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This article is taken from PN Review 88, Volume 19 Number 2, November - December 1992.

Davie's Mallarmé Michael Edwards

DONALD DAVIE'S translation of Mallarmé's poem 'Prose, pour des Esseintes', which first appeared in Charles Tomlinson's Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation, may seem a strange entry into thinking about Davie, and in particular about some of the values he stands for and some of the ways in which he matters. And so it is, but then the very fact that he translated the poem is strange, and thought-provoking. Davie and Mallarmé? Davie and one of the later and most hermetic of Mallarmé's poems, dedicated, moreover, to the Decadent hero of Huysmans' A Rebours? We should be interested in any changes he made, and sure enough, the gap between the original and the translation is wide. I have no idea of Davie's intention, and it may be that his transformations of the work happened because of what he is, as man and poet. I prefer to think otherwise, but if I uncover a well-planned strategy of which he was unaware, I hope this will afford him some dry amusement.

 Mallarmé is still a problem for English poets, and rightly so: consider, for example, Michael Hamburger's comments on him in The Truth of Poetry. Tomlinson, who in a number of poems has characteristically engaged with Mallarmé, may have used his own translation of an equally extreme and abstruse poem, 'Ses purs ongles trés haut dédiant leur onyx', as a means of confronting that partly alien poetics and mastering it. There is much to be grateful for in ...


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