Musicality and Suggestion in Mallarmé and Stein

Musicality and Suggestion in Mallarmé and Stein


Stéphane Mallarmé and Gertrude Stein, despite radical differences between their work, move toward a linguistic and poetic movement that systematically resists the tendency of language to become definitive. These authors present transitions, as opposed to expressions, of meaning, whereby any static model with which to understand their work falls away. Each manifests a language of suggestion, exploiting language’s connotative, rather than denotative, qualities, leaving the reader with a meaning that remains in motion, a world that stays under construction, un-cemented into something definite. This paper explores “how,” these authors create meaning rather than “what,” they mean, displaying the techniques and strategies each employs to develop active exchanges of meaning that approach musicality, pointing out where the two meet on this path. I focus on how the works function at the line-by-line and word-by-word levels, observing the micro-gestures they engage to initiate the motion of meaning. Throughout this analysis, I concentrate on a portion of Mallarmé’s poem “Apparition” and selections from Stein’s Tender Buttons. Unfortunately, this form of reading implies a reduction of works under consideration, especially since I juggle between two difficult poets. Thus, as I have already stated, this paper centers on a specific mode of signification with which the works are involved rather than a comprehensive interpretation of them in all their aspects. 

Mallarmé’s poem “Apparition”1 is a single stanza composed of sixteen twelve-syllable lines following a tight AABBCC end rhyme scheme that alters the end rhyme every two lines. The poem is divided roughly into three sections of five sentences. The opening section presents our first instance of a polyvalent poetic movement that turns toward suggestion and transitions of meaning. It reads: 

      La lune s’attristait. Des séraphins en pleurs                              The moon was saddening. Seraphim in tears 

      Rêvant, l’archet aux doigts, dans le calme des fleurs                Dreaming, bow in hand, in the calm of vaporous 

      Vaporeuses, tiraient de mourantes violes                                   Flowers, were drawing from dying violins

      De blancs sanglots glissant sur l’azur des corolles.                    White sobs gliding down blue corollas.

      —C’était le jour béni de ton premier baiser.                              —It was the blessed day of your first kiss.

The first sentence, “The moon was saddening,” depicts an ongoing, past-tense image of the moon in the night sky with a subtle injection of emotion. If we read this sentence in tandem with the section’s final line, we have a representation of the environment during the addressed other’s “first kiss.”  With these two lines, the physical and emotional atmosphere of the “first kiss” becomes confusing, drawing the reader in multiple directions. The image of the moon announces nighttime, yet the final line, which, through its em dash, serves as a caption or title to the preceding images, points toward the “day,” le jour, which contains senses of sunlight and daytime. Alongside this physical confusion, the first sentence emits an air of sadness, while the last line brings out celebration, love, and happiness “blessed” by the divine. The physical and emotional scene of this “first kiss” thus appears unfixed with a simultaneity of contrasting elements that keep the reader’s comprehension in motion, moving between night and day, sadness and celebration. Moreover, if these two sentences are read as occurring in a temporal succession rather than simultaneously, this section presents a transition from one physical and emotional state into another. Thus, the reader’s understanding is again unfixed, perceiving both the confusion of contrasting states and the transition between them. 

The complexity of this unfixed shifting grows as each line or phrase interacts with various others. For example, while the sentence, “The moon was saddening,” engages with the final line, it also enters into the network of images immediately following it. The initial image of “The Moon” displays a white object floating in the sky, and this “saddening” object transforms into and is mirrored by the following image of “Seraphim,” who are angelic beings in the sky with white wings and robes. Thus, Mallarmé begins by evoking two mirror images, a white moon and white angels in the sky, and the former transforms into the latter because their respective states, sadness and tears, are in a causal relationship: one cries because one is sad. The states of each image are thus linked sequentially, depicting that the moon transforms into multiple seraphim, moving from sadness to tears. This linkage also occurs sonically with the alliterative association between s’attristait and sèraphins. Furthermore, these two images look toward the final line, the light associated with the moon and angelic beings echoing the daylight to come, and the divinity of the “Seraphim” harmonizing with the “blessed day.” We could also read the transformation of the moon into seraphim as a consecration of the night; the moon becomes sacred, subsequently presenting a blessed night that mirrors the later “blessed day.” 

These radiant and transforming images, with subtle associations between them, receive another layer of depth at the end of the first line, opening onto an extensive web of connotations: “Des séraphins en pleurs” (my italics). Pleurs contains a more fine-grained meaning than the English “tears,” tacitly suggesting the sap that flows from plants after pruning.2 This botanical aspect of the word brings the image of tears into relation with the floral imagery after it. Moreover, pleurs is rhythmically linked with the botanical; en pleurs and le calme des fleurs form the first end rhyme of the poem. Thus, tears and flowers are linked semantically and musically, and this link finds expression in the fourth line’s image, which resembles sap flowing from a plant: “White sobs gliding down blue corollas.” 

The colors of this line then lead back to the opening sentence: the “White sobs” evoke white circles resembling “The moon,” while the blue of the corollas, l’azur in French, recall the blue sky the moon sits within. In addition, the “White sobs” occur sonically as the sounds of crying drawn from “dying violins” and also exist physically as the tears “gliding down.” This physical existence finds a parallel in the earlier word doigts, whose latent meaning, “a drop of something,”3 echoes the gliding drops of tears, allowing the tears to also resemble and transform into doigts, which are primarily fingers or, as it is translated, “hand.” 

Furthermore, the phrase wherein doigts occurs, l’archet aux doigts, enters another instance of a double meaning. The word l’archet presents the musical bow that later draws “white sobs” from the “dying violins,” yet within archet, one hears and sees “arc” referencing an archer’s bow. This second bow, radiating mortality, invites a sense of death that finds explicit expression with the phrase “dying violins.” Lastly, these violins, or violes in French, surface a sexual sense, the sound of the word violes, enabling one to hear the French verb for rape, violer. Subsequently, basier, the noun for a kiss and also the vulgar verb for intercourse, in tandem with the word corolles, the petals that enclose the reproductive organs of a flower, combine with violes, to usher in a musical, sinister, and flowering sexuality. 

In sum, Mallarmé develops a cascade of imagery, spaced out by commas, allowing one image to flow into another: “Seraphim in tears / Dreaming, bow in hand, in the calm of vaporous / Flowers, were drawing.” Yet, this flow is contained within a single sentence. From the “Seraphim” to the “corollas,” Mallarmé creates a single image out of smaller phrases. This overarching image, since it arrives from various miniatures and is enclosed in a complex syntax that embeds phrases within phrases, is a hard-to-render image that cannot be read as a stable fixed symbol or a flow of separate imagery but as a constellation of radiant points. Thus, the above reading tends toward mapping and documenting the network of images and words at play, which develops a changing semantic field where the reader transitions between simultaneous and sequential perspectives: images like night and day, moon and seraphim, tears and flowers, and also between senses like sadness and celebration, the natural and the divine, death and the sexual. From this, the reader cannot develop a steady understanding of the sentence and the larger section. Instead, new associations are made and transformed as one looks around the poem: sadness becomes tears, which point toward the moon; the botanical, the fingers, and the sobs drawn from the violin. Sadness thus becomes a single word reflecting onto various images that link with, contrast, and mirror each other in their own distinct ways, creating a language that remains in motion, thwarting fixity as it opens toward suggestion instead of definition.  

Gertrude Stein, in Tender Buttons—a text that seemingly attempts definition and fixity with its proposed descriptions of domestic objects—creates a language entirely different from Mallarmé, yet still engages possibilities for meaning that keep the world she describes in motion, rearranging itself in an active interchange of meanings. For example, in Stein’s description, “A waist,” she begins, “A star glide, a single frantic sullenness, a single financial grass greediness.”4 With this sentence, Stein finds a fixed position to work around: the letter ‘A,’ which appears in the title and at the beginning of each phrase. The stability of this “A” allows Stein to jump from the noun “waist” to the noun “star.” In doing so, she transforms “A waist” into “A star glide,” giving birth to a play between these words, wherein a star gliding across the sky resembles a waist gliding across a room and vice versa. Thus, in her first move to describe “A waist,” she brings the waist into a gliding motion, exchanging images that open new trajectories for seeing and understanding. After this jump, she expands her fixed position to include ‘s,’ allowing “A star glide” to become “a single frantic sullenness” (italics my own). This following phrase, alliteratively continuing from the previous one, changes the star into a “sullenness,” moving from a physical object to an emotional state, and transitions the smooth continuous “glide” into a hurried, chaotic, and “frantic” movement. At the same time, the addition of the word “single” lends a more distinct quality to the “sullenness.” Thus, Stein develops an alliterative continuity that allows for constant change and transition, creating a dynamic and evolving understanding of the described object. 

Stein’s final phrase, “a single financial grass greediness,” increases her alliterative sequence once more with the letter ‘f,’ allowing her to switch and add new vocabulary like “financial,” “grass,” and “greediness.” These words present new images in themselves and new trajectories for interaction among the previous terms. Simultaneously, Stein maintains a semantic quality from the preceding phrase: the distinguishing aspect of the word “single.” Thus, Stein, in a sentence that appears to name a new object in each syntactically disconnected phrase, develops a stable alliterative sequence that resembles the way a normative description fixes upon a stable object. As her alliteration grows to include new sounds, her description destabilizes, opening up to emotional states like “frantic” and personality traits like “greediness” that seem to transform and depart from the “waist” as they allow for new ways of seeing it. There is a play between what the words mean in themselves, this being the transformative aspect of a waist turning into a star or a star into sullenness, and how the terms color and interact with each other, seen with how a “frantic sullenness” could color the personality of the waist as it moves around, and could describe a child, greedy for “grass,” at play in a field. Moreover, this change, description, and interaction occur within a sentence that tries to distinguish and see its object distinctly, evidenced by the repetition of the word “single.” Subsequently, Stein, closing in upon a “single” object, opens on a plurality of meanings where “greediness” is brought into relation with “sullenness” and alliteratively with “glide,” where “frantic” feels aptly associated with “financial,” and where the description of “A waist,” “is not a birthday,” centering upon the object, but is a chance to create a suggestive “system to pointing.”5

This “system to pointing” that points in order “to point again” occurs in more explicit terms with Stein’s description “Careless Water”: “No cup is broken in more places and mended, that is to say a plate is broken and mending does do that it shows that culture is japanese. It shows the whole element of angels and orders.”6 Stein begins with a declarative phrase: “No cup is broken in more places and mended.”After this phrase, Stein deploys the sequence “that is to say,” in doing so, she interprets the proceeding phrase, but instead of clarifying her point, she uses “that is to say” to point again, transforming the cup into a new object: “that is to say a plate is broken.” On the surface, this “that is to say,” and the following phrases, “that it shows” and “It shows,” exemplify an active exchange of meaning, where what is stated is reinscribed with new meanings, that are distant enough, at first glance, to be pointing in directions unrelated to what preceded them: “it shows that culture is japanese,” “It shows the whole element of angels.” Moreover, the “it” included in all these phrases is usually ambiguous as to what it signifies because of Stein’s jarring grammar. Thus, she does not merely transition one stable object into another; rather, she changes one sequence of suggestivity into a new one, creating relations between them that keep her language functioning connotatively instead of denotatively.

In sum, Stein, like Mallarmé’s use of the common elements “white” and “in the sky” to transform the moon into seraphim, employs stable structures, like alliterative sequence, and the phrase “that is to say,” to transition between or transform one meaning or object into another. For both authors, this repetition creates an instability, where each semantic or imagistic object advanced gives way to another. Furthermore, both authors combine sonic and semantic properties to link words, creating playful associations: “pleurs” rhymes with “fleurs” and also contains a botanical sense, further linking it to “fleurs.” On Stein’s side, “frantic” is alliteratively related to “financial,” while a common experience of anxiety and panic around money keeps them semantically connected. Each author also deploys complex grammatical and syntactic structures. For Mallarmé, this allows his beautiful image to be read as a network of imagery and meanings that open toward transitions of semantic content. For Stein, difficult grammar, like the sequence “mending does do that it shows that,” thwarts an easily readable and fixable meaning, leaving ambiguous phrases that feel straightforward and enigmatic. Their grammars function differently but achieve similar ends.

To explicitly pursue their differences, Mallarmé edges on a more reflexive and reciprocal movement while Stein tends toward an additive and flowing motion. For example, as I argued above, the colors in Mallarmé’s fourth line, “White sobs gliding down blue corollas,” lead back toward the first sentence, “The moon was saddening,” displaying a motion that turns around on itself and reflects among figures already set down. For Stein, the motion is not as reflexive. Instead, her repetitive structures initiate a movement forward where with each repetition comes a new set of words or images that transform more than they reflect back, as happens with the cup that means a plate that then means “culture is japanese,” which shows “the whole element of angels.” These two forms of movement, which are not mutually exclusive, allow each author to leave meanings un-cemented in a plural activity of reflections and transitions, facilitated by their similar use of stable structures, rhythmic properties, and dissonant grammar. 

In his essay “Music, Language, and Composition,” Theodor Adorno articulates the subtle difference between music and language that appears when they begin to resemble each other. He writes, “Music shows its similarity to language once more in that, like signifying language, it is sent, failing, on a wandering journey of endless mediation to bring home the impossible. Except that its mediation unfolds according to a different law from that of signifying language, not in meanings that refer to each other, but in their mortal absorption into a context that preserves meaning even as it moves beyond that meaning with every motion.”7 Above, I indicated a difference between the types of movement present in Mallarmé and Stein, but I couched that distinction in softening terms like “not as reflexive” and “not mutually exclusive,” gesturing that the divergence is hazy at best. Adorno offers a third form of movement that reconciles and accommodates the subtle divergence I perceived between Mallarmé and Stein. 

Before approaching this third type, I must note that each author adheres to the motion wherein Adorno finds a similarity between music and language. I’ve spent this paper arguing that Mallarmé and Stein each approach a language of suggestion that keeps meaning indefinite. This form of signification implies a lack, an inability to complete “mediation,” or as Adorno says, “to bring home the impossible.” Thus, each author’s language “is sent, failing, on a wandering journey of endless mediation,” unable to cement and bring home a fixed meaning, leaving their works at the meeting point of music and language. From here, both authors cross into Adorno’s third form of movement that categorizes music. What I termed “reflexive” is an instance of Mallarmé’s language preserving “meaning even as it moves beyond that meaning with every motion.”8 His turn into the new image, “White sobs gliding down blue corollas,” moves forward, as it simultaneously “preserves” the previous association of tears and flowers, the sexual in the word “corollas,” and the image of the saddening moon that seems to have been lost in the change to seraphim. Likewise, Stein, in her sentence “A star glide, a single frantic sullenness, a single financial grass greediness,” employs an alliterative structure, whose repetition allows for a continuous variation and motion beyond the preceding terms into new images and words, as it also enables the new words, that appear to go past the earlier meaning of “A waist,” to remain imbued with and alliteratively connected to the senses of what came before. Thus, despite a slight difference in levels of reflexivity and forwardness—Mallarmé tending toward the former while Stein pushes the latter—each author engages in both, “preserving meaning as they move beyond that meaning with every motion,” creating works that are not merely indefinite and unfixed. Their suggestivity is one condition allowing these works to become music.

  1. Stéphane Mallarmé, “Apparition,” Selected Poetry and Prose, trans. Roger Fry (New Directions, 1982), 4–5.
  2. “Pleurs,” WordReference English-French Dictionary.
  3. “Doigts,” WordReference English-French Dictionary.
  4. Gertrude Stein, “Tender Buttons,” Writings 1903-1932 (The Library of America, 1998), 322.
  5. Ibid., 328, 313
  6. Ibid., 321
  7. Theodor W. Adorno, “Music, Language, and Composition,” Essays on Music, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (University of California Press, 2002) 116.
  8. Ibid., 116.
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