All poet Stephane Mallarme’s failings and false steps are compounded by Weinfield’s style of translation which I vehemently disagree with. For those poems Mallarme wrote in verse, Weinfield changes some phrases significantly in order to maintain a rhyme— not even the same rhyming sounds of the original, just any rhyme will do. I think this approach is misguided. We are fortunate that rhymes in French come fairly cheaply and that the sounds in French often possess correspondences in the English language; otherwise the alterations made by Weinfield would have been even worse. Weinfield’s translations of Mallarme’s prose (or prose-poems or whatever you want to call them) are thankfully better than his verse transmogrifications.
Mallarme’s poetic tone is a depressing one; he frequently writes of: sickness, sadness, loneliness, ennui, and degeneration.
By far, Mallarme’s most successful work as a whole is “A Phenomenon Of The Future.” It is not so much a poem as a poetic short-short story. The vignette takes place in the future, when Beauty is dead. A Showman Of Things Past arrives. In tow, he has a beautiful woman preserved from the days when Beauty still existed. It is unclear in exactly what way she is preserved, or how “alive” she is. Nevertheless, the locals pay to see her: some viewers don’t understand what they are looking at, so foreign a thing Beauty has become. Others go away with tears in their eyes. Among the spectators are several Poets, who go away feeling a mysterious upsurge of inspiration.
Thankfully, in a world insanely overrun with overly extended copyright and trademark monopolies, Mallarme’s works are in the public domain. Also thankfully, modern computers are universally capable of “scrolling down” a “page,” so I can next include A Phenomenon Of The Future in its entirety (six short paragraphs)– and those of you not wishing to read it can easily scroll past:
“A pale sky, hovering over a world that is dying of its own decrepitude, is perhaps going to depart with the clouds: the shreds of worn-out purple sunsets fade in a river lying dormant on a horizon submerged in sunbeams and water. The trees are wearied and, beneath their whitened foliage (from the dust of time rather than from that of the roads), rises the tent of the Showman Of Things Past.
Many a streetlamp awaits the twilight and reanimates the faces of an unhappy crowd, vanquished by the immortal malady and the sin of the centuries, men accompanied by their wretched accomplices pregnant with the miserable fruits by which the earth will perish.
In the troubled silence of all those eyes supplicating the far-off sun plunging beneath the water with the despair of a cry, here is the gist of his claptrap:
‘No sign regales you to the spectacle inside, for there is now no painter capable of rendering even a sad semblance of its existence. I present, living (and preserved through all the ages by sovereign science), a Woman of a former time. Some primordial and ingenuous madness, an ecstasy of gold, I don’t know what, which she calls her hair, is folded with the grace of silk around a face lit up by the blood-red nakedness of her lips. In lieu of vain apparel, she has a body; and her eyes , though they resemble precious stones, are not equal to the expression that springs from her happy flesh: from breasts raised as if they were full of eternal milk, tipped toward the sky, to glistening legs that retain the salt of the primeval sea…’
Recalling their poor spouses, bald, morbid, and full of horror, the husbands squeeze forward: their melancholy wives, driven by curiosity also want to see.
When they have all gazed upon the noble creature, the vestige of an age already accursed, some are indifferent (for they will not have had the capacity to understand), but others, broken-hearted, and with eyelids wet with resigned tears, will look at one another; while the poets of those times, feeling their dull eyes lighting up once again, will make their way toward their lamps, their brains momentarily drunk with an obscure glory, haunted by a Rhythm and forgetting that they exist in an age that has outlived Beauty.”
An astounding work, n’est-ce pas?
Another great work of Mallarme’s is “The Windows.” In an amazingly small number of words, we are treated to an incredible amount of imagery, psychology, personal history, love story, and pathos. Notice the imagery of the crucifix and the clock hung on the wall– and the particular way that the shadows cross the room in the last paragraph: the old patient –like a man drowning– gasps for the last rays of sunlight, the sun’s warm, golden rays symbolizing the memories of his youth’s great love. Truly, I marvel at the exquisite workmanship of the author! (Sorry; I’m gushing, aren’t I?)
Word for poetic word, The Windows may be my favorite work from Mallarme. Nevertheless, even the master craftsman fumbles in the last of the five stanzas. Here are the first four:
“Tired of the sad hospital and the fetid smell/ that rises from the banal whiteness of the drapes/ toward the large crucifix bored of the empty wall, / the dying man straightens his old back and creeps// slyly from his bed, less to warm his carcass/ than to see the sunlight on the stones, / to press his white hair on the bones of his thin face / against the window, which a lovely ray of light wishes to bronze.//
And his mouth, feverish and starved for the clear / blue air– just as, when young, it drank in the bliss / of a virginal skin long ago– smears/ the warm, golden panes with a long, bitter kiss.//
Drunk, he lives! forgetting the horror of the holy oils, / the medicine, the clock, the obligatory bed, / the cough; and when the evening bleeds along the tiles, / his eyes, on the horizon of light, is fed.”
Part of Anguish is also very good. The part below is about a man who—truly– has not come to the boudoir of an unvirtuous woman for any hanky-panky, but just to get a good night’s sleep and to feel a little less alone:
“I come not to ravish your body, O beast, / in whom the transgressions of multitudes flow, / nor to rouse a sad storm in your tresses unchaste / by the incurable ennui my kisses bestow. //
I ask but a dull dreamless sleep from your bed, / swathed beneath curtains oblivious of remorse, / which you who know more about nothingness than the dead / can taste when your falsehoods have run their dark course. //
For Vice, having gnawed at my innate nobility, / has marked me like you with a sad sterility: / but while you with your stony breast are the frame // for a heart that the tooth of no crime wounds with shame, / Obsessed by my shroud, I flee, pale, undone, / afraid of dying when I sleep alone.”
Also from Mallarme are the following lines from The Azure. I adore them because, as a fellow poet, I know what it’s like to feel so intimated by Nature that, instead of inspiring you, She depresses you with Her overwhelming beauty, and you curse your vocation, for you know you are merely holding a candle to the sun, and your hours of labor feel heavy and wasted. By the end of the section below, the poet is reduced to merely crying out the name of the thing he cannot grasp, much less tame to words:
“The serene irony of the eternal Sky / depresses, with the indolence of flowers, / the impotent poet cursing poetry/ across a sterile waste of leaden Hours.” […] “Like a sword it penetrates your inmost agony. Revolt or flight is useless and absurd; For I am haunted. The Sky! The Sky! The Sky!”
And from Herodiade, a young woman sees memories in her mirror like leaves beneath pond:
“Mirror, cold water frozen in your frame / through ennui, how many times I came, / desolate from dreams and seeking memories / like leaves beneath your chill profundities, / a far-off shadow to appear in you.”
And below, Herodiade paints virginity as something wastefully cruel, frigid, and monsterous:
“I love the horror of virginity, / the dread my tresses give me when I lie/ retired at night, reptilian on my couch, / my useless flesh inviolate to the touch” […] “You who burn with chastity, white night of icicles and cruel snow!”
I knew that girl in high school :/
One last thing, as a proponent, myself, of a Universal Nth Language, I was heartened to see the translator offer the following quote from Mallarme, a quote that echoes similar thinking from Rimbaud (whom I reviewed earlier):
“The supreme one [language] is lacking” […] “The immortal word still remains silent. The diversity of idioms on earth prevents everybody from uttering the words which otherwise, at one single stroke, would materialize as Truth.”