Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1412

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Because of the highly individual qualities of his writing and in spite of his tremendous impact on modern poetry, Stéphane Mallarmé has never been a popular figure known to the general reader. It is difficult, however, to overestimate his importance as an innovator and as an influence on other poets.

Certainly the most striking characteristic of Mallarmé’s poems is their obscurity. The reader meets in them a subjective formation of imagery and a warping of the normal patterns of syntax and grammar that has puzzled, at times even infuriated, students of French poetry for more than a century. This obscurity is no accident, and it plays an important part in the history of poetry. At the end of the Romantic period of French poetry (which paralleled that of English poetry), the figure of Charles Baudelaire loomed large, with his theory and practice of correspondances between things concrete and things human and emotional.

Of the followers of Baudelaire, Mallarmé assuredly holds first place as the leading exponent of the Symbolist school. It might be said that to understand Mallarmé, in itself a difficult task, is to understand Symbolism. Rimbaud and Verlaine are not so profound, although their personal lives reflected the rebellion that is often thought an important part of the movement. Mallarmé was a rebel only in his verse; outwardly he led a quiet, decorous life at home and in the classroom.

In a sense, Symbolism is to the regular run of poetry what Surrealism is to representational painting; and there seems little doubt that the early Impressionists in painting may well have had some of Mallarmé’s theories in mind, even if only subconsciously. To Mallarmé, a symbol represented a feeling or sensation that cannot be logically explained or clearly expressed. Often, for him, the symbol was a very personal abstraction that remained unexplained even in the poem which it inspired.

This concept of the use of symbols was defended persistently by Mallarmé, who, like Baudelaire, was a poete-critique. Unfortunately, many of Mallarmé’s critical dicta are as abstruse as his verse. Difficult as the reading of this verse is, however, the concept and the examples of it in the work are intriguing; and those who have been willing to put forth the great amount of effort needed usually declare themselves highly rewarded by their grasp of these poems. For the person who reads only English, or to whom French is a less familiar second language, the difficulty is compounded. Perhaps more so than for any other poet, the English-speaking reader is dependent upon the translator for his interpretation of one of Mallarmé’s poems; such a reader will surely be perplexed to observe the important differences in translations of the same poem by different scholars.

In spite of these difficulties there is about Mallarmé’s verses a strange, haunting beauty that has captured the fancy of many great minds, from Gide’s to Joyce’s and T. S. Eliot’s. Eliot suggests an important fact that must be known in order to understand Mallarmé’s poetry. The poems of Eliot are also difficult for the general reader to understand, but usually for a different reason from Mallarmé’s obscurity. Whereas Eliot relies frequently on little-known allusions to convey his poetic meaning, Mallarmé used a very personal poetic diction and a chain of thought that puzzles the reader.

Like Browning, Mallarmé thought that poetry need not be simple and direct and that the reader should be willing to exert himself to discover the poet’s meaning. For Mallarmé, however, the word “meaning” must be thought of in a very broad sense, for to say that his poems have “a meaning” may not be quite accurate. Often, all that Mallarmé wished to convey was a state of mind or an emotional mood, and certainly no poet ever worked harder at perfecting a poetic style designed for this purpose.

The basis of Mallarmé’s poetic credo is fundamental, coming close to the essential nature of reality itself. To him the reality of an object was not in the object, or even in the poet’s mind as he observes the object. True reality, he believed, lies in the poet’s observation, his perception of the object; thus the poet must express the impression that he finds in a sort of reverie inspired by contemplation of the object within a twilight zone of awareness. Simply to describe the object is far from the poet’s intention. Often the object will be transformed during a poem into one of its qualities, that one which strikes the poet as the true reality. In a well-known short poem, “Brise Marine” (“Sea Breeze”), the sheet of blank paper under the lamp has whiteness as its salient quality, a whiteness that protects the paper and which symbolizes the poetic sterility of the poet.

This obsession with sterility—and Mallarmé’s poetic thinking was virtually a series of obsessions—which possessed the poet for a long time in his youth, represents another part of his basic outlook. The poet must find first of all the spirit of nothingness (“le Neant”) that pervades and underlies the visible universe. Then the poet must re-create the universe from his own mind. In this framework of thought, Mallarmé concentrated on the movement of his mind, not on the data it possessed.

With such a theory of poetry in his mind, it was easy for the poet to use the “black rock” in the opening line of “Tombeau” (“Tomb”), a very difficult poem written at the grave of Verlaine, to symbolize a black cloud, and the cloud to represent the cloud of somber religious ideas and the notions of sin which shade the earth. This symbolism appears to the penetrating reader, however, only after long consideration of the opening stanza of the poem.

As Mallarmé lost his fear of poetic sterility and began to achieve in his mind the grasp of the spiritual nothingness that was to him a prerequisite to worthy creativity, his verse became more and more obscure, so that his later work remains a mystery to almost all readers, even to some of the most diligent poets and scholars. Throughout his work, however, run more or less regular currents of thought, or obsessions. His preoccupation with absence, silence, and death is part of his central poetic philosophy, as his interest in music reflects his conviction that music and poetry are much akin in their expression of truth. L’APRES-MIDI D’UN FAUNE demonstrates and expresses this conviction; the poem, appropriately, was the inspiration for Debussy’s famous tone poem.

Side by side in Mallarmé’s work the reader finds two other, very dissimilar “obsessions”: religious belief—essentially a tragic subject for Mallarmé, as in “Toast Funebre” (“A Funeral Toast”)—and an erotic preoccupation with nudity which is found in L’APRES-MIDI D’UN FAUNE and in many other poems.

Mallarmé’s later poems evidence not only the profound convolutions of his very personal poetic thinking but also some experimentation with the form of the poem on the printed page. One of his last works, “Un Coup de Des Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard” (“A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”), will remind an American reader of the interesting arrangements of the poems of E. E. Cummings. In this poem as in his other work, Mallarmé had the same overall purpose: to express, not clearly but none the less accurately, an impression of reality.

It may be said in Mallarmé’s favor that he was, in his way, one of the most sincere of all poets. He was, in fact, so critical of his work and so demanding in his standards that his total poetic output can be contained in one regular-sized volume. Further, Mallarmé’s verses have a fluidity about them that the reader at first senses only vaguely. As the poet was preoccupied with the movement of his mind, so the lines of his poems achieve a kind of movement: words flow into words; meanings blend and change; images fade and reappear with new evocations of significance.

Although the Symbolist movement as such can be said to have died with an immediate follower of Mallarmé, Paul Valery, its influence, particularly in the English-speaking world, is still strong today. The modern poet, trying to impose the discipline of order on his fragmented world, works partly in the shadow of this French writer wholeheartedly devoted to a poetic ideal.