i’ve finished my coursework essays! which means that i can now get on with the real business of life, i.e marathoning the hollow crown, getting shin splints, eating gnocchi with my deadpan & pre-raphaelite flatmate lucy, & shutting myself up to write for ten hours a day. oh, & reading.
specifically, reading mallarmé’s collected poems, a midsummer night’s dream, brief lives (sandman #7), & emily of new moon. this is an intoxicating cocktail to me; it means i get to indulge four of my obsessions at once. french symbolist poetry! shakespeare! gaiman! l.m montgomery!
i’m only thirty pages into the mallarmé collection & it’s a pretty unusual experience. it’s difficult stuff, for one thing- abstract, dreamlike, & it has a strange out-of-time quality. there’s beautiful sumptuous imagery- sometimes monstrously sumptuous, excessively sumptuous. you can see why it held such an attraction for the decadents. & you can sense through his writing this constant tidal pull towards dream-life, an endless restlessness.
it’s otherworldly. poems like white orchids.
for those who don’t have an obsessive thing about the decadence & all its influences: stéphane mallarmé, 1842-1898, one of the key figures of the french symbolist movement, which was all about access to sublimity through dreams rather than the physical world. major oversimplification, obviously.
anyway, his poetry’s taken up most of my recent three a.ms. one of the ones that’s caught & held me, so far-
The flesh is sad- and I’ve read every book.
O to escape- to get away! Birds look
as though they’re drunk for unknown spray and skies.
No ancient gardens mirrored in the eyes,
nothing can hold this heart steeped in the sea-
not my lamp’s desolate luminosity
nor the blank paper guarded by its white
nor the young wife feeding her child, O night!
Away! You steamer with your swaying helm,
raise anchor for some more exotic realm!
Ennui, crushed by cruel hopes, still relies
on the handkerchief’s definitive goodbyes!
Is that the kind of squall-inviting mast
that storm-winds buckle above shipwrecks cast
away- no mast, no islets flourishing?
Still, my soul, listen to the sailors sing!
the world we live in has a sort of ground-level distrust of dreams. for obvious reasons. the old-fashioned idea of the ‘dreamer’ is- has it gone? a couple hundred years ago i suppose this would have been embodied by the cloistered poet in the unfurnished attic, hill of dreams-style. & now?
it’s unhealthy to live too much in your mind, to wallow all day in writing or television or looking at pictures of places you’ll never go or pick your poison. of course it’s unhealthy. we are expected, in the world we live in now, to get up & fix our dreamer-habits. they don’t put food on the table. they don’t get you a degree. etc. self-care doctrine is on the rise. if you catch yourself staring into space for five minutes you’re supposed to quit that shit & do some yoga. or call a friend & laboriously explain that, & why, & exactly how you’re feeling spacey.
obviously i’m not saying this is necessarily a bad idea. to some extent these people are right. there is a point where if you spend too much time in your head you forget how to live.
but for people with lush dream-lives a degree of Transportive Cloisterment is necessary. it keeps you sane. it allows your head to remain a place you can hang out in. sometimes after a weekend of bonfires & grimy clubs i’ll stumble back in with woodsmoke in my hair & scratchy eyes & in that act of switching off from social-mode it’s like i’m re-entering my own mental landscape. feeling along the walls, remembering who i am when i’m alone.
i feel some of that in this poem. the temptation to rereat, the yearning for something new, for that access to your own dream-spaces. drunk for unknown spray & skies. & of course the draw of the sea. there are people who are in love with the sea, for whom separation from it amounts to a physical longing. it might be one of the only truly huge & unknowable things left on this earth, one of the only parts of it still capable of hiding things. mallarmé’s pre-freud, of course, but the sea’s functioned as a metaphor for the subterranean dream-realms of the mind for a hell of a long time.
one of my favourite passages from moby-dick:
“But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within; and here sleeps his meadow, and there sleep his cattle; and up from yonder cottage goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd’s head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd’s eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him. Go visit the Prairies in June, when for scores on scores of miles you wade knee-deep among Tiger-lilies—what is the one charm wanting?—Water—there is not a drop of water there! Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
the ungraspable phantom of life. life as a phantom. life as a dream. domesticity, which we’re supposed to want, which we’re supposed to need to fulfil us- the young wife feeding her child, here- as wearying. not everyone’s cut out for it. some people who try to tie themselves down are always going to be listening out for the sailors’ song, the siren-song. think siken: til human voices wake us, & we drown.
expect more from me on this collection. i really like the translation (e.h & a.m blackmore). (also, a tip for anglophones digging into the french symbolists: get a translation with parallel french text. read the original aloud even if you don’t understand a word of it. it’s like cello-music. it’s like crack.)