Blesok no. 95, March-April, 2014
The Unspoken Possibility of Language
Poetic Silence in Mallarmé and Rilke
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.”
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.” 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.
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:
But the situation was not so extreme since the poet could always turn to other modes of expression, i.e., music or painting. There was no radical flaw in the root of the semantic system per se. Yet, the modern period introduces the problem of signification itself where there is no particular problem with the mode of signification but with the entire enterprise. For “premodern” writers like Dante, Wagner, and others, the possibility of transgressing language was framed positively – whatever lies beyond was sure to be nothing if not characterized by certainty, reassurance, and stability. For modern poets like Mallarmé and Rilke, however, what lies beyond words is the utterly confounding shadow of silence. At its most extreme, this anxious attitude about and towards language leads to something like the end of literature. As Roland Barthes notes, modern poets like Mallarmé and Rilke have pushed writing to something like a final stage in the history of literature: “un dernier avatar, l’absence.”
The circumstances leading up to the modern linguistic crisis in poetry may be traced back to Hölderlin’s poem “Brot und Wein” (1802) where he foreshadows the self-conscious uncertainty about the role of poets and poetry that was to inform and imperil so many future poetic ventures. The central, seemingly pessimistic question posed by the poem: “…und was zu tun indes und zu sagen,/ Weiβ ich nicht, und wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit” is eventually answered in the affirmative. The final formula given in the elegy to explain the role of the poet within the historical configuration of his Romantic age conforms to an image of the poet that would soon become familiar and widely shared by a whole generation of Romantics. The last section of the elegy bestows on the poet the powers formerly reserved for gods and mythical heroes: “Ja! sie sagen mit Recht, er söhner den Tag mit der Nacht aus,/ Führe des Himmels Gestirn ewig hinunter, hinauf” The various strands of Romanticism come together on this point – Schiller and Novalis, Coleridge and Shelley, Hugo, Baudelaire and Rimbaud will, without exception, proclaim the poet as the new seer for the age. Naturally, this faith in the poet and poetry is supported by an equally strong faith in the powers of language.
Like the Romantics, the French Symbolists of the late 19th century initially cling to Hölderlin’s belief that the aesthetic ideal could provide a new form of redemption. Baudelaire pointed to the poet as the new synthesizer. “Correspondences” views the poet as a universal translator, one endowed with the powers to translate the dark mysteries of the world and to synthesize them into comprehensible symbols. Rimbaud’s initial faith in the powers of poetry was even more effusive, as is evident in “Adieu”:
J’ai essayéd’inventer de nouvelles fleurs, de nouveaux asters,
de nouvelles chairs, de nouvelles langues. J’ai cru acquérir des
The yearning for correspondences shared by both Romantics and Symbolists can be understood in terms of a revived and redefined belief in analogy, in the unity and “complementarity” of all things. However, this rather overconfident faith in analogy rapidly evolved into a realization that the poets’ perceived unity was a false one – that, in fact, plurality and fragmentation were the essence of all things. Verbal analogy could neither cancel nor neutralize differences. Baudelaire’s belief in correspondences ends in spleen and Rimbaud’s record of the poet’s glorious aspirations in “Adieu” are followed by the bitter realization that poetry’s magic is not enough to offset the pettiness, stupidity, and utter banality of everyday reality. Prosaic reality begins to subsume sound and image. Rimbaud transforms the late 19th century poet into a measly peasant:
morale, je suis rendu au aol, avec un devoir à chercher, et
la réalité rugueuse à étreindre! Paysan!”
Significantly, while Rimbaud once took pride in his ability to express the inexpressible, he was also one of the first modern poets to explicitly recognize silence as a poetic “option” or (more accurately) – necessity. Eventually he concludes that poetry could not deliver the transcendence he desired, so he rejects the poetic ideal outright and lives a life of self-imposed poetic silence. This realization similarly affects Mallarmé (resulting in his “crisis years” at Tournon), although he reemerges poetically bearing the indelible stamp of silence. As Walter Strauss writes, the modern poetic “fork” exemplified by Rimbaud and Mallarmé results “either [in] a poetry of silence or a silence without poetry.” Rimbaud chooses the latter while, to the benefit of modern poetry, Mallarmé and Rilke choose the former.
Mallarmé’s later poetic project was shaped by his belief that the Absolute could only be created by elimination. As might be expected, this belief has the effect of pushing the poem dangerously close to the brink of the unspeakable. His attempt to articulate an absolute vision in finite, limited language results in a new and revolutionary poetic syntax (as we shall see in a closer analysis of Igitur) – one difficult, opaque, and always threatening silence. For Rilke, the threat of poetic silence is always present, but in his Duineser Elegien and Sonette an Orpheus maintains a voice even if it was confined to the naming of simple things. As if questioning the question posed in “Brot und Wein,” Rilke’s Ninth Elegy asks: “Sind wir vielleicht hier, um zu sagen: Haus,/Brücke, Brunnen, Tor, Krug, Obstbaum, Fenster, --/höchstens: Säule, Turm.” Like Mallarmé, Rilke commits himself to the task of recovering the sayable without betraying the unspeakable. In the essay “Rilke et l’exigence de la mort,” Maurice Blanchot suggests that absence and, by extension, silence is just as important for Rilke as for Mallarmé. Blanchot writes: “Rilke, comme Mallarmé, fait de la poésie un rapport avec l’ansence.” But there are significant differences between the two. In Mallarmé, absence and silence are asserted negatively in order to annihilate presence. However, in Rilke there is a movement between absence and presence – not an outright cancellation or elimination of presence. It is metamorphosis, rather than elimination or destruction, which is the ontological option given in the Sonnets as an answer to human troubles.
On the other hand, despite (for example) the “Peut-être” on which Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés” is founded, there is contained within the later prose poems loud and clear negative assertions – what one might even call a direct line to poetic abyss. This is a significant point of contrast in relation to Rilke’s sonnets which neither affirm nor deny the realities they seek to express. Rather the Sonette an Orpheus simply trace the modulations of a poetic voice. For example, Rilke demonstrates between various non-assertive, non-extreme modes of speech in Sonnet I,8:
Gehn, die Nymphe des geweinten Quells,
Wachend über unserm Niederschlage,
Dass er klar sei an demselben Fels,
der die Tore trägt und die Altäre. ---
Sieh, um ihre stillen Schultern früht
Das Gefühl, dass sie die jüngste ware
Unten den Geschwistern im Gemüt.
Jubel weiss, und Sehnsucht ist geständig, ---
nur die Klage lernt noch; mädchenhändig
zählt sie nächtelang das alte Schlimme.
Aber plotzlich, schräg und ungeübt,
hält sie doch ein Sternbild unsrer Stimme
In den Himmel, den ihr Hauch nicht trübt.
Rilke’s poetic posture and diction is one of moderation and modulation (e.g. “die Klage”, “Jubel”, “Sehnsucht”). However, silence lurks in the background and is used to temper and train a poetic voice which has surrendered all claims to power: “In Wahrheit singen, ist… / Ein Hauch um nichts…Ein Wind”. Rilke’s renewed faith in the lyrical possibilities of poetry guarantees the authenticity of certain inner experiences. But it is silence, especially in the Sonette an Orpheus, which permits the expansion of the word’s sound through its empty echoes.
In contrast, Mallarmé’s use of silence eliminates the contradiction between self and world in order to open up an ideal space for the pure poem. Silence is Mallarmé’s chosen tool of elimination and destruction – of “making space” for the expression and containment of the poetic absolute. Mallarmé wrote to his friend Lefébure in 1867: “La Destruction fut ma Béatrice.” He is obsessed with destruction and elimination both as an intellectual method and as an aesthetic project. Metaphoric and thematic silences fill Mallarmé’s later work – especially his long prose poem Igitur – in which silence is used to carve out a space of nothingness, of emptiness, in which the word is (re)infused with tremendous creative power.
acquise ne naissait que de la perte d’une impression qui,
ayant étincelé, s’était consumée et me permettait, grâce à
ses ténèbres dégagées, d’avancer plus profondément dans
la sensation des Ténèbres Absolues.
Mallarmé’s approach to the aesthetics of silence is complex but methodical. He is not at all concerned with the Romantic focus on creative inspiration. Instead, he takes the opposite approach, i.e., that of negativity, elimination, and destruction. He utilizes silence and negative syntax to cut down and carve out. This method allows him to open up a new creative source and space. Octavio Paz notes with regard to Mallarmé’s later prose poetry like Igitur that silence makes the poems a sketch of future poetic possibility. Insightfully, Paz concludes that Mallarmé ‘s legacy is not his word but the space opened by the silence of his word: “Our gift is not Mallarmé’s word but the space opened by his word”
Like Hegel, Mallarmé takes (aesthetic) refuge in negation. In fact, Mallarmé is highly influenced by the negative dialectical movement of Hegel’s system. However, unlike Hegel, Mallarmé remains faithful to the absence, negativity, and silence he claims to have erected as the foundation for his work. Like most of his later poetry, Igitur stands at the verge of the unsayable, of utter negation and absolute silence. Perhaps more than any of his other poems, this one demonstrates the depth and breadth of silent space as a meaningful counterpart and witness to the language it (paradoxically) threatens to absorb. In Igitur, Mallarmé attempts to create a poetic Absolute. However, he must first come to terms with the problem of finding a poetic syntax that can accomplish this virtually impossible task.
The drama of this densely complex prose poem begins in an old study lined with thick draperies which prevent exchange between the interior, controlled world of Igitur’s room and the less controlled exterior world. It is midnight, the moment wavering between present and future – a time suggesting the absence of time – an appropriate context for a poem which attempts to capture the absolute. Igitur is alone except for the presence of night and the memory of his dead ancestors. His task is to destroy the infinite which has kept the family line in a state of dissipated becoming until now. Infinity must be controlled, even destroyed, since it is both a product and further cause of chance. The absolute can only be obtained once chance is eliminated:
vieil espace – pas de hasard. Elle a eu raison de le
nier – sa vie – pour qu’il ait été l’absolu. (OC, 434)
Between infinity (endless becoming) and static being (nothingness), Igitur begins his descent to the bottom of things (“va au fond des choses” OC, 434). He intends to usher in the Absolute by surrendering his lucidly conscious self to death – a state of ultimate elimination, absence, silence. If Igitur has chosen to follow the example of his ancestors, he would have lived and died a death determined by chance and contingency. Word and gesture, mentioned twice in the “Argument,” are part of this imperfect existence shared by his ancestors. The end of becoming, the controlling of infinity and elimination of chance, entails the end of word and gesture (“fin de parole et geste unis” OC, 434).
There is an inverse relationship, then, between language and the Absolute, from the very beginning of the poem. It is through language that the poet seeks to articulate a self-contained Absolute, although he seems to imply from the beginning that this absolute cannot be verbally expressed. Igitur denounces all language as either archaic or anachronistic and, in any event, a thing of the past. At the beginning, the threat of silence serves as a muffler to the voice of the child, but the reader soon realizes that all language will be made useless by Igitur’s insistence on extreme acts – gestures, modes of being – all of them in the end unspeakable.
Significantly, Igitur denies the present moment in order to freeze (and thereby eliminate) time. In order to approach the Absolute, the connection between past and future must be ruptured, the present moment frozen: “pour en laisser l’essence, à l’heure unie, faire le présent absolu des choses” (OC, 435). Moreover, in Igitur’s study, present time is connected to the sterile open book sitting on the table:
d’un livre ouvert que présente la table (OC, 435)
The image of the open book is significant since books record history and belong to the past. Like he does to his ancestors, Igitur closes and silences the open book in order to approach the Absolute. He will eventually close it for the last time before lying down on the tomb. It is only when the book as historical record is closed, when absolute silence is attained, that the new book (this poem) can find the freedom and space it needs to create its own speech. For Igitur, old words, like old books, (like time) must be frozen, silenced, eliminated in order for new words to be heard – even if these new words border on the inexpressible and unspeakable. For now, he can only leave the study and abandon the open book. To freeze time and history, Igitur leaves the room and is lost on the stairs (“IL QUITTE LA CHAMBRE ET SE PERD DANS LES ESCALIERS”).
In this section of the poem, dealing with the chaos of the stairs, we begin to appreciate the discrepancy between Igitur’s extreme experiences and the inability of ordinary language to record these experiences. Here Mallarmé – through Igitur – reaches out to the Absolute but achieves only linguistic redoubling and semantic confusion:
marquée plus pressante par un double heaurt, qui n’atteint plus
ou pas encore sa notion, et dont un frôlement actuel, tel qu’il doit
avoir lieu, remplit confuésment l’équivoque, ou sa cessation :
comme si la chute totale qui avait été le choc unique des portes
du tombeau, n’en étouffait pas l’hôte san retour … comme si
c’était soi-meme, qui, doue du mouvement suspendu, le
retournât sur soi en la spirale vertigineuse conséquente… (OC, 436-437)
Far from silence, this passage demonstrates the opposite phenomenon, i.e. language has become more, not less, cumbersome. Here language undoes the eliminative work Igitur has thus far performed in leaving his study to eradicate time and history. The poem ends with the section entitled “IL SE COUCHE AU TOMBEAU” which is characterized by a spare, almost empty, style. By the end of this section Igitur lies dead on the ashes of his family. As Sartre points out with reference to this section of the poem, self destruction is the ultimate act of self-affirmation. When the space of the poem has been emptied of all presence, the poem is over and we are left with the indelible image of what Mallarmé must have meant when he wrote that his whole work was created by elimination. By the end of the poem, it is clear to the reader that Igitur’s dream of the absolute is the dream of absolute absence, total silence. As Blanchot writes: “Igitur n’est done pas seulement une exploration, mais une purification de l’absence.” This last section consists of only two statements and a question. Death and the speech of dying cannot be captured in words. Igitur eliminates himself and language defers to silence. This ultimate elimination and the silence which follows bring about an internally created absolute.
Silence in Igitur, then, functions as a syntactical (as well as thematic) element. When language, asked to express inexpressible experiences (death from the point of view of death, the voice of the night, etc.), is pushed against its limitations, the outcome is the end of speech. When the poem is asked to articulate ideals of purity and nothingness – ideals which ordinary language cannot describe without compromising or tarnishing them – the poetic syntax capitulates to silence. Whereas Mallarmé crafts a syntax so controlled and precise that only silence can follow, the syntax of Rilke’s Sonette asserts that fluidity is more valuable than precision. Rilke’s poetic speech neither affirms nor denies as Mallarmé’s does; instead the voice of the Sonette takes a middle ground – fluid, malleable, dependent on the silence surrounding it both to mean and to be. At the risk of perpetuating a cliché, one might regard Mallarme’s silence as a destination while regarding Rilke’s as a journey. For Rilke, silence is a necessary component of speech itself.
The air in and which the poet breathes the world in Sonnet II, 1 becomes the “Rinde,/ Rundung und Blatt” of his words. Air and space, which allow expansion and free movement of things and beings, are an essential complement and counterpart to the songs of Orpheus. Without this encasement of silence, the words of the poet (and the songs of Orpheus) cannot be heard. The first sonnet makes silence a prerequisite for true hearing. Confronted with the power of song, forest and creatures are attentively and expectantly silent, not out of fear of devotion but in order to be more receptive to the message of the god:
und nicht aus Angst in sich so leise waren
sondern aus Hören (I, 1).
Many commentators have noted the significance of silence in the Sonnets. Walter Strauss writes that “…true Orphic space is silent space, and Orphic song is but the celebration of this silence as inwardness.” And Linda Pickle writes:
Truly, and it requires the same intensity and an equal
knowledge of the unity of being.
The Sonnets can be divided into roughly two categories – those which are primarily concerned with listening (“Hören”), and those which have as their principal object the definition of proper poetic speech. However, these two merge occasionally merge a single sonnet like Sonnet I, 1 where the reader is introduced to the thrill of listening. A tree of sound rises in the hearer’s ear, but this ear soon encompasses all of nature. The world welcomes Orpheus’s song by reducing its own noises to silence:
O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr!
Und alles schwieg. Doch selbst in der Verschweigung
Ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wandlung vor. (I, 1)
Repeated images of hearing, stillness, and silence pervade both parts of the sonnets. Sonnet 1, 2 – which addresses specifically the death of the young dancer (Vera Ouckama Knoop) to whom the sonnets are dedicated – contains the image of the girl sleeping in the poet’s ear. The passive activity of sleep, counterpoised to the organ of hearing, immediately suggests the notion of silence. In the “orange” sonnet, the dancing girls are described as “stummen” (I. 15); Sonnet II, 8 describes how the children spoke while being silent, “sprachen als schweigende;” in Sonnet II, 13, Nature is “dumpfen”; the fountain mouths of Sonnet II, 15 are said to be ears of the earth; and in Sonnet II, 16 we are told that Orpheus sings silently to the dead (“schweigend”) – only we who are alive need audible sounds to hear him.
Away from any forests, the technological monsters of our twenty-first century world are constantly threatening to drown out real sound. Explaining that “Zwar ist kein Hören heil/ in dem Durchtobtsein,” Sonnet I, 18 addresses the dangerous new “dröhnen und beben” of the machine. Unlike nature, which unanimously understands the importance of silence, these potentially useful but worrisome products of technology are constantly threatening to drown out meaningful sounds. Sonnet II, 10 voices a similar concern, but here the inhuman voice of the factory (“stiller Fabrik”) is implicitly contrasted with the silence of the human voice which withdraws before the unsayable.
Music fills the space left unoccupied by fleeting words incapable of naming the “reinen/ Kräften” of existence (II, 10). Through music, the stones once hurled by angry maenads to tear apart the god of poetry are transformed into a grotto for the ever-singing Orpheus. What emerges is an ideal balance between speech and silence, imperiled only slightly by the memory of the distant but resolute machine in the earlier stanzas:
Und die Musik, immer neu, aus den bedendsten Steinen,
baut im unbrauchbaren Raum ihr vergöttlichtes Haus.
Silence offers the possibility of understanding nature’s essence (described as “dumpfen und stummen” in II, 13). In Sonnet 1, 13, the mouth’s wordless discovery of the fruit occupies the space normally reserved for words: “Wo sonst Worte waren, fliessen Funde,/ aus dem Fruchtfleisch überrascht befreit.” Perhaps, as Hermann Mörchen notes, these images become metaphors for the inexpressible:
immer sin des Metaphern des eigentlich Gemeinten,
Chiffern für ein Unsägliches.
Faced with the experience of the unnameable and inexpressible, the poetic voice must, at times, capitulate to the silence of the unspoken. But for Rilke the inability to find a proper name for certain things or events is not a failure but a recognizing of silence suggesting or pointing to that which cannot be uttered. In the Sonette, there is an acceptance of imprecision as regards language and labeling. Although we do not know the rose’s true name (despite centuries of repeated attempts to label it), the flower’s fragrance continues to converse with us: “Dennoch, wir wissen nicht zu nennen, wir ratten…/ Und Erinnerung geht zu ihm uber, die wir von rufbaren Stunden erbaten.”
The critic Gemma Corradi Fiumara writes that the ability to prefer silence (in the absence of the right words) to white noise (or the wrong words) denotes a willingness to accept the “Other” as truly other, thereby ushering in a truer form of language:
These insights provide a way of understanding the connections between Rilke’s positive conception of silence and his insistence that human beings substitute exchange and complementarity for the more common practices of imposition and exclusion in dealing with their world. Wittgenstein now famous phrase – “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – written a few years after Sonette, echoes Rilke’s sentiments towards refusing to define in words that which ought to remain indistinct, unsaid, or merely suggested. The need to adopt a tentative, provisional attitude towards language (an attitude we see in the rose sonnet quoted earlier and in many others) suggests Rilke’s willingness to let things speak through us, to become a mouthpiece for the silent (but not speechless) world. Silence, then, is seen in the Sonette as the origin and final horizon of poetic language. It is from this stillness that words emerge, and towards this perfect quietude that they aim. Real song, according to the famous third sonnet in part I, is “Ein Wind” (I, 3).
Its depth and omnipresence notwithstanding, the silence of Rilke’s Sonette an Orpheus is undoubtedly a less ominous silence that that of Mallarmé’s Igitur. There is nothing flexible in the final silence of Igitur’s tomb. In Rilke’s sonnets, on the contrary, silence comes and goes. It surrounds words and nonverbal activities without threatening to cancel them; it gently comes to the poet’s rescue when words fail him. Because it is a less absolute silence than that of Mallarmé, it is also less fearfully real. Of Mallarmé’s poetry one remembers, long after reading it, the frozen breath of nothingness palpable in the unbridgeable vastness of the unsaid. With the Rilke of the Sonette, one feels drawn and sheltered by the poet’s silence, perhaps because, like the half-grown dancer of Sonnet I, 28, one knows that at the right time, it will break forth in sound or motion.
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
4. Steiner, 39.
5. Roland Barthes, Le degré zéro de l’écriture (Paris: Éditions Gonthier, 1953) 12.
6. Hölderlin. Sämtliche Werke, ed. Friedrich Beissner. (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1953) 2: 98.
7. Hölderlin 2: 99.
8. Rimbaud, Oeuvres (Paris: Editions Garnier Frères, 1960) 240.
9. Rimbaud. 240.
10. Walter Strauss, Descent and Return. The Orphic Theme in Modern Literature. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard U. Press, 1971) 99.
11. Rainer maria Rilke, Sämtliche Werke (Frankfurt: Insel Verlag, 1926) 718.
12. Maurice Blanchot, L‘Espace littéraire. (Paris: Gallimard, 1955), 165.
13. Rilke. 732.
14. Mallarme, Correspondances 1862-1871. Paris: Gallimard, 1959. 246.
15. ibid. 245-246.
16. Paz, El Arco y la Lira. Mexico : Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1956. 276.
17. OC excerpts from: Mallarmé, Stéphane. Oeuvres Complètes. Paris : Gallimard, 1945.
18. Jean Paul Sartre, Mallarmé. La lucudité et sa face d’ombre. (Paris : Gallimard, 1986). 156.
19. Blanchot. 111.
20. Walter Strauss, Descent and Return. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971. 202.
21. Linda Pickle, “The Balance of Sound and Silence in the Duineser Elegien and Sonette an Orpheus,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 70 (1971), 594.
22. Hermann Mörchen, Rilkes Sonette an Orpheus. (W. Kohlammer Verlag, 1058) 144.
23. Gemma Corradi Fiumara. The Other Side of Language, a Philosophy of Listening. Tr. Charles Lambert. (London: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1990) 103.