Literary Criticism Poems

Stephen Mallarmé’s “Le chevelure vol d’une flame à l’extrême”

In this impressionistic translation of Stephen Mallarmé’s sonnet, “Le chevelure vol d’une flame à l’extrême,” I have attempted to disclose the imaginative life of the poem. The poem is an allegory for the creative process and the poem itself, described with a complex blend of astronomical and sexual figurations.

The primary subject is a woman, a lover and a muse, who is characterized as a heavenly body. For example, “La chevelure vol d’une flamme à l’extrême Occident,” the flaming hair flying low in the Western sky, suggests the image of the sun. “Vers le front couronné son ancien foyer,” where the woman wears her hair up in a crown, also alludes to a wrapping of its rays on the “brow” of the horizon. “Dans le joyau de l’oeil” (literally “within the gem of an eye”) is another abstraction of the sun. “Une nudité de héros” refers to the celestial constellations. The brilliant image of “son chef fulgurante l’exploit/De semer de rubis” could be the trail of the setting sun imbuing the earth with its red hue.

Yet, Mallarmé eroticizes the poem through sexual imagery and double entendre. The opening images also describe a woman (his lover and muse) at her vanity, combing her bright hair and then arranging it into a type of crown, all the while inflaming the poet with desire, for in her he sees the sun, the creative force that gives life. The second stanza develops this concept further, showing us the mysterious power of the woman, whom he calls a “vive nue” (literally a “live cloud” or “naked life” which I have translated as “haloed sprite,” attempting to capture both the image of the hair as a cloud and the electrical nature of her raw image before the poet). Her power over the poet is transforming, as her celestial spirit becomes the abstracted embodiment of truth or joy. Indeed, the second stanza conveys an M.C. Escher quality, like the hand that draws itself, where the light that ignites the “everlasting fire within” could be interpreted as beginning in the eye of the poet, the author of the poem, or with the woman, as muse. The description in the third stanza and ending couplet serves up a portrait of the dominatrix with a whip. Any poets reading this will identify with the pleasure and the pain of creating poetry, and how harsh our muse often seems, so Mallarmé’s characterization seems very fitting indeed. Yet, the phrase “a scorch of a mistress” indicates that there is a lot of fun in this dominatrix, who brandishes her torch (her hair as her whip) joyously, as she “tutors” the poet. Thus, Mallarmé conjures multiple sexual attitudes with so few words, and yet at the same time revealing the ethereal nature of the relationship.

Those of you who know French will see that I have eschewed a literal translation in favor of an impressionistic one that attempts to convey a flavor of the original’s suggestive language. For example, in the first stanza’s last line I have translated “ancien foyer,” literally “old hearth” or even “old home,” as “hearth and homeland.” In the second stanza I have expanded the bare adjectives “veridique” (truthful) and “rieur” (laughing) into modified nouns, respectively “burning truth” and “bright grin,” for the purely selfish reasons of preserving the flow of the line and its sense impression. Similarly,in the third stanza, rather than translating the first line literally as, “The nudity of the heroes shame her,” I have elected to take the liberty of investing more meaning: “The bare constellations of heroes should be/ ashamed.” In this way, we understand that the poet is talking about the night sky, that the constellations of stars are poor by comparison, so that they themselves should be “ashamed” at their attempts to compete with his love, as she is more brilliant than any anthropomorphic configuration of stars. The poem goes further, I think, by contrasting the divinity of the woman as a symbol of the creative life force with the Old World’s mythological divinities figured in the constellations.

In this way, the translation method I have used resembles that of Robert Lowell’s in Imitations, which is really the only way I felt I could expose Mallarmé’s allusiveness. Yet the translation is a poem itself and should be read in a way that extends the symbolic and imagistic figuration.

The translation of Mallarmé’s late work is always fraught with peril, for he abandons regular syntax and punctuation in an effort to create multiple realms of expression. A translator will often find that he is driving down one way streets where Mallarmé intended you to be at crossroads. Put another way, Mallarmé is three-dimensional chess to your checkers. I hope you enjoy the poem and my translation.

First, the original poem:

La chevelure vol d’une flamme à l’extrême
Occident de désirs pour la tout éployer
Se pose (je dirais mourir un diadème)
Vers le front couronné son ancien foyer

Mais sans or soupirer que cette vive nue
L’ignition du feu toujours intérieur
Originellement la seule continue
Dans le joyau de l’oeil véridique ou rieur

Une nudité de héros tendre diffame
Celle qui ne mouvant astre ni feux au doigt
Rien qu’à simplifier avec gloire la femme
Accomplit par son chef fulgurante l’exploit

De semer de rubis le doute qu’elle écorche
Ainsi qu’une joyeuse et tutélaire torche.

Now, my translation:

Her hair flies a flame beyond the western frontier
of desires so as to utterly array each strand
that lies (rather, dying the ghost of a diamond tier’)
on that coronated brow, its hearth and homeland.

But not for gold does she sigh, this haloed sprite
ignites the everlasting fire within
from which it arose at first light
in the jewel of the eye’s burning truth or bright grin.

The bare constellations of heroes should be
ashamed, for she, to whom no shooting star or finger flame
compares, is nothing less than a mistress in full glory
reifying her most lightening-striking aim

of scourging doubt to sow her rubies: a scorch
of a mistress brandishing her tutelary torch.

Steven M. Critelli © 2012


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