Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 382-383
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Stafford, Hélène. Mallarmé and the Poetics of Everyday Life: A Study of the Concept of the Ordinary in his Verse and Prose. (Faux Titre: Etudes de langue et littérature françaises, No. 198.) Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. Pp. 244. ISBN 90-420-1314-1
This study asserts repeatedly that Mallarmé really did use the themes and vocabulary of everyday life in a poetry usually regarded as esoteric and divorced from the banal. Despite repetitions, however, the book explores many aspects of the relationship between real and ideal and echoes of this throughout Mallarmé's work.
The first and longest section, "Poetics of the Prosaic," begins with an overview of recent Mallarmé criticism and the image that it projects of a difficult and somewhat isolated poet. Real images from Mallarmé's life recur though often endowed with meanings linking them to more abstract ideas. Background in both German philosophy and usages of French poets prior to Mallarmé provides models for the linking of the real and the transcendent. A specific analysis of Mallarmé's early indebtedness to Baudelaire traces parallel themes in a number of poems. These comparisons range over a large number of usages - networking and transforming of images, portrayal of the city, common vocabulary and rhythms, themes of departure, etc. - without fully analyzing them. The implied analogy, however, that all are important in the works of both poets demonstrates how close the early Mallarmé was to Baudelaire.
The second chapter, "Syntax," outlines the structural bases of Mallarmé's complexity. Much here is not new, but Stafford presents a clear overview with ample credit to previous critics. Indeed clarity is the strength of this presentation in contrast to the language that prevails especially in Stafford's attributions to Julia Kristeva. About "L'Après-midi d'un faune," Stafford writes that "Kristeva might argue that the erotic pulsion as part of the semiotic has a disruptive effect re-enacted at the level of language by syntactic disruption" (70). Admittedly this is a sentence presumed to echo Kristeva, but it reinforces the feeling that the generation of critics at the close of the twentieth century would have rendered literature inaccessible by filtering it through prescribed jargon.
Structures examined include contrasting clear and complex phrasing, interruptions and omissions of some implied elements, and accumulations that condense, enrich and add complexity through repetition. The second half of the chapter concerns the manners of conveying time. Mallarmé's preference for infinitives or adverbs rather than conjugated verbs makes time fluid while shifts in tenses and fusions of past and present or present and future threaten in some cases to abolish the focus on the present which is the realm of the everyday themes that are Stafford's major concern. [End Page 382]
The next chapter turns to vocabulary to demonstrate that, while Mallarmé has a reputation for difficulty, this is not based on the use of esoteric words. In fact rare and archaic words appear less frequently in the poetry than in Mallarmé's prose. When unusual words are used, it is often for special emphasis or effect. An archaic word turns the reader's attention to the past and away from the everyday present while unexpected mixing of levels of language or of areas of reference can produce a comic effect. A special study of the uses of the word "ordinaire" and its synonyms shows how, by using such terms instead of simply naming ordinary objects, Mallarmé seems to categorize and thus limit them.
A chapter on metaphor retains the feel of the doctoral dissertation with an obligatory survey of definitions of metaphor. An analysis of Mallarmé's metaphors reveals both close affinities with Baudelaire and numerous uses of verbal or adverbial elements. Mallarmé's complex linkages situate even the ordinary objects he works with in a personal, poetic world that departs from everyday perceptions, but contrary to those who would find Mallarmé's poetry difficult, Stafford finds many...