Marina Warner has a fine essay in the TLS called “Babble with Beckett: How foreign languages can provide writers with a way out of the familiar.” Her main subject, obviously, is Beckett, but I want to highlight the material on Mallarmé, which I found surprising and hilarious:
It is interesting to think of Beckett’s precursors in relation to foreign languages: one of these, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, like Beckett a supreme artist of linguistic, syntactical music, translated and taught English, and was so involved in aesthetics and semantics that he composed three rare and eccentric works on the language. It is in one of these, Thèmes anglais (English Lessons) that Mallarmé offers, as a phrase that falls from the lips of any English speaker born and bred: “Who can shave an egg?”. I had never heard this before (but that is true of most of the sayings in Mallarmé’s weird and wonderful English phrase book), but it struck me as clownish, a little alarming, and a minimalist’s maxim. Mallarmé’s love of English was not rooted in fluency or familiarity, but rather in something literally other or alien in the language used by the writers he admired – William Beckford, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, and some rather lesser-known authors, such as Mrs Elphinstone Hope, whose forgotten story, “The Star of the Fairies”, Mallarmé translated in 1880. (He also left unfinished a mammoth anthology of English Literature.)…
Mallarmé shows an analogous desire for this erotics of language, a sense of language as sound, as music, as havoc, as nonsense, an understanding of modes of communication that defy semantics. He tried various approaches to overcoming his difficulties in teaching English. Hoping to capture the attention of his pupils, he turned to English’s near-unique richness of nursery rhymes and made versions of them in French prose – with extended, mock-earnest commentary and scrupulous grammatical notes, solemnly expanding on each rhyme’s possible significance. But his efforts did not meet with approval. In 1880, a government inspector, making the rounds of the classrooms, happened to enter M Mallarmé’s when the pupils were chanting a variation on “Tell Tale Tit”: “Liar liar lick spit / Your tongue shall be slit / And all the dogs in the town / Shall have a little bit”. The inspector was scandalized: “Since M. Mallarmé remains a professor of English”, he wrote, “Let him learn English . . . . It’s tempting to ask oneself if one is not in the presence of a sick man”.
It is a clue, however, to Mallarmé’s other pedagogical masterpieces that “Liar liar lick spit” is not the opening of the version that most English children know, which opens more usually, “Tell tale tit . . .”. Mallarmé’s failures in the classroom did not stem from lack of effort: Thèmes anglais contains a gathering of a thousand English phrases, proverbs, adages and saws, all conscientiously marshalled in order to illustrate a rule of English grammar: first the definite article, then the indefinite, first the possessive pronoun, then the relative pronoun, etc. The contrast between the austerely dry objective of the examples and their fantastical oddity, the disjunction between the scrupulous lexical and grammatical rigour and the free-association lexical chain of words, achieve an exhilarating absurdity. A native speaker of English would know precious few of these locutions at the very most, and use them – never. The ones that you might know you would find stale; and you would have done so then, in the late nineteenth century – since some of the proverbs Mallarmé cites were already archaic by the seventeenth. He was using an anthology he had come upon in Truchy’s bookshop to glean a myriad equivalents to “My postilion has been struck by lightning”, regardless of current usage.
What is entirely seductive about his lists is their irreducibly foreign character. But this strangeness turns his collection into a kind of prose poem, sometimes beautiful, sometimes weirdly comic: “Under water, famine; under snow, bread. / Prettiness makes no pottage”. These enigmas are offered to illustrate how, where French uses a definite article, English does without. Besides “Who can shave an egg?”, phrases such as “You can’t hide an eel in a sack” are included in order to illustrate the use of the indefinite article. The quirkiness of these rules inspires a riddling sequence:
It is hard for an empty bag to sit upright.
To cut down an oak and set up a strawberry.
Undone, as a man would undo an oyster.
You ask an elm tree for pears.
You shall ride an inch behind the tail.
These adages – proverbs or whatever – teeter on the verge of incomprehensibility. But their cumulative effect is melancholy: failure stalks them, regardless of syntactical exactitude.
She goes on to discuss his love of alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, and other forms of “semantic synaesthesia,” and the whole essay is full of good things, but I couldn’t resist Mallarmé’s notion of how to illustrate English usage. (Via wood s lot.)