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The Illusionist

Mallarmé and His Circle

By Joanna Smith Rakoff | HUMANITIES, September/October 2002 | Volume 23, Number 4

The poems of Stéphane Mallarmé are known for an opacity that baffled even his peers. His friend Marcel Proust wrote, “How unfortunate that so gifted a man should become insane every time he takes up the pen.” The painter Edgar Degas reputedly ran out of one of Mallarmé’s lectures, screaming, “I do not understand,” and clutching his woolly head. Even his dearest friend, Paul Verlaine, expressed exasperation with Mallarmé’s widely celebrated poem, “Afternoon of a Faun,” which inspired Manet’s painting of the same name and Debussy’s Prelude. Mallarmé was the leader of French Symbolism, a literary movement he established with Paul Verlaine and a group of like-minded writers. Rejecting the formal conventions of traditional French poetry, they used symbolized language and often wrote in prose poems or free verse. Through highly personalized metaphors, the Symbolists tried to convey the emotional experience of the individual--sensation, intuition, and the inner workings of the mind. Looking to Baudelaire and his Les Fleurs du mal for inspiration, Mallarmé and his band believed that the poet’s task was to perceive the ideal world that lay beneath reality, and express that vision through art. In an 1888 letter to Georges Rodenbach, Mallarmé writes that he believes in leaving the illusion of art intact.

And that art, which is supreme, consists, isn’t this true? In never as one sings stripping the subtle objects under our gaze of the veil, exactly, of Silence under which they seduce us, the veil which now lets us divine the Secret of their Significance. That’s why one needs delicate fingers, made for indicating without touching, because no reality remains; it evaporates in writing!

Mallarmé was a perfectionist who spent months and sometimes years on his poems, laboring to find a precise word or phrase. He had a reputation for being unpleasant and dour: a man wholly consumed by language, whose friendships were based on shared aesthetic views rather than genuine affection.

A recent book by Rosemary Lloyd, Mallarmé: The Poet and His Circle, challenges that image of the poet. By studying his correspondence, from his young adulthood in the provinces through his final years in Paris, Lloyd discovers a social figure--a sensitive and lively writer, immersed not just in his own poetry, but that of his circle of friends.

“More than any other poet I know,” writes Lloyd, a professor of French and Italian at Indiana University, “Mallarmé relished, cherished, and commemorated friendship.” Those connections with fellow writers, she explains, were the earth in which the poet planted the seeds of his theories. “His friends acted as a sounding board for his artistic ideas, rather than influencing him directly. The biggest influence came in the need to formulate his responses to their work, in his letters reacting to their books.”

While Mallarmé maintained that letter writing was a distraction from his true purpose--poetry--his eighteen-volume collection of correspondence belies his dismissive attitude. In fact, many of his poetic tropes and theories can be traced to casual utterances in his letters. In investigating the connections between the poet’s creative work and his correspondence, Lloyd finds images, expressions, and ideas that eventually resurfaced in poems. “This is one of the reasons why Mallarmé’s letters shed so much light on his mind,” Lloyd writes. “It’s not necessarily what they say or how they evoke the physical reality in which he worked but that they show how symbols that were to become familiar in his later poetry are deeply rooted in his every day experience.”

Born in 1842 to a middle-class family in Paris, Mallarmé had an itinerant childhood and a sorrowful adolescence marred by the death of his younger sister. His mother passed away when he was a child and he was shuttled between his father and stepmother, maternal grandparents, and a series of boarding schools. The anecdotes he shares from his childhood indicate that he was a bullied child who never quite fit in.

Academically, he proved a disappointment in all subjects except languages--though he began writing at a very young age and published his first poem, a piece in the style of Baudelaire, at the age of twenty. He traveled to London, where he readied himself to teach English to French schoolchildren, a career of which his family did not approve. He had chosen it not out of dedication to education, but because he believed it would allow him time to write. While in London he met Marie Gerhard, a German woman, and married her. The newlyweds moved to the south of France, where Mallarmé taught at several schools. Soon after, Marie gave birth to a daughter, Geneviève.

Without any friends or fellow writers nearby, Mallarmé retreated into himself, devoting all his spare time to writing poems and developing his complex literary theories. He later described this time as a “life of complete monotony.” Lloyd believes that this period shaped his artistic ideas as well as his social habits. “He began to develop his image of art in those years,” she explains, “and it was his sense of isolation then that made him so receptive to friendship later on--but he continued to evolve throughout his life.”

He found that he hated teaching, and his hasty marriage was an emotional and financial burden. According to Lloyd, Marie felt alienated from her husband’s writing because of her unfamiliarity with the French language. “There would have been little comfort in knowing how many native French speakers also failed to understand her husband’s verse,” Lloyd writes.

More so than in any other period in his life, writing, particularly letter writing, rescued the twenty-four-year-old poet from tedium. It was during this time, when he was undergoing a period of deep depression, that his lifelong friendship with Paul Verlaine began through a series of letters. Verlaine became his aesthetic confidante and partner, despite or because of the superficial differences between the two. Verlaine was as hotheaded, flamboyant, and sexually adventurous as Mallarmé was subdued, decorous, and private. In his first letter to Verlaine, thanking him for a copy of Poèmes saturniens--Verlaine’s first collection of poetry--Mallarmé says the book “saved me for several days from the ineptitude to which I’m condemned by the worries of setting up home, and healed me of the shame inflicted by reality.” Verlaine’s letters offered Mallarmé an escape, and in return, Mallarmé’s missives conveyed the charms and constraints of a more conventional lifestyle.

In responding to Verlaine’s poems, Mallarmé refined his thoughts and began formulating theories that would form the basis of Symbolism. Here he praises Verlaine’s innovative use of standard forms.

To continue with my swashbuckling comparisons--sorry! (but it’s over a month now since I made a comparison) let me tell you how happy I was to see that with all the old forms, those well worn favorites, that poets inherit from each other, you felt you had to forge a new and virgin metal, fine blades unique to yourself, rather than go digging those well worn groves, leaving an old and ill-defined aspect to things.

Mallarmé’s early correspondence with Verlaine, as well as poets Henri Cazalis, François Coppée, and Eugène Lefébure, gave him a virtual forum in which to elaborate his poetics. His 1871 return to the city would provide him with an actual forum. The Commune fell that year, and the family, which now included an infant son, Anatole, moved to Paris. France had just been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, and while the political situation in Paris was tense, the arts burgeoned. Arthur Rimbaud, Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola were publishing, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were painting, and Paris’s hallmark water fountains were being installed. That same year, Darwin’s The Descent of Man appeared, as well as Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Devils, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda.

Though it did not bring about the complete transformation he had imagined, Mallarmé’s return to cosmopolitan society bolstered him. He turned some of his attention away from the intricacies of the French language to further his interest in the English-speaking world. He took frequent trips to London, developing friendships with English artists and writers. He translated English texts into French, including Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, just as his predecessor Baudelaire had translated Poe’s prose.

More importantly, friendships that had been forged through letters were now made flesh. A circle began to form around Mallarmé, as his company was sought out by luminaries such as Parnassian poet José-María de Heredia, novelists Anatole France, Emile Zola, and Joris-Karl Huysmans, poet Théodore de Banville, short-story writer Léon Cladel, and painters Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and James McNeill Whistler. Manet, Whistler, and Renoir all painted Mallarmé’s portrait, as did Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, and Félix Vallotton. Mallarmé, in return, translated Whistler’s Ten o’clock Lecture, and wrote poems to Berthe Morisot, Odilon Redon, Degas, Monet, and Renoir.

The epistolary relationships continued. His friendship with poet Arthur O’Shaugnessy led to an audience for Mallarmé’s work in Britain. O’Shaugnessy promoted Mallarmé in English magazines and helped him publish his articles about the Impressionists in an art journal. In an 1876 letter to O’Shaugnessy, Mallarmé remarks on the benefits of writing in a foreign language:

Many a passage, veiled or intense, calm and mighty, owes its multiple nature to the ever-watchful vigilance of the writer. ... Everything flows naturally, with an intense limpidity, with a broad swell of sentences; and the brightness tends to melt in the general purity of the flow, which carries with it many riches of diction that at first are unnoticed, as is perfectly natural in a foreigner worried that an overly bold expression might betray him by arresting the reader’s attention.

In 1879 Anatole Mallarmé died and Marie began to deteriorate mentally and physically. Mallarmé increasingly withdrew from the marriage, and threw himself into his circle of friends. The group was composed mainly of painters, which met each week for dinner at the home of painter Berthe Morisot. Mallarmé became passionately interested in art, turning out, among other things, articles defending Manet, two of whose paintings had been rejected for the 1874 Salon. He often wrote poems or catalog introductions for his painter friends, and at times exchanged poems for paintings--once, Monet’s Le Train à Jeufosse for his prose poem, “La Gloire.” He was also known for his rhyming addresses, a type of limerick with which he would address his letters. This one he wrote for Renoir:

Villa des Arts, près l’Avenue
De Clichy, peint Monsieur Renoir,
Qui devant une épaule nue
Broie autre chose que du noir

At the Villa des Arts near the avenue
De Clichy, paints Monsieur Renoir,
Who, in front of a shoulder that’s nude,
Feels something other than blue.

And there was also love to fill the void. “I feel at every minute that my place is wherever you are, and you already replace the landscapes. . . . There’s only you, you know,” wrote Mallarmé in 1891 to Méry Laurent. The subject of a series of love poems, Laurent was a divorcée seven years Mallarmé’s junior, and the mistress of an American friend of Napoleon III. Since the publication of these passionate letters in 1996, scholars have speculated on the nature of Laurent and Mallarmé’s relationship--was it romantic or platonic? Certain notes point toward romantic love. In 1890 he wrote to her,

Delicious you, I have only enough time to send you your habitual kiss, on leaving: and I would have things to say, but will do so here from there. How Méry you were and ideally perfect, your shells of ears must have been burning, all the evening as we went home.

This note was later recast as a paean to love titled “Oh so dear from far and near”:

Oh so dear from far and near and white, so
Deliciously you, Mary, that I dream
Of some rare balm emanating mendaciously
Over no stall of darkened crystal.

Do you know? Yes!, for me it’s been years,
It’s been forever, that your dazzling smile has prolonged
The same rose with its lovely summer that plunges
Into the past and then into the future too. . . .

Perhaps the most well-known aspect of Mallarmé’s life in Paris were the Mardis, the Tuesday evening gatherings he held at his home on rue de Rome, starting in 1885. Established writers, as well as unknowns seeking advice, mingled with artists and thinkers, listening to Mallarmé expound his ideas about poetry, theater, and art. André Gide describes the atmosphere at these weekly events as having an “almost religious atmosphere.” Henri de Régnier called them singular: “Nothing will replace for me those evenings at Mallarmé’s house where in addition to the delicious, perfect presence of the master of the house, you have the chance to meet an intelligent company.”

Mallarmé was the French poet of his day, and yet his published oeuvre--outside of letters and articles--consists of a number of elegies, poems on the subject of poetry, and about a dozen or so sonnets written in the later half of the 1880s, dedicated to Méry. He never wrote the book that he desired above all to write: the abstract, essential Book beyond all real books, which he called his Grand Oeuvre or Le Livre. But his 1897 Divagations became the Symbolist manifesto and his Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, poème (“A Throw of Dice Will Never Abolish the Hazard, Poem”), a tribute to the randomness of inspiration and subjectivity, became a touchstone for later writers and a model for his successors Paul Claudel and Paul Valéry. Mallarmé’s theories about art set the tone for a generation of poets and painters, sending them in search of the l’absente de tous bouquets, the ideal flower absent from all real bouquets.

About the Author

Joanna Smith Rakoff is a writer in New York City.

Funding Information

Rosemary Lloyd was awarded a $30,000 NEH fellowship for her research on Stéphane Mallarmé.