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  • The Poetics of the Penult: Mallarmé, Death, and Syntax
  • Claire Lyu (bio)

When Mallarmé says that he is “profondément et scrupuleusement syntaxier” 1 he posits poetry as that which works first and foremost on the formal syntactic features of language. And yet this “profound” and “scrupulous” concern with the form of language is, for quite a few people, what makes Mallarmé’s poetry difficult and obscure. 2 Zola, for example, in his study on contemporary poets, writes of Mallarmé as follows:

M. Mallarmé a été et est resté le poète le plus typique du groupe [parnassien]. C’est chez lui que toute la folie de la forme a éclaté. Poursuivi d’une préoccupation constante dans le rythme et l’arrangement des mots, il a fini par perdre la conscience de la langue écrite. Ses pièces de vers ne contiennent que des mots mis côte à côte, non pour la clarté de la phrase, mais pour l’harmonie du morceau. L’esthétique de M. Mallarmé est de donner la sensation des idées avec des sons et des images. Ce n’est là, en somme, que la théorie des Parnassiens, mais poussée jusqu’à ce point où une cervelle se fêle. 3 [End Page 561]

Zola criticizes Mallarmé’s “folie de la forme” in the name of “la conscience de la langue écrite,” which he seems to hold equal to sense, clarity, and sanity. The poet’s exclusive concern with the form of language disturbs and finally abolishes the sensible language, that is, language that means sensibly primarily through its semantic content rather than syntactic “arrangement.” The “madness of form” is form gaining priority over content, form that is no longer contained or containable in the content: it is an “éclatement.”

The present essay attempts to think through this madness of form in Mallarmé. It examines the relation between the semantic and syntactic structures in the language of Mallarmé and the radical conceptual change Mallarmé introduces in the treatment of syntax through the reading of one prose poem, “Le démon de l’analogie.” 4 Written around 1864 at an early stage of Mallarmé’s literary career 5 —he was only 22 years old and had just started to publish his poems two years earlier and had begun to translate Poe the previous year—“Le démon de l’analogie” seems to have inaugurated, in an exemplary manner, the difficulty and the obscurity that have frequently been associated with Mallarmé’s writings. Thus Gustave Kahn, in one of the most well-known comments on the piece, was to write in 1902: “[. . .] au temps où Mallarmé publiait ces vers, il y avait la Pénultième, 6 cette fameuse Pénultième, dont on parlait il y a dix ou douze ans de la rive gauche à partout: la Pénultième était alors le nec plus ultra de l’incompréhensible, le Chimborazo de l’infranchissable et le casse-tête chinois.” 7

What follows will be an attempt to face once again this incomprehensible penult in order to understand, or at least to unfold, its incomprehensibility. I will try to bring forth the logic or the illogic of the broken line of verse, “La Pénultième / Est morte,” that haunts the narrator and has haunted many critics—Barbara Johnson, Richard Terdiman, Robert Greer Cohn, Ursula Franklin, Roger Dragonetti, Roger Pearson, among others—ever since. My paper then is about the death of the penult and the scandal of this death. It is an [End Page 562] examination of the way(s) the penult dies and an attempt to relate the structure of the death of the penult to the structure of poetic writing in Mallarmé. In so doing I wish to reflect on the way in which syntax comes to take (its) place, its lieu, in Mallarmé’s poetic language.

Le Demon De L’analogie

Des paroles inconnues chantèrent-elles sur vos lèvres, lambeaux maudits d’une phrase absurde?

Je sortis de mon appartement avec la sensation propre d’une aile glissant sur les cordes d’un instrument, traînante et légère, que remplaça une voix pronon...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6598
Print ISSN
0026-7910
Pages
pp. 561-587
Launched on MUSE
1998-04-01
Open Access
No
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