. The surpassings take place in alternation.
The poem’s interpreters have above all let themselves be led to detect in this second stanza something like a lament, where the poet would be bent on evoking the painful experience of sterility (line 8) and despair (line 6). They are (very largely) mistaken in conferring a negative value on a whole series of words that, in fact, take on a positive function, and are consonant with the elementary dissociation of levels of language. Psychology wins out over an analysis of the poem’s making. Negativity is presented as an essential counterpart and the initial condition of the poem.
It is known, moreover, that the swan, in an ancient tradition, is the symbol of the creative act or of the subject that is expressed in such an act. In line 5, interpreters acknowledge that the evocation of the bird refers to the person of Mallarmé, whereas it is difficult not to relate the indefinite un (“a”) to some poet or other from the past. The completive que c’est lui (“that it is he”) does not develop a complement (autrefois [“formerly”]) that would be in opposition to aujourd’hui in line 1. The action of memory is taken as such, as the constitutive instance; it has to do with the privileged destiny of the poet, who according to this reading is always of another time, and always of his own. The poet remembers his own time. From this fixed viewpoint, the anteriority available to him is, as it were, absolute and essential. It is well represented by the poem by Baudelaire that bears the name of the bird as its title, “Le cygne” (“The Swan”). It would thus indeed be that original capacity that makes it possible to discover both writing and its autonomy. If the swan “frees itself,” it is not from the ice; on the contrary, it is the ice itself, that of the lake, that provides the swan with its power, bringing together the extremes of the contradiction inherent to immobility. Thus it is not the pathological state of despair that is associated with glory and splendor, but on the contrary a renunciation that avoids the expectations of the public, which are loftily abandoned at the moment of the break. The lui suffices unto itself. The poet frees himself, distinguishes himself as such, by his own faculties.
The second pair of lines develops the oxymoron. It vigorously reconnects art with the act of necessary acceptance of aridity. A position is taken here in favor of a poetic art that redefines itself and excludes other linguistic attitudes. The pas chanté (“not having sung”) is presented, from this perspective, as a title to glory. The negations in the two stanzas are obviously in dialogue: it is the same pas, the same advantage drawn from the void, the assertion of a non-participation in the poetic tradition based on emotion. Winter leads to two opposite reactions: either flight toward la région où vivre (“the region in which to live”), in poetry itself, whatever it may be, or the refusal of this choice and the exploration of destitution. Boredom is not the scourge, precisely because it is on the side of non-life and of death, and because this domain represents the preliminary, indispensable stage of every recomposition, it is the product as well as the condition of sterility. Boredom cannot, in the context of this reflection on the first conditions of expression, be the object of lamentation or remorse. It is before this bifurcation that the various readings have gone wrong. How can one not recognize that light is concentrated, collected in a depth that is made of absence? Boredom “has shined”; its radiance determines an aim inherent to writing. This aim will be defined in the two tercets.
Stanza 3:
Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.
The bird is cut in two; it is divided between its neck, held up straight, and its plumage, trapped in the earth. Elevation, separated from natural movement, transcends itself. The primary division is reproduced in the conquered realm, changing its nature. There are now two fastenings, one downward and the other upward. The one is left behind; it allows the other to propagate itself. Space opens up, flight unfolds there, exploring all the possibilities of ascension. The upward thrust claims the entire network of movements, all the entanglements possible; it is vanquished by the unique power of a distant resistance. It takes advantage of the irresistible support of the double fastening, in which anchoring and elevation come together. The opening disavows itself, welcoming also its negation. Thus speech triumphs through its gravity over space; it imposes its law on space.
The future is traced forcefully by the distinctive grammatical mark in the verb secouera (“will shake off”). The new surpassing as such responds to the present tense of the earlier one, that of the rupture, by coming to announce a beyond, the sketch of an eschatology and the promise of an enlarging of the letter. The end point is yet another death, no longer opposed to life, but emerging from the already achieved passage into the spheres of the funereal. The qualities correspond, term for term. The bird pays its ransom to movement, which it has denatured, as it were, through its fictional power. It is still winter, but the swan extracts from winter its unaltered luminosity. Its neck straightens, and is assimilated to the ether, while another part of the bird—its plumage, the very instrument of flight—is as if buried and rejected. Purification, too, plays on the mode of the absolute.
There is no need to return to the lake and attribute to it once again the function of a prison by assimilating it to the earth. Instead, the lake would be a tomb, but a liberating tomb. The bird has freed itself by entering into this counterfeit space, a counter-space. We are indeed dealing, in a cosmic projection of the terrestrial universe, with an earth on which men would walk. The swan is now abandoned in an ultimate division, absorbed by light, a pale copy of the soul and of what it was.
Stanza 4:
Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid de mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.
The apotheosis is outlined; it is developed as a stunning masquerade in the conceit of the sonnet. At its culminating point, the fixation of the words, called to structure space, has allowed an emblem to rise into the heights. The bird has not positioned this sign or the writing that the sign transfers and retraces. The constellation that bears the name Cygnus, the Swan, is already there, installed in the sky, like the other stellar figures, preceding poetic elocution. The bird, or what remains of it—namely, that into which it has been reduced and purified—has rejoined the constellation, stripped of all substance. The “phantom” is the sketch, released not from the shadows, but from an empyrean region, a figure for light adapted to its final destination.
Clarity is the sole movement that can harmonize with this new and ultimate cosmic domination. Immobility is animated in this concentration; it does not come to occupy a place, but is a form of “shade.” The “ghost/phantom” is united with the “shade” that is the “dream”; the one and the other are only configurations. The features of a pure intelligibility are recovered, to the detriment of all the creatures that could take on consistency according to the laws of natural or even scriptural development. The stellar bird shines; it is augmented by an increase in which it would shine more purely still, by a quasi-­immaterial substance. Space, in this cathartic process, has become an exteriority from which life is banished and whose productions are transmuted.
The second tercet has raised the problem of the meaning of the constellation, and thus of the capital letter. Does the swan join, in the heavens, the constellation of the same name? The reference to Ronsard’s sonnet is unmistakable: “My feather [pen] flies to the heavens to be some sign.” [4] Homonymy unites the words; it can be heard throughout the poem. Marchal (1985, 1:1187) sets aside the myth, however: “Mallarmé has not dissolved the myths to make new ones”; this is true. It is no less true that we are dealing with a constellation of words (“the poem offers itself to be read as a swan of words” [ibid.]). The problem is not resolved for all that. First, the constellation does not suffice to include a myth, despite the mythic name; it does not stop being “stellar,” which means that it represents a different form of permanence, more luminous, inherent to this world. Thus in the end the figure cannot replace the missing title and sum up the whole. The very doubling indicates that something else is at stake.
The eternal swan transcends all incarnations. The poem identifies itself here with the poet who is creating it. The heavens are thus defined twice, first in their own place of light, by the exil inutile (“profitless exile,” line 14), and then twice set in phonic relation with stérile (“sterile,” line 8). The end point that is established for the ascension, traversing the beyond, has as its matter pure exteriority. Uselessness qualifies the unreality of the artifice, unburdened of any mission or message. The poem is only written; it operates in its own domain, drawing its freedom from its composition alone.
The constellation symbolizes well the principle of art; it adapts to a magnetic encounter and changes form. The dream is as denuded as the phantom that it welcomes; a circumstance blends them. The subject is without consistency; it finds in the dream envelope an object that is in conformity with it, opening at the same time onto the unreal. It is still winter, and set against this background of refusal, there is the paradoxically driving essence nourished by the rejections and the exclusions (there is nothing moral about the mépris [“scorn”]). Summing up the interpretations, Favre (1985:520–521) contrasts a faction he finds on the side of the void and failure leading to nonexistence (always the frozen lake) in Émilie Noulet (1972), Georges Poulet (1959), and Léon Cellier (1975), with another camp for which impotence would be redeemed and mastered, as it were. [5] In each case these are isolated elements, separate from a real “reading” according to the words and their connections. As for Favre, he does not choose, having nothing to choose. Does the swan fail to reach the goal or does it repudiate the goal? The abandonment itself deserves analysis.
On the one hand, Mallarmé’s lines are considered by definition beautiful and powerful. This is because the music takes priority, as in Verlaine’s poetry. Here is where we see the side of art. The matter, from this angle, is safe, even if there is nothing to understand: if Mallarmé proceeded in such a way that the interpretation is obscure (and this emerges from the disagreement among the critics, which Favre presents as a compelling conclusion), it is because he wanted us to enjoy the image in itself (and no longer the music). The anti-intellectual bias of this critique is clearly formulated. Immediate perceptions are substituted for meaning, which nevertheless prevails in poetry; sound and image are equally subordinated to meaning.
First of all, according to Favre, there is no “intellectual play,” as there is in Valéry, whom Favre sets up as the representative of the intellect. He would have classified the present study in that category, since it denies the supremacy of the music (“many critics have been mistaken about this”). The symbolism would be first of all that of absence. Where this absence is constitutive of poetic language, it is erected as a barrier, not against a use of language, but against meaning as such. The methodical polysemy (of Lucette Finas) that is promoted by the dogmatic renunciations of post-structuralist criticism derives from a “non-sense” that itself derives from a non liquet, “it is not clear.” [6]

Works Cited

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———. 1998. Oeuvres complètes. Ed. B. Marchal. 2 vols. Paris.
———. 2006. Collected Poems and Other Verse. Trans. E. H. and A. M. Blackmore. Oxford.
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Noulet, É. 1972. Vingt poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. Geneva.
Poulet, G. 1959. The Interior Distance. Trans. E. Coleman. Baltimore. Orig. pub. 1952.
Richard, J.-P. 1961. L’univers imaginaire de Mallarmé. Paris.
Szondi, P. 2003. “The Poetry of Constancy: Paul Celan’s Translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 105.” Trans. H. Mendelsohn. In Celan Studies, ed. J. Bollack, trans. S. Bernofsky with H. Mendelsohn, 1–26. Stanford. Orig. pub. 1978.


[ back ] * Originally published as “Un sonnet, une poétique—Mallarmé: ‘Le vierge, le vivace…’,” in: D. Weisner and P. Labarthe, eds., Mémoire et oubli dans le lyrisme européen: Hommage à John E. Jackson (Paris, 2008), pp. 581–594.
[ back ] 1. [TN: Here is the sonnet in Barbara Johnson’s translation (1985:371):
The virgin, vivacious, and lovely today—
Will it rend with a blow of its dizzying wing
This hard lake, forgotten yet haunted beneath
By the transparent glacier of unreleased flights!

A bygone day’s swan now remembers it is he
Who, magnificent yet in despair struggles free
For not having sung of the regions of life
When the ennui of winter’s sterility gleamed.

All his neck will shake off this white agony space
Has inflicted upon the white bird who denied it,
But not the ground’s horror, his plumage inside it.

A phantom assigned by his gloss to this place,
Immobile he stands, in the cold dream of scorn
That surrounds, in his profitless exile, the Swan.
N.B. Translations interpolated in the text may diverge slightly from Johnson’s translation, in order to bring out additional dimensions of the phrasing.]
[ back ] 2. [TN: An ethical dative, sometimes called a dative of interest, refers to someone affected by an action but not directly involved. Omitted in many translations, the nous of stanza 1, line 2, is included in others; cf. “will it tear from us with a wing’s wild blow the lost hard lake …” (Mallarmé 2006:67).]
[ back ] 3. Mallarmé 1998, 1:37–38 and 1189–1192; see also 1:131.
[ back ] 4. In the second stanza of “Il faut laisser maisons et vergers et jardins …”:
C’est fait, j’ay devidé le cours de mes destins.
J’ay vescu, j’ay rendu mon nom assez insigne,
Ma plume vole au ciel pour estre quelque signe
Loin des appas mondains qui trompent les plus fins.
Also cited in Marchal 1998:1187.
[ back ] 5. See Richard 1961:256: “a failure as conceived and transmuted into a sort of victory.”
[ back ] 6. [TN: In a legal context, non liquet refers to a situation in which there is no natural law.]