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The Philosopher’s priest’s pupil

July 6, 2016

Iris Murdoch on Stéphane Mallarmé’s Petit air

In the middle of The Philosopher’s Pupil, John Robert Rozanov, the ageing philosopher, persuades the unbelieving gay priest, Father Bernard Jacoby, to tutor his grand-daughter Hattie. The tutoring is part of Rozanov’s plan to keep Hattie secluded from society in the hope that the young Tom McCaffrey can be persuaded to marry her. It doesn’t go well. Discovering that Hattie’s German is better than his, and getting into a muddle with Dante, he reaches desperately for a favourite poem, the first section of Mallarmé’s Petit Air, and asks her to translate.

An unwise decision. Not only are naked lovers swimming hardly a suitable discussion topic for repressed gay priests and teenage girls, but Mallarmé is pretty much impossible to translate. Nevertheless the comedy Murdoch gets out of Hattie’s efforts at translation and the priest’s fantasies explains the poem:

[…] He had intended to choose a less difficult poem, but the book had opened automatically at one of his favourites […] he realised that although he could ‘sort of’ understand the poem, and liked it very much, he could not construe it. […]

Hattie’s attempt at a literal translation began; ‘A sort of solitude without a, or the, swan or quay reflects its disuse in the look which I abdicated, or removed, from the glorious – no, the vanity – so high it can’t be touched, with which many skies streak themselves with the golds of sunset, but languidly wanders the white linen taken off a sort of fugitive bird if it plunges -‘ […]

‘It’s impossible.’

‘You read it aloud as if you understood.’

‘Well it’s beautiful – but whatever does it mean?’

‘What do you think it’s about, what sort of scene is the poet evoking?’

Hattie looked silently at the text, while Father Bernard admired her smooth boyish neck over which tendrils of pale-fair hair from the complex bun were distractedly straying.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Since he says there is no swan and no quai, I suppose it might be a river?’

‘Good deduction. After all it’s a poem!’

‘And there’s a wave at the end.’

‘And – nue?’

‘Someone naked, perhaps someone swimming naked.’

‘Yes. It’s a kind of puzzle picture, isn’t it.’

‘He’s turning away from the gloriole that means sort of false showy something, doesn’t it, which is too high to touch because then longe wouldn’t be right – I think – so I suppose regard is the subject – but -‘

‘Oh never mind about the subject -‘

‘But I do mind! The solitude, the uninteresting solitude, reflects its swanless desolation in the look which he had turned away from the false glory, too high to touch, with which many skies dapple themselves in sunset golds – perhaps he thinks sunsets are vulgar – then, or but why but? – something or other, either his look on a fugitive bird, no I see, his gaze coasts languidly, no, langorously, along like white linen taken off – that can’t be right – has longe got an object, could it be the bird? – perhaps the bird is like the linen, maybe it’s a white bird that plunges – like the – the clothes which – no, no, surely the jubilation plunges – and the langorous gaze coasts along the jubilation – I mean – then “but” would have sense – it’s all rather dull until my gaze langorously – no – if a (but why if?), if a bird plunges like white linen taken off, my gaze langorously follows, exulting beside me, or it, in the wave that you have become, your naked jubilation – oh dear! that can’t be right -‘

Hattie had become quite excited […]

Father Bernard was excited too, but not by the grammatical quest. […] What was the subject of what? Who cared? The general sense of the poem was perfectly clear to him, or rather he had made his own sense and hallowed it long ago.

He said, ‘Let’s get the general picture. You said there was a river and someone swimming naked. How many people are there in the poem?’

Hattie replied, ‘Two. The speaker and the swimmer.’

‘Good. And who are they?’

‘Who are they? Oh well, I suppose the poet and some friend -‘

Father Bernard’s imagination had, in taking charge of the poem, taken advantage of the fact that the sex of the swimmer was not specified. In the blessed free-for-all of fantasy he had pictured the charming companion, whose underwear slides off with the languid ease of a bird’s flight, as a boy. The final image was particularly precious to him of the young thing diving in and rising into the wave of his plunge, tossing back his wet hair and laughing. And all about the green river bank, the sunshine, the warmth, the solitude …

‘Do you think it’s a love poem?’ He asked her.

‘Well it could be.’

‘How can it not be?’ He almost cried. He thought, she is unawakened. ‘The poet is with his -‘ he checked himself.

‘Girl friend, I suppose,’ said Hattie stiffly. She was feeling shocked at Father Bernard’s evident indifference to the pleasure of finding out main verbs and what agrees with what; and she had not failed to notice his dismay at her outburst of German.

‘Girl friend! What a phrase. He is with his mistress.’

‘Why not his wife? said Hattie. ‘Was he married?’

‘Yes, but that doesn’t matter. This is a poem. We don’t want wives in poems. He is with a lovely young woman -‘

‘How do you know she is lovely?’

‘I know. Just see the picture.’

Hattie said more kindly., ‘Yes, I think I can – it’s like that picture by Renoir – La baigneuse au griffon – only there – well there are two girls, not a man and a girl.’

‘This did not interest Father Bernard, at any rate he did not pursue it, but the evocation of the lush greenery and the Impressionist painter accorded with his racing mood. ‘Yes, yes, it’s sunny and green and the river is glittering and the sunshine is coming through the leaves and dappling, that was a good word you used, the naked form of the -‘

‘The sun doesn’t dapple the girl, it’s the gloriole, no it’s the sky or skies that dapple themselves with-‘

‘Never mind, you must get the sense of the whole – the linen, white like the bird, slips away -‘ The image which had now, with magisterial charm, risen up in the priests mind, lily-pale and glowing with youth, was that of Tom McCaffrey.

The philosopher’s futile attempt to control Hattie’s developing sexuality is undermined – ‘We don’t want wives in poems’. Hattie’s image of the poem as a voyeuristic lesbian scene, albeit undeveloped, is a lovely contrast to the priest’s gay fantasies. Here it is in the original French, in an English translation by EH & AM Blackmore.

Petit air. I.

Quelconque une solitude
Sans le cygne ni le quai
Mire sa désuétude
Au regard que j’abdiquai

Ici de la gloriole
Haute à ne la pas toucher
Dont maint ciel se bariole
Avec les ors de coucher

Mais langoureusement longe
Comme de blanc linge ôté
Tel fugace oiseau si plonge
Exultatrice à côté

Dans l’onde toi devenue
Ta jubilation nue.

Little ditty. I.

Some kind of solitude
with no swan and no pier
reflects its desuetude
in my gaze withdrawn here

from the vain pomp too high
for anyone to hold
mottling many a sky
with sunset’s varied gold

but languorously skirt
like cast-off drapery
of white some fleeting bird
if nearby joyously

your naked bliss should plumb
the wave that you become.

Here is the picture it reminded Hattie of, Renoir’s La beigneuse au Griffon. The Griffon is the dog at the naked woman’s feet, the model was Renoir’s mistress, Lise Tréhot, and the painting is in São Paulo Museum of Art.

baingneuse au griffon

Jim Thornton



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