Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version

October 1983


French Forum Monographs #42. Copyright (c) 1983 French Forum Publishers Inc.


Over the past sixty-five years of Mallarméan criticism, few poems have come to occupy as central a place in the discussion of the poet's work as "Prose pour des Esseintes." While it is generally agreed that, beginning around 1862, the development of Mallarmé's principal conceits and images, of his syntax and his directing ideas, culminates in "Un Coup de dés," "Prose" is often held to be not only Mallarmé's most hermetic poem but also the one that deals most directly with the nature of poetic composition. Commentators have variously called it Mallarmé's ars poetica, a conviction piece, a taking stock prior to beginning the Grand Oeuvre, a repudiation of the earlier verse in favor of a new vision and procedure. All of these views are tenable and have the merit of pointing out a number of ways to consider, through "Prose," the development of Mallarmé's ideas about poetry. Equally important, of course, is the aspect they have in common: namely, that "Prose" is somehow at the center of Mallarmé's poetic thought and practice. Yet, there is no evidence that Mallarmé attached any special importance to "Prose" in this regard, nor for that matter to any other poem. From the time of his earliest mature compositions, Mallarmé tended to project his work in terms of groups of poems, somewhat like the constellations of which he was so fond. Such arrangements suggest a center instead of specifically pinpointing one and we should also keep in mind that so many of his poems, by raising questions about the nature of poetry, show individual facets of a much larger ars poetica. It might be more to the point, then, to say that of the dozen or so poems that explicitly deal with poetry or the poet "Prose pour des Esseintes" exposes more fully than do the others a concern which runs throughout, or just behind, the entire oeuvre.

It is my view that the concern which Mallarmé has developed in "Prose" is made up of two closely related considerations. One of these is the relationship between language and thought. Unique in all of Mallarmé's poetry is the invocation to hyperbole which opens the poem: "Hyperbole! de ma mémoire / Triomphalement ne sais-tu / Te lever ...." To identify hyperbole with poetry in some general sense, as is often done, is to miss what is at stake in this opening question. Poetry as description and synthesis is already present in the "oeuvre de patience," and the poet clearly would like to complement these qualities with something else. True, poetry is ultimately the matter and, with hyperbole, poetry in the fullest sense will be attained; but the vehicle for that attainment is what is called for, and that vehicle is language. This insistence carries with it a specificity not found in the other poems, where the emphasis is also on poetry, but not on poetry seen specifically as language. With his opening question, the poet is asking whether language is capable of an expressiveness which might go beyond the mere description (however metaphorical) of the objects of experience and thus carry thought to a radically new and different understanding of those objects and of that experience. "Les choses existent," wrote Mallarmé, "nous n'avons qu'à en saisir les rapports." Language, poetical language to be sure, does not reorder experience. Rather, it orders our comprehension of it, and without this expressiveness which is language there would be no comprehension in any meaningful sense, but only the unrealized thought of the "grimoire." Thought and language do not exist apart.

In conjunction with this first consideration and informing it is a second, which also is present in terms of a relationship. It is the relationship between desire and thought. Most of Mallarmé's poetry beginning with "Les Fenêtres" in 1862 evinces the desire for a spiritual regeneration that would free the poet from the contingencies of everyday experience. This is of course a modified Christian theme inherited from the Romantic poets and Baudelaire, who saw the poetic imagination as the way to this new freedom. The peculiar problem which Mallarmé encountered in this respect is not in any difference in the extent of his desire, which is infinite. Rather, this problem, the barrier which is present in so many of his poems, is in the limits imposed on the movement towards the absolute, which are the limits of thought itself. As Baudelaire had seen, Mallarmé saw as an imperative the need to account for thought and emotions as complementary and mutually influencing facets of human experience, and recognized in poetry the means most likely to do this. However, he also discovered relatively early on that thought, even poetic thought, cannot extend infinitely. Of necessity tied to the image, to the language of wordly experience, thought can be abstracted only so far before it breaks this bond and encounters the void of thoughtlessness. Thus, desire and thought are not entirely coextensive, and the task for their difficult joining falls squarely upon language. For the question is really that of desire seeking an expressiveness that will allow thought to reach its very limits and yet without ceasing to gesture beyond those limits to the absolute which is the object of desire.

The present study outlines and explores these two relationships as they are found in "Prose pour des Esseintes" and throughout Mallarmé's writing. The first section is a detailed exegesis of the poem, in which I have tried to keep the discussion as free as possible from any anecdotal presuppositions in order that meaning within the poem may emerge unobstructed. It is my conviction that Mallarmé was as much a thinker as he was a poet or, more properly, a thinker poetically in relation with the language he used. Unfortunately, it has often been the case in commentaries on "Prose" that resorting to anecdote, doubtless in an attempt to simplify seemingly insurmountable difficulties, mitigates the poem's complexity and impoverishes thought. In this chapter, I rely heavily on interpretation based on etymologies, and also bring to the discussion an examination of the variants. I do turn to other writings at times, as in the extended digression concerning the sense in which Mallarmé refers to memory and time, in order to ground certain fundamental observations.

The second section broadens the context of the relationships between desire, thought and language. Focusing on poems, prose and correspondence, it traces Mallarmé's recognition of these relationships and his deepening understanding of them, primarily over the period from 1862 to 1875. I have placed an important part of this discussion within an ontological framework because it appears to me that Mallarmé's concern with the relationship between thought and desire brings to light a preoccupation with contingent and absolute being and with how both are manifest in language. In order to enhance our appreciation of Mallarmé's thinking in this regard, I have indicated how his ideas fall within the traditional confrontation of Idealism and Nominalism and have drawn what I hope is a useful parallel between "Prose pour des Esseintes" and Anselm of Canterbury's Fides quaerens intellectum: Proslogion, which deals in a strikingly similar way with the relationship between thought and desire for the absolute.

Quite aside from my personal work on "Prose pour des Esseintes," it is my hope that the third and final section of this study may be of help to other scholars. I have included a critical bibliography of the work done on the poem since 1954. This date is not at all arbitrary, since it was then that Lloyd James Austin published in conjunction with his well-known study a critical discussion of most of the exegetical commentary up to that time. His contribution has been of immeasurable value not only because it brought together many readings of the poem, but also because it offered a convenient cross-section of Mallarméan criticism, and it is to continue his work that I present this bibliography. I have also included several items which may have escaped Austin's notice and, following the critical entries, have supplied the complete bibliography. Also offered as a convenience, the append ices bring together the earlier versions of the poem as well as other pertinent documents.