The title "Sonnet allegorique de lui-meme," which Mallarme gave to the first version of "Ses purs ongles," dating from 1868, and which is assumed to be also relevant to the final version, published in 1887, is generally taken to mean "Sonnet allegorical of itself." But can something be allegorical of itself? Must it not, by definition, be representative of something, or someone, other than itself? Must not the title of the poem therefore mean "Sonnet allegorical of himself," rather than "itself"? The objection that if Mallarme had meant the poem to depict symbolically his own situation he would have entitled it "Sonnet allegorique de moi-meme" can be countered by pointing out that in the second quatrain he also figures in the third person as "le Maitre."
If the title is to be understood in this way, one would expect Mallarme to appear in the poem on more than that one occasion, in which case the term "Phoenix" in the first quatrain, bearing in mind that in its allegorical sense of "paragon" or"exceptional person," (1) it is related to the term "Maitre," could also refer to the poet. In the much altered final version of the first four lines there is certainly a strong case for identifying the Phoenix as Mallarme, who has sorrowfully burned the manuscripts of poems which he now rejects in the flame of a lamp held between the uplifted fingernails of an onyx statuette:
Ses purs ongles tres haut dediant leur onyx, L'Angoisse, ce minuit,
soutient, lampadophore, Maint reve vesperal brule par le Phenix Que ne
recueille pas de cineraire amphore.
The first version of these lines, however, is much more complicated and much more confusing, not least because of the awkward syntax, with "crime du soir" clumsily split by the parenthesis of "lampadophore," widely separated from "la nuit" to which it stands in apposition:
La Nuit approbatrice allume les onyx
De ses ongles au pur Crime, lampadophore,
Du soir aboli par le vesperal Phoenix
De qui la cendre n'a de cineraire amphore.
Whereas in the final version there is no mention of the night and it is the lamp which holds centre stage along with the burning by the Phoenix of his evening dreams, in the first version the opening reference to the night is generally taken to set the scene and "lampadophore" is regarded as a metaphorical reference, along with "allume les onyx de ses ongles," to the stars lighting up the night sky. In this context one is naturally led to interpret the Phoenix, bearing in mind its mythological meaning, as the setting sun, with the night approving of its death and celebrating this "pur Crime ... du soir." But why should the death of the sun be a "pur Crime," or indeed a crime at all? Why should the first quatrain be set in a vast starlit sky and the remainder of the poem in the confined space of the "noir Salon" of the fifth line?
If, on the other hand, one takes the Phoenix to be Mallarme, it is he who has abolished the evening in the sense that he has lit the lamp by whose light he is to continue his work through the night. (2) Instead of the "lampadophore" being a metaphor for the starlit night, the roles are reversed and the "Nuit approbatrice" becomes, like "l'Angoisse" in the final version, a name for "la lampe angelique," as he had called it in "Don du poeme," presiding approvingly over his labours. "Les onyx de ses ongles" are precisely that--the fingernails of the onyx statuette-lampholder which has been lit so that the poet can destroy in its flame poems which he now feels are unworthy of him and whose destruction is therefore justified--hence the oxymoron "pur Crime." But in so doing he is destroying his former self in the hope of being reborn a different poet.
This image of the rejection of past work is extended in the second quatrain by the absence of any vessel in which even the ashes of the burned manuscripts can be collected and by the departure from the room of the "Maitre/Phoenix" who has gone to "puiser de l'eau du Styx"--a further allusion to the death of the poet he has so far been:
le vesperal Phoenix
De qui la cendre n'a de cineraire amphore
Sur les consoles, en le noir Salon: nul ptyx
Insolite vaisseau d'inanite sonore,
Car le Maitre est alle puiser de l'eau du Styx
Avec tous les objets dont le Reve s'honore. …