Analysis of Mallarmé’s 1885 sonnet “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui”

1885 Sonnet

Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !

Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.

Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.

Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid du mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.

My favorite English translation is Elizabeth Cook’s: https://litallover.com/2016/09/28/le-bel-aujourdhui-a-translation-walkthrough-of-mallarmes-le-cygne/ However, my commentary will be based on the original French.

As with all of Mallarmé’s poems, his 1885 sonnet resists a straightforward reading. The rules and expectations of classical poetry are put aside. Words and images rarely conform to reader expectation. Reversals and contradictions abound. Therefore, I will not attempt a clear, unequivocal reading of this poem. My reading is one of many possible readings. The sonnet’s words guide and circumscribe my commentary.

In his 1897 prose poem “Crise de vers”, Mallarmé writes,

L’œuvre pure implique la disparition élocutoire du poète, qui cède l’initiative aux mots, par le heurt de leur inégalité mobilisés ; ils s’allument de reflets réciproques comme une virtuelle traînée de feux sur des pierreries, remplaçant la respiration perceptible en l’ancien souffle lyrique ou la direction personnelle enthousiaste de la phrase.
[The pure work implies the disappearance of the poet speaking, who yields the initiative to words, through the clash of their ordered inequalities; they light each other up through reciprocal reflections like a virtual swooping of fire across precious stones, replacing the primacy of the perceptible rhythm of respiration or the classic lyric breath, or the personal feeling driving the sentences] (trans. Barbara Johnson, in Divagations, p.208).

Mallarmé announces the death of the poet – prefiguring Roland Barthe’s death of the author. The reader of Mallarmé’s poems is invited to privilege words over everything else, to notice the patterns and ruptures produced by the poem’s very words. According to Mallarmé, poetic language should distinguish itself from the language of journalism. He believed that words had been cheapened by the rise of mass media. The creation of poetry was therefore an act of resistance. The reader of Mallarmé’s poetry cannot be a consumer. A multiplicity of readings emerges from our sonnet’s ambiguity of meaning and syntax, but only if the reader allows the words to speak for themselves.

The overall structure of the poem is a sonnet (2 quatrains and 2 tercets). It has an enclosed rhyme scheme (ABBA for the quatrains and ABA for the tercets).

In the first stanza, a wing breaks through the icy surface of a hard lake. There is a tense shift between lines 2 and 4 (“va-t-il nous déchirer”/ le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui”. The grammatical tense of “va-t-il nous déchirer” is the near future (futur proche). It suggests a finality. The subject (“le vierge, le vivace et le bel”) is going to tear us apart. Here, the three elements are represented by the third person singular pronoun “il”.

The first word of the second stanza (“cygne”) recalls the wing and flights of the first stanza. The only other time that a swan is mentioned by name is in the final tercet (“l’exile inutile le Cygne”), yet, bird imagery is the most prominent imagery in the sonnet (“pour n’avoir pas chanté”, “à l’oiseau qui le nie”, “où le plumage est pris”). It’s perhaps noteworthy that the swan is only mentioned by name in the second quatrain and the second tercet.

Along with being a symbol of the poet in classical poetry, “cygne” (swan) is also a homophone of “signe” (sign). The sterility and agony of ice and winter also evoke the blank page. “Le plumage”, a pen.

But let’s return to the dynamics of the poem. The first stanza shifts between future and past, hope and disappointment. A wing will break through the frozen lake, yet in the last line we discover that some flights didn’t escape from beneath the transparent ice (“le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui”).

There is also a mix of tenses in the second quatrain: past and present. The swan of another era (“d’autrefois”) remembers (“se souvient”) and delivers itself (“se déliver”), yet notice that “vivre” is not conjugated. It is a pure action. The final line of the second quatrain can be read in two different ways (in my mind): “Quand du stérile | hiver a resplendi l’ennui” or “Quand du sterile hiver | a resplendi l’ennui”. In the first, winter sparkled boredom (Baudelaire’s Spleen) out of sterility (“du stérile). In the second, boredom sparkled from a sterile winter. In either case, there is a contradiction in connotation between the verb resplendir and the words “stérile” and “l’ennui”. “Resplendi” is an explosion / a rupture, not unlike the presence of an infinitive in a stanza of conjugated verbs. Therefore, despite the swan’s apparent regret for not having sung about his region, the second quatrain is not without hope.

The two tercets are entirely in the present or future tenses. There is no past tense anywhere.

In the first line of the first tercet, the swan’s collar will shake off this white agony. The futur “secouera” evokes hope. But there is something that he will not be able to shake off: “mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris”. The final line of this stanza evokes the imagery in the final line of the first stanza (“des vols qui n’ont pas fui”). The feathers caught in transparent ice will continue to haunt our swan.

Horror returns in “Fantôme”, the first word of the final stanza. Its presence is also an explosion. It’s a pure burst of energy. If “cygne” sounds like “signe”, “assigne” in line one of the final tercet sounds like “à signe”. What is this phantom that disrupts sign/language? It remains frozen before the “songe froid du mépris” that the swan wears. “Vêt” (wears) goes along with “col” (collar). The swan will shake off the white agony (perhaps snow) that weighs it down but it will always be haunted by the past. Between sign, swan, and poet, “le Cygne” is a liminal image. It represents the tension between poetic freedom and the conventions of classical poetry.

The swan must take up the pen. His exile is useless. Yet he will always be haunted by the failures of past poets as well as of his own. He will always be haunted by the transparent ice “où le plumage est pris”.

The swan acts and is acted upon. The mixture of pessimism and optimism suggests to me that the swan’s regrets are productive. His regret, disgust, and boredom will contribute to his future. A ghost represents the past (the spirit of the dead) but it appears among the living so as to influence future behavior.

My conclusion
Mallarmé’s 1885 sonnet describes the conflicting feelings of a poet caught between a desire to liberate poetry from classical conventions and sterility and a feeling of powerlessness in face of his own fragility and the failures of past poets/poems.

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