Authors: Stéphane Mallarmé

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French poet and critic

March 18, 1842

Paris, France

September 9, 1898

Valvins, France


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. {$I[AN]9810000468} {$I[A]Mallarmé, Sté phane} {$I[geo]FRANCE;Mallarmé, Sté phane} {$I[tim]1842;Mallarmé, Sté phane}

Stéphane Mallarmé, center, with Édouard Manet, right, and an unidentified woman.

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Poetry: L’Après-midi d’un faune, 1876 (The Afternoon of a Faun, 1956) Les Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé, 1887 Les Poésies d’Edgar Poe, 1888 (translation) La musique et les lettres, 1895 Un Coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, 1897 (Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance, 1965) Vers de circonstance, 1920 Igitur; ou, La folie d'Elbehnon, 1925 (English translation, 1974) Poems by Mallarmé, 1936 (Roger Fry, translator) Herodias, 1940 (Clark Mills, translator) Selected Poems, 1957 Les Noces d’Hérodiade, 1959 Pour un “Tombeau d’Anatole,” 1961 (A Tomb for Anatole, 1983) Poésies, 1970 (The Poems, 1977) Collected Poems, 1994 Nonfiction: Petite Philologie à l’usage des classes et du monde: Les Mots anglais, 1878 Les Dieux antiques, 1880 Divagations, 1897 Correspondance, 1959-1984 (10 volumes) Documents Mallarmé, 1968-1971 (3 volumes) Autobiographie: Lettre à Verlaine, 1991 Mallarmé in Prose, 2001 (Mary Ann Caws, editor) Mallarmé on Fashion: A Translation of the Fashion Magazine, La dernière mode, 2004 (P.N. Furbank and Alex Cain, editors) Miscellaneous: Album de vers et de prose, 1887 Pages, 1891 Vers et prose, 1893 Œuvres complètes de Stéphane Mallarmé, 1945 Selected Prose Poems, Essays, and Letters, 1956 Mallarmé, 1965 Selected Poetry and Prose, 1982 Bibliography Cohn, Robert Greer, ed. Mallarmé in the Twentieth Century. London: Associated University Presses, 1998. A collection of essays by many of the most eminent figures in the study of Mallarmé, including Julia Kristeva, Mary Ann Caws, Albert Cook, Anna Balakian, and Robert Cohn. An important summary of the state of scholarship on the poet. Kravis, Judy. The Prose of Mallarmé: The Evolution of a Literary Language. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976. One of the few works focusing on Mallarmé’s prose rather than his poetry; focuses on his literary style. Lloyd, Rosemary. Mallarmé: The Poet and His Circle. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999. A literary biography of the poet and his period. Mallarmé hosted gatherings attended by writers, artists, thinkers, and musicians in France, England, and Belgium. Through these gatherings and voluminous correspondence Mallarmé developed and recorded his friendships with Paul Valéry, André Gide, Berthe Morisot, and many others. Includes bibliographical references and index. Millan, Gordan. A Throw of the Dice: The Life of Stéphane Mallarmé. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. This biography of Mallarmé, who has a reputation for difficulty and obscurity, proves equally valuable to students and specialists. The narrative is aimed at the general reader while the ample footnotes provide material for the specialist. The text draws on previously unpublished correspondence and new documentation and includes bibliographical references and an index. Pearson, Roger. Unfolding Mallarmé: The Development of a Poetic Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. An account of the development of Mallarmé’s poetry from his earliest verse to his final masterpiece. Close readings demonstrate the intricate linguistic and formal play to be found in many of his major poems. Sartre, Jean Paul. Mallarmé: Or, The Poet of Nothingness. Translated by Ernest Sturm. University Park: State University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988. A leading existentialist’s view of Mallarmé. Shaw, Mary Lewis. Performance in the Texts of Mallarmé: The Passage from Art to Ritual. University Park: State University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Focuses on the aspect of performance and the performing arts in Mallarmé’s poems. "Stéphane Mallarmé." Poetry Foundation, Accessed 15 Sept. 2017. A biography of Mallarmé and analysis of his poems. Includes a bibliography of works by and about the writer. Sugano, Marian Zwerling. The Poetics of the Occasion: Mallarmé and the Poetry of Circumstance. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. Focuses on Mallarmé’s occasional poems. Temple, Michael. The Name of the Poet: Onomastics and Anonymity in the Works of Stéphane Mallarmé. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 1995. Study of the use of place-names versus personal anonymity in Mallarmé’s work. Temple, Michael, ed. Meetings with Mallarmé. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 1998. Critical interpretation of Mallarmé’s major works. Includes bibliographical references and index.

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