On Stéphane Mallarmé

Stéphane Mallarmé is generally agreed to be the most influential French poet of the late 19th century. Barring some more popular, not to say populist, contenders, he is perhaps the most influential French poet, full stop. Like his predecessor Baudelaire and his contemporaries Verlaine and Rimbaud, Mallarmé has stimulated minds in the highest reaches of later poetry, from American high Modernists Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot to such formal adventurers as the Language poets, as well as in fields as disparate as Surrealism, Cubism, and Dada, the philosophies of Derrida and Barthes, and the music of Debussy and Ravel.
His relatively uneventful personal life and sizable artistic and intellectual cosmos have, in the century since his death, largely kept him out of biographies (which are then turned into Hollywood films) and on the tongues of poets and intellectual historians. But then, without the flashy headlines and under the burden of agonizing translation, Mallarmé is frequently cited but seldom read. Whether this new edition of Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), his final textual experiment, marks the beginning of a Mallarmé renaissance is unclear and, to be frank, unlikely. What it will do is provide English speakers with an opportunity to grapple with a great master.
Born in Paris in 1842, Mallarmé’s lackluster school days ended with a year in London, during which he secured a certificate for teaching English, a job he performed poorly and with little satisfaction until an early retirement at the age of 51. His career was spent largely hopping from school to school, settling in Paris after nearly a decade of teaching in places such as Tournon and Avignon. His wife Gehrard stayed with him until his death, and as a couple they appear to have been happy, despite the itinerant nature of his teaching career. Perhaps this was due to his other career’s unqualified success: by the time of his retirement, he had established himself as a key figure in the French literary world, and, by his death in 1896, he was widely regarded as the greatest living French poet and the pillar of the Parisian scene. Attendees of his regular salonsincluded Yeats, Rilke, Valery, and others, and Verlaine included an essay on his work in the famous Les Poètes Maudits (The Accursed Poets).
His output, prolific but unremarkable at the beginning, slowed as he got older and better. The sum total of what he wished to have published in his collected works numbers around fifty individual poems. This count is expanded by earlier works, depending on the taste and generosity of the many editors who have undertaken to collect Mallarmé’s writing.
His earlier work bore the unmistakable influence of Charles Baudelaire, albeit a somewhat unhappy one. Whereas Baudelaire’s project of self-emancipation from the burden of everyday reality via sense experience was a basically optimistic one (if darkly and idiosyncratically so), Mallarmé’s hope for release from banality—a broader term in this case than mere boredom—was rooted in a kind of realism, for want of a better word, which was balanced between a belief in the essential orderliness of the cosmos and a somber recognition of that order’s near-constant inscrutability. His primary philosophical interests—ideesideal, etc.—and the manner in which those perfections break down in practice anticipate the fin-de-siècle fixation with the fin du monde, or at least the fin du monde tel que nous le conaissons. See “Quand l’ombre meneça . . .” a poem published in 1883 but generally regarded to have come from the earlier, more heavily Baudelairean period of the ’60s:
When the shadow of fatal law menaced me
A certain old dream, sick desire of my spine,
Beneath funereal ceilings afflicted by dying
Folded its indubitable wing within me.
This is not mere cynicism, never mind the nihilism of which much of 19th- and 20th-century French poetry is accused. The tone is not sarcastic, and if it is bitter it strikes the reader more as a disappointed than vindictive bitterness. Like all of Mallarmé, the images are vivid and ambiguous. The first impression will be of the source of the menace: the “fatal law,” or, more precisely, the “shadow of fatal law.” Is it the stricture of the material world, which limits the poet’s creative freedom? Or is it the impassable world of noumena, implied by but inaccessible through the phenomenawe experience, making Eros, so lauded by the old poets and thinkers, a sad craving, a “sick desire of [the poet’s] spine”? The “funereal ceilings” call to mind the supra-human ambitions of gothic cathedrals, and the plain fact that the true heights—the sky and the heavens beyond—are hidden by the rib-vaults meant to evoke them. And yet the “wing,” the means of flight, is, despite being folded, is “indubitable.” This is at once hopeful and desperate, a sentiment related to a quotation made by one of Mallarmé’s descendants, Beckett, and attributed to St. Augustine: “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved; do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.” And, in a manner reminiscent of the Christianity he rejected, the Mallarmé of “Quand l’ombre meneça . . .” takes the path of hope, viewing his own art as a transformative act by which the impasse between ideal and real might be breached:
Space, like itself, whether denied or expanded
Revolves in this boredom vile flames as witness
That a festive star’s genius has been enkindled.
Broadly speaking, Mallarmé’s influence in Anglophone poetry cuts two ways. The first and most prominent is the heritage of the Symbolists, a combination of religious and philosophical preoccupations with a deep concern for musicality and rhythm. The latter of these is in part what makes Mallarmé so difficult to translate. The nearest English equivalent to my mind is Wallace Stevens, a poet whose work is in constant conversation with his French predecessor. (Consider the task of translating even Stevens’ most famous poems, such as the “Emperor of Ice Cream,” which opens, “Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.”) Through the American Modernist quadrumvirate of Stevens, Frost (with his insistence on the “sound of sense”), Pound, and Eliot (though, true to form, he cited the more obscure Jules La Forgue as a decisive influence), Mallarmé’s hand can be seen in all of what might be called “mainstream” poetry of the 20th century.
The other strain of Mallarmé’s influence comes down through the more experimental line in Modern poetry, from Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams to such diverse practitioners as Surrealists like André Breton, the Language poets, and, in our own time, the nascent movement of digital and computer-generated poetry. This loosely defined nexus of formally and conceptually experimental poets, who often relate intensely in their work with other art forms, can be traced directly to Mallarmé’s final work, Un coup des Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard.
This relatively short volume (the present edition, the first since 2004, which was the first ever to be produced according to Mallarmé’s specifications, runs to little over 60 pages, including both an English translation and a facsimile of the French) is a study as much in space as it is sound, in silence as much as in speech. It is a meticulously deliberate meditation on the possibilities of these elements of poetry, performed long before this idea became a cliché. As the poet writes in his preface (which, incidentally, he wishes not to be read):
The “white spaces,” in effect, assume importance, are the first that strike our eyes; versification has always required them, usually as an encompassing silence, such that a poem, lyrical or with few feet occupies, centered, about a third of the page: I don’t disregard this method, merely disperse it.
Mallarmé here is being a bit coy: he is not, of course, merely rearranging text on a page for the sake of rearrangement, and he goes on in his short introductory note to consider the possibilities of his method. Two items of importance here: the first is the strikingly active persona he gives to the text, referring to it as moving and shaping itself according to its own “mobility,” rather than by being discovered by the reader. This seems to anticipate in particular Heidegger’s understanding of Dasein as almost entirely passive (see his discussion of “Das Wort” by Stefan Georg who, not incidentally, was one of Mallarmé’s guests in the salon days). The second point of interest in this note is his striking assertion toward the end:
I will, nevertheless have indicated a “state,” rather than a sketch of this Poem, one that doesn’t break with tradition at all.
How could this poem, which only to the “initiated” would appear as a poem, be considered as not breaking with tradition? This may be what separates Mallarmé from the excesses of his descendants: while experimentation has for many become a good in itself, if not a direct assault on the literary tradition, for Mallarmé it was a means of drawing the essentials of poetic form out from under the trappings of orthodoxy, in order to bring new light to poetry’s practice. As Joyce said of Finnegans Wake, this may be a book of the night, but at daybreak the world as we know it reappears.
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