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ISSN 1409-6900 | UDK 82+7     Blesok no. 95 | volume XVII | March-April, 2014



                     Peer-reviewed journal
Blesok no. 95March-April, 2014

The Unspoken Possibility of Language

Poetic Silence in Mallarmé and Rilke

p. 1
Christopher Trogan

I. Introduction: Modernity, Poetry, Silence

    Recent and competing definitions of “modernity” all point to a fundamental characteristic which has been explored and theorized time and again but deserves still more intellectual attention: the ambivalence towards language unparalleled by anything written before the nineteenth century. On the one hand, “modernity” has placed great faith in the power of the word; however, this faith has been overwhelmed with enough suspicion to undermine any potential linguistic stability. In its most extreme manifestation, this results in a phenomenon of linguistic anxiety, even paranoia, which threatens the semantic possibilities of poetics. The resulting threat of silence – whether thematic, syntactical, metaphoric, or literal – is ubiquitous in modern poetry. As Eliot writes, “words, after speech, reach into silence.”[1]
    The precise nature of the tension between the limits of the sayable and the attraction of the unsaid is complicated, controversial, and goes well beyond the scope of this paper. However, a deeper analysis of the general phenomenon of poetic silence and of two modern responses to it – those of Mallarmé and Rilke – yield significant insights both into the idea of the “modern” as well as into the essence and inner machinations of modern poetry.
    Before exploring Mallarmé and Rilke as examples of the modern poet’s self exile into the realm of the unspoken, it is worthwhile to examine the historical sources of the perceived insufficiency of language and the ways in which this has led to a rather extreme situation for modern poetry – a situation perhaps best captured in Maurice Blanchot’s affirmation that “le silence, le néant, c’est bien là l’essence de la literature.”[2] In fact, as George Steiner argues, a degree of concern over the limitations of words, and a fascination with silence as the unspoken possibility of language, might well be integral parts of the Western literary legacy.[3]

II. Romanticism, Symbolism, Modernity: The Road to Silence in Mallarmé and Rilke

     Recalling earlier moments when writers stood on the edge of language, unable to utter a word before the imponderable realities which confronted them, George Steiner refers us to Dante in Canto xxxiii of his Paradiso, Wagner in Act II of Tristan, and St. John of the Cross before his mystical glimpses of God. His summary of this history of this poetic anxiety is succinct:
    From Medieval Latin poetry to Mallarmé and Russian Symbolist Verse, the motif of the necessary limitations of the human word is a


1. T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971) 19.
2. Maurice Blanchot, La part du feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949) 300.
3. George Steiner, Language and Silence (New York: Atheneum, 1982) 36-54

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