In 19th-century French literary circles, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) was celebrated as the high priest of the Symbolist movement, artificer of intricately musical lyrics of resonant and vertiginous obscurity. For his day job, however, he taught English at the Lycée Condorcet, one of the most prestigious high schools in Paris — though by many accounts he did so less than impressively. As his headmaster reported in 1876, “it appears that M. Mallarmé is not very strong in English and that despite the friendly warning he received last year, he has done absolutely nothing to acquire what is required for him to be equal to his duties.”
His English may have been far from fluent, but that didn’t stop Mallarmé from translating Poe, Tennyson, and James McNeil Whistler; nor did it stop him from writing a couple of textbooks on the language. One of them, Thèmes anglais pour toutes les grammaires (probably composed in 1879, but first published in 1937), provides the jumping-off point for Ellen Dillon’s Morsel May Sleep: Poems from Mallarmé’s Classroom (Sublunary Editions, 2021), a fascinating, powerful, and often very funny book that surfs the shifting relationships between languages within and outside the classroom and explores the often fraught processes of teaching and learning. Dillon is herself a secondary school French teacher in Ireland, and therefore well qualified to assess Mallarmé’s pedagogical text. Her verdict? Pretty shaky.
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The Thèmes anglais provided students sets of English proverbs (in French translation) illustrating various points of grammar, which students were to translate back into English. Some of the proverbs are familiar; others (“The nightingale and the cuckoo sing both in one mouth,” for instance) are obscure oddities, in Dillon’s words, “dispatches from an alien dialect that Mallarmé seems to have crafted by himself to hang his lessons from.” “The thought of roomfuls of teens sweating over these translations in search of the hidden secrets of English grammar,” she writes in her “Process Note,” “filled me with the rueful tiredness that often overwhelms me when I think too hard about teaching and its frequently absent twin, learning.”
In Morsel May Sleep’s first section, “Remakes,” Dillon creates spare, “aerated” poems out of the words of the proverbs, drawing attention to the strange typos that litter the book — “wisdow in age,” for example, which hovers between “widow,” “window,” and “wisdom.” These erasure poems, according to Dillon — who took her teaching post just after completing her PhD, her “head a ferment of poems and kids, lesson plans and footnotes” — are “the sort of scavenging that a poet whose brain is fried from four years of trying to do too many things at once can manage.”
Going back over those found poems, Dillon adds prose “afterthoughts” at the foot of each page. Often these respond to the details of the Mallarméan texts: Of “an humble man,” included by the Frenchman to illustrate the silent “h,” Dillon writes “an humble? only on the lips of eliza doolittle.” The typo “a nad [for “nod”] for a wise man” starts her thinking of the “gales of double entrendres” that move through classroom adolescents: “years after grammar rules and mitochondria have fallen out of memory, the biology teacher saying orgasm is fixed in mind forever.” “Empty vesse[l]” (in Mallarmé as “vesse”) prompts a chain of associations on the impossibility of learning while one needs to pee (“what kind of test is a bathroom break?”), and the outdated notion of pedagogy as filling empty vessels with knowledge: “this was the bad stuff, wrong and wronger. yet here we are in our classrooms regulating dynamics of filling and emptying, fluid or otherwise.”
After working her way through 22 of Mallarmé’s exercises in this manner, Dillon returns to her original found poems to produce a series of “Versions,” in which she retains the phrases’ spacing, but fills in words around them to produce what amounts to prose poems. It’s a fascinating procedure — Dillon compares it to Jasper Johns’s “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it” — and it’s gripping to watch how Mallarmé’s words take Dillon’s imagination through the coils of the classroom/learning experience, the challenges of everyday life as a parent and householder, and into the vertiginous slippage between languages and between language and thought.
The book’s title, Morsel May Sleep, exemplifies such slippage. To illustrate the definite article, Mallarmé supplies the proverb “Between the hand and the lip the morsel may sleep” — a misremembered, Franglais version of “there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip.” (The editors of the prestigious Pléiade edition of Mallarmé hilariously fail to recognize “sleep” as an error.) In the “Remake” poem, Dillon retains “the hand the lip the morsel may sleep.” In her “afterthought,”
morsels don’t sleep. like rust they’re always crumbling …. our words can only dip in where they can and cleave to a current. pearlescent foam anoints our being washed up on shore, crowns us with stiff sea meringue, fills our mouths with words like sponge and saline. the aftertaste of silver lingers, a residue of privilege leaving passwords tinged with bitterness.
The corresponding prose-like “version” explores further this sense of drowning among tongues:
poisedunderthelipthemorselmaysleep, totally oblivious to its coming tumble. We know this should be a slip. Tongues, all fast in their way , slip up and leave us adrift between meanings. They think mind is the man but we know it is body and tongue is the rudder. Our steering implements are slipping up though and the navigational instruments need recalibrating.
Mallarmé himself was much taken with imagery of the ocean. The dedicatory sonnet (“Salut”) beginning his collected poems pictures him and his literary comrades on a boat, cutting through “the winter flood-tide, thunder-struck” (trans. Peter Manson); his work can be said to culminate in the “visual” poem “Un coup de dés” (“A Throw of the Dice”), in which language itself, and the dream of logical certainty, is spread out across the page openings as the shattered flotsam of some metaphysical shipwreck. For Dillon, Mallarmé’s maritime imagery captures the sense of pitch and drift as one navigates between languages; but it also captures the sense one often has — in the quotidian worlds of working, teaching, relationships — of attempting to make headway against an irresistible force: “Dipping an oar in every wave won’t keep them from breaking and the boat drifts on as I splash with short-lived intent.”
Morsel May Sleep is really two books in one, a thoroughly bilingual text: Dillon pairs each poem of the “Remakes” section with a parallel French poem (using Mallarmé’s own words), which she follows with a prose “afterthought” in French — entirely different from the corresponding English section. The same is true of the “versions”: English poems face French poems, built on parallel armatures but entirely different in lexicon and syntax.
The last section is composed of two separate lineated poems, “Melt Song” and “Chanson Roussie” (Singed Song), each of which is sprinkled with phrases from Mallarmé’s Thèmes, revisiting the thoughts that text has prompted — the challenge of how the poet grapples with the words of others, the paradoxes of teaching and learning (“the mess / of hormone & ritual / clogging the air in / the rooms where we / go for schooling”), of gender, of the class relationships that carry over to the schoolroom. (“Impossible for any one of us to live on a groat for a year,” Dillon comments on one proverb, “yet here we all are bearing ourselves up alone for failing to break even in this system built to break us.”)
I think it very unlikely that Mallarmé, whose classroom Dillon has commandeered, ever gave much thought to the questions of pedagogy and class she has pondered so deeply. But his textbook, in all likelihood as much a money-making speculation as some of his other projects — including a book on English words, a handbook of classical mythology, a short-lived fashion magazine — has provided the provocation for a haunting series of songs:
swarms of paper- wasps haunt these roiling plains, copper-coloured live ones, come in pudding time to feed on molten sugar & sting us into singing.
Morsel May Sleep: Poems from Mallarmé’s Classroom by Ellen Dillon (2021) is published by Sublunary Editions and is available online and in bookstores.