Stéphane Mallarmé is renowned as being one of the most influential poets in the French Symbolist movement. Born in 1842, his creative and critical work inspired many of the radical artistic movements in the 20th Century, including Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Ewa Bianka Zubek explores the life and work of this iconic writer.
Notoriously misunderstood, obsessively ‘difficult’, accused of obscurity, pretence and genius: still, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) was arguably the greatest, and most innovative, of the French Symbolist poets. His story is not as passionate as that of Verlaine and Rimbaud’s scandalous love affair. Neither were his habits as decadent as Baudelaire’s penchant for opium, women and the senses. No; Mallarmé lived in financial and matrimonial modesty, writing as a means to escape and to nourish himself.With the 19th century being a time of great excitement, and a paradigm shift in French poetry, it is no wonder that ever since his adolescent years Mallarmé had envisaged a life as a poet. Baudelaire had just published his revolutionary The Flowers of Evil (1857), free-verse was cracking the shell of traditional versification, and some of the greatest voices of French literature – Hugo, Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Valéry, Zola, Balzac – were publishing one masterpiece after another. Mallarmé had married out of some higher sense of responsibility, and he disdained- yet maintained- his job as a provincial teacher. He wanted desperately to take part in this explosive creation.
There was, however, one significant difference between the young Parnassian and his contemporaries: he needed to invent a new language to accommodate his innovative ideas. Thus, his work saw the disappearance of the lyric ‘I’ in an autonomous network of words; the abandonment of the object in favour of its quasi-platonic suggestion; and the state of equivalence where music and language would endlessly reciprocate and mirror each other. His quandary brings to mind young Werther’s impossible and intimate longing for his beloved Lotte in Goethe’s largely epistolary novel, but Mallarmé’s object of unrequited love was language itself. Despite his compulsive attempts to carve out perfection, he must have realised the utopian nature of his mission. Afternoon of the Faun and Herodias, his two lyrical dramas, were the most patient of his works. The final version of The Afternoon of a Faun was published after 12 years, while Herodias remained a project-in-the-making for 34 years, until his death, and was never finished.
What was it that rendered his oeuvre so enigmatically incomplete? Let us come back to the first of his idea(l)s. In his words, ‘The pure work implies the disappearance of the poet as a speaker; he gives way to the words’ (‘L’oeuvre pure implique la disparition élocutoire du poète, qui cède initiative aux mots’). By letting go of the words and erasing all trace of his existence, the poet necessarily creates an impersonal poetry, devoid of narrative interference; a poetry that can write and re-write itself without ever reaching a conclusive form, perpetually incomplete. This complex abandonment appears in Flaubert’s free indirect style and, later, in Surrealism’s automatic writing. But Flaubert gives his voice over to his characters, and the Surrealists lose theirs through near-solipsistic self-indulgence. Mallarmé, on the other hand, passes the torch to the word itself. The poet is responsible for arranging the words in a complex syntactic order, and he must trust that they will find each other during the reading. The sonnet The virgin, lively… (‘Le vierge, le vivace…’) is proof of how grammatical structures magnetise each other and accelerate towards one another, seemingly without the poet’s guidance (who, in any case, is depicted as impotent). The intricate parallels between sounds are another signal of the narrative disappearance: words with prosodic similarity attract each other and open up an immense field of potential reference, often lost in translation, but present in ‘Cygne’, ‘assigne’, ‘signe’, where the meanings practically bounce off each other.
Mallarmé would argue that this phenomenon is natural: that the language is there, ready to serve, and that ‘things exist, we do not need to create them; we only need to seize the relationships between them’ (‘Les choses existent, nous n’avons pas à les créer, nous n’avons qu’à saisir les rapports’). This is perhaps the most marked Mallarmean claim, uttered in an interview with Jules Huret at the ‘mature’ stages of his career in 1891. By this point, Mallarmé had, tortuously, achieved his dream. He was living and writing in Paris, surrounded by a horde of young disciples who would gather in his home at 89 rue de Rome every Tuesday: avid ‘mardistes’ hungry for their master’s parole. And what he did tell them was literary sacrilege: ‘To name an object is to remove three-quarters of a poem’s joy… to suggest it, that is the dream’ (‘Nommer un objet, c’est supprimer les trois quarts de la jouissance du poème… le suggérer, voilà le rêve’). Indeed, what Mallarmé is suggesting here is that we use the relationships between things to work out the things themselves. To do this, we need to avoid talking about the thing itself. We must not name it, define it nor describe it; instead, we must allude to it by its absence– only the evocative absence of the word can make up for the inadequacy, even redundancy, of language. This complex image could be likened to a spider’s web, from which the spider itself is absent. Even though the spider is not there, the web implies some anterior and inherent presence of a spider and therefore automatically conjures up the image of the spider in our minds. In fact, the spider metaphor is one of Mallarmé’s favourites, and appears throughout his work and correspondence.
Suggesting, rather than naming, gently stirs the reader’s mind so that he or she may arrive at the thing in question single-handedly. Mallarmé really does put a lot of trust in his words, and in his readers too, sending them on an autonomous poetic journey reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He expects us to work out ‘the flower… absent from all bouquets’ (‘la fleure… absente de tous bouquets’). And how do these suggestions take place in practice? We can rely on the different textures, hues, and intrinsic memories of the words to guide us; or we can follow the associative networks, relationships and contradictions between words: what Mallarmé calls their ‘musicality’. Indeed, the idea of the aforementioned flower arises ‘musically’ (‘musicalement’). The principle is not difficult to grasp: the verse is musical not only because it has a certain rhythm or prosody to it, but also because it is an orchestra of sounds and meanings. All the words and ideas of the poem are interconnected, like the notes of a symphony. Together, they create the Oeuvre, the masterpiece, self-reflective and infinite poetry, like in The sonnet in –yx or L’apres-midi d’un faune.119 years ago exactly, Mallarmé presented a lecture on these ideas to an Oxford audience. In it, he explained his own poetics and defended the Symbolist movement against an influx of criticism, according to which the poetry of Symbolism – and his own – was obscure and impenetrable. But although he zealously defended this ‘new’ poetry, Mallarmé was never quite satisfied with his own. Naturally, it is difficult to attain perfection if the process of creation requires the tools of infinity: the lyric disappearance, the spinning of an associative web, or the orchestration of language.Mallarmé was always wary of poisonous irony, but it eventually caught up with him. On the 9th of September 1898 he got a coughing fit in a doctor’s office, where he was seeking relief for precisely that condition. He choked, fell on the ground, and died, in front of his doctor and his wife. The faculty of articulation, so precious to his poetry, failed him for the first and last time.
Mallarmé’s influence on the arts has been more than resonant. The musicality of his verse has been translated into music: Debussy composed his ‘Le Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune’ with Nijinsky performing a ballet to the piece. Ravel too orchestrated three of his poems. In the world of literature, he left a powerful imprint on theoretical critics such as Derrida, Kristeva or Lacan, while his later-day experiments with typography, the blank page and the appearance of form made him the precursor of surrealist techniques, and an avid supporter of free verse. We see his influence everywhere from Apollinaire’s geometric poetry or Joyce’s elusive and allusive style, to Rilke’s Dinggedichte and Barthes’ theory on ‘The Death of the Author’. A prototype modernist, Mallarmé has helped to shape today’s literary landscape.