Mallarmé is renowned for being a poet whose work does not translate into English very well (his poems were written in French) which makes it pretty remarkable that he had so many partial rhymes in this piece. Summer Sadness is difficult to analyze due to the combination of the fact it is translated and that it is from an older era. The poem’s meaning seems to be about the guilt felt by a man who does not love their partner in the way that he should. It seems he wants to love her, but cannot bring himself to and he tries to tap into her sorrow (presumably she is sad as he senses something amiss) in order to stir this emotion.
Form and Tone
The poem is set up like a sonnet with two quatrains followed by two tercets. Although the rhyming pattern is very loose this may be because of the translation. Nether-the-less the poem has a very rough (ABAB, CDCD, EEF, GFG) pattern, although some of the rhymes are only half-rhymes. The poem, atypically of a sonnet is about love. Although this poem has a sadness to it, which is to be expected given the title.
Summer Sadness Analysis
The sun, on the sand, O sleeping wrestler,
Warms a languid bath in the gold of your hair,
Melting the incense on your hostile features,
Mixing an amorous liquid with the tears.
A feature of symbolistic poetry is its evocative language which in the modern era can come across as quite melodramatic. In the first two lines, Mallarmé draws on the sun shining on the sand as a comparison with the hair of their beloved. In the modern era saying that somebody’s hair was gold like the sun seems like a bit of cliché but in this period that was less the case. The narrator personifies the sun itself, referring to it as a sleeping wrestler. It seems that this is used in order to draw a comparison with the person’s hair which is described as “languid” or lazy, this gives the image of free-flowing hair. It then continues to say that this sunshine that has previously been compared to a wrestler melts the incense from their hostile features. Incense is certainly a positive word. We associate it with pleasant smells. But describing someone has having hostile features suggests that this person is either ugly or angry and in this instance, I would suggest it is the latter.
The narrator then continues and talks about an amorous liquid being mixed with tears. Whose tears are they? The person who they are describing? But tears are more commonly associated with sorrow rather than anger which suggests that this person is upset. The use of the word amorous suggests that the narrator is enamored by this person’s appearance. Despite the fact they are clearly distressed it would appear the narrator finds them attractive.
The immutable calm of this white burning,
O my fearful kisses, makes you say, sadly,
‘Will we ever be one mummified winding,
Under the ancient sands, and palms so happy?’
There are some lovely contrasts in this poem and this is evident in the first line of this stanza as the narrator talks about the calm of burning. Of course, the burning they are describing is the glow of their lover’s hair. The narrator in the second line refers to their kisses as fearful. This is a very interesting choice of words. Why are their kisses fearful? What do they have to be scared of? Perhaps that their partner isn’t fully invested? The final two lines of this stanza suggest that is the case. They make several obvious references to Egypt. The reason for this could be the writer trying to make a point. Egypt is somewhere associated with luxury with its fine cotton fabrics and a rich supply of gold. I think in some ways the idea of Egypt is supposed to represent joy. When the narrator’s lover asks “will we ever be one” and then makes the references to Egypt, they are effectively asking will they ever be happy together. So clearly then we have this character, let’s assume she is female who has golden hair and is upset or angry and shares a kiss with her partner who we will assume is a man. And then asks, one would presume in a worried fashion, whether things will work out between them.
But your tresses are a tepid river,
Where the soul that haunts us drowns, without a shiver
And finds the Nothingness you cannot know!
Tresses are another word for curly hair and here they are referred to as a tepid river, suggesting a coolness that hasn’t been associated with her hair yet. Could this represent a further cooling of the narrator’s feelings for their “loved one”? The remainder of this part of the poem is very bleak, and difficult to decipher. It seems to suggest that her hair has a sort of magical property! That it can drown the soul that haunts them. But what is this soul? Is the soul a metaphor for his feelings of doubt? Is her hair that captivating that it can remove the lingering doubts that he has? But it says that the ghost finds the nothingness that she cannot know. Maybe the nothingness is in fact how he feels about this woman. It would explain why he doesn’t answer his lover’s plea when in the previous stanza she asks if they will “be as one” maybe this is suggesting he is intoxicated by her physical beauty, represented by her hair, but knows that his feelings don’t delve much further than that.
I’ll taste the unguent of your eyelids’ shore,
To see if it can grant to the heart, at your blow,
The insensibility of stones and the azure.
The first line of this final stanza is interesting as he says he will “taste the unguent” It would seem this is his way of saying he will taste her tears. I think this is his way of trying to provoke feelings in himself. He mentions the insensibility of stones and the azure, although this word has several meanings I think there’s a strong likelihood he is referring to the French Riviera which is sometimes known by this name. He wants his heart to feel that warmth that her physical appearance seems to make him feel. Whilst on the face of it this poem appeared to be a poem about missed love there’s a strong possibility that the summer sadness being described isn’t the narrators own, but more so the sadness of his partner who is probably aware, at least on some levels that things aren’t right in their relationship.
About Stéphane Mallarmé
Stéphane Mallarmé, real name Étienne Mallarmé, was a French poet. He was born in 1842. He is thought to have been a major inspiration for several artistic movements. His poetry is classed as symbolist. Symbolist poetry is where the poet attempts to show the reader how they were feeling rather than telling them. Therefore poems of this ilk tend to be full of vivid descriptions. A lot of poems in this genre are in free verse as it offered the poet greater flexibility. Somewhat ironically this poem is actually quite structured.