Mallarmé’s Spanish-Language Disciples

By Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno

Octavio Paz
by Rafael Doniz,
Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé
by Édouard Manet,
Alfonso Reyes
(unattributed, undated photo)

The impact of Mallarmé on English and American poets is well known. Yeats, Eliot, the early Pound, and Stevens, among others, all labored under the sign of the Master. But Mallarmé also had a profound influence on more than a generation of poets writing in Spanish. My goal is to chart Mallarmé’s legacy as manifested in the work of two major Mexican poets: Alfonso Reyes and Octavio Paz. An additional focus is translation, about the way versions of Mallarmé’s poems coincided with particular literary styles in Spanish poetry.

While Mallarmé’s verse was known to a fair number of poets writing in Spanish during the later nineteenth century, the first Spanish translations only appeared in 1898, the year Mallarmé died, and a year before the first publication in book form of his Poésies. Within a few years of these initial translations, a great many more appeared in both Spain and Latin America. The choice of poems to render into Spanish, however, is interesting. Nearly all are early work: “Brise marine,” “Apparition,” “Placet futile,” “Soupir,” “Les Fenêtres,” etc.

The selection was not accidental, nor even based on the relative accessibility of these verses. Rather, the translators chose these poems because they fit better into the Spanish Modernist tradition pioneered by Darío and Bécquer (who, of course, took their initial inspiration from Baudelaire, Gautier, Verlaine and the late French Romantic poets such as Vigny, Villiers and Hugo). In these versions the romantic elements are emphasized (even stretched) with the result being that the Spanish translations read like good post-Romantic poems: poetically pretty and well-wrought, thematically concerned with longing for distant, exotic places. Mallarmé’s mysteriousness, already in evidence even in these early poems, is not altogether missing, but the exact and enigmatic language, the tightly-strung syntax, and the world behind the words, are largely forsaken.

Dario, himself, was to no small extent responsible for creating the idea of Mallarmé as the florid, though mysterious poet of the early translations. In an essay written on the occasion of Mallarmé’s death, Darío chose to focus primarily on the elements that link Mallarmé with Poe and Baudelaire and Villiers: the exotic images, the metaphysical mysteries, the rarefied atmospheres. Like Mallarmé’s early translators, Darío was presenting a way of reading Mallarmé that suited Spanish modernist aesthetics. And yet, in Darío’s poetry, particularly in his 1905 volume Cantos de Vida Esperanza, the poet demonstrated that he was also aware of Mallarmé’s stylistics. The poems in this book are imbued as much with attention to language as to situation or aesthetic enclosures.

It was perhaps Darío’s verse rather than his criticism that began to turn attention toward what Mallarmé was actually doing with language. By the 1920s, poetry in Spanish had begun to regard the French poet as the Master. The charge was largely led by the Mexican poet Alfonso Reyes who attempted through his translations, criticism and own verse to transmit Mallarmé’s poetics into the Spanish language.

Reyes’s first translations of Mallarmé appeared in 1920. Acknowledging the difficulty of the task, he presented three complete and distinct verse versions of “Eventail (de Mademoiselle Mallarmé),” along with a commentary. The first version is the most literal, but also the least interesting. The second version preserves the rhythm, but the syntax—so natural in the original—often seems forced. The third rendering is closer to a rewriting of the poem in Spanish, which is to say, the least literal. But it is also the most successful.

The rhythms are Castilian rhythms; the rhymes arresting yet unforced; the emotional “color” highly attenuated. And yet, because Spanish is not French, the translation is “prettier” than the original due to the polysyllabic thrusts and the natural assonance inherent in Spanish. As such, the third version recreates Mallarmé as a fine Symbolist poet teetering on the edge of Romanticism.

Reyes was not content to stop with these versions. Over the years he produced other fine translations in which he labored to transmit accurately meaning, resonance, rhyme and rhythm, and was largely successful in each attempt. And yet, no matter how good Reyes’s versions are—and they are very good—they are never quite Mallarmé. Nuance, for instance, is largely absent. The syntactical purity of Mallarmé’s French is overcome by the longer Spanish line with its multi-syllabic words. Finally, the associative properties of words Mallarmé intended his French readers to understand are largely unreproducible. Reyes is clearly aware of the problem. He even injects Spanish verbal substitutes that evoke dissimilar associations for Spanish readers. Despite these shortcomings, Reyes managed better than most of Mallarmé’s Spanish translators to render the enigmatic language and syntactically-rich structure of the originals.

It was not just as a translator, however, that Reyes brought Mallarmé into Spanish. His own work, particularly his verse of the 1930s and 1940s, shows admirably well the lessons he learned from his close readings of Mallarmé. In these poems the movement is not from idea to idea but from equivalence to equivalence. Language drives language; each word is chosen for its associative properties, for what it can evoke. Reality functions as a departure point for explorations of what can be done with language. Which is not to imply that meaning is abandoned. Reyes was not a language poet. Following from Mallarmé, he simply attempted to call attention to the inner constructs of the imagination as revealed through a syntactical structure that approaches Mallarmé’s concept of “pure poetry.” At the same time, Reyes is never as abstract as Mallarmé. The model for him was not “Un Coup de dés” but “Soupir” or “Don du poème.”

Reyes never quite completed the inward journey into language upon which he had embarked, and that eventually led Mallarmé to write “Un Coup de dés.” Instead, he dawdled along the byways the Master charted in his earlier work. It took another Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, to assimilate fully Mallarmé’s ultimate message and method. In the Norton Lectures Paz delivered at Harvard in 1971-72, he articulated what Mallarmé was really trying to do:

Mallarmé looks for that convergent moment of all moments in which a pure act—the  poem—can unfold itself. That act, those ‘dice thrown in eternal circumstances’ is a contradictory reality because, though an action, it is also a poem, a non-act. And the place where the act-poem unfolds is a non-place: eternal circumstances, that is to say. non-circumstances. Relative and absolute merge without disappearing. The moment of the poem is the dissolution of all moments; and yet, the eternal moment of the poem is this moment: a unique, unrepeatable, historic time. The poem is not a pure act, it is a contingency, a violation of the absolute. The reappearance of contingency is, in its turn, only one moment in the spinning of the dice, now blended with the rotation of the worlds. The absolute absorbs chance, the uniqueness of this moment is dissolved in an infinite ‘total count in formation.’ As a violation of the universe the poem is also the double of the universe; as the double of the universe, the poem is the exception.

Paz could have been describing his own aesthetics of creation, particularly in poems such as “Blanco” or “Pasado en claro.” In these works, the past continually turns back on itself, replaces with language the acts they describe. become act-poems in a contingent universe. Or as Paz writes in the opening to “Pasado en claro,” dedicated to Roman Jakobson:

Pasado en claro

Oídos con el alma,
pasos mentales más que sombras,
sombras del pensamientos más que pasos
por el camino de ecos
que la memoria inventa y borra:
sin caminar caminan
sobre este ahora, puente
tendido entre una letra y otra.
Como llovizna sobre brasas
dentro de mí pasos pasan
hacía lugares que se vuelven aire.
Nombres: en una pausa
desaparecen, entre dos palabras.
El sol camina sobre los encombros
de lo que digo, el sol arrasa los parajes
confusamente apenas
amaneciendo en esta página,
el sol abre mi frente
            balcon al voladero
dentro de mí.

Clear Past

Heard by the soul
footsteps in the mind more than shadows,
shadows of thought more than footsteps
along the path of echoes
that memory invents and erases:
without walking they walk, over this moment, bridge
stretched between one letter and another.
Like drizzle over embers,
within me footsteps step
toward places that turn to air.
Names: vanish in a pause
between two words.
The sun walks over the rubble
of what I’m saying, confusedly razes the places
just as they
dawn on this page,
the sun opens my forehead,
            balcony in flight
within me.

Translation by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno

Here, memory, and the meaning of that memory, are in direct collision with the act of notating the memory. The act of writing undoes what was, while simultaneously creating (or recreating) that past time that can’t really be recaptured by words. It is the ultimate Mallarméan paradox. Rarely, though. has it been expressed so succinctly, or so demonstrably, or so elegantly. The Master would have smiled.

Adapted from a talk at a Mallarmé Symposium at Stevens Institute of Technology, 14-15 November, 1998. It was originally published in Talisman #20, Winter 1999-2000. The author thanks Ed Foster and Talisman for permission to reprint.

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