At the heart of symbolism

The poetic meditation>


Mallarmé by Edouard Manet

The being caught in the crossfire

If the forerunners of the Symbolist movement, following the example of Verlaine, strove to unveil the “secrets” of the inner life, Mallarmé (1842-1898) wanted, on the contrary, to grasp and convey the very essence of things. Thanks to the resources of a new language, he did not try to evoke the rose or its perfume, but the very essence of the rose.

Mallarmé appeared in the beginning as a disciple of Baudelaire. Like him, he expressed his loathing of the common and vulgar reality and his aspiration to the ideal in a non Platonic sense. To escape boredom and loathing, he was longing for a voyage (Brise marine), to death (Le Sonneur) and to an aesthetic, indeed mystical paradise (Las de l'amer, Les Fenêtres, Azur). Caught in the crossfire, the one terrestrial, the other celestial, the one that consumed him, the other that inflamed him, he shouted a despair scream that echoed the “fallen angel” from Odilon Redon or the famous Scream from Edvard Munch:

“I am haunted by Azure! Azure! Azure! Azure!”

Fallen angel (Odilon Redon)His aspirations started to come through in “Herodias”. In this work, the poem entitled “Canticle of Saint John” evokes the drama where Salome gives her mother, Herodias, the head of Saint John the Baptist beheaded on the order of Herod, the Tetrarch of Galilee. It is happening on 24th June, day of the commemoration of the birth 1 of the Martyr and celebration of the summer solstice. This coincidence, which is in fact not a coincidence, provides the key to the, obscure at first sight, poem. A poem where every word has its place, where every word makes sense, where every syllable resounds, where poetry itself becomes music.

The canticle

  • The sun which its halt
  • Supernatural exalts
  • As soon redescends
  • Incandescent
  • I feel as at the backbone
  • Spread out shadows
  • All in a tremble
  • Together
  • And my head up-cropped
  • Solitary lookout
  • In the triumphant flights
  • Of this scythe
  • As frank rupture
  • Rather repels or cuts
  • Ancient discords
  • With the corpse
  • Than it from fastings mellow
  • Obstinates to follow
  • In some leap haggard
  • Its pure regard
  • On high where the chill
  • Eternal stands not still
  • For your surpassing
  • All o glaciers
  • But according to a baptism
  • Illuminated with the same
  • Principle that elected me
  • Inclines a greeting.

Translated by Christopher Mulrooney

The flight to the light

The study of the poem, developed in the detailed page, is summarized in Paul Valéry's words: “The seven verse canticle of Saint John is the song of the head cut, flying suddenly towards the divine light” as testified by Gustave Moreau's canvas entitled “Apparition”.

The head will be able to reach the heights reserved to the saints before going back down. The ultimate summit is only accessible to beings beyond saintliness, such as Jesus.

To picture this spiritual ascent, Mallarmé uses a nimble, but very dense and suggestive style.

1 back Like Jesus, John the Baptist is the only saint whose birth and not death is celebrated. It is about a symbolic and not physical birth.

Detailed page