Stéphane Mallarmé

Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard

(A throw of the dice will never abolish chance)

The game is done!

‘The game is done!’
Gustave Doré (1832 - 1910), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Coleridge
Wikimedia Commons

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2007 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.


Contents


Translator’s Introduction

The French text displayed here is as close as I could achieve to that printed in the edition of July 1914, which produced a definitive version superseding the original publication of 1897. The English ‘translation’ is offered as an equivalent text to, or interpretation of, the original. The compressed and punctuated translation is offered as an aid to grasping the poem as a whole, in a swift reading.


Mallarmé’s Preface of 1897

‘I would prefer that this Note was not read, or, skimmed, was forgotten; it tells the knowledgeable reader little that is beyond his or her penetration: but may confuse the uninitiated, prior to their looking at the first words of the Poem, since the ensuing words, laid out as they are, lead on to the last, with no novelty except the spacing of the text. The ‘blanks’ indeed take on importance, at first glance; the versification demands them, as a surrounding silence, to the extent that a fragment, lyrical or of a few beats, occupies, in its midst, a third of the space of paper: I do not transgress the measure, only disperse it. The paper intervenes each time as an image, of itself, ends or begins once more, accepting a succession of others, and, since, as ever, it does nothing, of regular sonorous lines or verse – rather prismatic subdivisions of the Idea, the instant they appear, and as long as they last, in some precise intellectual performance, that is in variable positions, nearer to or further from the implicit guiding thread, because of the verisimilitude the text imposes. The literary value, if I am allowed to say so, of this print-less distance which mentally separates groups of words or words themselves, is to periodically accelerate or slow the movement, the scansion, the sequence even, given one’s simultaneous sight of the page: the latter taken as unity, as elsewhere the Verse is or perfect line. Imagination flowers and vanishes, swiftly, following the flow of the writing, round the fragmentary stations of a capitalised phrase introduced by and extended from the title. Everything takes place, in sections, by supposition; narrative is avoided. In addition this use of the bare thought with its retreats, prolongations, and flights, by reason of its very design, for anyone wishing to read it aloud, results in a score. The variation in printed characters between the dominant motif, a secondary one and those adjacent, marks its importance for oral utterance and the scale, mid-way, at top or bottom of the page will show how the intonation rises or falls. (Only certain very bold instructions of mine, encroachments etc. forming the counterpoint to this prosody, a work which lacks precedent, have been left in a primitive state: not because I agree with being timid in my attempts; but because it is not for me, save by a special pagination or volume of my own, in a Periodical so courageous, gracious and accommodating as it shows itself to be to real freedom, to act too contrary to custom. I will have shown, in the Poem below, more than a sketch, a ‘state’ which yet does not entirely break with tradition; will have furthered its presentation in many ways too, without offending anyone; sufficing to open a few eyes (This applies to the 1897 printing specifically: translator’s note). Today, without presuming anything about what will emerge from this in future, nothing, or almost a new art, let us readily accept that the tentative participates, with the unforeseen, in the pursuit, specific and dear to our time, of free verse and the prose poem. Their meeting takes place under an influence, alien I know, that of Music heard in concert; one finds there several techniques that seem to me to belong to Literature, I reclaim them. The genre, which is becoming one, like the symphony, little by little, alongside personal poetry, leaves intact the older verse; for which I maintain my worship, and to which I attribute the empire of passion and dreams, though this may be the preferred means (as follows) of dealing with subjects of pure and complex imagination or intellect: which there is no remaining justification for excluding from Poetry – the unique source.’


The French Text

Un Coup de Des - Page 1

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The French Text – Compressed, and Punctuated

UN COUP DE DÉS JAMAIS, QUAND BIEN MÊME LANCÉ DANS DES CIRCONSTANCES ÉTERNELLES DU FOND D'UN NAUFRAGE, Soit que l'Abîme blanchi, étale, furieux sous une inclinaison planche désespérément d'aile, la sienne, par avance retombée d'un mal à dresser le vol et couvrant les jaillissements, coupant au ras les bonds très à l'intérieur résume l'ombre enfouie dans la profondeur, par cette voile alternative jusqu'adapter sa béante profondeur entant que la coque d'un bâtiment penché de l'un ou l'autre bord

LE MAÎTRE, hors d'anciens calculs, où la manoeuvre avec l'âge oubliée surgi jadis, il empoignait la barre inférant de cette configuration à ses pieds de l’horizon unanime, que se prépare s'agite et mêle au poing qui l'étreindrait, comme on menace un destin et les vents, l'unique Nombre, qui ne peut pas être un autre Esprit, pour le jeter dans la tempête en reployer la division et passer fier; hésite, cadavre par le bras écarté du secret qu'il détient plutôt que de jouer, en maniaque: chenu la partie au nom des flots, un envahit le chef, coule en barbe, soumise naufrage, cela direct de l'homme sans nef, n'importe où vaine

ancestralement à n'ouvrir pas la main crispée par delà l'inutile tête, legs en la disparition, à quelqu'un ambigu, l'ultérieur démon immémorial, ayant de contrées nulles induit le vieillard vers cette conjonction suprême avec la probabilité, celui son ombre puérile caressée et polie et rendue et lavée assouplie par la vague, et soustraite aux durs os perdus entre les ais né d'un ébat, la mer par l'aïeul tentant ou l'aïeul contre la mer, une chance oiseuse, Fiançailles dont le voile d'illusion rejailli leur hantise, ainsi que le fantôme d'un geste chancellera, s'affalera, folie N'ABOLIRA

COMME SI Une insinuation simple au silence, enroulée avec ironie, ou le mystère précipité, hurlé, dans quelque proche tourbillon d'hilarité et d'horreur, voltige autour du gouffre sans le joncher ni fuir et en berce le vierge indice COMME SI

plume solitaire éperdue, sauf que la rencontre ou l'effleure une toque de minuit et immobilise au velours chiffonné par un esclaffement sonore, cette blancheur rigide, dérisoire en opposition au ciel, trop pour ne pas marquer exigüment quiconque prince amer de l'écueil, s'en coiffe comme de l'héroïque, irrésistible mais contenu par sa petite raison, virile en foudre

soucieux expiatoire et pubère muet rire que SI La lucide et seigneuriale aigrette de vertige au front invisible scintille, puis ombrage, une stature mignonne ténébreuse, debout en sa torsion de sirène, le temps de souffleter, par d'impatientes squames ultimes, bifurquées, un roc faux manoir tout de suite évaporé en brumes qui imposa une borne à l'infini

C'ÉTAIT LE NOMBRE, issu stellaire, EXISTÂT-IL autrement qu'hallucination éparse, d'agonie; COMMENÇÂT-IL ET CESSÂT-IL, sourdant que nié, et clos, quand apparu enfin, par quelque profusion répandue en rareté; SE CHIFFRÂT-IL évidence de la somme, pour peu qu’une; ILLUMINÂT-IL, CE SERAIT, pire non davantage ni moins indifféremment mais autant, LE HASARD Choit la plume, rythmique suspens du sinistre, s'ensevelir aux écumes originelles naguères, d'où sursauta son délire jusqu'à une cime flétrie par la neutralité identique du gouffre

RIEN de la mémorable crise où se fût l'événement accompli, en vue de tout résultat nul humain, N'AURA EU LIEU, une élévation ordinaire verse l'absence QUE LE LIEU inférieur clapotis quelconque, comme pour disperser l'acte vide abruptement, qui sinon par son mensonge eût fondé la perdition, dans ces parages du vague, en quoi toute réalité se dissout

EXCEPTÉ à l'altitude PEUT-ÊTRE, aussi loin qu'un endroit fusionne avec au-delà, hors l'intérêt quant à lui signalé, en général, selon telle obliquité, par telle déclivité de feux, vers ce doit être le Septentrion aussi Nord UNE CONSTELLATION froide d'oubli et de désuétude, pas tant qu'elle n'énumère, sur quelque surface vacante et supérieure, le heurt successif, sidéralement, d'un compte total en formation, veillant, doutant, roulant, brillant et méditant avant de s'arrêter à quelque point dernier qui le sacre Toute pensée émet un Coup de Dés.


The English Translation

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The English Translation – Compressed, and Punctuated

A THROW OF THE DICE NEVER, EVEN WHEN TRULY CAST IN THE ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCE OF A SHIPWRECK’S DEPTH, Can be only the Abyss raging, whitened, stalled beneath the desperately sloping incline of its own wing, through an advance falling back from ill to take flight, and veiling the gushers, restraining the surges, gathered far within the shadow buried deep by that alternative sail, almost matching its yawning depth to the wingspan, like a hull of a vessel rocked from side to side

THE MASTER, beyond former calculations, where the lost manoeuvre with the age rose implying that formerly he grasped the helm of this conflagration of the concerted horizon at his feet, that readies itself; moves; and merges with the blow that grips it, as one threatens fate and the winds, the unique Number, which cannot be another Spirit, to hurl it into the storm, relinquish the cleaving there, and pass proudly; hesitates, a corpse pushed back by the arm from the secret, rather than taking sides, a hoary madman, on behalf of the waves: one overwhelms the head, flows through the submissive beard, straight shipwreck that, of the man without a vessel, empty no matter where

ancestrally never to open the fist clenched beyond the helpless head, a legacy, in vanishing, to someone ambiguous, the immemorial ulterior demon having, from non-existent regions, led the old man towards this ultimate meeting with probability, this his childlike shade caressed and smoothed and rendered supple by the wave, and shielded from hard bone lost between the planks born of a frolic, the sea through the old man or the old man against the sea, making a vain attempt, an Engagement whose dread the veil of illusion rejected, as the phantom of a gesture will tremble, collapse, madness, WILL NEVER ABOLISH

AS IF A simple insinuation into silence, entwined with irony, or the mystery hurled, howled, in some close swirl of mirth and terror, whirls round the abyss without scattering or dispersing and cradles the virgin index there AS IF

a solitary plume overwhelmed, untouched, that a cap of midnight grazes, or encounters, and fixes, in crumpled velvet with a sombre burst of laughter, that rigid whiteness, derisory, in opposition to the heavens, too much so not to signal closely any bitter prince of the reef, heroically adorned with it, indomitable, but contained by his petty reason, virile in lightning

anxious expiatory and pubescent dumb laughter that IF the lucid and lordly crest of vertigo on the invisible brow sparkles, then shades, a slim dark tallness, upright in its siren coiling, at the moment of striking, through impatient ultimate scales, bifurcated, a rock a deceptive manor suddenly evaporating in fog that imposed limits on the infinite

IT WAS THE NUMBER, stellar outcome, WERE IT TO HAVE EXISTED other than as a fragmented, agonised hallucination; WERE IT TO HAVE BEGUN AND ENDED, a surging that denied, and closed, when visible at last, by some profusion spreading in sparseness; WERE IT TO HAVE AMOUNTED to the fact of the total, though as little as one; WERE IT TO HAVE LIGHTED, IT WOULD BE, worse no more nor less indifferently but as much, CHANCE Falls the plume, rhythmic suspense of the disaster, to bury itself in the original foam, from which its delirium formerly leapt to the summit faded by the same neutrality of abyss

NOTHING of the memorable crisis where the event matured, accomplished in sight of all non-existent human outcomes, WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE a commonplace elevation pours out absence BUT THE PLACE some lapping below, as if to scatter the empty act abruptly, that otherwise by its falsity would have plumbed perdition, in this region of vagueness, in which all reality dissolves

EXCEPT at the altitude PERHAPS, as far as a place fuses with, beyond, outside the interest signalled regarding it, in general, in accord with such obliquity, through such declination of fire, towards what must be the Wain also North A CONSTELLATION cold with neglect and desuetude, not so much though that it fails to enumerate, on some vacant and superior surface, the consecutive clash, sidereally, of a final account in formation, attending, doubting, rolling, shining and meditating before stopping at some last point that crowns it All Thought expresses a Throw of the Dice

Notes:

  1. The larger and smaller words in capitals in the poem are to be read as intertwined statements, and dominant and secondary threads of the poem, in accordance with the hints in Mallarmé’s Preface.

  2. The French Septentrion meaning the North, derives from the Latin Septentrio also meaning the North, but specifically referring in addition to the constellation Ursa Major known variously as the Great Bear, Wain, Plough or Big Dipper. Note that a constellation is a chance arbitrary visual formation of often widely disparate stars, delineated and designated purely by the human mind.

  3. Note the following possible literary echoes, which may equally indicate no more than Mallarme’s absorption of, and interest in, common 19th century themes:

    • Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner (1797-1799: especially the casting of dice on the deck of the spectral barge);
    • The legends of the Flying Dutchman, and of the Maelstrom (See for example the final chapter of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1870);
    • Shakespeare’s Hamlet who also appears in a Mallarmé sonnet (The Clown Chastised);
    • Rostand’s Cyrano (First performed 1897) with his defiant plume (also of course in French a pen and a quill or swan’s feather, a key multiple meaning impossible to capture in English);
    • Melville’s Moby Dick (1851: for Ahab’s defiance, and his pursuit of the White Whale that signifies Le Néant, and not merely for its compulsive and obsessive digressions!)

A. S. Kline, 3rd March 2007