The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé(1842-1898) was the master of the symbolist writers in France. His poetic theories and difficult, allusive poems separated him from the general public but won him intense admiration within the circle of his initiates.
Stéphane Mallarméwas born in Paris on March 18, 1842. After a mediocre beginning at school, young Stéphane excelled in languages (French, Latin, Greek, and English) and obtained his baccalaureate degree in November 1860. In February 1862 he published his first poem (Placet) in Le Papillon. His liaison with Maria Gerhard led to their marriage on Aug. 10, 1863, and to the birth of a daughter, Françoise Geneviève Stéphanie (in November 1864), and a son, Anatole (1871-1879). In September 1863 Mallarméobtained his certificate for teaching English and at the end of the year went with his wife to Tournon to teach in the lycée there. His teaching career was to last for 30 years and to take him to Besançon (1866), Avignon (1867), and finally Paris (1871). An agonizing spiritual crisis in 1866 led to Mallarmé's complete loss of religious faith and to his austere, half-mystical preoccupation with eternity and le Néant (Nothingness, or Annihilation).
In 1875 Mallarmépublished Le Corbeau (his translation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven) with illustrations by Édouard Manet; and the following year appeared L'Aprèsmidi d'un faune, églogu…., one of his most memorable poems. L'Après-midi d'un faune exemplifies many characteristics of Mallarmé's exquisitely evocative poetry and many of his cherished ideas—for example, that in the "pure work" the poet disappears as speaker and gives over the initiative to the words, which "kindle each other with reciprocal reflections like a virtual trail of fires over precious stones." The faun, in his evocation by the word lis (lily), exemplifies also Mallarmé's claim in the essay Crise de vers for the ideal power of verbal creation.
In L'Après-midi d'un faune there emerges from Mallarmé's subtle suggestion and evocation the drama of a young faun trying to decide between dream and reality in his confused recollection of an erotic adventure with two nymphs, who finally escaped from his embrace. In a vague Sicilian landscape we see the faun, after trying vainly to resolve the mystery of his experience, turn to a fantasy of ravishing Venus herself and then, at the last, going back to sleep under the silence of the noonday sun.
Mallarméis cited by Jules Huret in 1891 as criticizing the Parnassians' direct presentation of objects in poetry: "To name an object is to suppress three-fourths of the enjoyment of the poem which is made up of gradual discovery: to suggest it, that is the dream…. There must always be an enigma in poetry…." In his later writings, Mallarméasxspired to the creation of hermetic poetry.
J. K. Huysmans' …rebours and Paul Verlaine's Poètes maudits in 1884 helped make Mallarmémore generally known in France. He was known also through his famous "mardis" (Tuesday receptions from 9 to midnight in his home at 89 Rue de Rome), which flourished into the 1890s and brought together over the years many of the most significant writers, musicians, and artists of the time.
In 1887 appeared Mallarmé's Poésies, and the following year his prose translations of Les Poèmes d'Edgar Poe and of Ten o'Clock, James McNeill Whistler's famous lecture on art. On Jan. 27, 1896, Mallarméwas elected "prince of poets," succeeding Verlaine. Publications near the end of his life included Vers et prose (1893), La Musique et les lettres (1895), Divagations (1897), and Un Coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard (1897). Mallarmédied at Valvins on Sept. 9, 1898, and was buried 2 days later in the cemetery of Samoreau (Seine-et-Marne). Posthumous publications included a separate edition of Un Coup de dés (1914), Madrigaux (1920), Vers de circonstance (1920), Igitur ou La Folie d'Elbehnon (1925), Contes indiens (1927), and Thèmes anglais (1937). Mallarmé's Oeuvres complètes was published in 1945.
The exquisite qualities of Mallarmé's art are evident both in his poetry and in such prose poems as Plainte d'automne and Frisson d'hiver. Of individual poems (aside from those named earlier) one may cite such examples as Apparition, Les Fenêtres, L'Azur, Brise marine, Soupir, Hérodiade, the more difficult Prose pour des Esseintes, the three Tombeaux (Poe, Baudelaire, Verlaine), and the sonnets Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui, Victorieusement fui le suicide beau, and Ses purs ongles très haut dédiant leur onyx.
Mallarméliked images of snow, ice, swans, gems, mirrors, cold stars, and women's fans. There is often a burning sensuality under the austere form of his poems; but there are also numerous overt images of chastity, sterility, and artistic impotence. In Un Coup de dés Mallarméused typography to dramatize his words and enhance their imaginative suggestiveness. He saw the poet's function as being, above all, "to give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe." He claimed to have come to understand "the intimate correlation of Poetry with the Universe" and hinted that he was beginning where Baudelaire left off. Finally, he carried his ideal so far that, as he admitted, his art became "a dead end." But Mallarméwas not a sterile artist; he was one of the most exquisite poets of the century.
Further Reading on Stéphane Mallarmé
For translations from Mallarmésee Some Poems of Mallarmé (1936), translated by Roger Fry with commentaries by Charles Mauron; the Selected Poems (1957), translated by C. F. Maclntyre; and Anthony Hartley, ed., Mallarmé (1965), with prose translations. Among useful studies in English are Hasye Cooperman, The Aesthetics of Stéphane Mallarmé (1933); Wallace Fowlie, Mallarmé (1953); Joseph Chiari, Symbolism from Poe to Mallarmé: The Growth of a Myth (1956), with a foreword by T. S. Eliot; Haskell M. Block, Mallarméand the Symbolist Drama (1963); Guy Michaud's Mallarmé (trans. 1965); Robert Greer Cohn, Toward the Poems of Mallarmé (1965) and Mallarmé's Masterwork: New Findings (1966); and Thomas A. Williams, Mallarméand the Language of Mysticism (1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Millan, Gordan, A throw of the dice: the life of Stéphane Mallarmé, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994.
Sartre, Jean Paul, Mallarmé, or, The poet of nothingness, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.
Woolley, Grange, Stéphane Mallarmé, 1842-189, New York: AMS Press, 1981.