Lecture ELEVEN summary
As an adolescent, he learned English in order to read Poe, traveling to London to improve his knowledge. This background qualified him for his profession as an English teacher. In his early years there was not enough money, requiring him to supplement his income with publishing tasks. In addition to his standing as the supreme French Symbolist poet, Mallarmé exercised influence through his salons, gatherings of intellectuals on Tuesday evenings. For many years, those in the know regarded the sessions in his apartment on the rue de Rome as the heart of Paris intellectual life, with W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Stefan George, Paul Verlaine, and many more in attendance. In this main room, filled with ciagar smoke, Mallarmé held court as judge, jester, and king.
His earlier work owes much to the example by Charles Baudelaire. Yet Mallarmé’s mature style anticipates many of the fusions between poetry and the other arts that were to blossom in the Dadaist, Surrealist, and Futurist movements, where the tension between the words themselves and the way they were displayed on the page was explored. But whereas much of this latter work was concerned principally with form, Mallarmé's work engaged the interplay of style and content. This is particularly evident in the highly innovative “Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard” (A roll of the dice will never abolish chance) of 1897, his last major poem. This work, which opened the way for concrete poetry, displays a kind of figure/ground interplay, in which the blank spaces seem as important as the text.
Unlike Baudelaire, Zola, and Huysmans, Mallarmé declined to write formal Salon critiques, though he was closely engaged with contemporary painting. He and Manet were neighbors, and for ten years the poet visited the artist in his studio almost daily. The poet wrote three pieces defending his friend (the longest appearing in English in a London art monthly). The two friends collaborated on an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Mallarmé also wrote on Whistler and Berthe Morisot (a catalogue for her posthumous exhibition). Artists were welcome at the poet’s Salons.
Coming to terms with Mallarmé is one of the most challenging tasks in the whole history of Western literature. He is a supremely “difficult” poet. Sometimes, in my frustration with him, I have thought that I had rather succumb to a bad case of the ‘flu than to have to confront those darned poems one more time. All the same, he is the indispensable linchpin of the Symbolist Movement. There is no way getting around him.
At first the concision of his corpus seems help. Quantitatively speaking, he was surely the least productive of all major poets. The oeuvre that he approved for collection amounts to a little more than 100 pages. Scholars have augmented this total several times with other poems, published and unpublished, and juvenilia.
As one might expect, a mountain of scholarship has accumulated to decode the work. Some hold that this endeavor goes contrary to Mallarmé’s intention, which was to create “open” works that defy any complete resolution. At all events, it is imperative to look at his work in French (with the helpful crib afforded by the bilingual Oxford volume), for much turns upon relations of sound and sense that are integral to that language. But take heart: someone remarked that it would have been better if Mallarmé had written his poems in German!
As the Blackmores remark, "[f]or him … the vital role of poetry was to purge language of its everyday setting.” In this he indicated one of the main paths of defamiliarization or estrangement, that deliberate departure from everything ordinary, indeed everything that we normally expect, that is characteristic of the most challenging twentieth-century poets, such as Eliot and Pound, George and Rilke. In Mallarmé’s case, the achievement is all the more remarkable in that he keeps to standard verse forms. The subversion of language—which the poet would call a return to its true nature—takes place on the deepest level
All things considered, it must be acknowledged that Mallarmé is one of the French poets most difficult to translate. The conventional wisdom ascribes this difficulty to the inherently vague nature of much of his work, but this explanation is a simplification. Close reading of his work in the original French reveals that the role of sound relationships between the words in the poetry equals, or even surpasses, the standard meanings of the words themselves. This principle may generate new meanings in the spoken text which are not evident on reading the work on the page. It is this aspect of the work that eludes translation (especially when attempting a more literal fidelity to the words as well), since it arises from ambiguities residing in the phonology of the spoken French language. It may be that this “pure sound” aspect of his poetry that has led to its inspiring musical compositions, and to its direct comparison with music. This method also anticipates that of abstract painting in the early 20th century.
A good example of this play of sound appears in Roger Pearson's book Unfolding Mallarmé, in his analysis of the “Sonnet en '-yx'.” The poem opens with the phrase “ses purs ongles” (her pure nails), whose first syllables when spoken aloud sound very similar to the words “c'est pur son” (it's pure sound'\). This use of homophony, along with resulting relationships and layers of meanings, is simply impossible to capture accurately through translation.
As the high priest of modern poetry, Mallarmé seems formidable for the reasons stated. However, he had a lighter side. For eleven months he edited a ladies’ fashion magazine, writing the contributions under female pseudonyms. Much of his poetic work is occasional, and therefore more approachable. In the end, though, one comes back the fearsome, hermetic Scriptures of modern poetry-—the core oeuvre.
The Introduction to the Oxford volume provides a useful discussion of the poet’s commitment to suggestion, nuance, and the thing not said. In a famous sentence Mallarmé formulated the 25/75 rule. Mere statement or “naming” affords only one-quarter—25%--of the value of a poem. By contrast, the other 75% provides the true measure of the enjoyment and appreciation of the poem. In that 75%, or so it seems to me, lies the essence of the Symbolist quest. Its exact content, of course, Mallarmé does not divulge. “Those who say, don’t know; those who know, don’t say.”
One should examine the poems for references to decadence (esp. pp.83-85) and nothingness (le néant; cf. p. 20). Mallarmé remarked that “destruction is my Beatrice.”
Mallarmé’s take on the Salome-Herodias theme is very different from that of other writers. For the demonic temptress, the poet substitutes an icon figure—perhaps an icon of the artistic challenge as such.
“The Windows” p. 10-13, offers parallels with Symbolist paintings.
In “The Demon of Analogy” (p. 88ff.) Mallarmé defends “accidental” relations of words. In his view, these links are not accidental at all, but take us into the realm of the essences of words. The poet preferred traditional verse forms, but in his affirmation of the “secret” links of words, he was farseeing. He implicitly posited the concept of the poem as an artifact, not dependent on relations with the outside world. The instructor offered a tentative English-language parallel: the word “word” encloses the word “or,” suggesting the inherent variability of word choices.
Mallarmé's poetry has elicited several musical pieces, notably Claude Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" (1894), a free interpretation of Mallarmé's poem “L'après-midi d'un faune” (1876), which creates powerful impressions by the use of striking but isolated phrases. Maurice Ravel set Mallarmé's poetry to music in "Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé" (1913). Other composers to use his poetry in song include Darius Milhaud ("Chansons bas de Stéphane Mallarmé," 1917) and Pierre Boulez ("Pli selon pli," 1957-62).
The contemporary Belgian visual artist Marcel Broodthaers was strongly influenced by Mallarmé, as evidenced by his “Un coup de dés,” based on the typographical layout of Mallarmé, but with the words blacked over by bars.
JORIS-KARL HUYSMANS (1848-1907).
For details of the writer’s biography, see Robert Baldick, The Life of J.-K. Huysmans, which has just been reissued by Dedalus Press.
Through most of his adult life Joris-Karl Huysmans produced art criticism. In a recent collection this amounts to almost 600 pages. In this way he “discovered” Gustave Moreau four years before assigning him a starring role in Against Nature.
As it happens, though, Huysmans’ most important discovery in art did not concern a contemporary artist, but one who had lived in the 16th century. In an 1888 tour of Germany he was deeply affected by seeing Grünewald’ “Crucifixion” in the Kassel Gallery. “Never before had realism attempted such a subject; never before had a painter explored the divine charnel house so thoroughly, or dipped his brush so brutally in running sores and bleeding wounds. It was outrageous and it was horrifying. Grünewald was the most daring of realists, without a doubt; but as one gazed upon this Redeemer of the doss-house, this God of the morgue, thee was wrought a change. Gleams of light filtered from the ulcerous head; a superhuman radiance illumined the gangrenous flesh and the tortured features.” Later, Huysmans traveled to Colmar, where he saw Grünewald’s masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece. Huysmans is generally credited with reviving interest in this hitherto obscure artist. In their turn, Grunewald’s works have presided over a major trend of 20th century art, Expressionism. They proved to be tragically attuned to the bloodiest of centuries, the 20th.
Grünewald makes an appearance in chapter one of La-bas. Like Against Nature, La-bas is a “bachelor novel.” Yet the hero, Durtal, is much more sociable and reasonable than Des Esseintes. There is a kind of book within the book, because Durtal is writing a study of Gilles de Rais, the 15th-century Bluebeard. His researches lead him to discover a group of Satanists in Paris (the Black Mass scene).
After this Huysmans accomplished his final reinvention as a novelist, one that is imbued with his newfound Catholicism.
AUGUSTE VILLIERS DE L’ISLE ADAM (1838-1889).
The bizarre details of his life seem almost more fascinating than his works. He was born in Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, to a distinguished aristocratic family. His parents, Marquis Joseph-Toussaint and Marie-Françoise were not rich, however, and were financially supported by Marie's aunt, Mademoiselle de Kerinou. His father became obsessed with the idea he could restore the family fortune by finding the lost treasure of the Knights of Malta, reputedly buried near Quintin during the French Revolution. Consequently, he spent large sums of money buying land, excavating it and then selling it at a loss when he failed to find anything of value.
The young Villiers' education was troubled (he attended over half a dozen different schools) but from an early age his family were convinced he was an artistic genius: as a child he composed poetry and music.
In 1860 his aunt gave him enough money to allow him to live in Paris permanently. He had already acquired a reputation in literary circles for his inspired, alcohol-fuelled monologues. Some held that, like Oscar Wilde, he was more talented as a conversationalist than a writer. Villiers began living a Bohemian life, frequenting the Brasserie des Martyrs, where he met his idol Baudelaire, who encouraged him to read the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
His attempts at securing a suitable bride for himself would all end in failure. In 1867, he asked Théophile Gautier for the hand of his daughter Estelle, but Gautier--who had turned his back on the Bohemian world of his youth and would not let his child marry a writer with few prospects--turned him down. His plans for marriage to an English heiress, Anna Eyre Powell, were equally unsuccessful. Villiers finally took to living with Marie Dantine, the illiterate widow of a Belgian coachman. In 1881, she gave birth to Villiers' son, Victor (nicknamed "Totor").
A high point of Villiers' life was his trip to see his hero Richard Wagner at Triebschen in 1869. Villiers read from the manuscript of his play La Révolte and the composer declared that the Frenchman was a "true poet".
Disaster came in 1871 with the death of Villiers' aunt, and the end of her financial support. Though Villiers had many admirers in literary circles (the most important being his close friend Stéphane Mallarmé), mainstream newspapers found his fiction too eccentric to be saleable and few theaters shied away from his plays. Villiers was forced to take odd jobs to support his family: he gave boxing lessons and apparently worked in a funeral parlor and as a mountebank's assistant for a time. Another money-making scheme Villiers considered was reciting his poetry to a paying public in a cage full of tigers, but he later thought better of the idea.
According to his friend Léon Bloy, Villiers was so poor he had to write most of his novel L'Eve future lying on his belly on bare floorboards because the bailiffs had taken away all the furniture. His poverty only increased his sense of aristocratic pride. In 1875, he attempted to sue a playwright he believed had insulted one of his ancestors, Maréchal Jean de Villiers de l'Isle Adam. In 1881, Villiers stood unsuccessfully for parliament as a candidate for the legitimist party. By the 1880s, there was some change in fortune: Villiers' fame began to grow, but not his finances. The publishers Calmann-Lévy accepted his Contes cruels, but the sum they offered Villiers was negligible. The volume did, however, come to the attention of J.-K. Huysmans, who praised Villiers' work in his highly influential novel A rebours. But by this time, Villiers was dying of stomach cancer.
Villiers' works, which owe a good deal to the Gothick tradition, are often fantastic in plot and filled with mystery and horror. Important among them are the drama Axel (1890), the novel L'Ève future ("The Eve of the Future,” 1886), and the short-story collection, Contes cruels (1883).
The novel L'Ève future concerns Lord Ewald, a wealthy Englishman, who discovers his ideal beloved during a train journey. There was a problem, though, as her trivial mind does not match her sublime exterior. To solve this problem, he visits his friend Thomas Edison in Menlo Park, New Jersey, who agrees to create an android which will be an exact replica of the woman, with the proper spiritual sensitivity within. Unfortunately, the replica is lost when Lord Ewald returns by sea to England. In this novel Villiers coined the term “android" (andréide in French
Villiers held that the imagination has within it much more beauty than reality itself, existing at a level which nothing real could compare.
Axël was the work Villiers considered his masterpiece, although critical opinion has often been reluctant to agree with him, placing far higher value on his fiction. Villiers began work on the piece around 1869 and had still not put the finishing touches to it when he died. It was first published posthumously in 1890. The play is heavily influenced by the Romantic theatre of Victor Hugo, as well as Goethe's Faust and the music dramas of Richard Wagner. The play's most famous line is Axël's "Vivre? les serviteurs feront cela pour nous" ("Living? Our servants will do that for us"). Edmund Wilson used the title Axel's Castle for his study of early Modernist literature.
EDOUARD DUJARDIN (1861–1949)
Despite the fact that he was a minor writer, Dujardin ranks as the inventor of the literary technique known as stream of consciousness.
Dujardin became editor for the journal Revue Indépendente in 1886, and it was here that his first works were published. His participation in this journal resulted in it being recognized as an important voice for the symbolists. Thus Dujardin was a kind of facilitator or manager of Symbolism.
His landmark work is a short novel of 1888, Les lauriers sont coupés. The work traces the movements of the hero Daniel Prince in Paris during one evening, between between 6 PM and 12:30 AM. Dujardin takes us into the mind of the hero, and we see and hear everything as it registers in his awareness. This is the method of the stream of consciousness. James Joyce was a great admirer of this work, and he utilized the method in Ulysses, especially in the thoughts of Leopold Blum and the famous concluding monologue of Molly Bloom. Others who have followed Dujardin in using this device are Virginia Woolf (The Waves), William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, and Carlos Fuentes. One could almost say that modern prose fiction could not exist without Dujardin’s method of the stream of consciousness.
Something of a dandy, Dujardin had expensive tastes in clothing, and was a familiar figure in Parisian nightlife. His many romantic flings were noted and he had had numerous relationships with actresses, models, and other glamorous women.
His literary works are extensive and include numerous plays, poems and novels. In his later years Dujardin dabbled in far-out theories about the origins of Judaism and Christianity
GEORGES RODENBACH (1855-1898).
He was born in Tournai and went to school in Ghent, where he became friends with the poet Emile Verhaeren. Rodenbach worked as a lawyer and journalist. He spent the last ten years of his life in Paris as the correspondent of the Journal de Bruxelles, and was an intimate of Edmond de Goncourt. He published eight collections of verse and four novels, as well as short stories, stage works and criticism. He produced some Parisian and purely imitative work; but a major part of his production is the outcome of a passionate idealism of the quiet Flemish towns in which he had passed his childhood and early youth.
In his best known work, Bruges-la-Morte (1892), he explains that his aim is to evoke the town as a living being, associated with the moods of the spirit, counseling, dissuading from and prompting action. The novel concerns the grief that the hero experiences at the death of his beloved wife Marie. In his rambles through the city he meets another woman, Mariette, who seems just like Marie, but is frivolous and unfaithful. The novel was turned into an opera by Erich Korngold (performed this fall at the City Opera).
MAURICE MAETERLINCK (1862-1949).
While he made his debut as a Symbolist poet, Maeterlinck’s main activity was as a playwright. Of the original group he was the only Symbolist to have won the Nobel Prize in literature (1911). (Yeats received the Prize in 1923.)
Maeterlinck’s masterpiece is the play Pelléas et Mélisande (1892). It is set at an indeterminate place during an indeterminate period. It seems to be somewhere on the border between France and the Dutch-speaking area; it is medieval, or is it Renaissance? We first discover Mélisande weaping by a fountain. Her origins are never explained—a mystery within an enigma. Against these indeterminate features Maeterlinck tells his story of the forbidden, doomed love of the title characters.
The play has been the basis of several pieces of music. Nowadays even better known than the play is the opera by Claude Debussy (1902), which builds upon the Symbolist features of the play adding music that is perfectly suited to it, and thereby creating a composite work of art, one of the ultimate aspirations of the period. Earlier, in 1898, Gabriel Fauré had written incidental music for the play, from which he later extracted a suite. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius also wrote incidental music for it in 1905. The story is also the basis for the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s early symphonic poem "Pelleas und Melisande" of 1902-03.
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS (1865-1939).
When Yeats was young, his family moved first from Sandymount, County Dublin, to County Sligo, and then to London, to enable his father John to further his career as an artist. At first, the Yeats children were educated at home. Their mother, who was homesick for Sligo, entertained them with stories and folktales from her county of birth.
Yeats' early work tended to focus on the Romantic style, based on Irish lore, best described by the title of his 1893 collection The Celtic Twilight. During the ‘nineties, coached by his friend Arthur Symonds, he attached himself to Symbolism. In his forties, inspired by his relationships with modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and his involvement in Irish nationalist politics, he moved towards a harder, more modern style. In this way Yeats was a bridge from Symbolism to Modernism.
Even before he began to write poetry, Yeats had come to associate poetry with religious ideas and thoughts of sentimental elements. Describing his childhood in later years, he described his "one unshakable belief" as "whatever of philosophy has been made poetry is alone... I thought ... that if a powerful and benevolent spirit has shaped the destiny of this world, we can better discover that destiny from the words that have gathered up the heart's desire of the world."
Yeats' early poetry drew heavily on Irish myth and folklore. His first significant publication was The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889). The long title poem was based on the poems of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology.
His other early poems are lyrics on the themes of love or mystical and esoteric subjects. The Yeats family had returned to London in 1887, and in 1890 Yeats co-founded the Rhymer's Club with Ernest Rhys. This was a group of like-minded poets who met regularly and published anthologies in 1892 and 1894.
Yeats had a life-long interest in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism, and astrology. He read extensively on these subjects all through his life. In 1885, he and friends formed the Dublin Hermetic Order. This society held its first meeting on 16 June, with Yeats in the chair. The same year, the Dublin Theosophical lodge was opened with the involvement of Brahmin Mohini Chatterjee. Yeats attended his first séance the following year.
Throughout his life Yeats' mystical inclinations--informed by the writings of Swedenborg and Hindu religion (Yeats translated The Ten Principal Upanishads, 1938) with Shri Purohit Swami), theosophical beliefs, and the occult--formed much of the basis of late poetry. After his marriage, he and his wife dabbled with a form of automatic writing, Mrs. Yeats contacting a spirit guide she called "Leo Africanus."
GERTRUDE STEIN (1874-1946).
Born into a talented German-Jewish family, Gertrude Stein had the good fortune to study with William James at Harvard. After 1903 she lived mainly in Paris, forming a durable partnership with Alice B. Toklas.
Three Lives (1909), Stein’s first published book, was begun in 1905, before she had absorbed the full lesson of Picasso and the Cubists. Easily accessible and full of human interest, Three Lives does not provide an adequate measure of Stein’s capacity for innovation. Written in 1912 and published two years later, Tender Buttons, is a remarkable advance, facilitated by her contacts with the Parisian milieu. This little book is a landmark, since it is one of the first literary works in any language to provide a plausible counterpart for Abstraction.
The first part, on objects shows a remarkable similarity to her friend Picasso’s Cubist still lifes of the same period. Both may have been influenced by the bodegones of the Spanish baroque (e.g. the example seen by Sánchez-Cotán)
In writing the book she said she “needed to completely face the difficulty of how to include what is seen with hearing and listening.” Note the synaesthesia motif. Elaborating on this point Stein noted that it was her “first conscious struggle with the problem of correlating sight, sound and sense and eliminating rhythm.” The last phrase seems to men that she renounced poetry in all of its forms, as prose was challenging enough.
As a first approach, it is best to read Tender Buttons in small sections. Nonetheless, it has a tripartite structure: objects, food, and room. Together these themes evoke Stein’s coupled, domestic life with Alice B. Toklas. More generally, they pertain to “woman’s sphere,” as conceived of a hundred years ago. (Some have detected sexual themes here and there, with hidden anatomical references.)
Broadly speaking, the book may be said to be about similarity and nonsimilarity, and about causation and noncausation. The first is shown in the unusual juxtapositions, possibly following Lautréamont’s talisman: “Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine on an operating table.”
Several stylistic devices put causality into question. The frequent use of the word “and” implies contiguity but not necessarily anything more. And the omission of question marks in sentences that seem to be questions, elides these sentences into a uniform whole. Declarative sentences and questions are all one thing. The suppression of the difference implies the zetematic (questioning) nature of reality.