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 and I would have poisoned her limpid existence…. I’m not acting for myself, but for her alone.

It doesn’t take much hindsight to observe that emotional altruism at age twenty is storing up trouble for later; but it’s all part of Mallarmé’s deck-clearing and hatch-battening. He becomes a schoolmaster even though he doesn’t much like teaching (he commands little respect in his post at Tournon and is frequently “worsted by paper darts and catcalls”); he becomes a husband even though he believes that “serious marriage is too primitive” and that the best way to look on the institution is as a means of acquiring “a home, that’s to say a little peace, and a ‘tea-maker,’ to quote De Quincey.” Happiness lies in the dream, and the dream is poetry.

Side by side with the rather self-inflicted personal and professional adulthood comes the genuine and astonishing maturity of his aesthetics. The “new poetics” he was to proclaim and pursue all his life are there from the beginning. It is a twenty-two-year-old provincial school-master who announces the famous dictum: “Paint, not the object, but the effect it produces.” Over the next months he declares reflection more valuable than impression as the source of art; lauds concision and arrangement as key elements in the poet’s method; admonishes Romanticism by asserting that a writer may have a literary temperament quite distinct from his human temperament. Even his formal innovations are in train: when he writes in 1865 that “the most beautiful page of my work will be that which contains only the divine word Hérodiade,” he is already predicting the tweezer-careful layout of Un Coup de dés.

Some of this “maturity,” however, felt more like old age. He is “splenetic and miserable” in Tournon, temperamentally “sterile and crepuscular”; he declares himself “an old man, finished, at twenty-three.” Lethargy and self-disgust quicken into nervous exhaustion and a full-blown spiritual crisis, a struggle with “that old and evil plumage” as Mallarmé (characteristically painting not the object but the effect) refers to God. The young poet thought he had his life successfully compartmentalized, but the lids are lifting on all the pots at the same time. Socially, he is longing for the metropolis (“I need men, Parisian women friends, paintings, music”); emotionally, he is discovering that you can’t construct a single happiness from two melancholies; physically, he is exhausted; spiritually, he is in revolt; aesthetically, he is elaborating a difficult and rarefied poetic, dreaming a Work which will (he announces with no sense of vanity, but rather of impersonal inevitability) be the third leg of Beauty whose first two parts are the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. The pots boil over at the same time, all across the stove; the art is made from a fearsome scalding. “And now, since I’ve reached the terrible vision of a pure work of art, I’ve almost lost my reason and the sense of the most familiar words.” He is twenty-six.


Mallarmé’s poetry, like his life, began by selecting what it had to reject. For a start, Hugo (or Hugolianism), personality verse, poetry as a vent for the emotions. He gives a whack of the cane to his friend Eugène Lefébure for writing love poetry: “The truth is that Love is only one of thousands of feelings that lay siege to our souls, and mustn’t take the place of fear, remorse, tedium, hatred and sadness.” (A rather ambiguous rebuke, given Mallarmé’s domestic circumstances; but then, literary principles often spring from psychological compromises.) His other main rejection was of those aspects of poetry deemed novelistic: poetry as documentary, as narrative. In the first half of the nineteenth century the novel (despite Balzac) was still a junior literary partner to poetry. Poetry was dominant, imperialistic. If this created a problem for the novel (with Flaubert leading the struggle of Votes For Fiction), it did the same for poets who saw poetry’s function as less sweeping, less proprietorial. Writing to Zola in 1877 to congratulate him on L’Assommoir, Mallarmé offers a doubleedged compliment: “It really is a great work and worthy of an epoch in which truth has become the people’s version of beauty!” Mallarmé’s art is not concerned with “the people’s beauty,” any more than it is with “thinking” or “meaning” as conventionally understood:

I think that to be truly a man, to be nature capable of thought, one must think with one’s entire body, which creates a full, harmonious thought, like those violin strings vibrating directly with their hollow wooden box. As thoughts are produced by the brain alone…they now appear to me like airs played on the high part of the E-string without being strengthened by the box—which pass through and disappear without creating themselves, without leaving a trace of themselves.

(We might be reminded here of Rimbaud’s “Tant pis pour le bois qui se trouve violon.”) As for “meaning,” Mallarmé explains his poem “La nuit approbatrice” to Cazalis thus:

It is inverted, by which I mean that its meaning, if there is one (but I’d draw consolation for its lack of meaning from the dose of poetry it contains, at least in my view) is evoked by an internal mirage created by the words themselves. If you murmur it to yourself a couple of times, you get a fairly cabbalistic sensation.

The key phrase in this—and a fairly crude one by Mallarmé’s normal standards of diction—is “dose of poetry.” It makes the poetic act sound like the administration of anabolic steroids. A poor, untrained clump of words is hanging out at the track, wondering if it will ever make the grade; along comes Mallarmé with his magic syringe, whereupon suddenly—O rare Ben Johnson!

Elimination, concision, impersonality (“My personal work which I believe will be anonymous, since the Text would speak by itself and without the author’s voice”), the broadening of “thought,” the narrowing of “meaning,” the “dose of poetry.” Naming an object, he was to say in a newspaper interview of 1891, destroys three quarters of the pleasure of poetry: thus the swan trapped in the ice in “Le Vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’ hui” is first evoked as “le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui.” The point of such indirection isn’t to create a crossword puzzle (though that aspect undoubtedly exists, willy nilly), but to create space, dreamtime, between the reader and the subject. In “Toute l’ame résumée,” Mallarmé’s light, self-mocking art poétique of 1895, the injunction to debutant poets runs:


Exclus-en si tu commences
Le réel parce que vil
Le sens trop précis rature
Ta vague littérature.

Poetry should be like cigar smoke: that’s to say, our attention is directed not at the puffing, personalized, Hugolian smoker, or the glamorous, red-burning cigar end, or the gathering ash, but metonymically at the curls and wisps of gray-blue sweet-smelling smoke. What is the true poetry?

   plusieurs ronds de fumée
Abolis en autres ronds.

And as there is a drawing back from naming, so there is a drawing back from the domination, the unambiguity of syntax. “Le Vierge,” for instance, demonstrates the twin techniques of compacting (whereby “magnifique” implies “qui a été magnifique,” or “se délivre” implies “qui essaie en vain de se délivrer“) and grammatical loosening. In the final line of the sonnet, “Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne,” “inutile” manages to modify both “l’exil” and (adverbially) “le Cygne“: propinquity counts as much as syntax; the words respond to one another chemically rather than grammatically.

In 1866 Mallarmé described himself as “a sacred spider” spinning his thread into “wonderful lace”; the following year, as “a diamond which reflects everything but which has no existence in itself.” Peter Quennell’s image of the poet, in Baudelaire and the Symbolists (1929), connects technique with effect in a fanciful but memorable way:

He was industrious and workmanlike; day by day, on little, carefully torn squares of paper, he noted down his linguistic discoveries, storing them with others in a big wooden tea-chest against the moment when they should be embodied in a poem. For when he wrote, it was methodically; he constructed a skeleton, significant words deliberately scattered over his maiden sheet, prearranged schemes of rhyme…and within these limits the poem had only to build itself! He was like the magician whom the anthropologist sees, stringing up a row of frail hempen slip-knots, in which he means to snare a favouring wind or entrap the wandering spirits of the dead.

Of course, the anthropologist has to trust the magician. That’s a favoring wind you’ve snared there, is it? Mallarmé is one of the least translatable of the French poets: reading him in English is like listening to a chamber work for boys’ choir in a transcription for brass band.

In Huysmans’s A Rebours, that Baedeker of decadence, Mallarmé is the favorite modern poet of Des Esseintes (it’s hard to think of the equivalent nowadays to this cultural puff: perhaps a three-hour arts documentary on public service television). Huysmans delights in Mallarmé’s withdrawal from a world of “universal suffrage,” “commercial greed,” and “raging folly,” in the way he just sits there

taking pleasure…in the caprices of his mind and the visions of his brain; refining upon thoughts that were already subtle enough, grafting Byzantine niceties on them, perpetuating them in deductions that were barely hinted at and loosely linked by an imperceptible thread.

Mallarmé liked to deny the charge of obscurity: replying to a generous assessment of his work by Edmund Gosse in 1893, he wrote, “The only quibble I have to make is on obscurity; no, my dear poet, except through awkwardness or clumsiness, I’m not obscure…. Of course I become obscure if the reader makes the mistake of thinking he’s opening a newspaper!”

We might jib at this claim (just as we jib at Graham Greene’s claim to be a failure), and chuckle as most of French poetry is reclassified as journalism; but Mallarmé always defended his position. Poe made the distinction between obscurity of expression (the sin of novice poets) and the expression of the obscure. “There must always be enigma in poetry,” Mallarmé (Poe’s translator) wrote in 1891. “That is the aim of literature.” Difficulty, yes; obscurity, no. Elsewhere, Mallarmé speaks of the need for a “système de moyens qui défende l’entrée du temple,” and which “rebute celui qui n’a pas assez d’amour.” Here difficulty is a more active notion: it helps keep the muddy-footed amateur reader out of the nice clean library.

In 1865 Mallarmé wrote to Cazalis sympathizing with his friend for having had to endure ignorant critical comment from an aunt. Hearing about this lese majesty distressed Mallarmé, “so deeply do I feel that art is for artists alone. If only you knew how it hurts me to water down my thought and weaken it to make it instantly intelligible to a room of indifferent spectators!” Art, then, not just for art’s sake, but for artists’ sake, a further (and more limiting) refinement. Huysmans imagined the perfect Mallarméan prose poem becoming “an intellectual communion between a hieratic writer and an ideal reader, a spiritual collaboration between a dozen persons of superior intelligence scattered across the world, an aesthetic treat available to none but the most discerning.” He pointed up the fine-binding aspect of this literary movement (Mallarmé wanted his edition of Poe produced with “pious sumptuousness”; Des Esseintes’s account of L’Après-midi d’un faune is two-thirds textual analysis, one-third crypto-sexual gloat over the exquisite Japanese felt book covers and twin-hued bookmarks). This section of A Rebours concludes:

The truth of the matter was that the decadence of French literature, a literature attacked by organic diseases, weakened by intellectual senility, exhausted by syntactical excesses, sensitive only to the curious whims that excite the sick, and yet eager to express itself completely in its last hours, determined to make up for all the pleasures it had missed, afflicted on its death-bed with a desire to leave behind the subtlest memories of suffering, had been embodied by Mallarmé in the most consummate and exquisite fashion.

In his (not surprisingly appreciative) letter to Huysmans in response to the book Mallarmé notes that “there is not an atom of fantasy in it” and calls the novelist “more strictly documentary than anyone else.”

Mallarmé’s letters divide as firmly as his life did into two periods: provincial obscurity and Parisian success. The correspondence of the neurotic, ambitious schoolmaster is in fact more enthralling than that of the urbane and revered man of letters. After he reaches Paris there is less annotation of his work and less elaboration of his feelings (though many of his letters to Méry Laurent remain embargoed); instead, Mallarmé is courtly, wise, and unfailingly—even irritatingly—appreciative of other writers’ work.

Rosemary Lloyd’s edition, despite moments of clumping literalism (“What big eyes they’re going to open”; “Very rare, my friend, this poetic anthology of André Walter”), generally deals well with Mallarmé’s often compacted prose. Inevitably, perhaps, the skittish, teasing side of the man’s character rarely comes across. This might, for instance, have been the first selected letters to include the author’s selected envelopes, since Mallarmé liked to dispatch letters with a conundrum for the postman on the outside:

Va-t’en, messager, il n’importe
Par le tram, le coche ou le bac
Rue, et 2, Gounod à la porte
De notre Georges Rodenbach.

The poet of “L’Après-midi d’un faune” was also editor of the fashion magazine La Dernière Mode and wrote sixty-one little verse offerings to accompany gifts of glacé fruit at the New Year. This playful aspect of him is made flesh in two of the strangest literary photographs ever taken. They show Mallarmé, in three-piece suit, floppy butterfly tie, and broad black hat, posing as a French peasant against a painted rustic backdrop. In one he is wearing clogs, carries a hay rake over his shoulder with lunch pail attached, and is trying to look like a jaunty farm laborer. The poet of ultimate refinement playing at “real life”:

Exclus-en si tu commences
Le réel parce que vil….

“I need men, Parisian woman friends, paintings, music….” While still marooned in the provinces, Mallarmé criticized Taine for his view that “an artist is merely man raised to his greatest possible power, whereas I believe that it is perfectly possible to have a human temperament utterly distinct from one’s literary temperament.” This notion—so obnoxious to the reductive biographer—is vigorously fleshed out in Mallarmé’s own case. Where the work is erudite and abstruse, the man is courtly and accessible. Such a mix is often a powerful social aphrodisiac: Mallarmé became one of the most admired and loved writers of his day, the familiar of Manet and Degas, Whistler and Swinburne; the young Gide testified to his enormous charm.

After he was elected Prince of Poets in 1896 (they order these things more efficiently in France: when Robert Frost died, Berryman was left in dire uncertainty about who was the new Prince: “Who’s Number One,” he anguished, “Cal’s Number One, isn’t he?”), the newspapers had a label to stick on him, “a kite’s tail with which I try to escape in the streets, having no other means of hiding myself than by joining the Mardi Gras parade.” Celebrity meant that the press was free “to make the hermit a buffoon,” and the poet of “intellectual communion between a hieratic writer and an ideal reader” was approached for his views on the bicycle, and for his contribution to a symposium on whether the top hat was ugly. He obliged good-humoredly, indeed seriously: “A bicycle,” he told readers of Le Gaulois, “is not vulgar when wheeled out of the garage, and soon becomes sparkling in its rapidity. Yet whoever mounts it, man or woman, reveals something disgraceful, that of human being reduced to mechanical object, with a caricatural movement of the legs. Too bad!”

“Among these exquisites, these dandies of word and syntax, there is a madman madder than the rest, and that is the nebulous Mallarmé, who maintains that one should never begin a sentence with a monosyllable.” Edmond de Goncourt can always be relied on for the contrary view, and his splenetic exasperation in the Journal is comical, but not absurd. Mallarmé wasn’t mad—few writers can have been so high-minded and purposeful—but his extreme refinement, his ethereal costiveness, strain vitality from his work. The more poetry moves toward music, the farther it moves away from life; though of course Mallarmé’s aesthetic is well-defended, and one person’s “life” is another person’s “unpoetic vulgarity.” In the middle of an aesthetically anguished and grammatically contorted letter to Cazalis, for instance, after announcing his “Work” as the third great beauty to follow the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa, Mallarmé drops in this paragraph:

Since we’ve reached these heights, let’s go on and explore them, then we’ll do our best to descend from them. This is what I heard my neighbour say this morning, as she pointed to the window on the opposite side of the street from her: “Gracious me! Madame Ramaniet ate asparagus yesterday.” “How can you tell?” “From the pot she’s put outside her window.” Isn’t that the provinces in a nutshell? Its curiosity, its preoccupations, and that ability to see clues in the most meaningless things—and such things, great gods! Fancy having to confess that mankind, by living one on top of the other, has reached such a pass!!

The poet’s fastidiousness applies equally to sex. When Cazalis is fretting over whether or not to marry an English girl called Ettie Yapp, Mallarmé, the connoisseur of renunciation, recommends the acquisition of a “tea-maker” but rebukes his friend for overemphasizing the physical: “You see it [marriage] too much in terms of lingam fiction.” Not just the statement, but the phrasing, is significant: sex is one of those things best left to people in hot climates.

Huysmans (via Des Esseintes) praised Mallarmé’s “lofty scorn.” A refined aesthetic which declares itself above the battle is intrinsically conservative. In 1863 the poet went to a meeting in support of Poland (where the rebellion against Russia had recently been crushed) and was primarily struck by the way in which the workers applauded frenetically when addressed as “gentlemen.” “I don’t like workers: they are vain.” What of the bourgeoisie? “They are hideous, and it’s quite plain that they have no soul.” Which leaves the aristocracy, by which he means “the nobility and the poets.” “As long as the former have money and the latter have beautiful statues, everything will be fine.”

The poet, for Mallarmé, is a statue owner rather than an indulger in lingam fiction, and his answer to the old poser about what you would save from your burning house is predictable: “Henri, don’t you think that the man who made the Venus de Milo is greater than the one who saves a race, and wouldn’t it be preferable that Poland should fall rather than see that eternal marble hymn to Beauty lying in pieces?” Happily, such choices don’t often arise (and if they did twenty-one-year-old aesthetes would probably not be consulted). Polish freedom against the Venus de Milo? Shouldn’t the Poles have a vote in it?

The “lofty scorn,” combined with a topographical preference for “the purest glaciers of Aesthetics,” produce moments of farcical solemnity, especially when Mallarmé is in league with Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, whose grip on reality wasn’t always tenacious. Thus in 1867 they are planning an attack on that reliable enemy, the bourgeois. “I want to show him,” writes Mallarmé,

that he has no existence independently of the Universe—from which he thought he could separate himself—but that he is one of its functions, and one of the vilest at that—and I’ll show him what he represents in that Development. If he understands it, his joy will be forever poisoned.

The plan seems to have been to write a book which the bourgeois would gobble up but then choke on (the scheme has zoomed off into metaphor already): “I’m eagerly awaiting your sugary mixture, which will make him feel so nauseated he’ll vomit himself: you’re right, we’ll avoid the courts, all the art will lie in making him judge himself unworthy of living.” The idea that Mallarmé and Villiers (of all duos) might come up with something to make the bourgeois autodestruct with self-loathing must be filed in the most arcane section of the Department of Empty Threats.

Poets, in order to write great poetry, don’t need to see as much as novelists must to write great novels. If literature is a spectrum (and Hugo hogs the rainbow), then Mallarmé is working in ultra-violet. Nowadays we probably honor him more in the breach than in the observance. Anthropologists, we hunch over the wiselooking magician, and take what he does much at his own estimation; but capturing a sacred wind with an array of hempen knots is only one of poetry’s skills. If the Mona Lisa ate asparagus, it would show in her urine; and this would make her richer, both as a woman and as a subject for art.

This Issue

November 9, 1989