The Terrifying Beauty of Mallarmé

At the dawn of modernism, in the late nineteenth century, the activity of avant-garde artists often resembled rival expeditions into uncharted polar regions. The goal was to discover novel spheres of expression: the unspoken word, the unpainted image, the unheard sound. Arguably, the Amundsen of fin-de-siècle art—the first to plant a flag at an outer extreme of artistic possibility—was the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Upon his death, in 1898, he left behind a body of work so inscrutable that it still causes literature students to fall to their knees in despair. Such was the import of a note that I recently found in a library copy of Mallarmé’s selected letters: “Please pray that God would give me the patience and perseverance to get through this next week.”

Mallarmé’s revolution arrived in an outwardly conservative guise. Many of his poems take the form of sonnets, and many employ the twelve-syllable alexandrine, the meter of classical French tragedy. After only one or two lines, though, you are engulfed in fine mist, and a certain terror sets in. Consider the sonnet “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui,” whose first version probably dates from the late eighteen-sixties, when Mallarmé was in his mid-twenties. The translation is by the Scottish poet Peter Manson, in a collection published by Miami University Press in 2012:

The virginal, enduring, beautiful today
will a drunken beat of its wing break us
this hard, forgotten lake haunted under frost
by the transparent glacier of unfled flights!

A swan of old remembers it is he
magnificent but who without hope frees himself
for never having sung a place to live
when the boredom of sterile winter was resplendent.

His whole neck will shake off this white death-throe
inflicted by space on the bird denying it,
but not the horror of soil where the feathers are caught.

Phantom assigned to this place by pure brilliance,
he is paralyzed in the cold dream of contempt
put on in useless exile by the Swan.

This is actually one of Mallarmé’s more approachable works. By the end, a relatively clear, almost Romantic picture has emerged: a swan is trapped in ice, unable to take flight. But getting there isn’t easy. The first sentence seems to have wandered in from a sunnier poem. The subsequent sentences are impacted and fractured, the jamming together of disconnected images presaging Dadaism. Since these poems were first published, many readers have concluded that the effort is not worth it. For others, though, the difficulty of the path is justified by the unearthly beauty that hovers in the distance. “Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne”: that line has a music beyond its meaning, its six-syllable phrases singing out in turn. (The first “e” is its own syllable, according to classical rules.) The sonnet evokes Mallarmé’s own sense of exile; in a strange way, it is a portrait of itself, embodying an aesthetic of submerged magnificence. Writing of Mallarmé, the French philosopher Alain Badiou observed, “What the poem says, it does.”

Mallarmé’s place in the English-speaking world is somewhat tenuous. As Blake Bronson-Bartlett and Robert Fernandez point out in their new collection of translations, “Azure” (Wesleyan), he lacks the wide fame of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, who, with their drug-taking and other bohemian exploits, “set the bar for trailblazing misbehavior in philosophy and the arts from the early to the late twentieth century.” Mallarmé is bland by comparison. He taught English in Paris and elsewhere in France; he married a German woman, Marie Gerhard, and had two children; he presided over a Tuesday gathering of fellow-poets; he published relatively little.

Yet his influence has been immense. Paul Claudel and Paul Valéry moved in his shadow; so, to varying degrees, did Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and, especially, Wallace Stevens, who staged similar collisions of grand abstraction and mundane reality. Mallarmé also affected the visual artists of his time, having helped to define Impressionism in an 1876 essay; Manet, Whistler, Gauguin, and Renoir made portraits of him, Degas photographed him. In music, the advent of modernism is often pegged to Debussy’s 1894 composition “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun,’ ” a meditation on Mallarmé’s most famous poem. John Cage and Pierre Boulez, masters of the musical avant-garde, studied Mallarmé’s explorations of chance and discontinuity. Perhaps the most prolonged resonance was in French philosophy and theory. From Sartre and Lacan to Blanchot and Derrida and on to Badiou, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Rancière, French thinkers have defined themselves through interpretations of Mallarmé. If you can crack these poems, it seems, you can crack the riddles of existence.

This prophet of the high modern never saw himself as a revolutionary. With the exception of one grand experiment—the free-form poem “Un Coup de Dés,” or “A Throw of the Dice,” proofs of which he was correcting at the time of his death—Mallarmé persisted with his sonnets and alexandrines. It is, however, precisely this tension between traditional form and radical content that keeps reactivating the shock of his writing. Sartre, in a skeptical yet passionate analysis, identified Mallarmé’s method as “the terrorism of politesse”—civilization stylishly blowing itself to pieces. The poet himself said that he knew of no other bomb than a book.

Mallarmé took a certain pride in the drabness of his lineage, describing himself as the scion of an “uninterrupted series of functionaries in the Administration and the Registry.” He was born in Paris in 1842, and had a lonely childhood; his mother died when he was five, and his sister died of rheumatic disease when he was fifteen. Dispatched to boarding school at the age of eight, he buried himself in books but irritated his teachers with his insubordinate attitude. By the time he was twenty, he had settled on pursuing literature. He married, and decided, mistakenly, that a career as a schoolteacher would give him plenty of time to write on the side. He chose English as his subject; his interest in the language was sparked by a passion for Poe, whom Baudelaire had discovered for French readers.

Hoping for a position in Paris, Mallarmé found himself banished to the provinces, where his shortcomings as a teacher became clear. He took little interest in his pupils; his methods were peculiar. Gordon Millan’s 1994 biography quotes one inspector’s report: “In the senior classes the teacher has them translate ‘King Lear’ from the text. Inevitably, the pupils understand nothing.” As complaints mounted, he was shunted from one school to another. In the late eighteen-sixties, he underwent a psychological crisis that he recounted in vivid letters to friends. He reported that he felt “utterly dead”; that he had entered “the Void”; that he had become a “diamond, which reflects everything, but has no existence in itself.” Having abandoned the Catholicism of his childhood, he delved into Kabbalistic and alchemical lore. He spoke of creating a supreme Book, a “great work,” which would attempt an “Orphic explanation of the Earth.”

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