Prince of Poets

Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarmé

edited and translated by Rosemary Lloyd
University of Chicago Press, 238 pp., $27.50

Stéphane Mallarmé
Stéphane Mallarmé; drawing by David Levine

In 1896, on the death of Verlaine, Mallarmé was elected Prince of Poets by the review La Plume. He accepted the honor but declined the dinner. It was, at this moment of public triumph, an entirely typical gesture. In part it reflected his finely calibrated sense of propriety—the death of a great poet should not be even the indirect cause of celebration—but it also had a wider, longer echo. Mallarmé had spent all his life Refusing the Banquet.

Compared to other nineteenth-century French writers, Mallarmé had scarcely any “life” at all. No legend attached to him; there is no syphilis or bankruptcy, no exotic travel or homosexuality; set beside the rackety, dissolute, self-deceiving life of his co-partner in Symbolism, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, no existence could seem more measured, more careful, more buttoned-up. His rebellion against his upbringing consisted of giving up the traditional family career in the Records Office and becoming a schoolmaster. (His three-volume English grammar, Thèmes anglais, belongs next to Arthur Koestler’s Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge in the library of unexpected hack work.) He married at twenty-one. His rebellion against this marriage, twenty years on, came in the form of a liaison with the former actress Méry Laurent. But Méry had a protector (Thomas Evans, an American who had earlier been dentist to Napoleon III); Mallarmé exquisitely withdrew. His life was one of flights untaken and feelings suppressed, the inner life and the lateburning lamp. If he weren’t so French he could easily be English.

Gauguin etched him as a bureaucrat or perhaps a fastidious convict; Manet painted him in a boneless, deliquescent slouch; Munch made him look like Conrad (“It’s fairly pretty,” Mallarmé’s daughter commented of the portrait, “but it resembles those heads of Christ printed on a saint’s handkerchief and underneath which is written: ‘If you look long enough you’ll see the eyes close’ “); Degas had him leaning against a wall, hands in pockets, looking down at Renoir in a stiffness of pose explicable by the fifteen-minute photographic exposure. All show him as late-middle-aged, which is normal (given the operation of fame), but also apt. From his earliest letters he sounds like a fifty-year-old waiting to grow into that age.

Aesthetically and emotionally, his life was fixed early on: a mixture of daunting maturity and premature renunciation. At twenty he met his wife Marie, a German governess dangerously close to him in temperament (“From our two melancholies we could perhaps make a single happiness”); they ran off together to England—“the country of the false Rubens paintings”; she declared herself ruined; he suffered acute guilt; they married. Icily clear-minded, Mallarmé wrote to his friend Henri Cazalis:

If I married Marie to make myself happy, I’d be a madman. Besides, can happiness be found on earth? And should one seek it, seriously, anywhere but in dreams?… No, I’m marrying Marie solely because she couldn’t live without me…

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