From the Archives

A Faun's Afternoon

Stéphane Mallarmé, Richard Howard

If only they would stay forever – nymphs
whose rosy flesh can spur the drowsy air
to dancing.
                      Did I love a dream?
                                                           My doubt,
the residue of all my nights, dissolves
into a branching maze, this grove of trees:
proof that what I took for rapture was
an artifice of . . . roses.
                                           Just suppose
these . . . women had no more reality
than figments of a faun's deluded mind:
illusion seeping like spring-water from
the coy one's cold blue eyes, contrasting with
the other's sights – as if the day's warm breeze
had fondled my pelt.
                                      And it was all a lie!
No stream arouses from their somnolence
these suffocating fields; it is my flute
whose faltering cascade relieves the grove;
and the only wind, quick to escape these pipes
before the sound spreads in an arid rain,
is the visible and artificial breath
— rising serene on the undefiled horizon —
of inspiration which remounts the sky.

Sicilian marshes my vanity despoils,
vying daily with the sun, marshes
inert beneath such radiance, TELL how
as I was harvesting the hollow reeds
my art requires, amid the murky gold
of foliage trailing into far-off pools,
an animal pallor rippled in repose:
and how to the prelude of my untried pipes
that flight of swans - no! of naiads takes wing
or dives . . . 

                       Torpid at tawny noon, the world
stagnates . . . No sign of how they could have fled
the piper's longed-for consummation. Then
must I rouse myself to that first desire,
erect and alone, a lily in the flood
of primal light, ingenuous as they . . . 

For all this dalliance their lips bestowed
(a kiss, mute witness to their perfidy),
my own breast, innocent of proof, avows
the secret scar of sacramental teeth – 
no more of that!
                               Some secret wisdom chose
for earthly confidant the reeds I play,
which (taking my cheek's fever for their own)
dream in an endless phrase that I beguile
the beauty of this grove, make false
confessions of it with my credulous song
creating — as only love, behind closed eyes,
can modulate (from ordinary dreams
of belly, back, or unpolluted thighs) — 
one sonorous, vain, undeviating line.

Malignant instrument, revert to reeds
my Syrinx of old evasions: go 
back to your lagoons, wait for me there . . . 
I have my own voice, proudly I shall speak 
of goddesses, and by idolatrous
portrayals steal from their shadow shades
and more than shades. Thus, once I have sucked
the bright juice out of grapes, I'll banish regret
(which I can at least pretend to cast aside);
laughing and longing to be drunk, I'll hold
the empty cluster up to the sky, inflate
the shiny skins and peer through them till dark.

O nymphs inflate our MEMORIES again:
"Piercing the reeds, my gaze would pounce upon
the deathless napes cooling in the pools —
with squeals of outrage to the forest sky,
each lovely head of hair would vanish from sight
in shuddering splendor, a cascade of gems!
Later, tangled at my feet and suffering
the languorous travail cf being two,
these sleepers lie in each other's random arms.
I fall upon them, seize both at once, and rush
to this staring clump cf roses that defy
immoment shadows, yielding to the sun
their every sweetness: here may our sport
be consummated with the squandered day. "

Adorable virgin ternper, savage spoils
of the sacred naked burden impotent
to escape my scalding tongue that probes
for secrets of the flesh – the taunting thighs
of one, the other's suddenly timid breasts,
the innocence of both abandoned now,
their bodies wracked with frantic sobbing or
with, perhaps, less melancholy dews . . . 

"Gay with the conquest of such faithless fears
my crime is to have sorted into sense
or into senses the disheveled clump
of kisses that the gods had kept so close:
no sooner had I stifled my delight
in the rapturous recesses of one nymph
(and only held the other by her wrist)
to keep
her warm while her sister burned away
– the little, naive one who never even blushed)
than from my arms, released as if by death,
this prey, ungrateful to the last, breaks free
with not a moment's pity far the spasm
that had besotted me stilL"

                                                   And what of that!
Others will take me all the way to joy,
wreathing my horns within their simple curls. . . . 
You know, my passion, how, once red and ripe,
pomegranates burst in a murmur of bees;
how our blood, so taken with whoever will take it,
flows for all the eternal swarm of desire. . . . 
Just when this grove is tinged with gold and asl1,
celebration hallows the darkened foliage:
Etna! Ou your slopes Venus arrives,
skimming your lava with unearthly heels
when snores pollute our pitiable sleep
or the flame expires. . . . 
                                              I still embrace the queen!
For which sure retribution . . . 
                                                       No,
but this numb body and this vacant soul
succumb to the spell of afternoon: forget
such blasphemies in sleep. On the thirsty sand,
Stretch and yawn, mouth open wide
to wine's still-potent sun.
                                          Couple, farewell!
Soon I shall see the shade that you became.

                                                              1876

Stéphane Mallarmé was one of the most influential poets of late nineteenth-century France. His works include Divagations and Un coup de dès n'abolira jamais le hasard.
Richard Howard was an American poet and translator. He received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Untitled Subjects.
Originally published:
July 1, 2004

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