*Stéphane Mallarmé was born in Paris in 1842. He taught English in from 1864 in Tournon, Besançon, Avignon and Paris until his retirement in 1893. Malarmé began writing poetry at an early age under the influence of Charles Baudelaire. His first poems started to appear in magazines in the 1860s. Mallarmé's most well known poems are L'Aprés Midi D'un Faun (The Afternoon of a Faun)  (1865), which inspired Debussy's tone poem (1894) of the same name and was illustrated by Manet. Among his other works are Hérodiade (1896) and Toast Funèbre  (A Funeral Toast), which was written in memory of the author Théopile Gautier. Mallarmé's later works include the experimental poem Un Coup de Dés (1914), published posthumously. 
     From the 1880s Mallarmé was the center of a group of french writers in Paris, including André Gide and Paul Valéry, to whom he communicated his ideas on poetry and art. According to his theories, nothing lies beyond reality, but within this nothingness lies the essence of perfect forms and it is the task of the poet to reveal and crystallize these essences. Mallarmé's poetry employs condensed figures and unorthodox syntax. Each poem is build around a central symbol, idea, or metaphor and consists on subordinate images that illustrate and help to develop the idea. Mallarmé's vers libre and word music shaped the 1890s Decadent movement. 
    For the rest of his life Mallarmé devoted himself to putting his literary theories into practice and writing his Grand Oeuvre (Great Work). Mallarmé died in Paris on September 9, 1898 without completing this work. 

 * Kuusankosken kaupunginkirjasto © 1997

**The work of the great French Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarmé  has often been considered the best example of "pure poetry." Mallarmé  dealt in metaphorical obliquities and attempted to practice alchemy with words - to create a kind of poetry where the word as symbol would have a new mobility and would achieve new intensities and refinements of meaning. Roger Fry wrote of Mallarmé  that "certainly no poet has set words with greater art in their surroundings, or given them by their setting, a more sudden and unexpected evocative power" and that "for him it was essential to bring out all the cross-correspondences and interpenetrations of the verbal images." 
     Mallarme's influence on modern poetry, in English as well as in French, has been great and pervasive. Such a poet as Wallace Stevens owes much to Mallarmé , and it is Mallarmé  whom T. S. Eliot paraphrases in Little Gidding of his Four Quartets. Mallarmé's influence is visible in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Debussy's tone poem The Afternoon of a Faun, and the ballet immortalized by Nijinski, are based on a famous poem of Mallarmé , while the visual pattern of his poem A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance foreshadowed the typographical experimentation of contemporary poetry.  Certain of Mallarmé's aesthetic theories  parallel those of the abstract painters of today, while his poetical syntax was compared by Roger Fry to the technique of the Cubists. 

** From the introductory front flap of the 1951 edition published by ©New Directions of Mallarmé's poems as translated by Roger Fry. 

by Jules Huret (1891)
with an introduction to the interview by Henri Dorra

The poet Mallarmé had close contacts with the artistic world. He sustained a friendship with Manet from 1873 to the time of the artist's death, in 1883; during the last eleven years of his life, he counted Whistler among his closest friends. Two articles he wrote on Manet constitute incisive symbolist analyses of impressionism.1
      Like Verlaine and Baudelaire, Mallarmé had been a Parnassian early in his literary career. During the 1860s he increasingly adopted a Baudelairean approach to poetry, eventually cultivating an even more variegated play of associations and, through his frequent use of ellipses and of ambiguous sentence structure, a more pervasive sense of the mystery of even everyday subjects.
      Mallarmé almost banned the traditional use of myth - so highly valued by the Parnassians. "What!" he exclaimed on the subject of Wagner's achievements, "Has the century, or our country that exalts it, dissolved the myths in its philosophy only to make them anew?" He himself advocated preserving only myth that is not "fixed, or age-old and notorious, but unique, devoid of personality, for it makes up our multiple aspects." This was tantamount to saying that whatever myth the poet resorted to had to be treated abstractly to convey multiple states of the soul, rather than as a story in its own right. Indeed, distinguishing between a humdrum theatrical performance and one that magically set the spectator's imagination free, he likened the traditional handling of myth to the first, fettered by "a static set and a real actor." The effective playwright, he added in the same article on Wagner, should have spectators focus on what they imagine takes place be-fore their eyes, rather than on physical objects and real events: "What does the spiritual fact [the essence of a poetic messagel-the symbol that buds and blooms~require but an imaginary focus for the crowd's eye?"Mallarmé did, in fact, allude to ancient myths in his poetry, but cryptically and ~ays to enrich rather than to constitute central themes.
     The journalist Jules Huret (1864-I915) interviewed Mallarmé in 1891. The interview was one of a series intended to gauge the significance of symbolism as perceived by men of letters and artists affiliated with a variety of schools. The text was corrected in proofs by the poet himself.3
      The principal elements of Baudelairean aesthetics emerge in Mallarme's answers. The praise of obscurity can be linked with Baudelaire's own advocacy of obscurity as well as mystery.
    The "precious stones" that must be "created," rather than merely described, by drawing "from the soul of man states, glowing lights, of such absolute purity that, well sung and well lighted, they become the jewels of man" constitute "the symbol," recalling Baudelaire's search for expressiveness and harmony through musicality of line and color - the simile of the gems adding the notions of luminosity and of a multiplicity of effects.
      The interplay of gems could also refer to the play of associations, a notion taken up more explicitly in Mallarmé's concept of individual objects. Indeed, linked as they are to "the images soaring from the reveries they have induced in one [which] constitute the song," such objects bring to mind Baudelaire's idea that "for Delacroix, nature is a vast dictionary," whose individual entries stimulate the artist's "memory, [which] speaks to one's own memory.''
     Seen in this light, the "infinity of shattered melodies" stresses the new multiplicity of associations as well as the breakdown of traditional form one also finds in the works of the major post-impressionists.
       Mallarmé went beyond Baudelaire in stressing the magic or sacredness of poetry. He refers to the "incantation" of unusual juxtapositions of sounds in the verse, as if to imply that the musical effects themselves can induce sublimation.The idea seems to resemble the pursuit of ecstasy advocated by theoreticians of the aesthetic movement.
      The excerpts that follow are from Jules Huret: Enquete sur l'évolution littéraire (Paris: Fasquelle, 1913), 55-65. The interviews first appeared in L'Echo de Paris, March 3-July 5, 1891. 

MALLARMÉ: We are currently witnessing  . . . an extraordinary performance, unique in the history of poetry: each poet going into his own corner to play, on a flute very much his own, whatever tunes he wishes, for the first time poets do not sing by their music stands. Until now, of course, one needed the great organ of consecrated meter as an accompaniment. Well, one has played too much of it and gotten tired of it.  I am quite certain that the great Hugo, when he died, was persuaded that he had buried poetry for a whole century; yet Verlaine had already written Sagesse;6 one can forgive such an illusion on the part of a man who had performed so many miracles, but he failed to take into account the eternal instinct, the perpetual and ineluctable lyrical thrust. Above all, [Hugo was] unaware of this incontrovertible notion: that in an unstable society, Tacking unity, no stable and definitive art can be created.  From this incomplete social organization, which explains in itself the disquiet of the human mind, an unexplained need for individuality arises, of which the present literary manifestations are a direct reflection . . . 
      As I just told you, one reason present-day verse has developed is that we have all gotten tired of consecrated verse; even its proponents have experienced this lassitude. Is there not something abnormal in the certainty of discovering, when opening any book of poetry, uniform and agreed-upon rhythms from beginning to end, even though the avowed goal is to arouse our interest in the essential variety of human feelings! here is inspiration? where the unforeseen? and how tiresome! Consecrated verse must be put to use only during moments of crisis of the soul. Present-day poets have properly understood this; with delicate restraint they have wandered around it, have approached it with a singular timidity - one might say with some apprehension - and, instead of seeing it as a principle and a point of departure, they have made it burst out suddenly as the climax of the poem or the sentence.
    In music, the same transformation has occurred: the firmly delineated melodies of yesteryear have made way for an infinity of shattered melodies that enrich the fabric without making us feel the cadence as strongly. - 

HURET: So much for form. What about content? 

MALLARMÉ:  I believe . . .  that, as far as content is concerned, the younger generation is closer to poetic ideals than the Parnassians, who still, in the manner of the old philosophers and rhetoricians, treat their subjects directly.  I believe, to the contrary, that there must only be allusion. The contemplation of objects, the images that soar from the reveries they have induced, constitute the song. The Parnassians, who take the object in its entirety and show it, lack mystery; they take away from readers the delicious joy that arises when they believe that their own minds are creating. To name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem, which derives from the pleasure of step-by-step discovery; to suggest, that is the dream. It is the perfect use of this mystery that constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little, so as to bring to light a state of the soul or, inversely, to choose an object and bring out ofit a state of the soul through a series of unravelings.

HURET: We are approaching . . . an area that brings up a serious objection I intended to raise . . . Obscurity! [ellipsis after raise in original]. 

MALLARMÉ: That aspect, indeed, is equally dangerous . . ., whether the obscurity derives from the deficiencies of the reader or those of the poet . . .  But eluding this task [of deciphering the poem] is tantamount to cheating.  Indeed, if a being of average intelligence and an insufficient literary preparation should by chance open a book written along these lines and pretend to enjoy it, there would have to be a misunderstanding. One must set things straight. There must always be enigma in poetry, and the goal of literature - there is no other - is to evoke objects . . . 

HURET: What do you think of the tail end of naturalism? 

MALLARMÉ: The childishness of literature, up to now, has been to believe, for instance, that choosing a certain number of precious stones and writing down their names on a piece of paper, even very precisely, was to make precious stones. Well, no!  Poetry being an act of creation, one must draw from the soul of man states, glowing lights, of such absolute purity that, well sung and well lighted, they become the jewels of man: that is what is meant by symbol; that is what is meant by creation, and the word poetry here finds its meaning: it is, in sum, the only possible human creation. And if, in truth, the precious stones with which one adorns oneself do not convey a state of the soul, one has no right to wear them . . . 


1. For Mallarmé's relations with Manet, see Chronologie xxiii; in Stephane Mallarmé: OEuvres complètes, ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry (Paris: Gallimard, 1974); for his relations with Whistler, see Carl Paul Barbier, Correspondance Mallarme-Whistler (Paris: Nizet, 1964), 5-8. Mallarme's two articles on Manet are "Lejur e peinture pour 1874 Ct M[onsieurj Manet," Mallarme: OEuvres complètes, 695-704, an "The Impressionists and Edouard Manet, 1876," in Documents Stéphane Mallarmé, ed. Carl Barbier, 5 vols. (Paris: Nizet, 1968), 1:66-86. 
2. "Richard Wagner. Rêverie d'un poëte français" (1885), in Mallarmé:OEuvres complètes, 545. 
3. Huret, in a letter to Mallarmé, Mar. I, 1891, indicates he would visit him the following day, Tuesday, at 5:00. In another letter, Mar. 18, he thanks Mallarmé for the interview and for correcting the text. He announces the article for the following day (Bibliothèque littéraire Doucet, Paris; documents made available through the Courtesy of the curator, François Chapon). 
4. See Prologue: Baudelaire: OEuvres complètes, ed. Claude Pichois, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1976). 
5. Mallarmé writes of "the verse that reconstitutes out of several vocables a complete new word, foreign to the language and incantatory" (Avant-Dire au Traité du verbe de René Ghil" [1886], in Mallarmé: OEuvres complètes, 858 n. I). 
6. Sagesse was published in 1880 (Paris: Société Général de Librairie catholique). Victor Hugo died in 1882. 
7. Camdle Mauclair, Mallarmé chez lui (Paris: Grasset, 1935), 43-44 


***Article from Symbolist Art Theories by Henri Dorra, 
©1994 by the University of California Press

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