Stéphane Mallarmé


Hérodiade | Tomb of Baudelaire | Tomb of Poe | Tomb (of Verlaine) | When with its fatal law… | Sartre on Mallarmé

‘Hérodiade’: ‘Dark and red like a split pomegranate’



I. Roger Pearson on Mallarmé’s ‘Hérodiade




Posted by kind permission of Roger Pearson, Emeritus Fellow in French
The Queen’s College, University of Oxford

From Roger Pearson, Stéphane Mallarmé (London: Reaktion Books, 2010)

Jacob van Walscapelle, Still Life with Fruit, 1675

It was to the allegory of beauty of ‘Les Fleurs’ that Mallarmé returned in October 1864, his head filled with the intoxication of a major new project that would occupy him off and on for the rest of his life: ‘I have finally begun my Hérodiade. With terror, for I am inventing a language that must necessarily spring from a very new poetics, which I could define in these few words: ‘Paint not the thing but the effect it produces.’ The ‘effect’ of Hérodiade will be one of intense and diamantine self-sufficiency and self-regard, the spellbinding, otherworldly integrity of a ‘Beauty’ that shuns the real in the name of an ‘unknown thing’.

Picasso, Marie-Thérèse accoudée, 1939

He envisages Hérodiade/Salome as someone ‘purely dreamt of and absolutely independent of history’. Indeed the very name ‘Hérodiade’ has been his inspiration: ‘this word, dark and red like a pomegranate that has been split open’. Born of a word, of a name, Mallarmé’s mysterious princess is a poetic construct, untouchable, non-mimetic, inhabiting a wholly imaginary domain – like the poem itself. But once again the ‘effect’ will be acutely physical: ‘my line of verse hurts sometimes and wounds like steel’. The reader will experience sensations that are variously ‘sharp, to the point of being excruciating’, or ‘floating’, having ‘the uncanny pose of a mystery’.

Picasso, Femme au chapeau bleu, 1939

At the end of April Mallarmé told his friend Cazalis proudly of the progress he had made with Hérodiade. So far he had been working on a ‘scene’ between the eponymous princess and her former nurse in which Hérodiade shuns the physical world, symbolized by this woman who once gave her suck. In the first half of the scene – a poem of alexandrines (twelve-syllable lines) arranged in rhyming couplets in dialogue form – the nurse makes three physical approaches towards Hérodiade, as though she would understand the nature of her beauty better, and each time she is rejected. Wistfully the nurse imagines giving herself to Hérodiade’s future husband in order to have a description of her former infant’s ‘charms’.

Picasso, Portrait de femme aux cheveux verts, 1938

In the second half this untouchable yet nubile emblem of beauty disdains the prospect of defiling union with a mortal male and anticipates instead some higher form of encounter with an ‘unknown thing’: not death but that which lies beyond it, her ‘eternal sister’, the ‘mystery’ of beauty itself (which the nurse so crudely wishes to have revealed). The poem thus allegorizes poetic aspiration as a withdrawal from referential reality towards the ineffable secret of ‘mystery’. And though at this stage in the project ‘the head of St John’ figures only in the dramatis personae, Mallarmé is already envisaging St John the Baptist as the key intermediary. As she stands at this crossroads in her life, Hérodiade concludes, while gazing at herself in a mirror and asking ‘Am I beautiful?’, that beauty requires a beholder if it is to exist at all, if virginity is not simply to be a form of sterility. What better answer to her dilemma than an observing head severed from its desiring body, registering her perfection with its eyes but unable with its lips to divulge and perhaps defame the secret of this perfection?

Picasso, Marie-Thérèse avec une guirlande, 1937

Now, as Mallarmé tells Cazalis in April 1866, he is drafting a ‘musical overture’ to this scene, whose ‘effect’ will be extraordinarily powerful and ‘unheard of’. Indeed it will be literally ‘unheard of’ since, whereas the ‘Scène’ relies heavily on narrative and imagery, this poem shows Mallarmé manipulating homophonic patterns in an extraordinarily complex manner, and one that demands a new form of ‘aural’ reading that its readers would have been (and remain) quite unused to conducting. The 96 alexandrines of this poem pivot on the single verb ‘S’élève’ (rises) so that the whole represents the rise and fall of a voice: the voice of the nurse, herself now envisaged as a sibyl, seeking in a form of incantation to call up the ‘scene’ that will follow. Here the allegory represents the voice of language casting off old procedures of naïve reference and engaging rather in a process of phonetic and semantic dissemination. ‘Hérodiade’, evoking the French words héraut (herald), Éros and dyade, proclaims the advent of a new kind of poetry made of quasi-erotic, dyadic couplings, of sounds, rhymes, couplets, synonyms and antonyms that almost – but not quite – defy comprehension.

Picasso, Marie-Thérèse au béret rouge et au col de fourrure, 1937

Later, in December, Mallarmé would tell Coppée exactly what he envisaged: ‘what we [poets] must aim for especially in a poem is for the words – which are already sufficiently themselves not to take on any further colouring from outside the poem – to bounce reflections off one another to the point where they seem no longer to have a colour of their own but rather to be simply transitions from one musical key into another.’ One notes again, as in L’Après-midi d’un faune, the combination of the pictorial and the musical, the seen and the heard. But for the moment Mallarmé simply told Cazalis that even if it were to take him another ‘three or four winters’ to complete Hérodiade, he would at last have written something worthy of Poe.

Picasso, Femme lisant à la table, 1934

He never did complete the work. In the surviving manuscripts it is entitled Les Noces d’Hérodiade. Mystère (Hérodiade’s Wedding. [A] Mystery [Play]) and begins with a brief dramatis personae (Hérodiade, the Nurse, the Head of St John) and a preface, explaining how the heroine is named Hérodiade rather than Salome in order to dissociate her both from the biblical story and from her current iconic popularity, in painting and theatre, as the mysterious beauty who danced the dance of the seven veils. Thereafter come a ‘Prelude’ in three parts, of which the second is the ‘Cantique de saint Jean’ (Canticle of St John); a new ‘Scène intermédiaire’; and a ‘Finale’ in two parts. Apart from the already published ‘Scène’ (which was to come before the ‘Scène intermédiaire’) only the ‘Cantique’ is complete.

Picasso, Fille dessinant à l’intérieur, 1935 (detail)

In so far as one can judge from these texts Les Noces d’Hérodiade would have been a dramatic poem focusing on the relationship between Hérodiade and the severed head of St John, itself eventually placed on a golden platter and insistently compared to the setting sun with its halo-like aureole. In the ‘Prelude’ the Nurse establishes the symbolic scene of this unlikely wedding feast where a golden platter lies on the table catching the dying rays of the sun. On hearing the head of St John sing a canticle recounting the moment of his beheading, the Nurse wonders from whence this hitherto unheard song comes but now discerns the use to which the golden platter will be put.

Picasso, Femme nue couchée, 1932 (detail)

After the ‘Scène’, in which Hérodiade prepares for her ‘wedding’ and banishes her Nurse as she awaits ‘an unknown thing’, comes the ‘Scène intermédiaire’, in which the Nurse hides in order to witness what follows, and then the two-part ‘Finale’, in which (in the first part) Hérodiade calls on the severed head of St John to speak, perhaps to reveal the ‘mystery’ of what happens after death. In the ensuing silence Hérodiade wonders if by kissing this head she might gain access to this mystery; and this hypothetical event modulates into a form of sunset consummation, with the blood from the severed head suggesting the rupture of a hymen. Through her sudden ‘haunting’ by this face, the virgin princess is enabled to ‘open’ and ‘triumph as a queen’. In the second, much less developed part of the ‘Finale’, Hérodiade reflects on her new status as ‘a female child … attentive to the [now] illuminated mystery of her being’. As in Un coup de Dés an event has occurred that is at once a death and a rebirth, here explicitly mirroring the solar drama. For Hérodiade, the emblem of beauty, to move beyond the sterility of a virgin purity, she requires to confront – and be seen by – the face of death. Similarly the poem, for it to be a poem, must leave the poetic mind and submit itself to the page, thereby submitting also to a potentially sullying union with the gaze of the reader.

Picasso, Le baiser, 1931

The ‘Cantique de saint Jean’ consists of fourteen rhyming couplets arranged unconventionally in seven quatrains of three six-syllable lines (like half-alexandrines) followed by a four-syllable line. The effect of this innovative form is thus one of a repeated cutting short – of the twelve-syllable alexandrine that seems to rhyme prematurely, of the six-syllable line as it shrinks to four syllables. These prosodic features complement a poem that starts with a description of the sun beginning to sink from its midsummer and midday zenith (the Feast of St John falls shortly after Midsummer’s Day). In the following stanzas, in the first person, the head of St John narrates the moment of its execution (a severance that ends its ‘old discords with the body’) and tells how it refuses to follow in the direction of its own upturned gaze (fixed on the icy reaches of eternity) but instead tilts forward, as though being baptized, in bowed salute. In death the head seeks no illusory afterlife but rather – accepting the very principle of baptism and renewal that is the ‘principle that chose me’ – accepts its role in the solar drama of decline and auroral resurrection. The flesh-and-blood St John who dies has become the Baptist, the Precursor, the one who comes before – and whom Hérodiade awaits, ‘attentive to the illuminated mystery of her being’.

Picasso, Tête de femme (Marie-Thérèse), 1940

Part of the reason for Mallarmé’s failure to complete the rest of Hérodiade lay in his physical condition. Already in the spring of 1897 he had begun to complain of general tiredness. At the beginning of September 1898 he complained of a sore throat. His doctor diagnosed tonsillitis. But on Thursday, 8 September he suffered a severe choking fit, which may not have been the first. The next morning the doctor called to see his patient at eleven. As they conversed in the presence of [his wife] Marie and [daughter] Geneviève, Mallarmé suffered another glottal spasm, and collapsed in front of them. To their very great astonishment he was dead.

Picasso, Sculpture. Tête de Marie-Thérèse, 1933


Click or tap on the image to go to a description of the book

The Beauty of Baudelaire

Stéphane Mallarmé (Critical Lives)

Mallarmé and Circumstance



Excerpt from ‘Scene’ | English translation by Jethro Bithell (1912)

HÉRODIADE : Oui, c’est pour moi, pour moi, que je fleuris,
déserte ! Vous le savez, jardins d’améthyste, enfouis
Sans fin dans vos savants abîmes éblouis,
Ors ignorés, gardant votre antique lumière
Sous le sombre sommeil d’une terre première,
Vous, pierres où mes yeux comme de purs bijoux
Empruntent leur clarté mélodieuse, et vous
Métaux qui donnez à ma jeune chevelure
Une splendeur fatale et sa massive allure !
Quant à toi, femme née en des siècles malins
Pour la méchanceté des antres sibyllins,
Qui parles d’un mortel ! selon qui, des calices
De mes robes, arôme aux farouches délices,
Sortirait le frisson blanc de ma nudité,
Prophétise que si le tiède azur d’été,
Vers lui nativement la femme se dévoile,
Me voit dans ma pudeur grelottante d’étoile,
Je meurs !

HERODIAS: Yes, it is for me, for me I bloom, deserted
Gardens of amethyst, you know it, deep
In cunning chasms dazzled under the steep,
Golds guarding light that once in Eden shone
Under a soil no man has trodden on,
Ye stones whence the pure jewels of mine eyes
Borrow their limpid and melodious dyes,
And metals ye, that in my tresses young
Their fatal splendour and massive lure have hung.
But thou, O woman nurtured in the malice
Of centuries old for caverns sybilline,
Who speakest of a man, saying from the chalice
Of these sky-scented rapturous robes of mine
Should dart the white shudder of my nakedness,
Foretell, that if the summer’s blue caress,
For which a woman all her veils unfolds,
My shivering modesty of a star beholds,
I die!

Whistler, Symphony in White I, 1862 (detail)

J’aime l’horreur d’être vierge et je veux
Vivre parmi l’effroi que me font mes cheveux
Pour, le soir, retirée en ma couche, reptile
Inviolé sentir en la chair inutile
Le froid scintillement de ta pâle clarté
Toi qui te meurs, toi qui brûles de chasteté,
Nuit blanche de glaçons et de neige cruelle !
Et ta sœur solitaire, ô ma sœur éternelle,
Mon rêve montera vers toi : telle déjà,
Rare limpidité d’un cœur qui le songea,
Je me crois seule en ma monotone patrie
Et tout, autour de moi, vit dans l’idolâtrie
D’un miroir qui regarde en son calme dormant
Hérodiade au clair regard de diamant…
Ô charme dernier, oui ! je le sens, je suis seule.

I love my gruesome maidenhood, and will
Live in the terror that my locks distil,
So that, a reptile violated not,
My useless flesh may feel, when nights are hot,
The cold glitter of the pale clearness of thee,
Thou who art dying, burning with chastity,
White night of icicles and cruel snow!
And thy lone sister, sister of mine also,
Who diest not: to thee my dream will mount;
Truly, so rare is my heart’s limpid fount
Already, that I deem myself alone
In my monotonous land where all is grown
Idolatrous of a glass in whose calm sheen
The diamond eyes of Herodias are seen…
O ultimate charm, I feel, alone I am.

John Everett Millais, A Somnambulist, 1871

LA NOURRICE : Madame, allez-vous donc mourir ?

HÉRODIADE : Non, pauvre aïeule,
Sois calme et, t’éloignant, pardonne à ce cœur dur,
Mais avant, si tu veux, clos les volets, l’azur
Séraphique sourit dans les vitres profondes,
Et je déteste, moi, le bel azur !

Des ondes se bercent et, là-bas, sais-tu pas un pays
Où le sinistre ciel ait les regards haïs
De Vénus qui, le soir, brûle dans le feuillage :
J’y partirais.

Allume encore, enfantillage
Dis-tu, ces flambeaux où la cire au feu léger
Pleure parmi l’or vain quelque pleur étranger

THE NURSE: O mistress, diest thou?

HERODIAS: No, poor grandam.
Be calm, forgive this hard heart, and be gone,
But ere thou goest close the shutters on
This seraph azure smiling through the pane,
for I abhor the blue without a stain!

O there are cradled waves, and if thou hast
Heard of a dark land where skies overcast
Look with the hate of Venus burning in
The foliage at eve, there will I go.

Lift once again, though it is childish, I know,
These waxen torches whose fire wan and thin
Weeps strange tears in the flaunting gold

Whistler, Little White Girl, 1865

LA NOURRICE : Maintenant ?

HÉRODIADE : Adieu. Vous mentez, ô fleur nue
De mes lèvres. J’attends une chose inconnue
Ou peut-être, ignorant le mystère et vos cris,
Jetez-vous les sanglots suprêmes et meurtris
D’une enfance sentant parmi les rêveries
Se séparer enfin ses froides pierreries.


HERODIAS: Farewell. My naked lips, your blossom lies.
For radiance never known awaits my brow,
But, ignorant of the mystery and your cries,
You heave the supreme and the bruisèd sighs
Of childhood feeling in its dreamy heart
Its linked and icy jewels snap and part.

G. F. Watts, Lady Dalrymple, 1852


Aubrey Beardsley, Climax (Wilde’s Salome), 1893 (detail)

Part Eight Chapter 2

Pianissimo, the music distils its subtleties. In your body you feel its vibration, a velvety buzz in your bas-ventre: Were it darker, you’d put your hand between your legs. ‘J’aime l’horreur d’être vierge et je veux vivre parmi l’effroi que me font mes cheveux.’ Is that Mallarmé or Rimbaud? Before you can decide, you realize the music is dissolving into silence: The 8th Quartet is over. As the applause comes thundering down, you stand up and join in the ovation.

Aubrey Beardsley, Wilde’s Salome, 1893

Part Ten Chapter 7

You were no cliché of a Salomé, no decadent daughter of Herodias; you did no dance of the seven veils, you asked for no head on a platter: With your eyes alone you did it.

Aubrey Beardsley, Dancer’s Reward (Wilde’s Salome), 1893


A literary novel by Richard Jonathan

Available from AMAZON (paper | ebook) & iBOOKS, GOOGLE PLAY, KOBO & NOOK (see LINKS below)

III. Wallace Fowlie on Mallarmé




Wallace Fowlie (Professor of French Literature, Duke University, 1964-93)

Abbreviated from Wallace Fowlie, ‘The Theme of Night in Four Sonnets of Mallarmé’. Modern Philology, vol. 44, no. 4, University of Chicago Press, 1947, pp. 248-58

Translations of Mallarmé’s sonnets from Stéphane Mallarmé, To Purify the Words of the Tribe: The Major Verse Poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, with ‘Un Coup de dès jamais n’abolira le hasard’.
Translation from the French and expositions by Daisy Aldan (USA: Sky Blue Press, 1999)

Leon Spilliaert, Hofstraat à Ostende, 1908


Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire
Stéphane Mallarmé

Le temple enseveli divulgue par la bouche
Sépulcrale d’égout bavant boue et rubis
Abominablement quelque idole Anubis
Tout le museau flambé comme un aboi farouche

Ou que le gaz récent torde la mèche louche
Essuyeuse on le sait des opprobres subis
Il allume hagard un immortel pubis
Dont le vol selon le réverbère découche

Quel feuillage séché dans les cités sans soir
Votif pourra bénir comme elle se rasseoir
Contre le marbre vainement de Baudelaire

Au voile qui la ceint absente avec frissons
Celle son Ombre même un poison tutélaire
Toujours à respirer si nous en périssons

Léon Spilliaert, Nuage déferlant sur une plage, 1902 (detail)

The Tomb of Charles Baudelaire
Stéphane Mallarmé translated by Daisy Aldan

The buried temple discloses through its sepulchral
Mouth of the sewers drooling mud and rubies
Abominably some idol of Anubis
His whole snout aflame with a ferocious bark

Or when the gas newly lit twists the foul wick
Known effacer of the insults suffered
Haggard it lights up an immortal pubis
Whose flight is set in motion by the street-lamp

What dried foliage in the sightless cities
Votive can bless as his Shade can sit once more
In vain against the marble tomb of Baudelaire

In that shivering veil which clothes his absence
This, his very Shade, a guardian poison
To be always inhaled though it may bring us death

Léon Spilliaert, Nuage déferlant sur une plage, 1902 (detail)

FIRST QUATRAIN—The temple, symbol of consecration, the place where time and eternity join, where man and the absolute discover their relationship, is revealed by a sewer mouth. Out from this aperture pour mud and rubies. The image of the hidden temple reveals the idol Anubis, god of death, composed of a man’s body and a jackal’s head. With smoke pouring out from its nostrils, as if it barked, it stands in the underground temple, an objects to be worshiped. These four opening lines treat the problem of duality: the religious aspiration of man’s life, on the one hand, and its crass realism, on the other. They depict the disproportion between the secret spiritual reality of man’s heritage throughout the ages (one thinks here of ancient Egypt) and the immediate viciousness and imperfection of any given life, especially of Baudelaire’s, where spleen (boue) and ideal (rubis) vied with one another. The calm, remote beginning (‘le temple enseveli’) is soon covered up and forgotten by the harshness and heaviness of the excessive alliteration on b: bouche, bavant boue et rubis, abominablement, Anubis, aboi. Thus the treasures of the spirit and our aspirations issue forth from us irreparably transformed by all our attendant vices. And for the poet especially, for any artist, there exists the vast chasm between the idea and its realisation, the discrepancy which belabors him and opposes him and to which he submits rather than continue the strife. In the temple stands the hideous Anubis, so revolting when contrasted with the god it represents; and in the world stands the body of man, the vessel of purity and hope, now sullied, now mutilated and abused despite its spiritual alliance and its charge.

Léon Spilliaert, Vertige, 1902

SECOND QUATRAIN—Follows, then, a picture of modern Paris, and particularly of Baudelaire’s Paris: that is, night and streets now lighted for the first time by gas lamps. The wick in the lamps gives off a flickering flame because of the insults heaped on it. But we realize the insults were directed on what the flame illumines: the body of a prostitute. She is the waiter in Baudelaire’s nocturnal Paris, who goes from lamp to lamp and whose shadow moving down the street resembles the flight of a bird. The image comes to us clearly because of the adjective hagard, a medieval word used in falconry and derived from haga or haie, the hedge where the pursued bird takes refuge from the falcon and, terrified, conceals itself in the branches. The statue of the idol, half-man and half-animal, belonging to antiquity, is replaced by its modern prototype, the prostitute, half-human and half-bird, who receives insults rather than prayers.

Léon Spilliaert, Clair de lune et lumières, 1909

THE TERCETS—Since the invention of gas and since the decline of prayerfulness and religious practice in the life of modern man, the nights have lost both their physical aspect of darkness and their spiritual significance. The shade of Baudelaire, returning to sit by its marble tomb, will not bless the withered wreath of flowers and leaves it may find there. The shade is the absence of the poet. Only a fluttering veil, which may well be a night shadow, suggests the returning shade. But even the shade of such a poet as Baudelaire was, is a poison which maintains our own maladies derived from his. Even if they ultimately cause our death, we breathe them in as we receive our very heritage.

Léon Spilliaert, La Nuit, 1908

SUMMARY—The many images of this sonnet combine with one another like the construction of a tomb itself on which a bas-relief would depict symbolically the achievements of a life. The images are grouped, and each group is dominated by one centralising and fortifying image, which assumes the metaphorical strength and responsibility. First, the ‘Anubis,’ the god of death, in the temple, whose mouth is open like a sewer’s. The smoke from the temple sacrifice, coming out from the mouth and nostrils of the idol, is related to the image of the sewer, out of which oozes the mud incrusted with the lost gems of the city. The Anubis is the image of the poet’s relationship with the Eternal. In the world of fictional freedom, Baudelaire was attached to God and immobilized by his thoughts on God. His response to God may at times have been that of a puppet (cf. ‘Au Lecteur’) and the cowering of a primitive child before the mystery of God. But Baudelaire knew profoundly the experience of religious aspiration and felt, as he did in other kinds of dramas, his incapacity to move out from the magnetic attraction to God. He was immobilized in the temple, not so much as a man is but as an idol is.

Léon Spilliaert, Intentions, 1918

Second, the ‘pubic bone,’ or the belly of the prostitute, with the concomitant images of the gas lamps, which illumine the body and the movement of flight down the street. Like the night scene of sacrifice in the temple, the body of the whore is stylized into a skeletal apparition, immortal, too, because the desire of the flesh is the other aspect of man’s aspiration. It, too, is an image toward immortality. It, too, is a prayer, but of such subtlety and trickery that it may bend man toward the eternity of death rather than toward the immortalness of life.

Léon Spilliaert, Amour, 1901

Third, the ‘poison’ emanating from Baudelaire’s shade. The night, in the image itself, is pervaded with it, as the poets of our contemporary world have been transformed by experiencing the form of Baudelaire’s art, by smelling his flowers of evil. The paradox is vast and absolute. Art is at once human experience and the form given to it. And the particular beauty of tragic experience bears with it a deeper spiritual significance than any artistic depiction of attainment to holiness.

Léon Spilliaert, Bête de proie – femme aillée, 1903

In all three images there is an alliance of horror and beauty, of what Baudelaire termed spleen et idéal: (1) the sewer mouth and the Anubis; (2) night opprobrium and the immortality of the pubic bone; (3) the fatal poison and the poet’s shade. Mallarmé has used in the sonnet his favorite method of describing the poet: he has evoked the absence of the poet—the shade which is an effulgence, the leaf which has withered, the prostitute who has become a pubic bone and whose form disappears down the street as each lamp is lighted, the temple which has disappeared underground. The marble tomb, like the literary work itself, is but a fragile receptacle: it can hardly contain the spiritual reality of the poet. Night is the permanent symbol of the poet. Whether it be symbolized by the darkness underground of the buried temple or by the black of physical night in the city or by the inclosed obscurity of the tomb, the signal greatness of Baudelaire, or of any comparable poet, is measured by his ability to live in the night, to see, to worship, to love, to sin, in the world of night.

Léon Spilliaert, La Mort (Théâtre), 1903


Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe
Stéphane Mallarmé

Tel qu’en Lui-même enfin l’éternité le change,
Le Poète suscite avec un glaive nu
Son siècle épouvanté de n’avoir pas connu
Que la mort triomphait dans cette voix étrange!

Eux, comme un vil sursaut d’hydre oyant jadis l’ange
Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu
Proclamèrent très haut le sortilège bu
Dans le flot sans honneur de quelque noir mélange

Du sol et de la nue hostiles, ô grief!
Si notre idée avec ne sculpte un bas-relief
Dont la tombe de Poe éblouissante s’orne,

Calme bloc ici-bas chu d’un désastre obscur,
Que ce granit du moins montre à jamais sa borne
Aux noirs vols du Blasphème épars dans le futur.

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait, 1908

The Tomb of Edgar Poe
Stéphane Mallarmé translated by Daisy Aldan

Just as eternity transforms him at last unto Himself,
The Poet rouses with a naked sword
His age terrified at not having discerned
That death was triumphant in that strange voice!

They, like a Hydra’s vile spasm on hearing the angel
Once give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe
Loudly proclaimed the sorcery drunk
In the dishonored flow of some foul brew

From hostile soil and cloud, O lament!
If our thought fails to carve a bas-relief
With which to adorn the shining tomb of Poe.

Mute block fallen here below from some dim disaster
Let this granite at least forever be a barrier
To the foul flights of Blasphemy scattered in the future

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait aux masques, 1903

FIRST QUATRAIN—The opening line, perhaps the most celebrated single line of Mallarmé and the most quoted and used in contemporary criticism, is, when taken singly, an entire sermon or discourse on the fate and the function of the poet. This succinct and condensed statement, which here Mallarmé applies to the individual fate of Poe, the object of his celebration in verse, might well be applied to himself and to any poet. Its theme is the universality of the poet’s fate, the hostility and the lack of comprehension of the artist’s time. The living accept the mediocre man who tells them what they wish to hear. Only the future generation will read and understand the poet who is superior. ‘Eternity’ in this passage is time, all that time beyond the lifetime of the poet, when he will exist not in his body and temperament and individuality but in his work, which becomes absolute only at the death of its creator. That is death’s triumph: the passing of the poet is the event which makes his voice complete. The poet is like an angel, and his work is like a bared and flaming sword. After his generation has passed, this angel with the sword, like a magician with a wand, can resurrect a century which once was terrified at not having recognized its real voice. The age, without its poet, is inexplicable and unjustified. This quatrain contains Mallarmé’s central philosophy or doctrine on the poet. An absolute statement in itself, it might serve as introduction to all the poems of Mallarmé and to the work of all the poets. It is almost the condensation of one hundred years’ thinking about the poet, about the strange alchemy of time, which ends by revealing the true stature of a poet and which illumines the images of his poetry. The poet himself, during his own lifetime, could not behold that luminosity, which is always future.

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait sur fond bleu, 1907

SECOND QUATRAIN—’They’ are the contemporaries of Poe, who, incapable of understanding the poet, made him into a pariah and ostracized him from society. The image of Mallarmé is just, because the strangeness of Poe is not in his life (as Baudelaire might have stated) but in his work, in the words, the recognizable familiar words in everyone’s speech, which the poet used in so particular a way that they revealed a new purity. Like an angel, Poe instructed his generation in the original purity of words, but they loudly called his art witchcraft and the raving of a drunken poet. They seized upon a weakness in his personal life and used it to explicate and denounce an art which lay beyond their sensitivity. How could an angel or a prophet, clothed in his habitual whiteness, rise up in the body of a man who had lost himself in the black potency of alcohol?

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait sur fond bleu, 1907

TERCETS—A strong vibrant line opens the tercets forming the second part of the poem and parallels the initial line of the sonnet. This is a song of grievance and accusation. Great opposing forces of matter and spirit, of the earth and of the clouds, are at war in every man, but to an extraordinary degree in the poet, who is able to give voice to the hostility. The old medieval debate between the body and the soul, which Villon wrote of in the fifteenth century, is in Poe, too, particularized by his moment in history. Mallarmé evokes this grievance, this source of personal tragedy and art, as one other poet whose life-history and lifework may add to Poe’s tomb one more legend or figure. The literal stone of the monument seems to have fallen from the sky itself. It was once a star (aster), a flamingly brilliant life. Now it is a cold, hard substance (disaster), having fallen from its orbit. The work of a poet always forms at a great distance from the earth and then, when transmitted, becomes fixed and cold in its durable form. The granite, so established on the earth as a testimony and marking place, may, as its slightest function, reveal to mankind what was sacrificed to blasphemy and accusation against the creative spirit of one age. In the future, when this spirit of blasphemy is again aroused, it will see, as if it were a bird of prey in the heavens, this tomb of Poe, a permanent reminder of one of its past victories.

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait au chevalet, 1908

SUMMARY—Commencing with the word ‘eternity,’ and concluding with the word ‘future,’ the sonnet on Poe invokes the drama of time, which, first, at the moment of the poet’s death makes absolute his poetic work and which, second, initiates the period of no termination when the meaning and the power of the work develop and change as the work, rendered absolute, is comprehended or rejected or reflected in the poetic consciousness of each succeeding temporal period. The poet’s tomb is the work’s life. The final physical immobility coincides with the adventure of communication which a work of art must endure and risk. The strange words spoken by the poet to his own age are the only ones which future ages will remember and hear. The once incomprehensible becomes in time the revelatory. The years interpret the poet’s message and unveil his art. After all, he had used the words of his own people, but language is a combination of words, and they must cohabit. a long time, in a metaphorical bond, before they yield their simplicity.

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait – 3 novembre, 1908

So concealed and unrecognizable is purity, at first, that it has to be matched by a pure kind of contemplation. The pivotal metaphor of the sonnet on Poe is the stone tomb, the block of granite which may have fallen from the sky when the meteor of fire burned out in its course through space. The hardened matter, fixed in the earth’s surface like a boundary mark, on which the words and the figures of a legend are engraved, was once a burning substance in time, comparable to the living body of a man. Both bodies rushed toward an eternal immobility. The body in the tomb and the experience in the verse attain a state of absoluteness after their race through the night.

Léon Spilliaert, Silhouette de l’artiste, 1907

The night imagery of these two sonnets is that of an expansive exterior night. For Baudelaire’s tomb the scene is, first, a city street and then a vaguely defined area by the marble monument, where the poet’s ghost returns only to find the coolness of the earth and the withered flowers and the lack of prayerfulness in the night that was once his prayer. For Poe’s tomb the scene is the endless hostility between the earth and the sky, in the center of which the granite block shines, but in a darkness from which it has fallen, through some astrological or fatalistic law. The expanse of blackness, so threateningly exposed in the final line of the sonnet, obscures the human drama unfolding both on the earth and in the skies.

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait, 1907

The expense and the expanse of night are images suited in each case to designate the drama of the dead poet. The stars in the sky and the stars fallen from the sky describe the life-cycle of the poet and the work’s culmination. The night setting, particularly that which is endless and shapeless, is the metaphorical equivalent of the poet’s vain search for a place in his world, as well as the search for his work, for the cosmos created by the power of words. Mallarmé, by the persistent use he makes of this imagery, implies that this poet’s cosmos constructed with words is, at best, tenebrific; is at best the mere shadow cast by the unformed work in the poet’s mind.

Léon Spilliaert, Autoportrait aux yeux bleus, 1903

Thus are established the Baudelairian-Swedenborgian correspondences. As the world bears a spiritual analogy with heaven, so night teaches, by negation, the meaning of day. We see darkly in the imperfect light, which is the absence of day. The dream of the poet, his creative idea, clings to him and threatens him like the obscuration of night. The creative idea has no position in space because it lives like a desire. It is always ready to disappear: night would welcome and consummate its dissolution. If the idea of the poem did vanish, before becoming a poem in words, it would mount to the starry garlands in the sky or to some comparable distance, where it would become just barely visible, as some diminished memory, to the lonely poet.

Léon Spilliaert, Digue la nuit. Reflets de lumière, 1908


Quand l’ombre menaça de la fatale loi…
Stéphane Mallarmé

Quand l’ombre menaça de la fatale loi
Tel vieux Rêve, désir et mal de mes vertèbres,
Affligé de périr sous les plafonds funèbres
Il a ployé son aile indubitable en moi

Luxe, ô salle d’ébène où, pour séduire un roi
Se tordent dans leur mort des guirlandes célèbres,
Vous n’êtes qu’un orgueil menti par les ténèbres
Aux yeux du solitaire ébloui de sa foi

Oui, je sais qu’au lointain de cette nuit, la Terre
Jette d’un grand éclat l’insolite mystère,
Sous les siècles hideux qui l’obscurcissent moins

L’espace à soi pareil qu’il s’accroisse ou se nie
Roule dans cet ennui des feux vils pour témoins
Que s’est d’un astre en fête allumé le génie

Léon Spilliaert, L’Attente, 1908

When with its fatal law the shadow threatened…
Stéphane Mallarmé translated by Daisy Aldan

When with its fatal law the shadow threatened
A certain former Dream, desire and ill of my spine,
Distressed at dying beneath funereal ceilings
It folded its fateful wing in me

Luxury, O ebony hall where to seduce a king
Renowned garlands are writhing in their death,
You are but pride falsified by the dark
In the eyes of the hermit dazzled by his faith

Yes, I know that in the far distance of this night, the Earth
Casts the wondrous mystery of a great splendor
Among the hideous centuries which darken it less

Space indifferent to whether it expands or draws in
Rolls in that ennui vile fires as witnesses
That from a festive star a genius was kindled

Léon Spilliaert, Soirée d’octobre, 1912

Night is a celebration. But the celebration is invisible to the man who inhabits the night. In the TERCETS of Mallarmé’s sonnet, ‘Quand l’ombre menaça de la fatale loi,’ the poet evokes the dazzling light which the earth must manifest at a tremendous distance from itself when it is still covered with the darkness of night. But this natural and physical celebration of night, carried on at a vast distance from the earth, serves as a setting for another celebration, that of the poetic genius. The fires of a star or the light of the earth seen as a star is nothing by comparison with the radiance of a genius. By the phrase, le génie d’un astre (‘the genius of a star’), Mallarmé creates an analogy between the time it takes the light of a star to reach the earth and the time needed for an artistic work to grow into a visible reality for men. If the age when a genius lived does not perceive his work, succeeding ages may see more clearly.

Léon Spilliaert, Soirée d’octobre, 1912

A poetic creation is a struggle against night. Because night has the power of pervasiveness, of limitlessness, of formlessness (vaste comme la nuit), the work of art, conceived in an atmosphere hostile to itself, must oppose all these qualities of night by its need of condensation and form. Night is a macrocosm: temporally and spatially extending forever and everywhere. A poem is a microcosm completed, condensed, reserved. They move in different directions: night, outward and beyond all limits; the poem, inward toward the limitation of words and the compression of meanings.

Léon Spilliaert, Paysage aux arbres élancés, 1902


Le Tombeau (de Verlaine)
Stéphane Mallarmé

Le noir roc courroucé que la bise le roule
Ne s’arrêtera ni sous de pieuses mains
Tâtant sa ressemblance avec les maux humains
Comme pour en bénir quelque funeste moule

Ici presque toujours si le ramier roucoule
Cet immatériel deuil opprime de maints
Nubiles plis l’astre mûri des lendemains
Dont un scintillement argentera la foule

Qui cherche, parcourant le solitaire bond
Tantôt extérieur de notre vagabond
Verlaine? Il est caché parmi l’herbe, Verlaine

A ne surprendre que naïvement d’accord
La lèvre sans y boire ou tarir son haleine
Un peu profond ruisseau calomnié la mort

Léon Spilliaert, Silhouettes costumées – clair de lune, 1902

Tomb (of Verlaine)
Stéphane Mallarmé translated by Daisy Aldan

The black rock indignant that the wind-blast rolls it
Will not be stayed even by pious hands
Probing its likeness to human ills
As if to hallow some of their fatal mould

Here almost always if the ringdove coos
This immaterial mourning afflicts with masses
Of nubile folds tomorrow’s full-blown star
Whose scintillation will stream silver on the crowd

Who seeks, perusing the solitary leap
So recently existent, of our vagabond—
Verlaine? He is hidden in the grass, Verlaine

Only to discover in childlike accord
The lips without drinking, nor draining his breath
A steam so shallow and maligned, death

Léon Spilliaert, Silhouettes costumées – clair de lune, 1902

The SECOND QUATRAIN condenses the three sonnets heretofore discussed. In the night scene, if the voice from the branches (that is, the voice of nature, which is the poet’s voice) continues to speak, the darkness itself (that is, the sign of mourning) will hide by its shadows the luminosity of the poet’s work (that is, luminosity for the future, when the work can be seen in perspective), and, from the light growing with time, some ray will be appropriated from the world of men who, at first, denied it.

Léon Spilliaert, ‘Les Aveugles’, Volée d’oiseaux, 1903

The TWO TERCETS amplify the first line of the sonnet by contrasting the vagabondage of Verlaine’s real life with the flight adventure of his work through the world after the poet’s literal death. After the initial question, ‘Who now looks for Verlaine by following the footsteps of his solitary life?’ comes the answer: ‘He is hidden in the grass.’ Which seems to mean: he is continuing his existence even after death. His work is like the surface of the shallow river, which bears the reflection of his face. The river of death, the Lethe river of extinction or oblivion, has been slandered because the lips reflected therein, like those of Narcissus, even if they do not drink of the water, will remain in fixed immobility. The reflected face, which is comparable to the poetic creation, henceforth steadfast in time, is in profound harmony with death, which bas made possible the final achievement. The ultimate simplicity or naiveté is thus attained by death, which is the eternalization of a lifework. The artist does not drink of the river of death, as an ordinary man does; he looks into it and thus is able to continue his existence in an extraordinary mode, after the accident of death.

Léon Spilliaert, ‘Les Aveugles’, La forêt, 1903

This sonnet to Verlaine is not so strong a unity in itself as it is a composition uniting all the sonnets on the ‘dark night’ of the poet. The rolling rock of the FIRST QUATRAIN, which bears all the marks of human woe and deepens them as it continues its career through time, becomes, in the SECOND QUATRAIN, the constellation expending its light throughout the future and, in the TERCETS, becomes the river, not of death, but of Narcissus. It is a sonnet of three symbols: rock, star, water, all of which symbolize the work of the poet and are characterized by movement through time and space.

Léon Spilliaert, Le nuage, 1902

IV. Jean-Paul Sartre on Stéphane Mallarmé




From Jean-Paul Sartre, tr. John Matthews, ‘Mallarmé: The Poetry of Suicide’ in Between Existentialism and Marxism. (London: NLB, 1974) pp. 170, 177-78

Mallarmé, born into a family of civil servants, and brought up by a grandmother who left much to be desired, felt revolt welling up inside him at an early age, but was unable to give it expression. Society, nature, the family  he rejected everything, even the pale and wretched child he saw in the mirror. But the efficacy of revolt varies inversely with its diffusion. The whole world needs to be blown up, of course: but the problem is to do it without getting our hands dirty. A bomb is an object just as much as an Empire armchair: it is a little more dangerous, that’s all. What intrigues and compromises are necessary in order to place it just right! Mallarmé was not, nor would ever be, an anarchist: he rejected all individualist activity. His violence – and I use the word without irony – was so desperate and total that it became transformed into a peaceful idea of violence. No, he would not turn the world upside down: he would place it in parentheses. He opted for the terrorism of politeness: between himself and other things, other men, even his own being, he always managed to preserve an imperceptible distance. It was this distance that he wanted to express at first in his poetry.

Paul Gauguin, Stéphane Mallarmé, 1891

A hero, prophet, magician and tragedian all at once, this slight, feminine man, discreet in his ways and little attracted to women, deserved to die at the threshold of our century: in fact he heralded its coming. To a greater degree than Nietzsche, he experienced the death of God; well before Camus, he felt that suicide was the original question confronting man; his struggle day after day against chance would be taken up later by others, yet with no greater lucidity. In a word, what he asked himself was this: Is there a way to be found within determinism that leads outside it? It is possible to turn praxis upside-down and rediscover subjectivity by reducing the universe and oneself to objectivity? He systematically applied to art what was still only a philosophical principle and was to become a political maxim : ‘Make and in making make yourself’.

James McNeill Whistler, Stéphane Mallarmé, 1892

Shortly before the gigantic onrush of technology, he invented a technique of poetry; at the same time as Taylor was devising methods to mobilize men in order to give their work its maximum efficiency, he was mobilizing language in order to secure the maximum profit from words. But the most striking feature of the man, it seems to me, was the metaphysical anguish which he endured so openly and modestly. Not a single day passed without his being tempted to kill himself, and if he lived on, it was for the sake of his daughter. But this suspended death gave him a kind of charming and destructive irony – his ‘native intelligence’, which was above all the art of finding and establishing in his daily life, and even in his perception, a ‘lethal duet’ to which he submitted all the objects of this world. He was wholly a poet, wholly dedicated to the critical destruction of poetry by itself. Yet at the same time, he remained aloof: a ‘sylph belonging to cold ceilings’, he studied himself. If it was matter that produced poetry, perhaps the lucid thought of matter escaped from its determinism? So his poetry itself came to be placed in parentheses. One day someone sent him a few drawings; he liked them, but what particularly attracted him was the sketch of an old magician with a mournful smile: ‘It comes from knowing’, he commented, ‘that his art is a fraud. But at the same time he seems to be saying: Yet it might have been the truth’.

Manet, Stéphane Mallarmé, 1876

Mara Marietta