I want to know everything

Stephane Mallarme

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By 1868 Mallarmé had formulated his theory of poetry. The purpose of the poet, according to Mallarmé, was to somehow create something out of the nothingness that is the world and to bring into being, in his own phrase, l'absente de tous bouquets, the ideal flower absent from the bouquet. From 1868 on, Mallarmé devoted all of his energies to bringing this absent ideal into being. He intended to produce an epic work that would illustrate his ideas, which he called his Grand Oeuvre (Great Work) or Le Livre (The Book), though he never finished it nor, as far as scholars can tell, ever really began work on it at all. Whatever Mallarmé may have planned for this great work is largely open to conjecture; barely any fragments of the planned work exist, and the few notes that have survived from Mallarmé's notebooks reveal very little of what it may have looked like had it been completed.

It has been conjectured that the reason Mallarmé never finished the Grand Oeuvre is because, late in life, he ultimately turned away from the intense and philosophical views which had dominated most of his career. Certainly, by the 1890s, at a relatively advanced age for a poet, Mallarmé had finally gained the recongition he deserved. Glowing reviews by his friend Paul Verlaine and the praise lavished on him by Joris-Karl Huysmans in his novel À rebours resulted in Mallarmé becoming a literary celebrity in Paris. Painters, poets, writers and patrons flocked to his home, where he would hold weekly salons and discuss his ideas on art. Many of the greatest artistic minds in Europe would attend these salons, among them Marcel Proust, W.B. Yeats, Paul Verlaine, and Ranier Marie Rilke. The poems Mallarmé wrote during this period of final success expressed a view of reality that was increasingly content with the world as it is; a series of sonnets written to his mistress, and most especially the poem Un Coup de dés ("A Throw of the Dice"), written the year before he died and considered one of his finest, express this feeling of contentment. Mallarmé's conclusion is that, despite the presence of doubt, despite the daunting "void" of reality, "all thought emits a throw of the dice" -and hence, all thought runs the risk of hazard but, as Mallarmé triumphantly concludes, all thought can succeed.

Mallarmé's late poetry is one of the earliest examples of "concrete poetry," poetry that relies as much on its appearance on the page as the sound of its words. Un Coup de dés was particularly shocking to the French literati of the Mallarmé's time because it was one of the first examples of free verse in the French language. Mallarmé's energy and creativity at this late point in his career, his exuberance for life and his ingenuity with language, call to mind the work of Walt Whitman, and it is not a small coincidence that for many decades Mallarmé's reception was much warmer, and his influence more strongly felt by English-speaking audiences rather than French. The following excerpt, from Un coup de dés is a translation by Basil Cleveland:

NEVER EVEN WHEN CAST INTO ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCES FROM THE DEPTHS OF A SHIPWRECK BE IT that the Abyss blanched unbound furious under an incline desperately hangs on wing its own in advance of an ill-staged flight fallen back and covering the eruptions cutting short the surges most inwardly resumes the shadow buried in the deep by this alternate sail even adapting to the wingspan its yawning depth as great as the hull of a vessel listed to one or the other side THE MASTER beyond the ancient calculus that manuever with the age forgotten arisen inferring times past he would grasp the helm from this conflagration at his feet.

Works

  • L'après-midi d'un faune, 1876
  • Les Mots anglais, 1878
  • Les Dieux antiques, 1879
  • Divagations, 1897
  • Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard, 1897
  • Poésies, 1899 (posthumous)

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