The title of Mallarmé’s Divagations might be translated as “ramblings” and serves to unite a varied series of prose pieces presenting both literary history and criticism. In bringing together a number of pieces, some of which were previously published elsewhere, Mallarmé sought to recognize the foremost poets and artists of his time.
The first to be recognized is appropriately Baudelaire. In “Autrefois, en marge d’ un Baudelaire” (“Formerly, on the Margin of a Baudelaire”), Mallarmé recognized the intense poetic inspiration and use of nature imagery that had influenced his own early work. After this a series of essays, “Quelques médaillons et portraits en pied” (“A Few Medallions and Full-Length Portraits”) describes the lives and work of poets and artists Mallarmé admired. The first is his good friend Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, followed by Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. The list continues to include English-language poets Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Poe and concludes with the painters John McNeill Whistler, Édouard Manet, and Berthe Morisot.
After this literary and artistic section, Mallarmé turns to the theater with an essay on Richard Wagner. Mallarmé especially admired Wagner for combining the arts of music and theater. Next, a series of essays, “Crayonné au théâtre” (“Jottings at the Theater”), analyzes the nature of this public form of literary expression with special attention to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), various forms of dance, and pantomime.
Mallarmé tried constantly to define literature. In “Jottings at the Theater,” he recognized differences of national styles in contrasting Wagner’s work to French poetry. Still, Mallarmé sought a new absolute form of expression yet to be achieved. In “Crise de vers” (“Crisis of Verses”), he outlined the changes occurring in French poetry as new writers moved on from the influence of Victor Hugo. Next, “Quant au livre” (“As for the Book”) explores the public role of literature and “Offices” (“Holy Rites”) the religious nature of literature. Finally, “Grands Faits divers” (“Great News Items”) gathers various influences from Mallarmé’s life that had been important to his writing.