Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820

Stéphane Mallarmé (ma-lahr-MAY) was born on March 18, 1842, in Paris at 12 rue Laferrière. He was the son of Numa-Florence-Joseph Mallarmé, a government administrator, and his wife, the former Elizabeth-Félicie Desmoulins. His mother died when the poet was only five years old, and Stéphane was then raised by his...

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Stéphane Mallarmé (ma-lahr-MAY) was born on March 18, 1842, in Paris at 12 rue Laferrière. He was the son of Numa-Florence-Joseph Mallarmé, a government administrator, and his wife, the former Elizabeth-Félicie Desmoulins. His mother died when the poet was only five years old, and Stéphane was then raised by his grandmother. He later attended the Lycée de Sens, where he began to write his first poetry.

In 1861, when the second edition of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil, 1931) was published, Mallarmé came under this literary influence that would inspire much of his early composition. The following year, he also discovered the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and published his own first poetry and prose in the small periodical Le Papillon. In 1862, Mallarmé was attracted to a young German girl, Maria Gerhard, with whom he traveled to London. When Mallarmé returned to France, he was certified to teach English in secondary schools, an employment which he pursued and which supported his poetic activity through much of his life.

On August 10, 1863, Mallarmé married Maria Gerhard. They moved to Tournon, in the Ardèche region of France, where Mallarmé began teaching English. They moved again, to Avignon in 1867 and then back to Paris in 1871. Finally, in 1875 they settled on the rue de Rome, where over the years Mallarmé would entertain many of the leading writers of Paris. From 1880 on, he was at home there every Tuesday for literary conversations. It is quite unfortunate that detailed records of these discussions were not made, as they undoubtedly explored many issues central to the evolution of modern poetry.

Mallarmé’s daughter, Geneviève, was born on November 19, 1864, and a son, Anatole, followed on October 25, 1871. Mallarmé would be deeply upset by Anatole’s death just before his eighth birthday on October, 6, 1879.

Mallarmé maintained extensive friendships and correspondences with other authors and artists of his time. Having begun under the influences of Baudelaire and Poe, he was soon linked to the poets Théodore de Banville, Catulle Mendès, Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and others. Perhaps Mallarmé could not refuse his role as a teacher. Even when he personally found difficulties in expressing himself in poetry, he remained extremely supportive of a whole generation of younger writers.

Poetry underwent a significant change in the nineteenth century. A form of expression that had been personal and emotional during the Romantic period became increasingly philosophical and concerned with the expression of abstract ideas. Mallarmé was at the center of this transformation, and his intellectual biography is increasingly dominated by his attempt to write what he called his “Great Work.” Frustrated at the attempt to put transcendent ideas into words, Mallarmé went through periods when he experienced a depressing inability to write. Images of blankness and sterility haunted him as he contemplated the emptiness of the untouched, white page.

In contrast to such deeply intellectual preoccupations, however, Mallarmé was capable of considerable productivity in varied styles calculated to appeal to popular tastes. In 1874 and 1875, for example, he published a fashion magazine, La Dernière Mode, for which he wrote a good portion of the copy under a variety of pen names. These essays, intended to advise women on everyday matters, such as fashion, their children, and their homes, are perhaps as far from philosophical abstractions as writing could be. Mallarmé not only dealt with such subjects, but he projected a variety of personas to go with the various identities he assumed in order to represent women of varying social stations.

Such was the dualism of Mallarmé’s life. On the one hand, he was the provident family man settled in his teaching position and dealing easily with the practicalities of life. On the other, he lived in his own intellectual world. The dissolute life of Paris that claimed many of his contemporaries had no appeal to him. He sought a different sort of intoxication in imagined departures toward his poetic vision.

Even though Mallarmé found understanding in his circle of literary friends, none of them seemed to share his complete vision of poetry. In “Prose (pour des esseintes)” (1884), a poem he addressed to the fictional hero of the novel À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922), written by his friend Joris-Karl Huysmans, Mallarmé invoked a character who had retreated from human society. Mallarmé never retreated physically, but he knew that his poetry was a world apart. At his death, at Valvins, France, on September 9, 1898, he left many manuscripts, including notes on what was to have been his Great Work. His instructions to his family, however, were that they should burn it all. He must have felt that no literary executor could carry out the work he had undertaken.

The sad paradox remains that, in a sense, much of the literature in the following century evolved from Mallarmé’s work. Younger poets studied what work remained and followed what they perceived to be Mallarmé’s intentions.

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