"The flesh is sad, alas! – and I’ve read all the books."

"I am inventing a language which must necessarily burst forth from a very new poetics, that could be defined in a couple of words: Paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces." (Stéphane Mallarmé)

18 March 1842, 171 years ago, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé was born in Paris. His principal poetical works are the core of literary symbolism and he is rightly mentioned in one breath along with Rimbaud, Verlaine and Baudelaire as one of the French poets who paved the way for modern poetry.

Édouard Manet: “Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé”, 1876

Based on Hegel, Mallarmé came to the realisation that Néant, Nothing, has to be the origin of everything beautiful and ideal and beyond Gautier's l’art pour l’art he found language, a poésie pure, to be the only passable way to probe into the pure idea.

While the soundwise quality of Mallarmé's poetry influenced composers like Milhaud, Ravel and Debussy - whose Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was based on the eponymous poem and became a major work of musical impressionism - Mallarmé actively sought the connection to the fine arts. He befriended, among many others (e.g. Renoir, Monet, Gauguin), Édouard Manet who, beside painting the portrait below (1876) crafted the illustrations for Mallarmé's translation of Poe's "Raven" (1888).

Mallarmé has a (well-deserved) reputation to be hellishly difficult to translate, however, here is one example of a verse translation:

Sea Breeze

The flesh is sad, alas! – and I’ve read all the books.
Let’s go! Far off. Let’s go! I sense
That the birds, intoxicated, fly
Deep into unknown spume and sky!
Nothing – not even old gardens mirrored by eyes –
Can restrain this heart that drenches itself in the sea,
O nights, or the abandoned light of my lamp,
On the void of paper, that whiteness defends,
No, not even the young woman feeding her child.
I shall go! Steamer, straining at your ropes
Lift your anchor towards an exotic rawness!
A Boredom, made desolate by cruel hope
Still believes in the last goodbye of handkerchiefs!
And perhaps the masts, inviting lightning,
Are those the gale bends over shipwrecks,
Lost, without masts, without masts, no fertile islands...
But, oh my heart, listen to the sailors’ chant!

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