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    Book review: between Baudelaire and Mallarmé: voice, conversation and music

    Catani, Damian (2009) Book review: between Baudelaire and Mallarmé: voice, conversation and music. French Studies 65 (3), pp. 396-397. ISSN 0016-1128.

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    Official URL: 10.1093/fs/knr117


    The premise of Helen Abbott's study is intriguing: to show that Baudelaire and Mallarmé ‘are profoundly aware of the aesthetic value of using one's voice through poetry by drawing on the heritage of both music and oratory’ (p. 226). Her pertinent discussion of nineteenth-century prosodic and rhetorical rules sets the scene for an interesting rehabilitation of actio (which privileges voice and immediacy of effect) and memoria (memory and longevity of effect) — ancient rhetorical tropes that she fruitfully applies to Baudelaire's and Mallarme's works to assess the many vocal and musical resonances therein. These resonances are subsequently explored in a section on the body, which compares Baudelaire's mannered poetic recitations with Mallarmé's more understated diction and draws on neuroscience to consider the notion of ‘rhythmic sensation’, strategies of vocalization and verbalization based on the interstitial ‘sensory’ relationships between words rather than on their inherent meanings. There then follows a subtle account of the implications of conversational exchange, especially with regard to both poets' productive reappropriation of the ‘foreign’ voice. A trenchant final section on music convincingly argues that ‘instrumental music’ is the perfect metaphor for their poetry because it frees this genre from the dual bonds of semantics and subjectivity. Abbott covers much fascinating uncharted territory, supported by a number of insightful close readings, of which ‘Portraits de maîtresses’ and ‘Un coup de dès’ stand out as particular highlights. The very strength of Abbott's study, however — its innovative and wide-ranging methodology — is also, paradoxically, its weakness, for it invites us as readers to explore Baudelaire's and Mallarmé's œuvres in directions that are undeniably new and exciting, but which for that very reason also risk making us lose sight of some of the core tenets of their poetic theory. No doubt mindful of the lessons of post-structuralism and obviously anxious to stay clear of excessive authorial intentionality and overprescriptive theories, Abbot, unfortunately, at times shifts the balance of power too far from the poets themselves towards a largely unspecified reader. True, both poets were prepared — indeed were willing — to concede significant interpretative autonomy to their readers, but not to the extent of relinquishing that essential degree of authorial control that their uncompromising and rigorously conceived aesthetic agendas demanded. Abbott's claims that ‘it is not a question of any great import’ (p. 221) whether or not their poetry should be read out loud, or that ‘neither poet specifies precisely what kind of reader he envisages for his poetry’ (p. 226), thus seem somewhat hasty, especially in the light of the public and private modes of reading meticulously theorized by Mallarmé in his notes on ‘le Livre’ and ‘Le Mystère dans les Lettres’ and Baudelaire's famous ethical injunction to his ‘Hypocrite lecteur’. Abbott's study, though a welcome addition to Baudelaire and Mallarmé criticism, is thus perhaps even more valuable as a blueprint for a promising new type of interdisciplinary methodology that might selectively be applied to other major poets or movements.


    Item Type: Article
    School: Birkbeck Faculties and Schools > Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > School of Creative Arts, Culture and Communication
    Research Centres and Institutes: Aesthetics of Kinship and Community, Birkbeck Research in (BRAKC)
    Depositing User: Sarah Hall
    Date Deposited: 20 May 2014 12:30
    Last Modified: 09 Aug 2023 12:35


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