“Mutiny Against the Old, Tired Mold,” (he spoke, he sang)

Mallarme, in his essay “Crisis of Verse,” and llike Wilde and Baudelaire, opposes the primacy of nature that someone like Wordsworth gives it. Mallarme correlates nature with an absolutism that differs from the idea of absolute or eternal truth, which I believe Mallarme believes in. Mallarme associates nature, or to be more precise, the traditional treatment of nature in poetry, as “an exact relation between images,” or between the word and the image. There is no room for play, for ambiguation. This exactness is also what Mallarme rails against when discussing adherence to the strict rules of formal verse; refusal to accept “voluntary infractions” or “dissonance” is refusal to accept the most crucial element of verse – the play of ambiguities of meaning through the play of sound, that other element of language besides the printed word of the page that accesses thought, not through an “exact relation” but through an associative relation. Through the focus of verse on sound, and the play of sound when messing with the traditional meter and rhyme of formal verse, Mallarme suggests that we make up for language’s deficiencies. Additionally, Mallarme invokes (predicts?) Kristeva’s intertextuality when he suggests that the music of the traditional verses “haunts these approximations.” The music of strict verse isn’t lost, instead it is sustained through play.

What’s important to consider is Mallarme’ notice of language’s deficiencies. Deficient in what? I would argue, deficient in its ability to capture the “immortal speech.” Here’s where echoes of Shelley comes in. Mallarme’s immortal speech is very similar to Shelley’s eternal order, which is manifested in the rhythms and language of music. All of poetry, Shelley asserts, is the attempt to capture and communicate the eternal order in language that is metaphorical, or associative. Mallarme’s immortal speech is that same eternal order, and his way to approach it is also associative, but the associative element of language can be found in its music, in its aural qualities, in the spoke word, or speech. Mallarme writes, “‘I say: a flower! and outside the oblivion to which my voice relegates any shape,
insofar as it is something other than the calyx, there arises musically, as the very idea and delicate, the one absent from every bouquet.” His emphasis here is on “say.” It is the spoken word and the sounds of the word that enable the listener to have a sensory experience of “flower” that goes beyond the “exact relation” of the word to the image. Poetry’s focus on the sound of the words open up that associative space where a multiplicity of meaning. He calls this “Transposition,” and it includes the act of disturbing the reality of the thing, i.e. the “exact relation” of the thing to its symbol, and in this case the symbol is the word.

This is why, at the time of his writing, poetry is in crisis. Critics are upholding strict verse and decrying the play of free verse. Mallarme sees the play of free verse and the disruption of strict rhyme and meter not so much as a revolution as a transcendence of the limits of strict verse, a closer approach to “immortal speech” through approximation.


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