Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Some light on SAINTE by Stéphane Mallarmé 

A word for word literal translation into English of this small miracle of a poem would produce gibberish.
One way to appreciate it is first to acquaint oneself with what is known and what is surmised about the poet's intentions when he wrote it – or them, for there are two versions, the following being the earlier one:
Sainte Cécile jouant sur l'aile d'un chérubin
(chanson et image ancienne)
A la fenêtre recélant
Le santal vieux qui se dédore
De la Viole étincelant
Jadis parmi flûte ou mandore,

Est une Sainte recélant
Le livre vieux qui se déplie
Du Magnificat ruisselant
Jadis à véprée et complie,

Saint à vitrage d'ostensoir
Pour clore la harpe par l'ange
Offerte avec son vol du soir
A la délicate phalange

Du doigt, que, sans le vieux santal
Ni le vieux livre, elle balance
Sur le plumage instrumental
Musicienne du silence.

What do we know about version 1?
In December 1865, Mallarmé wrote to a friend to say that he sent him a small musical poem requested by Mme. Brunet. To another he wrote the next day charging him to pass on a letter to (Monsieur?) Brunet and to read to Mme. Brunet "a Sainte Cecilia which I promised her". Mme Brunet's given name was Cécile, and she was godmother to the poet's daughter, Geneviève.
It is worth noting that M. Jean Brunet was a master glass-maker.

Mallarmé seems then to have laid the poem aside until 1883, when he showed his revised version to his fellow poet, Paul Verlaine:
À la fenêtre recelant
Le santal vieux qui se dédore
De sa viole étincelant
Jadis avec flûte ou mandore,

Est la Sainte pâle, étalant
Le livre vieux qui se déplie
Du Magnificat ruisselant
Jadis selon vêpre et complie:

À ce vitrage d’ostensoir
Que frôle une harpe par l’Ange
Formée avec son vol du soir
Pour la délicate phalange

Du doigt que, sans le vieux santal
Ni le vieux livre, elle balance
Sur le plumage instrumental,
Musicienne du silence.

What do we know or guess about the picture in the poet's mind?
It appears that the poet intended at once to evoke a dream of time long past (jadis), and to blur it, mixing up the images evoked as dreams do, so that a simple cut-and-dried explanation is not possible. But we can glean first an outline: we are looking at a window (fenêtre . . . ce vitrage) which for the nonce functions as a monstrance (ostensoir) – that which reveals something holy. In the window is a saint who we know (from version 1) is definitely Saint Cecilia. The window also shows an angel, an old (vieux) missal or book of hours, and some old musical instruments of gilded sandalwood (santal). Also, it is evening, and this is undoubtedly a church because once (jadis) evening prayer would have been sung here.
Add the details and this is the picture that suggests itself:
At evening (du soir) in a church where once were sung Vespers (vêpre) – including the Magnificat – followed by Compline (complie), is Saint Cecilia in a stained-glass window. She is pale, her colour drained perhaps by the failing sunlight which has also first flaked the gilt (dédore) from the formerly (jadis) sparkling (étincelant) viol, flute and mandora, all now concealed (recelant) as the light fails to come through them. In one hand the saint displays (étalant) an old book, unfolding (se déplie) at the Magnificat – possibly shown with its musical notation as in this similar image:

The Magnificat once 'streamed' (ruisselant) during evening prayer but there is a sense that the rippling pages of the unfolding volume are also now concealed by darkness, hence the repetition of jadis.
The saint's other hand has a delicate finger (la délicate phalange/ Du doigt) extended in a pose not uncommon in medieval art, pointing – but not intentionally – in the direction of an angel – almost always shown along with Saint Cecilia – who has at least one wing outspread as if in flight (vol) – again a not uncommon pose – and this wing has the shape of a harp (une harpe par l’Ange/ Formée avec son vol du soir). The saint's extended finger barely brushes (frôle) the wing whose ranked feathers might suggest the strings of a harp (plumage instrumental).
And now comes the magical part. One might suppose that a trick of the withdrawing rays of sunlight lights up the harp-like wing and the saint's finger in such a way that – presently deprived of her musical instruments and her hymn (book) – she makes music on this imagined harp. Only, the music must also be imagined, for naturally it will be silent music, yet the music was silenced anyway when services in the church ceased. And this circumstance is perhaps symbolised by the 'concealment' of the viol, flute and mandora, as well as the Magnificat-bearing page. But, after all, the poem itself is now the music. . . .

To have this exquisite poem explained in such a fashion is rather like having Hercule Poirot explain the Mona Lisa. Leave explanations here and simply read the poem aloud, listening to it. (Maurice Ravel set it to music as a song.)
There are many other aspects to, and details about, this poem which need not concern the lay reader. It is only necessary to enjoy it, seeing it as a picture brought to life by the slanting rays of a setting sun first piercing a stained glass window and later causing apparent movement in that window; then smelling its fragrance as of aged sandalwood mingled with ancient dust; but most of all hearing its music – an old, gentle music.

"Sainte" was first drawn to one's attention by Dr Jaysinh Birjepatil, then (1970-71) Reader in (or Professor of) English at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda. In acknowledging a debt to him it seems appropriate, too, to acknowledge others – Head of Department Professor V. Y. Kantak, Mr R. N. Mehta, Rev. Fr I. Echaniz S.J. and Sr Mary Rafaella F.M.M. All of them, each in a different way, opened doors and windows in the mind, not only imparting knowledge but making one aware of the possibility of joy: joy in knowledge, certainly, but beyond that the joy of self-expression and self-fulfilment. As one grows old and the end of one's days draws closer, one turns to look back down the long road one has trod, at its turning points and the people who stand there smiling encouragingly. They are too far away to hear, but one may at least wave a hand in salutation and in thanks for kindness shown. 

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.


cynthia said...
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cynthia said...

Thank you for Mallarme's beautiful poem and your thoughts on it. French is such a mellifluous language but the partial translation in English was a welcome aid to my better understanding of it. The image which it left with me was warm and tranquil. Ravel is one of my favourite composers and I would love to hear his musical setting of the poem. Cynthia from England