In all his writing, prose or poetry, Stéphane Mallarmé is concerned less with what he terms the wonder of transposing a fact of nature than with extracting from it “the pure notion,” so that whether his subject is theater or music, ballet or literature, he sets his reader the task of reading creatively, one that parallels the writer’s need to penetrate the enigmas posed by social and natural phenomena. Originally published in a wide array of periodicals, from the American Chap-Book to the Revue Wagnérienne (Wagnerian review), from La Plume (The pen) to what he termed “the inimitable” National Observer, Mallarmé’s essays subsequently appeared in volumes with such self-deprecating titles as Divagations (Ramblings), Pages, or, simply, Prose. The modesty of these titles is typical of him: while his essays are based on the unflinching premise of the supremacy of poetry and the value of the mind, they do not pontificate or condescend, but invite the reader to enter into a creative partnership, an intellectual debate. His jewel-like, often fragmentary, formulations are witty and suggestive rather than explicit and pedagogic, and the initial stimulus—a mime or a book, for instance—usually appears only briefly, transformed into the springboard for a far more wide-ranging meditation on art and thought.
Two pieces written in the 1860s reveal the revolutionary nature of his early aesthetic thinking and point forward to convictions he was to formulate more cryptically in later years. In “Hérésies artistiques—L’Art pour tous” (1862; Artistic heresies—art for all), the young poet argues that “all that is sacred and wishes to remain so envelops itself in mystery.” Poetry alone is forced to use a language open to all, printed in the characters used by newspapers and political polemics rather than locked away behind the golden padlocks of old missals or the “inviolate hieroglyphs of papyrus rolls.” Mallarmé’s argument here moves poetry away from the didactic and sacerdotal role certain 19thcentury poets had given it and toward the hermetic and the ludic that marks the Modernist concept of art.
His “Symphonie littéraire” (1865; Literary symphony) is a triptych, in which he responds to the work of three seminal poets of the time, Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, and Théodore de Banville, not in the analytical mode of most contemporary critics but with the kind of passionate attempt to re-create each poet’s imaginary vision that also marks the best of Baudelaire’s literary criticism. Thus, for Baudelaire he imagines a landscape stripped of all vegetation except a few trees, “whose painful bark is an interweaving of exposed nerves: their visible growth is constantly accompanied, despite the strange immobility of the air, by a heart-rending complaint, like that of violins, which, when it reaches the end of each branch, trembles in musical leaves.”
The same desire to enter into the intellectual and imaginary world of his subject marks the numerous pen portraits he wrote to celebrate contemporary poets, artists, and musicians. Typical of these is his evocation of his close friend, the novelist and playwright Auguste Villiers de 1’Isle Adam. In this essay—which begins, famously, with the haunting sentence, “A man accustomed to dream comes here to speak of another, who is dead”—Mallarmé characteristically maintains a careful balance between the evocation of the individual, the author of Axël (1886) and L’Ève future (1886; Tomorrow’s Eve) whose great desire, Mallarmé surmises, was to “reign,” and his study of the writer as representative. Posing the question “Do we know what it means to write?” he offers an elliptical answer which allows the rest of his study of Villiers to be seen as an expanded response to the same challenge: “An ancient and very vague but jealous practice, whose meaning lies in the heart’s mysteries.” James McNeill Whistler, too, is at once presented as the archetypal painter, “the enchanter of a work of mystery, as tightly closed as perfection itself, which the mob would pass by without even feeling hostility toward it,” and summed up in terms that brilliantly recall that arrogant, difficult, and highly gifted man: “a Dragon, battling, exulting, precious and worldly.”
That oscillation between the apparent and the broader subject of an essay is also very much present in “Crayonné au théâtre” (1887; Scribbled in the theater) and in “Variations sur un sujet” (1895; Variations on a subject). Hamlet, for instance, is both Shakespeare’s character and the “juvenile shadow of us all, thus embodying a myth.” The ballerina is not “a woman who dances, for these combined reasons that she is not a woman but a metaphor resuming one of the elementary aspects of our form, dagger, chalice, flower, etc. and that she does not dance, suggesting, with a bodily writing, through the miracle of leaps and bounds, what in prose would take paragraphs of dialogue or description: she is a poem set free from all the paraphernalia needed by a scribe.”
Best known, no doubt, among Mallarmé’s essays are those written in response partly to the upsurge in popularity of Wagner’s concept of art, and partly to the fashion for free verse. Initially given as lectures in Oxford and Cambridge, “La Musique et les lettres” (1894; Music and letters), together with its companion pieces, “Crise de vers” (1897; Crisis of poetry) and “Quant au livre” (1897; Concerning the book), has come to be regarded as a seminal text in the development of aesthetic thinking. Among the most challenging of his prose pieces, these meditations on the function of art contain some of Mallarmé’s finest, if most elliptical, formulations on the function of the symbol, the role of personal experience, and the play of language. Since, Mallarmé argues, the poet is condemned to pursue black on white even when describing the luminosity of the stars against their black background, the reader is constantly invited to take the “dark lace” that art offers and make of it, from his or her own experience, vast networks containing a treasure trove of images. In order to illuminate truth, Mallarmé implies, one must put the lamp aside and work in darkness. That too is the task of the reader who embarks on Mallarmé’s essays. While they can occasionally be precious in both senses of the word, they are above all challenging, stimulating, and endlessly rewarding.
Born Étienne Mallarmé, 18 March 1842 in Paris. Studied at the Lycée Impérial, Sens, 1856–60, baccalauréat, 1860. Traveled to London, 1862–63. Married Marie Christina Gerhard, 1863: one son (died, 1879) and one daughter. Taught English in Tournon, 1863–66, Besançon, 1866–67, Avignon, 1867–70, Lycée Fontanes, Paris, 1871–74, Lycée Janson-de-Sailly, Paris, 1884–85, and Collége Rollin, Paris, 1885–93. Editor and contributor, La Derniére Mode (The last style), 1874–75. Elected to the French Academy, 1883. Liaison with Méry Laurent, late 1880s. Died (as a result of choking) at Valvins, 9 September 1898.
Essays and Related Prose
Album de vers et de prose, 1887
Vers et prose, 1893
Divagations, 1897; edited by E.M.Souffrin, 1949
Selected Prose Poems, Essays and Letters, translated by Bradford Cook, 1956
Écrits sur le livre (selections), 1985
Other writings: several volumes of poetry (including L’Aprés-midi d’un faune [Afternoon of a Faun], 1876) and correspondence.
Collected works editions: OEuvres complètes (Pléiade Edition), edited by Henri Mondor and G.Jean-Aubry, 1945; OEuvres complètes, edited by Carl Paul Barbier and Charles Gordon Millan, vol. 1, 1983 (in progress; 3 vols. projected).
Morris, D.Hampton, Stéphane Mallarmé, Twentieth-Century Criticism (1901–1971) and
(1972–1979), University: University of Mississippi Romance Monographs, 2. vols., 1977–89
Austin, Lloyd James, Poetic Principles and Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987
Balakian, Anna, The Symbolist Movement: A Critical Appraisal, New York: New York University Press, 1977
Bersani, Leo, The Death of Stéphane Mallarmé, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982
Cohn, Robert Greer, Mallarmé’s “Divagations”: A Guide and Commentary, New York: Lang, 1990
Fowlie, Wallace, Mallarmé, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953
Kravis, Judy, The Prose of Mallarmé: The Evolution of a Literary Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976
Lawler, James, The Language of French Symbolism, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969
Lloyd, Rosemary, Mallarmé: Poésies, London: Grant and Cutler, 1984
Marchal, Bertrand, La Religion de Mallarmé: Poésie, mythologie, et religion, Paris: Corti, 1988
Marvick, Louis Wirth, Mallarmé and the Sublime, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986
Michaud, Guy, Mallarmé, Paris: Hatier, 1971
Millan, Gordon, The Throw of the Dice: The Life of Stéphane Mallarmé, London: Secker and Warburg, and New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994
Paxton, Norman, The Development of Mallarmé’s Prose Style, Geneva: Droz, 1968
St. Aubyn, Frederic Chase, Stéphane Mallarmé, Boston: Twayne, revised edition, 1989
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