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King’s College London

Creative Responses to Modernism Competition 2014



Ivan Juritz :  « Un Coup de Dés/  English in a Couple of Days »



The story goes that when the functionaries of the Inspection académique came to check up on Monsieur Mallarmé’s English class at the Lycée Fontanes in Paris, they duly reported that the entire class of boys, working collaboratively for an hour, could not string together in correct syntax the simple request : « May I please have a glass of milk ? » 

            But conversely, in his famous hermetic experiment, Un Coup de dés (n’abolira jamais le hasard), Mallarmé exploded, or rather extended syntax to an absolute breaking point.  It was of this astonishing text (the Master’s final poem, dated Paris 1897) that his disciple Paul Valéry gave a memorable account, when he first got a glimpse of the poem in the rue de Rome: he seemed to see a thought unwinding exactly, with its parentheses and pentimenti intact, as it would appear when laid out in space.  And Mallarmé, with an angelic smile, asking : « Do you not think it an act of utter madness ? »  

            And then, he describes one starlit July night, returning from Mallarmé’s riverside home at Valvins, « two shadowy smokers » at the station, below the great constellations… and on the train Valéry had a kind of revelation concerning the Poem – that if the heavens had put Kant in mind of the Moral Law, they put Mallarmé » in mind of a poetics, an Imperative, and his ambition had been to « raise a page to the power of the starry sky ».

            Doctor Henri Mondor, Mallarmé’s most ardent annotator, speaks of the poet’s « exquisite abandons », for example his curious treatise Les Mots anglais, written as a pot-boiler, would be one such – in which the poet descends from his rarified climate to « show us his toolbox ».

            But perhaps the good doctor overlooked one essential part of Mallarmé : the Hoaxer.  This is the Mallarmé that Ivan Juritz has recognized.

            Wittily and delightfully, Juritz has a « Mallarmé scholar » discover among the poet’s papers « a primer for the English language (‘English in a Couple of Days’) that contains the whole of Coup de dés », and this valuable addition to Mallarmé’s Marginalia joins the Arctic Poet and the Lycée Drudge eternally together.

            The interleaving of the lines of the poem with the English primer leads to what might be termed sublime moments of bathos. Juritz has unearthed such gems as :

            Any speaker, native or otherwise, would feel thrown by the

tourbillon d’hilarité et d’horreur

eruption of hilarity or horror on the part of one’s interlocutor.  If you feel you are

autour du gouffre

                                                            sans le joncher

                                                                               ni fuir

edging toward the unknown, you need neither flee nor feel distraught.  One may

                                                                                et en berce le vierge indice

always ask for a clear and simple indication about tone during a lull in the conversation.


            Mallarmé once said that there may be an Orphic Solution to the Universe in the words of a newspaper article ;  simply, the words are in the Wrong Order.

            Similarly, of the great mass of notes and accumulated pages left of the grande Œuvre that the poet was supposedly toiling over for so many years, but which never appeared, he wrote this message to his wife and daughter, when in his last illness :  « Burn it, dear ones, burn it all, alas, there is nothing there. » 

            I like Ivan Juritz’s conflation of Mallarmé’s two languages, « ici brut, là essentiel » in « Un coup de dés/English in a Couple of Days » because in its mischievous way it comes to resemble something like Mallarmé’s ideal linguistic field, a vast autonomous network of inference and pun, and indeed it prepares the groundwork for a post-modernism that is centred upon the poet’s linguistic turn.

Stephen Romer, 24 June 2014