Mallarmé the Magnificent

Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 1

by Stéphane Mallarmé, edited by Bertrand Marchal
Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade/Gallimard, 1,529 pp., ff390

“Yes, my dear poet, to conceive literature and for it to have a reason must lead to this “lofty symphony” that no one perhaps will ever write; but it has haunted even the least aware and its principal features mark, subtly or vulgarly, every written work. Music in the proper sense, which we must pillage, plagiarize, if our own, unspoken, is insufficient, suggests such a poem.”

—Mallarmé, letter to Paul Valéry, May 5, 1891

On Thursday, February 27, 1890, in the salon of Berthe Morisot in Paris, Stéphane Mallarmé gave a lecture on his recently deceased friend, the poet Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. “A man accustomed to dream comes here to speak of another, who is dead,” he began. In the first row sat Edgar Degas, an admirer of Mallarmé (whose masterly photograph of Mallarmé and Renoir was one of the most beautiful exhibits at the Musée d’Orsay in last year’s commemoration of the centenary of Mallarmé’s death). After a few minutes Degas left precipitously, holding his head in his hands, and crying, “I do not understand, I do not understand.”

Most essays on Mallarmé begin with the difficulty of understanding him, and this review will be no exception. That is, in fact, how Bertrand Marchal opens the introduction to his splendid new edition of Mallarmé’s complete works, of which the first volume of two has just been published. He quotes at once Mallarmé’s ferocious answer in 1896, in his article “Le Mystère dans les lettres,” to an attack on the difficult style of modern poetry by the young Marcel Proust:

I prefer, faced with aggression, to retort that my contemporaries do not know how to read—

Except in the newspaper; it certainly provides the advantage of not interrupting the chorus of preoccupations.

Proust, who was eventually to become an admirer, had written three years before that Mallarmé had not much talent but

he was a brilliant talker. How unfortunate that so gifted a man should become insane every time he takes up the pen.

To be considered mad by one’s contemporaries is common enough in the history of nineteenth-century art, but the obscuring fog lifts with time as the public learns new ways of reading, looking, and listening. In Mallarmé’s case, however, if the lapse of a century has brought some comprehension and greater sympathy, most of his finest work remains today still unapproachable, or at least largely incomprehensible, not only to the general public, but even to the university-educated reader—even, in fact, to a good part of that curious, tiny, and still-dwindling public passionately interested in verse.

Nevertheless, this seemingly unreadable author has acquired immense prestige and is accepted without question as one of the greatest of French poets. He is rivaled in the latter half of the nineteenth century only by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Laforgue, and the elderly Victor Hugo. The new edition is the second attempt to present his work in the Pléiade library, which aims to make available…

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