The Supreme Farewell of Handkerchiefs

Clive James

with acknowledgments to Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, authors of ‘Misia

‘I’ve left that great page blank,’ said Mallarmé
When asked why he’d not written of his boat.
There are such things as mean too much to say.
You have to let it drift, to let it float.

The man who did the asking was Manet,
Whose niece’s journal treasures the reply.
There are such things as mean too much to say,
But little Julie Manet had a try.

To represent the young, Paul Valéry
Delivered half a speech and then broke down.
He missed his master’s deep simplicity.
Then everybody started back to town.

Among those present were Rodin, Bonnard,
Lautrec, Mirbeau, Vallotton, Maeterlinck
And Misia’s eternal slave Vuillard.
But Renoir, who had painted her in pink,

Knew ways to tame her when she got annoyed
At how they laughed instead of looking glum.
He thought such moments ought to be enjoyed.
Had not mortality been overcome?

Said Renoir, who had been the poet’s friend:
‘A Mallarmé does not die every day.’
A sly hint of his own approaching end?
There are such things as mean too much to say.
‘I’ve left that great page blank,’ said Mallarmé.