“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



  1. Hi, how long did it take you to translate this poem. I have about four different versions (in hard copy) and I’m fascinated with the line Vous n’êtes qu’un orgueil menti par les ténèbres, which is translated in very different ways. Your version seems to be somewhat closer to a literal version, at least after I finally got around to google translating it.

    • Not long. A few hours, just to think through different rhythms and phrasing.

      The line is almost identical to the Spanish “vosotros no sois más que un orgullo mentido por las tinieblas,” so it was pretty straightforward. Using the quasi-archaic “you are but” phrasing appealed to me, as did the juxtaposition of “pride” and “lied” for a rhyming spondee at the heart of the line.

      • Mr. Bowles,
        I am only coming upon your excellent response now, almost 3 years later. Forgive. For whatever reason, your response didn’t come to my email, I guess. In any event, I am googling various versions, and in my opinion, your version of that line captures the intrigue of that line best. Mallarmé would have enjoyed the interior rhyme, I suspect. To me, the line is very straightforward, and yet retaining a necessary ambiguity: what is the pride lied to be the darkness? (I’m adding words but oddly summarizing.) But still to be lied by darkness is wonderfully insidious, and yet natural. I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that sometimes because of Mallarmé’s reputation for difficulty, translators add more ambiguity than necessary.

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