Stephane Mallarme

Biography of Stephane Mallarme (1842 – 1898)

Stephane Mallarme
Stephane Mallarme (1842-1898)

Stéphane Mallarmé (March 18, 1842 – September 9, 1898) was a French poet and writer.

Mallarmé was a major French symbolist poet and rightly famed for his salons, occasional gatherings of intellectuals at his house for discussions of poetry, art, philosophy.

His fin-de-siecle style is anticipatory of many of the developments in fusions between art and poetry which were to blossom in the Dadaist, Surrealist and Futurist schools, where the tension between the words on the page and the way in which they were displayed was paramount. But whereas most of the latter work was concerned principally with form, Mallarmé’s work was concerned with style and content: this is particularly evident in the highly innovative Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (trans. “A roll of the dice”) of 1897, his last major poem.

Mallarmé is considered one of the French poets most difficult to translate into English. This is often said to be due largely to the inherently vague nature of much of his work, but this explanation is really a simplification. On closer reading of his work in the original French, it is clear that the sound relationships between the words in the poetry are of equal or even greater importance than the standard ‘meanings’ of the words themselves, often unfolding new meanings in the spoken text which are not self-evident on reading the work on the page. It is this aspect of the work which is impossible to translate into any other language, as it depends in part on the ambiguity inherent in the phonology of the spoken French language, and throws up huge numbers of relationships that are difficult to capture in any other language, particularly when attempting to remain as close as possible to the translation of the standard meanings of the words involved. It can also be suggested that it is this ‘pure sound’ aspect of his poetry that has lent itself to being compared with, and inspiring, music (see below).

A good example of this appears in Roger Pearson’s book ‘Unfolding Mallarmé’, in his analysis of the Sonnet en ‘-yx’. The poem opens with the words ‘Ses purs ongles’ (‘Her pure nails’), which when spoken aloud sounds almost identical in French to the words ‘C’est pur son..’ (‘It’s pure sound’). This use of homophony, and the relationships and layers of meanings it results in, is simply impossible to capture accurately through translation.

For many years, the Tuesday night sessions in his apartment on the rue de Rome were considered the heart of Paris intellectual life as W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Stefan George, Paul Verlaine, and many more held court with Mallarmé as the judge, jester, and king.

Mallarmé’s poetry has been compared to music, and has been the inspiration for 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. Debussy also set Mallarmé’s poetry to music in Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913). Other composers to use his poetry in song include Maurice Ravel (Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, 1913), Darius Milhaud (Chansons bas de Stéphane Mallarmé, 1917) and Pierre Boulez (Pli Selon Pli, 1957-62).

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