THE BARK OF THE LANGUAGE FOREST: Peter Manson’s ‘English in Mallarmé’

Glasgow Review of Books

Peter MansonEnglish in Mallarmé (BLART Books, 2014)

By Rebecca Varley–Winter

English in Mallarme (cover)In ‘The Music of Poetry’ (1942), T. S. Eliot writes of the “most obscure” French poet Stéphane Mallarmé: “the French sometimes say that his language is so peculiar that it can only be understood by foreigners.”[i] “Obscure” is not quite right, as Mallarmé’s language is not hard to see – his symbols are visually evocative, albeit constantly shifting – but his poetry is stubbornly plural in sound and sense, posing an inviting challenge to translators. For example, due to the similarity of cygne (swan) to signe (sign), Mallarmé’s swans are both physical and metaphysical, mimicking writing itself (a swan’s neck even looks like an “s”, a signe): the wordplay of cygne/signe has no English equivalent. In a particularly knotted stanza of ‘Hérodiade’, the voice of the poet interacts rhythmically with “les dentelles pures / du suaire”…

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