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Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898)


French poet and leader of the Symbolist movement in poetry with Paul Verlaine. Mallarmé was a provincial school teacher who came to Paris to live a bourgeois life on the rue de Rome, but published allusive, compressed poems, which suggested rather than denoted. He saw that his purified language gives "a purer meaning to the words of the tribe." (from the sonnet on Edgar Allan Poe) Mallarmé never gained wide recognition for his work during his lifetime.

O rêveuse, pour que je plonge
Au pur délice sans chemin,
Sache, par un subtil mensonge
Garder mon aile dans ta main.

(from 'Eventail de Mademoiselle Mallarmé')

Stéphane Mallarmé was born in Paris into a family in which his father and grandfather had made a noteworthy career in the French civil service. He was expected to follow the family tradition but at school he did not do well except in languages. Mallarmé began writing poetry at an early age under the influence of Victor Hugo. At the age of nineteen he found Charles Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil, which had appeared in 1857. Under its influence he wrote 'Briese marine,' starting with the much quoted line "Le chair est triste, hélas! et j'ai lu tous les livres". After leaving school he visited England and while in London he married Marie Gerhard. Mallarmé taught English from 1864 in Tournon, Besançon, Avignon, and Paris until his retirement in 1893. The solitary years in Tournon and Besançon were his years of apprenticeship, during which he prepared himself for his career as a man of letters.

Mallarmé's poems started to appear in magazines in the 1860s. His first important poem, 'L'Azur', was published when he was 24. All his life he spent a very long time on each of his poems, making them as perfect as possible. In between writing, he suffered from bouts of physical illness and metaphysical anguish. During the 1870s, he was one of the few literary figures who defended the artistic vision Éduoard Manet in the press. Mallarméwrote 'Le jury de peinture pour 1874 et M. Manet' (1874) for La Renaissance littéraire et artistique and  'The Impressionists and Édouard Manet' (1876) for a London journal, introducing his British readership to Manet's "open air" painting. For ten years, Mallarmé went to Manet's studio every day. In the 1860s, the young Émile Zola acted as Manet's spokesman.

To cheer up his friend, Manet illustrated L'Après-Midi d'un faune (1865-67; published in 1876), Mallarmé's best-known work, with woodcuts. He had illustrated Mallarmé's prose translation of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven'. For this illustration Manet used Japanese Sumi ink, ideal for calligraphy. Le Corbeau, published in 1875, sold very few copies. Dante Gabriel Rossetti owned a copy of the book, who wrote in a letter to his friend: "Bye the bye, my own memento of O´S [O´Shaughnessy] is a huge folio of litographed sketches from the Raven, by a French idiot named Manet, who certainly must be the greatest and most conceited ass who ever lived. A copy should be bought for every hypochondriacal ward in lunatic asylums. To view it without a guffaw is impossible." (Manet, 1832-1883: Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, April 22-August 8, 1983, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 10-November 27, 1983, p. 381) Baudelaire's version of the poem appeared in L'Artiste in 1852.

Claude Debussy had set Mallarmé's poem 'Apparation' to music in 1882, but their first meeting took place years later. L'Après-Midi d'un faune inspired Debussy's tone poem, first performed in 1894. It became his most popular orchestral work. 

Originally Debussy had planned to write a three-part composition on the poem, but only completed the 'Prelude.' The great Russian-born ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky made it the score for his ballet choreography, which was performed in 1912. Nijinsky played the role of the faun. Against all expectations, he made only one leap. At the end, the faun thrusts his body into a scarf the most beautiful nymph has left behind. This sexual act shocked the premiere audience, but the producer Serghei Diaghilev commissioned a repeat performance and it was danced again. When the national newspaper Le Figaro launched a campaign against the ballet, Auguste Renoir and Odilon Redon rushed to the dancer's defence. Diaghilev was delighted.

From time to time Debussy attended Mallarmé's Tuesday evening gatherings, which attracted such writers, artists, musicians, and intellectuals as André Gide, Paul Valéry and Oscar Wilde, the painters Renoir, Monet, Degas, Redon, and Whistler, and the sculptor Rodin. "Certainly Mallarmé prepared his conversations," recalled Gide later, "but he spoke with such art and in a tone that had so little of the doctrinal about it that it seemed as if he had just that instant invented each new proposition".

The Afternoon of the Faun presents the wandering thoughts of a faun on a drowsy summer afternoon. "Forgetful let me lie where summer's drouth / Sifts fine the sand and then with gaping mouth / Dream planet-struck by the grape's round wine-red star. / Nymphs, I shall see the shade that now you are." (translated by Aldous Huxley) Mallarmé began to write the poems while working in Tournon, a town he found ugly and unpleasant. For Claude Debussy he wrote in December 1894 after coming from the concert: "... what a marvel! your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun – not in the slightest disaccord with my text, except that it goes further, truly, in nostalgia and light, so delicate, disquieting, and rich."

Between the years 1867 and 1873 Mallarmé did not finish any of his large poetical works, Hérodiade (1869) included. Among Mallarmé's later publications are Toast funèbre, which was written in memory of the author Théophile Gautier, and the experimental poem, one of his masterpieces, 'Un Coup De Dés' (1914, A Throw of the Dice), which came out posthumously.  Following the death of his son Anatole in 1879, Mallarmé poured his sorrow into informal notes, intended as a part of a projected book. These anguished fragments were published in 1961 under the title Pour un tombeau d'Anatole (A Tomb For Anatole). Paul Auster, who has translated the fragments into English, said in the introduction of the book, that Mallarmé's motivation was to "transmute Anatole into words and thereby prolong his life. He would, literally, resurrect him, since the work of building a tomb – a tomb of poetry – would obliterate the presence of death." 

From the 1880s Mallarmé was the center of a group of French writers in Paris, which had such members Gide, Paul Valéry, and Proust. Mallarmé's ideas on poetry and art were considered difficult and obscure. When Mallarmé started to write poetry in the 1850s', French poets were still rather obedient to certain conventions concerning rhyme, metre, theme, etc. Victor's Hugo's notion that 'pure poetry' is essentially 'useless' was widely accepted. Proust wrote once: "How unfortunate that so gifted a man should become insane every time he takes up the pen", and Mallarmé's friend, the painter Edgar Degas, came out from his lecture, and crying "I do not understand, I do not understand."

Challenging his readers, Mallarmé sought out from a dictionary the long-forgotten meanings of common words and used these. Naturally this provoked a hostility, that followed Mallarmé through his career. To Proust's attack he answered in The Mystery in Literature: "Every piece of writing, on the outside of its treasure, must-out of respect for those from whom, after all, it borrows the language, for a different purpose-present with the words a meaning, even if an unimportant one: there is an advantage to turning away the idler, who is charmed that nothing here concerns him at first sight."

According to Mallarmé's theories, nothing lies beyond reality, but within this nothingness lie the essence of perfect forms. It is the task of the poet to reveal and crystallize these essences. Mallarmé's poetry employs condensed figures and unorthodox syntax. He believed that the point of a poem was the beauty of the language. "You don't make a poem with ideas, but with words." Thus a poem should be read as an object independent of the world in which it existed. But sometimes he became bored of the antique gardens of words, where he wanted to live: "The flesh grows weary. And books, I've read them all. / Off, then, to where I glimpse through spray and squall / Strange birds delighting in their unknown skies!" (from 'Seabreeze') Each poem is built around a central symbol, idea, or metaphor and consists of subordinate images that illustrate and help to develop the idea. However, he preferred to hint between the l ines at meanings rather than state them clearly. "Nommer un object, c'est supprimer les trois-quarts de la jouissance du poème qui est fait peu à peu: le suggérer." The reader must return over and over again to the lines, concentrate on the music of the words rather than the referential meaning. Once he stated: "I become obscure, of course! if one makes a mistake and thinks one is opening a newspaper."

For the rest of his life Mallarmé devoted himself to putting his literary theories into practice and writing his Grand Oeuvre (Great Work). Mallarmé died in Paris, on September 9, 1898 without completing this work. Mallarmé's vers libre had a huge influence on twentieth century French poetry, and in the creation of the modernist tradition in German and American poetry.

For further reading: Symbolisme from Poe to Mallarme by Joseph Chiarie (1970); The Aesthetics of Stephane Mallarme in Relation to His Public by Paula Gilbert Lewis (1976); Stephane Mallarme Twentieth-Century Criticism 1901-1971 by Hampton D. Morris (1977); Mallarme and the Symbolist Drama by Haskell Block (1977); The Death of Stéphane Mallarmé by Leo Bersani (1982); Eros Under Glass: Psychoanalysis and Mallarme's Herodiate by Mary Ellen Wolf (1987); Mallarme's Divine Transposition by Peter Dayan (1987); Stephane Mallarme by F.C. St. Aubyn (1989); Mallarme's Divagations by Robert Greer Cohn (1991); The Poetics of the Occasion by Marian Zwerling Sugano (1992); The Fiction of the Poet: From Mallarmé to the Post-Symbolist Mode by Anna Balakian (1992); Performance in the Texts of Mallarme by Mary Lewis Shaw (1993); A Throw of the Dice: The Life of Stehane Mallarmé by Gordon Millan (1994); The Name of the Poet by Michael Temple (1995); Boulez and Mallarmé: A Study in Poetic Influence by Mary Breatnach (1996); Unlocking Mallarmé by Graham Robb (1996); Remembering the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett by Adam Piette (1996); Unfolding Mallarme by Roger Pearson (1997); Mallarmé in the Twentieth Century, ed. by Robert Greer Cohn (1998); Toward the Poems of Mallarme by Robert Greer Cohn (2000); Mallarmé And The Poetics Of Everyday Life. A Study of the Concept of the Ordinary in his Verse and Prose by Hélène Stafford (2000); The Poet in Society: Art, Consumerism, and Politics in Mallarme by Damian Catani (2002); The Book as Instrument: Stéphane Mallarmé, the Artist’s Book, and the Transformation of Print Culture by  Anna Sigrídur Arnar (2015) - See also: Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, whose works Mallarmé translated.

Selected works:

  • Hérodiade, 1864-1887
    - Herodiade (translated by Joseph T. Shipley, 1921) / Herodias (translated by Clark Mills, 1940) / Herodias: Canticle of John the Baptist (translated by E.H. Blackmore and A. M. Blackmore, in Collected Poems and Other Verse, 2006) 
  • Le Corbeau / E.A. Poe, 1875 (translator)
  • L'Après-Midi d'un faune, 1876
    - The Afternoon of the Faun (translated by Roger Fry, in The Poems of Mallarmé, 1936) / A Faun in the Afternoon (translated by E.H. Blackmore and A. M. Blackmore, in Collected Poems and Other Verse, 2006)  
    - Faunin iltapäivä: valitut runot (suom. Einari Aaltonen, 2006)
    - This poem inspired Claude Debussy to compose in 1894 his Prélude à l'aprés-midi d'un faune , the score was published in the following year; choreographed and danced by Nijinsky for Diaghilev's Russian Ballet in 1912
  • Prosa, 1880
  • L'Étoile des fées / Mrs. W.-C. Elphinstone Hope, 1881 (translator)
  • Poésies, 1887
    - Poésies / Poetical Works (translated by E.H. Blackmore and A. M. Blackmore, in Collected Poems and Other Verse, 2006) 
  • Album de vers et de prose, 1887
  • Les Poèmes d'Edgar Poe, 1888 (translator)
  • Le Ten o'clock / M. Whistler, 1888 (translator)
  • Pages, 1891
  • La musique et les lettres, 1891
  • Vers et prose, 1893
  • Divagations, 1897
    - Divagations (translated by Barbara Johnson, 2007)
  • Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard, 1897
    - Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance (translated by Brian Coffey, 1965) / A Cast of Dice Never Can Annul Chance (translated by Neil Crawford, 1985) / A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance, in To Purify the Words of the Tribe (translated by Paul Herron, 1999) / A Dice Thrown At Any Time Never Will Abolish Chance (translated and edited by E.H. Blackmore and A. M. Blackmore, in Collected Poems and Other Verse, 2006) / A Roll of the Dice (translated by Robert Bononno and Jeff Clark, 2015)
    - Nopanheitto (suom. Helena Sinervo, 2006)
  •  Poésies, 1899
    - Poésies / Poetical Works, in Collected Poems and Other Verse (translated and edited by E.H. Blackmore and A. M. Blackmore, 2006)
  • Madrigaux, 1920 (with Raoul Dufy)
  • Vers de circonstance, 1920
    - Vers de circonstances/Occasional Verses, in Collected Poems and Other Verse (translated and edited by E.H. Blackmore and A. M. Blackmore, 2006)
  • Contes indiens, 1927
  • Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé, 1928
  • The Poems of Mallarmé, 1936 (translated by Roger Fry)
  • Oeuvres complètes, 1945 (ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry)
  • Propos sur la poésie, 1953
  • Lettres, 1959
  • Correspondance, 1959-1985 (11 vols.)
  • Pour un tombeau d'Anatole, 1961 (introduction by Jean-Pierre Richard)
    - A Tomb For Anatole (translated by Paul Auster, 1983) / Notes for ‘Anatole’s Tomb’ (translated by Patrick McGuinness, 2002) / For Anatole’s Tomb (translated by Patrick McGuinness, 2003)
  • Les "Gossips", 1962 (ed. by H. Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry)
  • Selected letters of Stéphane Mallarmé, 1988 (edited and translated by Rosemary Lloyd)
  • Stephane Mallarmé: Selected Poems, 1989 (translated by C. F. Macintyre)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1989 (edited by Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry)
  • Lettres à Méry Laurent / Stéphane Mallarmé, 1996 (edited by Bertrand Marchal)
  • Collected Poems by Stephane Mallarmé, 1996 (reissued edition, translated by Henry Weinfield)
  • Mallarmé, 1998 (edited by Bertrand Marchal)
  • Oeuvres complètes, I, 1998 (edited by Bertrand Marchal)
  • Correspondance: compléments et suppléments, 1998 (edited by Nicola Luckhurst)
  • To Purify the Words of the Tribe: The Major Verse Poems of Stephane Mallarmé, 1999 (translated by Daisy Aldan)
  • Mallarme in Prose, 2001 (edited by Mary Ann Caws, translated by Jill Anderson)  
  • Oeuvres complètes, II, 2003 (edited by Bertrand Marchal)
  • Collected Poems and Other Verse, 2006 (traslated and edited by E.H. Blackmore and A. M. Blackmore)
  • Correspondance / Félix Fénéon, Stéphane Mallarmé, 2007 (edited by Maurice Imbert)
  • Mallarmé-Morisot: correspondance 1876-1895, 2009 (edited by Olivier Daulte and Manuel Dupertuis)
  • De la lettre au livre, 2010 (edited by Pierre-Henry Frangne)
  • The Poems in verse, 2012 (translation and notes by Peter Manson)
  • Azure: Poems and Selections from the "Livre", 2015 (a new translation by Blake Bronson-Bartlett and Robert Fernandez)

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