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HYMN FOR DES ESSEINTES, by                 Poet's Biography


The poem "Hymn for Des Esseintes" by Stephane Mallarme is a complex work that delves into the interaction of memory, imagination, and the ineffable nature of spiritual experience. The poem starts with a plea, almost an incantation, for "Hyperbole" to rise "like sorcery" from memory or ancient texts. This immediate invocation of "Hyperbole" signals the poet's longing for exaggeration, for an experience that goes beyond the mundane, much like the character Des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans' novel "Against Nature" who is a symbol of extreme aestheticism and decadence.

In the opening lines, Mallarmé mentions how through "science," he inscribes "the hymn of hearts so spiritual," suggesting a paradox where the logical and the spiritual combine to form art. This paradoxical relationship becomes a central theme, reflected in the various dichotomies presented throughout the poem: the sensory and the intellectual, the real and the imagined, the human and the divine.

As the poem progresses, the speaker recalls walking with a sister figure, comparing the "charms of place" with her qualities. The walk is not a literal journey but a venture into the imagination where "every flower showed itself larger," making it unclear if these colossal flowers exist in the real world or are figments of the mind. Mallarmé here plays with scale and perception, much like hyperbole, to represent how spiritual or intellectual exploration can enlarge ordinary things into grand symbols.

The speaker and the sister figure enter a "south" that is possibly imaginary, given the speaker later questions its existence: "This country never existed." This realm is filled with irises so tall that they overwhelm "our reason," and here, the word "reason" stands in for rational limitations that can't contain the grandiosity of imagination or spirituality. These irises serve as a metaphor for ideas, which the speaker says were "exalted in me," but which the sister only greets with a "smile," indicating her emotional or sensory response to the landscape, contrasted with the speaker's intellectual engagement.

Mallarmé invokes a kind of apocalyptic realization in the line "At this hour when we are silent," as if the imagination or spiritual journey has reached its climax, but the lofty ideas and irises are "too tall for our reason," surpassing human comprehension. The speaker then doubts the reality of this imagined landscape, suggesting that it's more a projection of his inner state than an objective reality.

The final stanzas introduce the names "Anastasius" and "Pulcheria," referring to Byzantine royalty and perhaps symbolizing the eternal and the earthly, the lofty and the grounded. The sister figure is positioned in this historical and spiritual continuum, seemingly immortalized by the act of imagination and art, yet hidden by the "too-high lily-flower," the overwhelming and ungraspable nature of the quest for spiritual or artistic transcendence.

In summary, "Hymn for Des Esseintes" captures the oscillation between the tactile and the transcendent, between human finitude and the boundlessness of imagination and spirit. It is a hymn not just for a character from a novel, but for the eternal struggle between the limitations of earthly existence and the limitless expanses of the mind and soul. Mallarmé masterfully weaves this complex tapestry of themes, making the poem a rich and intricate exploration of the human condition.



POEM TEXT:

Hyperbole! From my memory

Triumphantly can't you

Rise today, like sorcery

From an iron-bound book or two:

Since, through science, I inscribe

The hymn of hearts so spiritual

Through my patient work, inside

Atlas, herbal, ritual.

We walked, we set our face

(We were two, I maintain)

Towards the many charms of place,

Compared them, Sister, to yours again.

The reign of authority's troubled

If, without reason, we say

Of this south that our double

Folly has in play

That its site, bed of a hundred irises,

(They know if it truly existed),

Bears no name the golden breath

Of the trumpet of Summer cited.

Yes, on an isle the air charges

With sight and not with visions

Every flower showed itself larger

Without entering our discussions.

Such flowers, immense, that every one

Usually had as adornment

A clear contour, a lacuna done

To separate it from the garden.

Glories of long-held desire, Ideas

Were all exalted in me, to see

The Iris family appear

Rising to this new duty,

But the sister sensible and fond

Carried her look no further

Than a smile, and as if to understand

I continue my ancient labour.

Oh! Let the contentious spirit know

At this hour when we are silent

The stalks of multiple lilies grow

Far too tall for our reason

And not as the riverbank weeps

When its tedious game tells lies

Claiming abundance should reach

Into my first surprise

On hearing the whole sky and the map

Behind my steps, without end, bear witness

By the ebbing wave itself that

This country never existed.

The child so taught by the paths,

Resigns her ecstasy

Says the word: Anastasius!

Born for scrolls of eternity,

Before a tomb can laugh

Beneath any sky, her ancestor,

At bearing that name: Pulcheria!

Hidden by the too-high lily-flower.


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