Last reviewed: June 2018
French poet and critic
March 18, 1842
September 9, 1898
As a youth, Stéphane (baptized Etienne) Mallarmé (ma-lahr-may) was a romantic who rebelled against Catholicism and failed in school more than once despite prizes for composition and translation. While in England, however, he trained for the teaching profession, and he subsequently led two lives: the calm, quiet life of a schoolteacher and the disturbed inner life of a startling innovator in French poetry. That his life attracted less attention, perhaps notoriety, than the careers of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud is due largely to the seemingly serene routine he followed. Stéphane Mallarmé, center, with Édouard Manet, right, and an unidentified woman.
Stéphane Mallarmé, center, with Édouard Manet, right, and an unidentified woman.
Born in Paris on March 18, 1842, he spent his childhood in Auteuil and Sens. His mother died in 1847 and his only sister, Maria, in 1857. Mallarmé began writing poetry in mid-adolescence while still a student at the local lycée. Another event of his youth, striking in its effect, was his early discovery of the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, whose Flowers of Evil (1857) created a sensation in the nineteenth century. After completing his secondary education, he traveled to England, where he studied the English language.
On his return from England, Mallarmé taught English in southern France from about 1862 to 1873 and began to publish his first poems. In 1863, his father died and Mallarmé married Maria Gerhard, with whom he had two children, Geneviève and Anatole. When he moved to Paris, where he spent most of the rest of his life, his real work as the virtual leader of the Symbolists began. He became professor of English in the Lycée Fontanes and held that post until 1892. His outward professional career and his domestic life with his wife and children seemed regular and uneventful until, in 1874, he began to write criticism and nonfiction. That same year he also launched a short-lived women's magazine, La dernière mode, writing and editing it under female pseudonyms. Mallarmé plunged into a deep depression following Anatole's death in 1879, from which he emerged by 1882. Around that time, Méry Laurent became his lover and his muse, reportedly inspiring Vers et prose.
In his early poetic works Mallarmé became a pioneer in the principles of Symbolist verse, but he was not “discovered” until 1884, when Verlaine and Joris Karl Huysmans recognized him as the leader of the new movement toward a more evocative type of poetry. Only one piece of writing from this early period is generally remembered, The Afternoon of a Faun, primarily known because it inspired the musical prelude of Claude Debussy.
Particularly fascinated with his incomplete works (published posthumously), such influential critics as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva have treated him as a paragon of Modernism. In his day, though, perhaps his most effective influence was achieved in the small Tuesday meetings which he held in his home. At these intimate affairs he read his poetry to his guests and lectured to them on the principles of Symbolism, a movement whose first members were called “decadents.” One of the most important of these principles was Mallarmé’s belief that poetry should suggest, or connote, the interior life of the poet, not express it in concrete terms. His purpose was an attempt at communication that transcends customary language.
In later publications such as Vers et prose and Divagations, he modified his views, changing his aesthetics from an intense mechanics of self-expression to an impersonal exploration of general human problems. As he grew older his writing became more obscure and incomprehensible; it often seemed as though this vagueness of meaning was what he was striving for. Indeed, one of his great achievements was his realization of “nothingness” and his appreciation of the beauty that lies within it. He was always searching for new standards and new ways of achieving deep poetic expression, but when he began eliminating all punctuation in poetry and devising a new punctuation and syntax for prose, many people thought that he had gone too far. He was exceedingly self-critical, a quality which kept him from creating abundantly by drawing rigorous aesthetic limits around what he did produce. However, for those who can follow Mallarmé through the tortuous paths of his mystical suggestions the reward is great; moreover, his influence on younger French poets of his period was almost equal to the immense influence that he had on twentieth-century poetry by both English- and French-language poets. Mallarmé died quietly at Valvins, near Fontainebleau, in 1898, after a career as a revivifying, if not universally accepted, force in French poetry. Among the influences on Mallarmé himself was Edgar Allan Poe, whose poems he translated into French in 1888.