Born: Paris, France, 18 March 1842. Education: Educated at schools in Passy, 1852-56; Lycee de Sens, 1856-60. Family: Married Marie Christina Gerhard in 1863; one daughter and one son. Career: Taught English in Tournon, 1863-66, Besangon, 1866-67, Avignon, 1867-70, Lycee Fontanes, Paris, 1871-84, and Lycee Janson de Sailly, Paris, 1884-85; appointed to the College Rollin, Paris, 1885, retired, 1893; editor and contributor, La Derniere Mode, 1874-75. Died: 9 September 1898.
Oeuvres completes, edited by Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry. 1945.
Collected Poems, translated by Henry Weinfield. 1994.
Mallarme in Prose, edited by Mary Ann Caws, translated by Jill Anderson. 2001
L’Apres-midi d’un faune: Eglogue. 1876.
Los Poesies. 1887, enlarged edition, 1899, 1913; translated by Charles Chadwick in The Meaning of Mallarme: A Bilingual Edition of his Poesies and Un coup de de, 1996.
Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hasard. 1914; edited by Mitsou Ronat, 1980; as Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hasard, translated by Daisy Aldan, 1956; as Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance, translated by Brian Coffey, 1965; translated by Charles Chadwick in The Meaning of Mallarme: A Bilingual Edition of His Poesies and Un coup de des, 1996. Madrigaux. 1920.
Vers de circonstance. 1920.
Herodiade, translated by Joseph T. Shipley. 1921.
Mallarme in English Verse, translated by Arthur Ellis. 1927.
Poems, translated by Roger Fry. 1951.
Selected Poems, translated by C.F. MacIntyre. 1957.
Poems, translated by Keith Bosley. 1977.
Poesies, translated by Arthur Symons. 1986.
Poems, translated by Brian Coffey. 1990.
Les Mots anglais. 1877.
Les Dieux antiques. 1880.
Album de vers et de prose. 1887.
Villiers de L’Isle-Adam. 1890.
Vers et prose. 1893.
La Musique et les lettres. 1895.
Igitur; ou, La Folie d’Elbehnon. 1925.
Contes indiens. 1927.
Themes anglais. 1937.
Correspondance, edited by Henri Mondor, J.P. Richard, and Lloyd James Austin. 11 vols., 1959-85.
Selected Letters, edited and translated by Rosemary Lloyd. 1988.
Editor, Favourite Tales for Very Young Children, by James Stephens. 1885.
Translator, Le Corbeau, The Raven, by Poe. 1875.
Translator, L’Etoile des fees, by Mrs. W.-C. Elphinstone Hope. 1881.
Translator, Les Poemes d’Edgar Poe. 1888.
Translator, Le ”Ten O’Clock,” by J.M. Whistler. 1888.
Towards "Heriodade", 1934, and Mallarme’s ”Grand Oeuvre”, 1962, both by A.R. Chisolm; Mallarme by Wallace Fowlie, 1953; Mallarme and the Symbolist Drama by Haskell M. Block, 1963; Toward the Poems of Mallarme, 1965, Mallarme’s ”Un coup de des," 1980, Mallarme Igitur, 1981, and Mallarme’s Prose Poems: A Critical Study, 1987, all by Robert Greer Cohn; Mallarme by Guy Michaud, 1966; Mallarme by Frederick C. Saint Aubyn, 1969, revised edition, 1989; The Anatomy of Poesis: The Prose Poems of Mallarme by Ursula Franklin, 1976; The Prose of Mallarme: The Evolution of a Literary Language by Judy Kravis, 1976; The Aesthetics of Mallarme in Relation to His Public by Paula Gilbert Lewis, 1976; Mallarme and the Art of Being Difficult by Malcolm Bowie, 1979; The Early Mallarme by Austin Gill, 2 vols., 1979-86; Vers le theatre interieur: Elements of Mallarme’s Total Art Form by William Carpenter, 1981; The Death of Stephane Mallarme by Leo Bersani, 1982; Desire Seeking Expression: Mallarme’s Prose pour Des Esseintes by Marshall C. Olds, 1983; The Symbolist Home and the Tragic Home: Mallarme and Oedipus by Richard E. Goodwin, 1984; Poesies, edited by Rosemary Lloyd, 1984; Mallarme’s ”Divine Transposition": Real and Apparent Sources of Literary Value by Peter Dayan, 1986; Patterns of Thought in Rimbaud and Mallarme by John Porter Houston, 1986; Mallarme and the Sublime by Louis Wirth Marvick, 1986; The Dynamics of Space: Mallarme’s ”Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hasard” by Virginia La Charite, 1987; The Obscure and the Mysterious: A Research in Mallarme’s Symbolist Poetry by K.D. Sethna, 1987; Eros Under Glass: Psychoanalysis and Mallarme’s Herodiade by Mary Ellen Wolf, 1987; The Poetics of the Occasion: Mallarme and the Poetry of Circumstance by Marian Zwerling Sugano, 1992; The Poem on the Edge of the Word: The Limits of Language and the Uses of Silence in the Poetry of Mallarme, Rilke, and Vallejo by Dianna C. Niebylski, 1993; Performance in the Texts of Mallarme: The Passage from Art to Ritual by Mary Lewis Shaw, 1993; Poetry and Painting: Baudelaire, Mallarme, Apollinaire, and Their Painter Friends by Alan Bowness, 1994; Mallarme: A Throw of the Dice (biography) by Gordon Millan, 1994; The Orphic Moment: Shaman to Poet-Thinker in Plato, Nietzsche, and Mallarme by Robert McGahey, 1994; The Name of the Poet: Onamastics and Anonymity in the Works of Stephane Mallarme by Michael Temple, 1995; Symbolist Aesthetics and Early Abstract Art: Sites of Imaginary Space by Dee Reynolds, 1995; Unfolding Mallarme: The Development of a Poetic Art by Roger Pearson, 1996; Unlocking Mallarme by Graham Robb, 1996; Meetings with Mallarme: In Contemporary French Culture, edited by Michael Temple, 1998; Mallarme in the Twentieth Century, edited by Robert Greer Cohn, 1998; Mallarme: The Poet and His Circle by Rosemary Lloyd, 1999; Situating Mallarme by David Kinloch and Gordon Millan, 2000.
Stephane Mallarme is a significant figure in the history of French literature, not only because his poetry is strikingly unusual and fine, but because he was a major influence on the poets of the next generation. Writers such as Paul Valery in France, Stefan George in Germany, d’Annunzio in Italy, and Oscar Wilde in England, all acknowledge their debt to Mallarme.
The extent of his influence seems ironic; after all, his aim to render poetry less accessible to a general readership, to ”purify the language of the tribe,” as the alchemist transforms dross to gold, hardly seems conducive to widespread influence. Mallarme’s poems are far from easy to read. But he was the key figure in a movement which achieved a complete transformation of French poetry. Poets such as Rimbaud and Verlaine had for some time been trying to escape the excesses of Romantic lyricism, and when, in 1884, Verlaine published Les Poetes maudits [The Accursed Poets], a collection that included some of Mallarme’s compositions, the public became aware for the first time that a revolution had been fermenting, and that Mallarme was one of the leading revolutionaries. In Huysmans’s A Rebours (Against Nature), the hero, not surprisingly, bears many of Mallarme’s own characteristics; Huysmans openly extols Mallarme’s work, calling it ”. . . this condensed literature, this concentration of essence, this purification of art … .” Mallarme, modest and reserved though he was, found himself a literary celebrity, and hailed as the leading light of the new aesthetic movement.
His own definition of poetry, as he stated it in 1885, is that ”Poetry is the expression, by means of the human language restored to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious sense of certain aspects of existence; poetry thus endows our span on earth with authenticity, and constitutes our sole spiritual task … .” An investigation of Mallarme’s writings prior to this statement shows to what extent this was a summary of his own practice. As early as the year 1862 he had declared his allegiance to the new art, when he wrote in an article entitled ”Heresie artistique: L’Art pour tous” that ”. . . everything sacred that is to remain sacred is veiled in mystery.” It is the poet’s task to restore the sense of religious mystery to poetry, to preserve its sanctity. The notion of a task, together with the cultivation of mystery, are at the core of Mallarme’s work.
Although the poet’s mission is to purify language, the ideal of absolute purity may conflict with his vocation. The poet, in Mallarme’s words, is like ”a ridiculous Hamlet who can’t come to terms with his own downfall.” How can the poet reconcile an imperative vocation with the inaccessibility of his ideal? The conflict is clearly expressed in an image recurring throughout Mallarme’s work, namely that of whiteness. White is both a non-colour and the synthesis of all colours; it represents at once potential (the whiteness of a virgin page to be covered with lines of poetry), and, at the same time, sterility (the clinical whiteness of hospital curtains, the ”sterile winter” imprisoning the swan).
Two longer poems, the dramatic pieces Herodiade and L’Apres-midi d’un faune [The Afternoon of a Faun], again demonstrate the complexity of the conflict. The princess Herodias refuses life and its attractions for the sake of purity. Her nurse, who tries in vain to tempt her back to life, asks the crucial question:
For whom, devoured
By anguish, do you reserve the unknown splendour
And the vain mystery of your being?
The Faun is Herodias’s counterpart and complement. Where Herodias is sheathed in icy reserve, the Faun is all fire and desire. He sees two nymphs asleep, united in an embrace, and, witnessing their ”extase d’etre deux,” their ecstasy at being two, he tries to possess them, bearing them away in his arms. But they awake and flee. The Faun is left alone with his memories, pondering them in the silence. Are they real, or are they merely a figment of his imagination? He is punished for attempting to divide what was once whole, for trying to sully the purity that his alter ego, Herodias, wanted to preserve at all costs.
Mallarme was a little puzzled that Debussy should want to set L’Apres-midi d’un faune to music—was it not already musical enough? The restoration of language ”to its essential rhythm” involved the exploitation of the sound, rather than the meaning, of words, so that they would appeal, as music does, to the reader’s senses before appealing to his intellect. The reader must be aware of this fact if he is to appreciate Mallarme’s poetry. In order to enhance the music of language, Mallarme distorted conventional syntax, developed the significance of rhythm and vowel-pitch, and made extensive use of aural evocation. All these techniques present difficulties for the translator, and indeed for the reader of a translation. The sonnet ”Une dentelle s’abolit” (”A Lace Curtain Stands Effaced”) ends with the line ”Filial on aurait pu naitre,” which has been translated as ”Filial one might be born.” It is inevitable that part of the richness of the French should be lost, and unfortunate that the aural evocation of ”n’etre,” a negation of being, which adds a crucial ambiguity to Mallarme’s original French line, cannot be conveyed by a similar technique in English.
However, as Mallarme stated during the composition of Herodiade, he was creating a ”tres nouvelle poetique,” a very new mode of poetic expression, whose chief aim was to ”peindre, non la chose mais l’effet qu’elle produit”—to paint, not the object itself, but the effect it produces. In other words, Mallarme relies on the sensation aroused in the reader by his words rather than on any intellectual process of analysis. If the English translation is capable of arousing similar sensations, the loss of certain nuances is only of secondary importance.
In the light of Mallarme’s encouragement of intuitive response to his works, it is something of a paradox that they should be considered ”obscure.” He has been accused of wilfully baffling and disconcerting the reader, of practising ”hermeticism” quite deliberately. This is undoubtedly true, up to a point. Yet the motive behind the ”art of being difficult” is not merely mischievous pleasure in mystification, but Mallarme’s concern to endow his work with a third dimension. In order to identify with the Mallarmean universe, the reader has to become familiar with the idiom. The attempt to find a single logical pattern of meaning among the polyvalent images is doomed to failure. Mallarme himself said of a young follower, ”he is charming, but why does he always explain my poems? Anyone would think they were obscure!”