(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Stéphane Mallarmé is an intriguing literary figure because his considerable influence during his lifetime and afterward seems to derive as much from his demanding aesthetics as from his poetry. Ridiculed as well as celebrated for the difficulty of his verse, Mallarmé ascribed to the poet a near-mystical role requiring total commitment to art. This exalted vision, as well as the surface brilliance of Mallarmé’s enigmatic poetry, continues to challenge poets and scholars.

It is unfortunate that Gordon Millan’s biography fails to flesh out that vision enough for a reader to understand Mallarmé’s literary significance. Millan gives only the bald facts of a life, along with explication of several important works. He often provides fascinating insights into artistic themes and personal concerns, but he leaves much of the larger picture blank (for example, he hardly mentions Mallarmé’s role as a Symbolist).

Granted, Mallarmé himself wished to remain shadowy. It is hard not to conclude after reading this biography that to some extent Mallarmé talked one life and lived another. Though he depicted himself (and every true artist) as a misunderstood and tormented outcast, along the lines of Edgar Allan Poe, Mallarmé was remarkably gregarious and successful.

He was born on March 18, 1842, into a family firmly rooted in the upper levels of the French civil service, through whose ranks he was expected to rise. He would make good use of his connections all of his life, but Mallarmé rarely accommodated himself to others’ plans for him. Perhaps this stubbornness can be attributed to his experience of rejection after his mother’s death in 1847. When his father remarried, Stéphane and his sister were sent away to live with his mother’s daunting and overly proper parents. Mallarmé retaliated by rejecting their strict religious and moral values. Equally defiant at school, he considered himself special but stood out only as an unruly student who refused all efforts to help him. After his sister’s death in 1857, however, he found his poetic calling and became a better student as well.

Time would validate his poetic aspirations, but his optimism in other areas often bordered on the delusional. With the help of his stepmother, Mallarmé overrode his family’s misgivings and made a disastrous career choice he had to live with for thirty years: to become a teacher. Just as precipitously, but with a more fortunate outcome, he convinced the German governess Marie Gerhard to accompany him to London, where he was going to learn English. She did and soon became his wife.

Their marriage would prove happy, if not always passionate. Teaching, however, disappointed him from the start. Plagued by discipline problems, Mallarmé preferred to concentrate on his poetry, even during class, to the annoyance of his supervisors, who also complained about his poor command of English (which did not keep him from translating Poe and writing an English grammar).

The cruelest disappointment, however, was his failure to get a Paris assignment. Instead, he was posted to the small town of Tournon. He made friends and started a family, but he rarely stopped complaining in his letters, except to issue bravura statements of his artistic ambitions. Millan warns the reader early about Mallarmé’s habit of editing his past, and the biographer often takes his subject to task for not appreciating his stepmother or his wife, as well as for neglecting his teaching. Yet he does not question Mallarmé’s account of his artistic life as rigorously; ironically, his heavy reliance on the poet’s letters undermines their testimony. The correspondence included here, while brilliant, contains so much plaintive rationalization that it becomes nearly impossible to accept anything Mallarmé says at face value.

Nevertheless, between 1863 and 1871, as he moved from Tournon to Besançon to Avignon, Mallarmé transformed himself from a callow poser into one of the most distinctive poetic voices of the nineteenth century. In spite of all of his ailments and distractions, he continued to write. In 1866 and 1869, he contributed poems to Par- nasse contemporain, joining the ranks of the young, more innovative poets. In addi- tion, he started longer pieces, both in prose (Igitur: Ou, La Folie d’Elbehenon, 1925; Igitur, 1974) and dramatic verse—Herodias (1940; published in French in 1959) and L’Après-midi d’un faune (1876, set to music by Claude Debussy in 1894; Afternoon of the Faun, 1951).

Because these larger projects would...

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