Mallarmé

If you don’t know French, and even if you do, you might not know Mallarmé. He isn’t a Proust or a Molière or a Rimbaud, a towering figure with bus stops and schools named after him, but he expresses one thing extremely well: doubt. This is his poem ‘Brise Marine’:

La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres.
Fuir! là-bas fuir! Je sens que des oiseaux sont ivres
D’être parmi l’écume inconnue et les cieux!
Rien, ni les vieux jardins reflétés par les yeux
Ne retiendra ce coeur qui dans la mer se trempe
O nuits! ni la clarté déserte de ma lampe
Sur le vide papier que la blancheur défend
Et ni la jeune femme allaitant son enfant.
Je partirai! Steamer balançant ta mâture,
Lève l’ancre pour une exotique nature!
Un Ennui, désolé par les cruels espoirs,
Croit encore à l’adieu suprême des mouchoirs!
Et, peut-être, les mâts, invitant les orages
Sont-ils de ceux qu’un vent penche sur les naufrages
Perdus, sans mâts, sans mâts, ni fertiles îlots…
Mais, ô mon coeur, entends le chant des matelots!

If we look at these lines:

“Rien, ni les vieux jardins reflétés par les yeux
Ne retiendra ce coeur qui dans la mer se trempe”

We can see his unhappiness with ‘solidity’, literally of the gardens, but more figuratively with the expectations that come with living on dry land, that off the young mother “allaitant son enfant”, that he wishes to escape.

Mallarmé is the greatest writer who really hates writing. His letters are full of phrases about the pain of putting pen to paper, and we can see this here too, in “le vide papier que la blancheur défend”. The whiteness of the empty sheet of paper before him mocks him, asking him why it remains empty.

Some lines are undeniably sinister. Mallarmé is very attracted to the idea of toying with death. Consider:

Et, peut-être, les mâts, invitant les orages
Sont-ils de ceux qu’un vent penche sur les naufrages
Perdus, sans mâts, sans mâts, ni fertiles îlots…
Mais, ô mon coeur, entends le chant des matelots!

the ‘mâts’, or masts, will actually invitethe storm towards them, coaxing them to destroy the ship until “Perdus, sans mats, sans mats”. There is this murmured line, but it seems that the absolute destruction of the ship is not enough to prevent him from heeding the call of the ‘chant des matelots’.

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