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...
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