Out of the tremendous trifecta of early modernist French poets, Stéphane Mallarmé is probably the least read and least translated. That’s partly down to the genuine difficulty of his writing, but then the language of Baudelaire or Rimbaud is hardly of the most transparent either; the real difference may be that their lives have spun off an aura of myth that helps guide the reader through or past the enigmatic character of their verse. Hardly one of the true poètes maudits, for all that Verlaine felt obliged to include him in the book so named, Mallarmé lived quietly on his earnings as an English teacher (until his early retirement) without scandal or violence; while his circle included anarchists tempted by the propaganda of the deed, “the only kind of bomb I know,” he demurred, “is a book.” As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, imagining the poet’s childhood, “He was taken aback to discover, within himself, the oppressive virtues of the bourgeoisie, and he knows that they are permanently implanted in him. A taste for order, austerity, thrift, home life, disinterestedness, and dignity will henceforth become a permanent character trait.”
And yet this temperate figure did inspire passion: “I sometimes said to Mallarmé,” wrote Paul Valéry, “’There are some who blame you, and some who despise you. It has become an easy thing for the reporters to amuse the people at your expense, while your friends shake yours heads. But do you not know, do you no feel, that there is, in every city of France, a youth who would let himself be cut into pieces for your verses and for you? You are his pride, his craft, his vice. He cuts himself off from everyone by his love of, faith in, your work, hard to find, to understand and to defend.'” It can’t be said that the cause of this devotion has ever quite manifested itself in English translation; given our prejudice in favor of bluntness, the artifice and indirection of Mallarmé’s verse can seem twee, and his infinitely patient massaging of sense into form, a sort of semantic primping. A little dilation therefore does not come amiss and, if anything, it has been through commentary rather than translation that the salience of Mallarmé has been brought home to us — in my own experience, above all, thanks to Robert Greer Cohn’s Toward the Poems of Mallarmé (1981).
Not that there haven’t been some game attempts at translation until now. I’ve long nurtured an affection for David Paul’s versions, light on their feet despite his fearsome decision to duplicate the original rhyme-schemes, in his 1974 collection Poison and Vision: Poems and Prose of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud — perhaps for little more reason that they caught me at the right age; in the longer run the unrhymed versions by the Irish poet Brian Coffey have perhaps been most to my taste, but unfortunately Coffey published translations of just a portion of Mallarmé’s poems, and even those are hard to put one’s hands on. Neither these nor any of the other translations that have been available until now have succeeded in breaking the ice to give Mallarmé something of the same centrality that Baudelaire and Rimbaud have long had for Anglophone poets. Can we hope for more from the latest Englishing of this most elusive of poets, by the Glasgow-based Peter Manson? Maybe not, but it’s a step in the right direction. Manson’s versions — “unashamedly semantic translations,” as he says, that do not attempt to reproduce what Mallarmé called the “elementary sonorities” but rather aim at “the intellectual word” — are vigorous and flavorful and they probably press about as far in the direction of clarity as is possible without thereby distorting a poetry that lives above all through obliquity.
One subsidiary problem with the effort to induct Mallarmé into the English language is that in making a book of translations it is natural to present his poems in the order he gave them, which is roughly chronological. But the earlier poems are a hard sell. Much influenced by Baudelaire and apparently — though I can’t confirm this from my own experience but must trust Manson and other experts — by other, now-less-read poets of the previous generation such as Théophile Gautier and Théodore de Banville, in his early work Mallarmé exhibits above all a theatricalized fastidiousness that is hard to swallow now, not to mention showy, almost overweening semantic complexity; at best, this gives a poem like “Le Guignon” (The Jinx), a sort of crazed satiric energy, in this case directed at none other than poets themselves, “always up for alms or vengeance.” It is against this utterly fallen world that in another famous early poem Mallarmé counters the “calm irony of the eternal Blue,” which can inspire only a “pointless and perverse revolt.” But really, isn’t this vision of life as a “sterile desert of Pain” too emo to take quite seriously, however astonishing the rhetorical gymnastics with which it is conveyed? Even at twenty-one, the age at which Mallarmé wrote the poem I’ve been quoting from, “L’Azur” (The Blue), he couldn’t have more than half believed in it. It’s somehow not surprising that the young Mallarmé’s generalized distaste should have realized itself in the gender and racial fantasy of “Une négresse par le demon secouée” (A negress shook up by the demon).
If you are just getting to know Mallarmé, I’d recommend skipping from the opening (1893) “Salut” or “Greeting” to somewhere around the middle of the book, say to the “Éventail” (Fan) of 1891 and on to the end, and only after having gotten a feel for these later poems going back to read their predecessors. It is in his poetry of the 1880s and ‘90s that Mallarmé enacted what Kenneth Rexroth rightly identified as “a thoroughgoing syntactical revolution,” a radical change in poetic method. In these late poems, mostly sonnets, the difficulties are of a very different kind than in his early work; instead of the sort of linguistic overloading he’d at first been prone to, an encrustation that seems designed to fortify some underlying poetic gesture against the vulgarity of the world, the language is spare and aerated — the lines seem to float across each other, creating contingent linkages from one to the next. And allied to this structural change is an emotional one: the poetry is overtaken by a profound tenderness. The poem does not defend but rather opens itself, even, one might say, submissively to the world, to the other; one does not feel the poet imposing his narrative on things but on the contrary seeking, as the first line of one late poem has it, “To insert myself into your plot” (M’introduire dans ton histoire). This is the method, I believe, that we should still be trying to follow — the method, to borrow a metaphor from another great poem, “Remémoration d’amis belges” (Remembrance of Belgian Friends), of letting “la pierre veuve” (the widowed stone) of language “se dévét pli selon pli,” divest itself “fold by fold.”
Perhaps Manson thinks so too. In any case he seems to have been determined, as far as possible, to show Mallarmé as our contemporary. Some readers might take exception to Manson’s tendency to introduce, therefore, a certain understated anachronism into these versions through the use of phrases specific to our present or the recent past. In translating “L’Azur,” for example, he renders “Donne, ô matière, / L’oubli de l’Idéal cruel et du Péché,” as “O matter, / delete all memory of the cruel Ideal and of Sin.” That “delete,” I suppose, updates for the computer age Keith Bosley’s rendering (in his 1977 translation for Penguin) “blot out,” and while it’s odd to think of Mallarmé tapping away at a PC, it somehow works. Odder, perhaps, is Manson’s choice, when it comes to “Feuillet d’album” (Album Leaf) to translate “Selon mes quelqus doigts perclus” as “with my stiff little fingers” — as if the 19th century poet might have had a Northern Irish punk band in the back of his mind; in this case, the inside joke becomes a bit heavy-handed. I’m more willing, somehow, to consider that the author of “Petit Air II”(Little Tune II) might proleptically know enough to cite Ray Charles, wondering or hoping of his “haggard musician” that “blown apart will all of him / still hit the road!” — though surely in that case “entier” might better have been “all in one piece,” while to hit the road” is surely to get a move on whereas “Rester sur quelque sentier” must have to do with remaining.
It’s natural that any reader with a little French — and that’s all I’ve got to hit the road with — will find certain detailed choices questionable. More important is that Manson conceives of a Mallarmé whose language looks forward as well as back and sideways. (In his concise but helpful “Scholia” or endnotes Manson acknowledges stealing from, for instance, George Meredith — “unalterable law” for “la fatale loi” in the sonnet beginning, “Quand l’ombre menaça” [When the shadow threatened].) It is reassuring to me to learn from Manson’s Afterword that when he began his effort at translation, twenty years ago, it was because he found Mallarmé’s Poésies “a book I could at first hardly make anything of but whose strangeness and sparkle and density and smallness would not allow me to leave alone.” I think this is the right way to enter into this poetry, which contains many puzzles but also and more importantly many enigmas. If you haven’t noticed it eluding your grasp, you’ve missed something important, as the poet suggests in the first line of the “Salut” that opens the collection: “Rien, cette écume, vierge vers” — “No thing, this foam, a virgin verse.” It’s still too new and fresh to quite comprehend, yet no less intoxicating for that.
Stéphane Mallarmé: The Poems in Verse, translated and with notes by Peter Manson, is available at Pathway Book Service and other online booksellers.