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.)


  1. My hovercraft is full of eels.

  2. Ionesco wrote an English language grammar of French with surrealistic example sentences. I once had a chance to buy it for about $5. Damn.

  3. Do you really think it’s a “fine essay”? It seems like over-written pretension to me, full of prime material in terms of issues around Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner. Waffle with Warner, Meretriciousness with Marina. And why do mixed metaphors come so easily to liberal (in the bad sense) writers?
    Beckett also switches tone by picking an exact, unfamiliar term and allowing it to bob like unidentifiable flotsam in the broken stream of his characters’ monologues or dialogue… Beneath common English parlance, Mallarmé was seeking an Adamic language, which would match the essence of the referent to the signifier without friction, without separation. Unlike Rimbaud, he decides to cluster his poetic associations around a dominant consonant or diphthong, in order to point out the natural semantic wake of certain particular English sounds…
    The orchidicity is terrific. The TLS claims to be “The leading paper in the world for literary culture”. In the bacteriological sense, presumably. When was the last time MW read this?

  4. FWIW, “You ask an elm tree for pears” comes most likely from the Spanish idiom “pedir peras al olmo”, which has roughly the same meaning as “making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”.

  5. Kopfwurmkundalini: A long time ago, thank god.
    I counter with this:

  6. I’m sorry; I didn’t realize MW stood for the author (whom of course I can’t speak for).
    My counter stands, though.

  7. There’s a Welsh proverb, Tir dan ddwr – prinder; tir dan eira – bara (there should be a circumflex on that w) which means (literally) “land under water – scarcity/famine; land under snow – bread” which sounds like his “Under water, famine; under snow, bread.” It’s, of course, about the effect of winter weather on the farmland.

  8. Making a detour through French, Beckett was refreshing language itself, including his native Irish English, and effectively sharpening its sensory powers of precise naming.
    Reminded me of a poem by Charles Wright in this week’s NY Review (which isn’t online yet, so I have to write out the whole damn thing, even though I should be working):
    Ah, description, of all arts the least appreciated.
    Well, it’s just this and it’s just that,
    someone will point out.
    Exactly. It’s just this and it’s just that and nothing other.
    From landscape to unsuppressed conjunction, it’s only itself.
    No missteps, no misreading.
    And what’s more metaphysical than that,
    The world in its proper posture, on all fours, drinking the sweet water?

  9. marie-lucie says

    Thèmes anglais in this context does not mean English lessons but (French) texts to be translated into English, with a pun on the other meaning of thème, which is ‘theme’ as in English. There are two kinds of translation exercises: la version which requires translating from the foreign language into one’s own, and le thème, a much more difficult exercise which translates from one’s own language into the foreign one. In French there is (or perhaps was) the expression fort en thème, lit. good at translating [into Latin or Greek], more or less the equivalent of ‘nerd’.
    About Mallarmé’s teaching methods, the inspector might have been scandalized by his apparent departure from the grammar-translation method, but having the whole class chanting English rhymes with outrageous wording sounds pretty good to me as a teaching device! One of the major challenges for a French speaker learning English is the very different rhythm and stress pattern (which some people never get), and chanting rhymes – traditional or not – means you have to emphasize stress and rhythm. Using strange and striking words makes the exercise fun rather than boring, and having the whole class participate removes the student’s fear of standing out. I would say Mallarmé was ahead of his time, rather than a failure as a language teacher.
    As for Beckett, a superb poet comparable to Mallarmé ??? Perhaps he is in English, but I have only read him in (his own) French versions, where poetry is not what struck me in his writings.

  10. Years ago I saw a wonderful photograph illustrating the idea that in the early part of the 20th century the Minister of Education could know what every child in every French school was doing simply by looking at his watch. The photograph showed an art class, in which not only were all the children drawing the same leaf, but every hand was at the same point of drawing the same bit of the leaf at the moment the photograph was taken. Somehow I doubt whether Mallarmé would have fitted well into that system, which had fortunately changed by the time my daughter was at school 20 years ago. I wish I could remember what the book was in which I saw this picture.

  11. marie-lucie says

    Surely the picture must have been posed in order to make sure that everyone would remain motionless during the long exposure required at that time. Even if the official time-table was basically the same, it was not mandated to the minute, and there was room for adjustment. Members of my family have been in the teaching business for four generations and I don’t recall the older members ever mentioning such caricaturally strict time-tables.

  12. Thanks to Elena and The Ridger for in effect pointing out that at least two of Mallarme’s proverbs are not “fantastically odd” but actually make good sense when you know their original context.
    I wonder if some Language Hat reader could put together a “cyberspace challenge” to find the originals and contexts of the rest of the proverbs Maria Warner cites?
    I wonder how many of the others would cease to seem comical and surreal? Maybe we could even send the results to the NYRB.
    I actually think the two proverbs already “deciphered” are pretty cool in and of themselves. I wonder what other gems await?
    So far: Dead Poet 2; Marina Warner 0.

  13. I assume that the original text was making much of the juxtaposition of “Under water, famine; under snow, bread.”
    followed hard by “Prettiness makes no pottage.” I find the “/” misleading, implying that the original source was intended as a poem. (Which is not to say that found poems can’t exist in grammars–I have a Tagalog grammar that includes a sequence of asking where your wallet is, where your clothes are, and then where your husband is; and I’ve seen some interesting and disturbing lists in some African language grammars as well.)
    I’m glad to know of the Welsh original of “Under water, famine; under snow, bread.” The agricultural wisdom (that a year with heavy snowfall is good for crops) isn’t unique to Europe. I suspect there’s a saying in China as well to the same effect; I’ve found references to this piece of information in late 11th century Japan.

  14. Thanks to Elena and The Ridger for in effect pointing out that at least two of Mallarme’s proverbs are not “fantastically odd” but actually make good sense when you know their original context.
    Those two things are not contradictory. Most things that initially seem “fantastically odd” actually make good sense when you know their original context; Marina Warner’s point was that “A native speaker of English would know precious few of these locutions at the very most, and use them – never,” and that is incontestably true. If I studied a book of alleged French sayings and then found no Frenchman had ever heard of them, I’d feel cheated.

  15. I did find a reference to Ionesco’s French textbook, which apparently was actually used by Columbia university.
    Can be bought for about $13.00.

  16. marie-lucie says

    Prettiness makes no pottage
    = the French saying La beauté ne se mange pas en salade.

  17. David Marjanović says

    La beauté ne se mange pas en salade.


  18. jamessal — it would have been so much better if you hadn’t replied. Orwell wrote fine essays; Marina Warner writes pretensious dreck. How can anyone with an aesthetic sense fail to notice how ugly, incoherent and illogical her prose is? Perhaps for the reason Orwell identified in his essay on nationalism: our tendency to excuse or ignore atrocities by our own side. MW commits atrocities against English, but she chose a topic that flatters her readers’ self-esteem and gets away with it.

  19. jamessal — it would have been so much better if you hadn’t replied.
    Aw geez, I’m sorry. Maybe if I had some aesthetic sense I could stop from committing atrocities and ruining otherwise beautiful threads. Would it help, do you think, if I wrote a hundred times on a blackboard “Orwell Good, Warner Bad”?
    Seriously, though, I’m familiar with many of Orwell’s essays, and they’re not all “fine.” “Politics and the English Language” is muddled, and “Notes on Nationalism” is boring and obvious. “Killing an Elephant,” on the other hand, was brilliant, and his reviews of Dostoevsky, as well as his discussion of Tolstoy on Shakespeare, were laugh-out-loud funny (if not particularly insightful). I did not express, nor do I have, much of an opinion on Marina Warner. Now I just hope I haven’t spoiled things again.

  20. Marina Warner writes pretensious dreck. How can anyone with an aesthetic sense fail to notice how ugly, incoherent and illogical her prose is?
    Well, I fail to notice that, so I guess I don’t have an aesthetic sense. However, I can’t help but notice that you don’t provide any examples or reasoning, and I’m afraid your simple ex cathedra assertion isn’t in and of itself all that convincing.

  21. Another thing (SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET!): it’s a lot easier to use plain words and straightforward constructions when you’re expressing such simple opinions as “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them,” or, in arguing socialism’s superiority to capitalism, “The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them” (an opinion that would’ve done well to trade every one of the good simple words that constitute it for atrociously pretentious ones, if only that provided it a bit of nuance) — than it is when you’re trying describe what makes Beckett’s language work. I just hope the next writer to try something that daunting isn’t so intimidated by the mixed-metaphor police that they aren’t willing to take a risk in their writing.

  22. See now Mark Scroggins’ “Making Poetry From Mallarmé’s Mistakes,” about Ellen Dillon’s Morsel May Sleep: Poems from Mallarmé’s Classroom (Sublunary Editions, 2021), “a fascinating, powerful, and often very funny book that surfs the shifting relationships between languages within and outside the classroom and explores the often fraught processes of teaching and learning.” Thanks, Trevor!

  23. David L. Gold says

    If I read the text right, Marina Warner finds it hard to understand the saying ‘It is hard for an empty bag to sit upright’ (which I assume appears in French in Mallarmé’s Thèmes anglais pour toutes les grammaires).

    Haitian has sak vid pa kanpe ‘an empty bag cannot stand (up)’ and Saint Lucian has sak vid pa debout ‘idem’ (the last letter of the last word of the latter saying stands for /t/; it is not silent).

    Typical contexts in which they are used are (1) when trying to coax someone (such as a child or an ill person) to eat, (2) when pleading one’s own need to eat instead of doing what someone else wants that person to do, and (3) when pleading a second person’s need to eat (say, one’s child) when a third person wants the second person to do something else instead.

    Was Mallarmé quoting an established French saying (in which case the Haitian and Saint Lucian ones were presumably modeled on it) or, if not, did he learn of the Haitian or the Saint Lucian one from someone (and adopted it in a French form for his book and/or his personal use)?

  24. I googled “Sac vide ne tient pas debout” and found it given as a “Proverbe britannique,” so I checked the OED and sure enough (s.v. “empty”):

    an empty sack (also bag) cannot stand (upright) and variants [after Italian sacco vuoto non puo star in piedi (1612 in the passage translated in quot. 1612)] : great hunger or need renders a person weak, weary, or desperate.

    1612 Mr. King tr. Benvenuto Passenger iv. i. 261 F. I haue great hunger… B. I doe see, that an emptie sacke, cannot stand vpright.
    1758 B. Franklin Poor Richard Improved sig. E2 Poverty often deprives a Man of all Spirit and Virtue. ‘Tis hard for an empty Bag to stand upright.
    1859 S. Smiles Self-help ix. 221 The proverb says that ‘an empty bag cannot stand upright’; neither can a man who is in debt.
    1860 ‘G. Eliot’ Mill on Floss I. i. viii. 150 There’s folks as things ‘ull allays go awk’ard with: empty sacks ‘ull never stand upright.
    1904 in J. Lawson How to solve Race Probl.: Proc. Washington Conf. Race Probl. in U.S. 1903 xi. 222 An empty sack cannot stand up; a hungry man cannot be honest.
    1958 B. Behan Borstal Boy iii. 310 We’ve a long night before us and an empty sack won’t stand.
    2006 A. Fine Road of Bones (2007) 18 ‘When will they realize empty sacks can’t stand upright?’ ‘My belly already thinks my throat’s been cut.’

    Live and learn.

  25. David L. Gold says

    Thanks for that information. Proverbs and sayings are often like wandering words, in which case reconstructing their genesis may be hard or impossible.

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