A Book of Answers XVIII: Baudelaire And Mallarmé


Apparently these two great poets never met and talked, and never wrote to each other though their lives overlapped and they belonged to the same quite small literary world. Mallarmé from his early youth was an ardent admirer of Baudelaire and was at one time his disciple, though at a distance. It has been said that the whole symbolist creed is contained in essence in Baudelaire’s famous sonnet “Correspondances” in Les Fleurs du Mal.

However that may be, Mallarmé’s theory and practice moved on and away from those of his former master. Where Baudelaire saw the goal of poetry as the Idéal or the Absolute, Mallarmé saw it as the Néant or Nothingness. Where Baudelaire, however mysterious, is always definite and crystal clear, Mallarmé turned poetry into a sort of puzzle game in which the subject was never referred to or described directly but, as he thought, more effectively evoked by allusion and hint. He may be said to have led a whole generation of poets into a wasteland of rather pointless obscurity, and his search for “pure poetry” was as wrong-headed as it was disastrous for his followers. Nevertheless, a poet of genius can triumph over the most perverse theory and succeed in making it work, and it is perhaps the greatest of Mallarmé’s enormous gifts that he was able to do so. Most of his poems can be successfully deciphered and are rewarding when the puzzle has been solved. Some of his later and more riddling compositions are, in my opinion, so arid and contrived as to be hardly worth the effort.

In 1892, when Baudelaire had been dead a quarter of a century and more, Mallarmé found himself président (chairman) of a committee organized to raise subscriptions for a monument to Baudelaire. He asked all the members of the committee to contribute poems. A collection, in which twenty-nine poets were represented, was published with Mallarmé’s sonnet among them. Its title, “Hommage”, was later changed to “Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire”. Mallarmé was particularly fond of these cryptic tributes to the tombs of literary and artistic figures whom he admired. He may almost be said to have developed a special department of mortuary verse. His tribute to Baudelaire exceeds all his others in obscurity. Nobody has ever been able to explain its allusions or even to sort out its ambiguous syntax—there is no punctuation, to make it the more baffling—and the learned and sometimes acrimonious discussion of rival theorists has had its comic side. For example, the “recent gaslight” according to some scholars conceals an allusion to a phallus, and a lively argument has sprung up as to whether the author was referring to a bec Aver, which looked like one, or to a bec papillon, which did not, two types of gas burner in street lamps in Baudelaire’s day. This poetic mystery even excited a comment from the director-general of Gaz de France himself. Controversy has raged over almost every word of the poem. It justifies the witticism of a French critic at an international conference some years ago: “Mallarmé, a poet so difficult that only foreigners can understand him.”

I have, I hope, added to the hilarious confusion in my reply by making Baudelaire, in answering from his tomb, take the temple enseveli to be a reference to the temple of Nature in “Correspondances”.

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers …

I have imagined him irritated in his reply by what he would surely have considered verbal humbug and literary mumbo-jumbo. I doubt if he would have approved of the pun in the last line; but Mallarmé included puns in his repertoire, and I can imagine Baudelaire turning the tables with some satisfaction.

I have to admit that part of the fun for me has been the opportunity to horse about with the Alexandrine in English, trying to make that intractable “wounded snake” do some reasonable metrical work in a language apparently inimical to it.

Mallarmé To Baudelaire Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire

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 sèche 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 pérrisons

The buried temple reveals by the sepulchral sewer-mouth, drooling mud and rubies, abominably, some Anubis idol, all its muzzle flaming like a ferocious bark, or as the newfangled gas wrings the shifty wisp of hair, wiper away, as one knows, of shames endured, it illuminates an immortal pubic area, whose flight shifts according to the street lamp. What withered wreath of leaves in the cities without twilight could bless like her, to seat herself vainly against the marble of Baudelaire,

Absent from the veil that swathes her with shivers, she his shade itself, a guardian poison always to be breathed even if we die of it.

Baudelaire To Mallarmé

As from a sky in flames, crucified on a cloud,
A god dethroned might watch, still preaching in his name,
His brain-sick prophet rave and mystify the crowd,
So at my tomb, Stephane, I hear your voice declaim.

I hear the words alone; their sense is like a ghost
Glimpsed by the spectral light of an ambiguous moon.
If I may filch your phrase, yours is, it seems, the boast:
Donner un sens moins clair aux mots de la tribune!

Thus you return at last to pay these funeral rites,
Deviant disciple, unrepentant prodigal son!
So Judas pays his kiss and so the mad dog bites
A master he adored, not knowing what they have done.

No, Mallarmé, mon vieux, you know it will not do!
A tribute at my grave, of course, is well enough;
But seeing the naked truth I stood for, how can you
Dedicate to my name this inarticulate stuff?

Whose shade, though absent too, beside mine comes to squat,
Fit symbol of your goal, the perfect Null within?
What do these banal street-lamps signify and what
Patrols them wearing her immortal pubic grin?

What oracles are these, abominably dark?
Lucus a non lucendo!” echoes the Sacred Wood.
Is it my praise I hear this dog’s-head death-god bark
Whose sewer at my feet vomits Egyptian mud?

And last, this buried temple, whose pillars each to each
Once murmured mystic symbols down their long colonnade,
I taught you to translate those words to human speech,
But you transposed them back to this absurd charade.

Nihilist of the Word! your god was Nothingness;
His sacrifice a riddle of incoherent prayer.
Where stood my Absolute, now creeps a putative Guess.
All evils in his time the poet must learn to bear;

But this, the final blow, the bitterest stroke to come
Is something not his stars nor yet the Muse can say:
When, with his laurels still green, they lay him in the tomb,
Etre la proie des vers de sa posterité.

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