“When with Fatal Law the Shadow Threatened Me” by Stéphane Mallarmé

Stéphane Mallarmé was a French poet from the second half of the 19th century. The literary child of Baudelaire, Mallarmé crafted difficult poetry rich with disturbing symbols and musical language.

Here is a translation of one of my favorite poems of his.

When with Fatal Law the Shadow Threatened Me

When with fatal law the shadow threatened me,
Some old dream, desire and weakness of my spine,
Grieved that in mournful ceilings he should die,
Folded me under his unmistakable wing.

Luxury, O ebony chamber where, to seduce a king
The famous garlands writhe in their deaths,
You are but a pride lied by darkness
Into the eyes of the recluse dazzled by belief.

Yes, I know that into the distance of that night,
Earth hurls a strange mystery, a great light
Across hideous ages that dim it less and less.

Space, like itself, expanded or denied
Rolls in this boredom, and baser flames bear witness
As the genius of the festive star begins to shine.

—translated by David Bowles
July 1, 2014

Original French

Quand l’ombre menaça de la fatale loi
Tel vieux Rêve, désir et mal de mes vertèbres,
Affligé de périr sous les plafonds funèbres
Il a ployé son aile indubitable en moi.

Luxe, ô salle d’ébène où, pour séduire un roi
Se tordent dans leur mort des guirlandes célèbres,
Vous n’êtes qu’un orgueil menti par les ténèbres
Aux yeux du solitaire ébloui de sa foi.

Oui, je sais qu’au lointain de cette nuit, la Terre
Jette d’un grand éclat l’insolite mystère,
Sous les siècles hideux qui l’obscurcissent moins.

L’espace à soi pareil qu’il s’accroisse ou se nie
Roule dans cet ennui des feux vils pour témoins
Que s’est d’un astre en fête allumé le génie

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