In response to:
Mallarmé the Magnificent from the May 20, 1999 issue
To the Editors:
Under the spell of Mallarmé [“Mallarmé the Magnificent,” NYR, May 20] Charles Rosen asserts, “There are only five words in French that rhyme with ‘ix,”‘ hence the poet introduced ptyx. But the Juillard Dictionnaire Inverse de la Langue Française lists twenty rhymes, among them bombyx, hélix, prolixe, and strix; and we may add the great name of Vercingétorix. This last word shows what an opportunity was missed, if Mallarmé was after something new: he might have invented Astérix.
Charles Rosen: replies:
Mr. Comenetz has unwittingly exposed a mistake of mine even more foolish than the one he has caught. There are many words ending in “ixe” (like préfixe and rixe (a quarrel with insults that every scholar hopes of course to avoid), but they do not rhyme with words ending in “ix,” as the final “e” in French poetry leaves a slight but unmistakable trace if one listens carefully. Mallarmé needed four words that rhyme in “ix,” and had to invent a suitable one for his allegorical sonnet. Bombyx and hélix are a little special for poetry (the latter meant only the exterior contour of the ear), and strix was not to be found in dictionaries current during Mallarmé’s lifetime. Even if one does not give it a precise meaning, the invented word ptyx does what it is supposed to do: it represents a mysterious object that never existed, that has now disappeared, but that has an individual resonance like the poem itself.