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  • Mallarmé, Huysmans, and the Poetics of Hothouse Blooms
  • Suzanne Braswell

In his carnavalesque "Exhortation," the liminal poem to La Muse à Bibi (ca. 1879), André Gill admonishes his muse to reject poetic conventions of the past. Among the traditions that he targets in this satirical diatribe are those associated with French nineteenth-century flower poetry: "Envoie aux ronces tous les voiles, / Envoie au diable la pudeur, / Et n'assomme plus ton lecteur / Avec des fleurs et des étoiles," he wails in the sixth quatrain of his poem. Although Gill's exasperation with the persistent sentimentality of floral allusions in nineteenth-century poetry is palpable, poetic reflection on floral symbolism and discourses had already begun to undergo a considerable evolution among French poets by the 1870s, most manifestly in the wake of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), the title of which essentially attacks the benign sentimentality of popular floral discourses. Certainly, Baudelaire was not insensible to the traditions and symbolic charge carried by flowers during the nineteenth century. The final verse of his poem "Élévation" makes this abundantly clear: it is the poet's mind that easily grasps "[l]e langage des fleurs et des choses muettes" (Baudelaire 10).

Following Baudelaire's model, and advancing diverse lines of inspiration that would become associated with symbolist poetry and decadent prose, respectively, Stéphane Mallarmé and Joris-Karl Huysmans devoted considerable attention to floral symbolism in their works. Indeed, their engagement with such imagery, despite their diff ering aesthetics, suggests the pervasiveness of floral discourses during the second half of the nineteenth century in France.1 In Huysmans's novel A rebours (1884) and in various poetic works by Stéphane Mallarmé, including "La Chanson de Deborah" (1854), "Les Fleurs" (1866 and 1887), and "Les Noces d'Hérodiade" (1869, 1871), floral symbols are manifold, as critical literature on these works shows.2 Yet the role that contemporary floral discourses and popular practices played in the [End Page 69] poetic meditations of these authors has largely escaped critical attention, most notably with respect to texts inscribed in what I shall call a "language-of-flowers" tradition. As this analysis will show, examination of their appropriation of formal and discursive conventions associated with this tradition reveals an important though under-researched dimension of their works. It will also enable us to assess the extent to which this tradition impacted both popular culture and the poetic imaginary of nineteenth-century France, and to grasp the radical extension of traditional floral discourses that the floral poetics of Mallarmé and Huysmans eff ected during the fin-de-siècle period. Before we turn to analysis of these authors' texts, we begin with an overview of practices and discourses associated with the language of flowers, in nineteenth-century France.

A Tradition Begins

Given during courtship and mourning, worn in hair and on clothes, flowers were an enduring presence in French social practices during the nineteenth century, and across many domains.3 In England and France, this was the "era of horticultural societies, flower shows and competitive displays" (Goody 232). It was also a time in which colonial travels resulted in the importation of and fascination with exotic plants (Candolle 9-10; Schiebinger and Swan 2, 11). In 1836, for example, the architect Charles de Rohault de Fleury, with Joseph Newmann at the museum of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, constructed the Mexican and Australian Hothouses, in which a diverse array of succulents and other flora was cultivated and elegantly displayed in newly constructed, glass greenhouses. Similarly, from 1855 forward, a burst of construction and plant cultivation added to Paris "eighteen greenhouses and an orangery," providing both intimate natural spaces within the expanding urban milieu and a remedy to the "exhalaisons novices de la ville" (Chalaye and Kalantzis, Jardins et intimité dans la littérature européenne 326 and 348, 357, respectively).

Botanical pursuits were also regarded as "particularly suitable for women" (Campbell 608), and played a role in women's scientific, moral, and "sentimental" education. Among the foundational texts in this line was Charlotte de Latour's Le Langage des Fleurs (1819).4 Her text advanced a belief in the expressive qualities of flowers...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1836
Print ISSN
0098-9355
Pages
pp. 69-87
Launched on MUSE
2013-10-11
Open Access
No
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