Stéphane Mallarmé

MY first visit to Stéphane Mallarmé was made one day just after leaving the house of M. Paul Bourget; and I seldom think of the poet without also thinking of the novelist.

To go from the residence of M. Bourget to that of Mallarmé was like going from one city to another. From the Faubourg Saint-Germain to the Rue de Rome one passes from a world of conventional refinement to a quarter of Paris with no historic or social interest. Independent, both in the intellectual and the material sense of the word, M.Bourget chose that part of the city which suited his tastes. Mallarmé had to live not where he pleased, but where he could. The street inhabited by the novelist was flanked by old walls, behind which lay the mansions of the old nobility. And the interior of his residence was in keeping with the customs and the modes of the neighborhood. Subdued in tone, yet richly furnished, the place had the air of refinement which one is accustomed to see in the houses of the conservative aristocracy.

It always gives one pleasure to see artists and writers living in comfort, removed from the noise and distractions of the world; but I found Mallarmé living in a house that resembled thousands of other houses. There was no distinctive character in anything, except in the man himself. M. Bourget is a personal power in his writings. Mallarmé showed his power in manner, disposition, and personal charm. Without his personality his literature alone would hardly have attracted so many writers of different schools.

Mallarmé’s reception room was so small that a company of fifteen persons filled it. Yet, to this little room, containing nothing but a centre-table and chairs, came the intellectual youth of France, representing every school and social grade, — future academicians, deputies, diplomats, novelists, editors, historians, and composers, the visitors being of all ages, but principally under thirty.

The yoke of officialdom lies heavy on the neck of genius. Mallarmé was one of the few who remained independent. But even in this he did not try, — it was the nature of the man. To see him stand by the fireplace rolling a cigarette, talking in a low voice, half to himself, half to his visitors, was to see a man free from conventional bondage. And it was like arriving at a cool mountain-spring after a long tramp through a burning desert. The visitor came here without fear, hindrance, or hypocrisy. The body rested while the spirit was being refreshed. There was neither loud talk, discussion, attempt at wit, nor striving after effect. This little room was the one place in Paris where the soul could manifest itself in freedom. Everywhere else pose and persiflage were in order. Any one coming here with the airs of a patron would, in a few moments, settle down in his seat, subdued, transformed by the serenity of the place.

Once I witnessed the arrival of an obstreperous visitor ; but Mallarmé, with his usual easy manner, let silence bring about the miracle of subjugation. The visitor, once seated, was soon overcome by the collective calm. When he tried to lead the conversation the host allowed him to talk for a time, then, turning to M. Henri de Régnier, sitting in the corner by the fireside, he addressed him in an undertone, thus adroitly shifting the loud talker to one side. This was the only salon where a company dared to sit for any time without a clatter of words. In the other salons animated conversation was considered the correct thing ; without it people would feel troubled or bored; at other houses it was the custom for visitors to seek the acquaintance of other visitors, the host, in many cases, being, like Leconte de Lisle, incapable of holding the attention of a company.

Whistler and Manet have pictured the poet at two periods of his life. Whistler’s subtle and striking portrait suggests the apparition of an extraordinary personality between two epochs, — the old and the new. Time, like a dream, has settled over his features as the mists of twilight over an enchanted landscape; there is a suggestion of a poetic veil separating him from the world like the smoke from his cigarette which, he said, he used as a screen between himself and the crowd.

In Manet’s canvas the poet is younger and reminds one of Deroy’s portrait of Baudelaire. The expression is anxious, the figure restless ; the conflict between the poetic and the material is at its height; he has not yet learned how to discard the perplexing, dismiss the puerile, enter the sanctuary of his own gods and abide contented there. For the truth is that, although Mallarmé was born in Paris, and had experienced the innovations of the Second Empire and the Third Republic, the bourgeois realism of M. Zola, the pretentions of unoriginal minds like the Goncourts, and the provincial irony of critics like M. Jules Lemaître. he belonged to the ancien régime. Mallarmé was an intellectual aristocrat. His tranquil dignity, spiritual poise, politeness without hypocrisy or affectation, his freedom from the usual vulgarities of a society skilled in the art of sensation and puffery, made him conspicuous. But there was method in the obscurity of his literary manner. He was obscure with a purpose, and that purpose was to keep the crowd beyond his door. He would also make it an impossibility for the critic à la mode, be he a Brunetière or a Lemaître, to scale the barriers of his poetic domain.

When I first knew Mallarmé, in 1889, the official professors were in a strange state of ignorance respecting his influence. Here was a man, living very near the borders of actual want, exercising a power which no millionaire could claim. Here was an intellectual magnet that attracted other intellects, causing youngpoets, artists, and journalists to mount four flights of stairs once a week to sit and listen to what words might fall from the lips of the master. He drew them toward him, not by his will, but by his influence. He never made an effort to induce a visitor to return, never flattered, never tried to be more amiable to one than to another. Bourget was independent, but Mallarmé was even more so. Let us not be blinded by appearances, — the gifted novelist, living in aristocratic seclusion in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, could not attain such privacy without much care and effort. He was in Paris, but not of it. Mallarmé, the poet and dreamer, was not only in Paris, but a vital part of its intellectual life. A Socrates in the world of symbols, he might as well have lived in a tent or sat in the market-place ; for, with him, art and life were in no way connected with the fashionable world.

He was one of the original members of the Parnassian group, formed during the winter of 1865 by Catulle Mendès and Louis Xavier de Ricard; and it was Catulle Mendès who undertook the delicate task of putting some of Mallarmé’s verses into lucid prose for the benefit of certain members of the group who could not catch the meaning of the new symbolism. Here is a typical example of Mallarmé’s manner : —

“ Des avalanches d’or du vieil azur du jour
Premier, et de la neige éternelle des astres,
Mon Dieu, tu détachas les grands calices, pour
La terre jeune encore et vierge de désastres.”

In a prose poem entitled Frisson d’Hiver the poet is seen in a far simpler mood ; I give an excellent translation by Mr. Arthur Symons : —


The old Saxony clock which is slow, and which strikes thirteen amid its flowers and gods, to whom did it belong ?

Thinkest that it came from Saxony by the mail-coaches of old time ?

(Singular shadows hang about the worn-out panes.)

And the Venetian mirror, deep as a cold fountain in its banks of gilt work ; what is reflected there ? Ah ! I am sure that more than one woman bathed there in her beauty’s sin ; and perhaps if I looked long enough, I should see a naked phantom.

Wicked one, thou often sayest wicked things.

(I see the spiders’ webs above the lofty windows.)

Our wardrobe is very old ; see how the fire reddens its sad panels ! The weary curtains are as old, and the tapestry on the armchairs stripped of paint, and the old engravings, and all these old things. Does it not seem to thee that even these two birds are discolored by time ?

(Dream not of the spiders’ webs that tremble above the lofty windows.)

Thou lovest all that, and that is why I live by thee. When one of my poems appeared didst thou not desire, my sister, whose books are full of yesterdays, the words, the grace of faded things ? New things displease thee; thee also do they frighten with their loud boldness, and thou feelest as if thou shouldst use tiiem — a difficult thing indeed to do, for thou hast no taste for action. Come, close thy old German almanack that thou readest with attention, though it appeared more than a hundred years ago, and the kings it announces are all dead, and, lying on their antique carpet, my head leaned upon thy charitable knees, on thy pale robe, oh ! calm child, I will speak with thee for hours ; there are no fields, and the streets are empty, I will speak to thee of our furniture. Thou art abstracted.

(The spiders’ webs are shivering above the lofty windows.)

There was a notion prevalent that Mallarmé’s salon was frequented exclusively by poets and artists of the symbolical school. But I soon realized the folly of believing in hearsay evidence. His visitors represented all the schools of the day; and it is easy to understand the jealousy of some of the Sorbonne professors who saw young authors of talent doing homage to a man who paid no heed to the examples of the academicians. It was but natural that “ official ” professors should pretend that Stephane Mallarmé was without serious influence. Their attitude was, in part, the result of ignorance. Who has ever met with an official professor who gave himself the trouble to learn the truth by seeing the outside world with his own eyes, and hearing its voices with his own ears ? It was by visiting this salon many times, during a period of several years, that I arrived at the truth. I learned, after repeated visits, what a far-reaching influence went forth from this obscure room. Little did the professors at the Sorbonne know of this ascendency, revolving, as they were, in their own limited circle which they mistook for the universe. Louis XVI. imagined that the taking of the Bastille was an insignificant street brawl. How could he know what was going on in Paris when he spent his time at Versailles ? The people were taking power out of his hands; he was not among them ; he could not see the truth. At a time when academicians were ridiculing Mallarmé, he, without trying, was undermining the old edifice with hundreds of disciples, many of whom had been the cleverest students in the lycées of the Latin Quarter. Some of these young men were already acknowledged journalists of talent, others would become critics, playwrights, politicians. So great was the outcry in 1889 and the following years that the question of abolishing the Académie Française was freely discussed, many deputies taking sides with the young writers of the advanced schools. It needed only a few visits to Mallarmé’s salon to convince me that here was the one vital force operating in the literary world of Paris. Renan was lecturing at the Sorbonne; Mallarmé was rolling cigarettes and talking nonchalantly to visitors at his own fireside. Renan, the giant, spoke from an official platform, but the poet of the Rue de Rome was now the man of power.

What illusions float about the academical chair ! It is surprising that writers of independent means put themselves to so much humiliation to enter the Académie. When Renan became a candidate he began the course of official visits and found himself one evening at the dinnertable of Victor Hugo. The guests talked freely, but Renan sat like a timid schoolboy, with his eyes cast down, giving the réplique to Hugo in four words : “ Oui, maître ; non, maître ; ” not daring to go farther for fear of offending the host, and so losing his vote.

The sphere of a writer’s influence is fixed. Every soul has its own world. But sometimes one writer brings to mind another. In his personality Mallarmé made me think of Whitman and his artless simplicity and unaffected sincerity. But the features of the French poet were unlike any other poet or writer, living or dead. There was nothing eccentric about his face or his person, and he never put on evening dress to receive his visitors. His receptions were for men, and the poet appeared in the clothes he had worn during the day. In this he also reminded one of Walt Whitman, whom I saw in Washington many years ago. Mallarmé opened the door himself for his guests when they arrived, and went to the door with them when they left. I never saw him sit in the presence of his company. This might have led to some clatter among the guests. People came to see and hear Mallarmé, not to talk among themselves. But at first I was not aware of the real nature of these evenings. Once I noticed that when one guest addressed another no reply was given; conversation between the guests was, therefore, impossible. M. Henri de Régnier, who on each occasion occupied the same seat in the corner at the host’s right, was always silent. He seemed to be the guest of honor. Mallarmé frequently addressed his conversation to him, but M. de Regnier was not there to talk, but to listen ; instead of replying he simply took a few extra whiffs at his cigarette. Every one understood. To a philosophical mind these evenings were so many lessons in the virtue of silence. No one tried to make the poet speak; he himself never tried to make others speak. And yet these evenings were full of instruction and charm. Thought came as in a Quaker meeting, with this difference : Mallarmé was the presiding Quaker who never sat down. He occupied the floor by the will of the guests. Here one learned the true value of silence in affairs of the intellect. Everything that is made up for the occasion belongs to the puerile and the trivial. The talk imposed by selfinterest and vanity is never edifying. If you wish to influence others be natural ; let Nature have a hand in your talk and your receptions.

Mallarmé owed much to his sojourn in England in his earlier years. Here he entered into the spirit and substance of English poetry, and attained that extra something which he needed to embellish the exclusiveness and delicacy in his nature which later made him such an ardent admirer of Poe.

I saw Mallarmé alone on several occasions. “ Poe,” he remarked, on one of these visits, “ I regard as an Irish genius transplanted to America.” “ Hugo,” I said, at another time, “ advises writers never to dream.” “ He is wrong,” answered Mallarmé; “dreams have as much influence as actions.” And truth to say, this dreamer of dreams exercised a power seldom attained by any Frenchman before or during his day. Everything comes to him who seeks for nothing. The dreamer contents himself in a world of meditation and contemplation ; his ideas are many but his words are few. He dislikes action, yet he attracts the active. He seeks no réclames, yet he is acclaimed. In a study of Mallarmé and his salon which appeared in 1892, I said: “ In this poet we find a philosopher free from superstition and prejudice, a thinker who embraces all that is vital in art, music, and literature.”

But the best minds are often led into foolish acts, even against their better judgment. The poet was inveigled into accepting a banquet in his honor, offered by a number of his admirers, at which conventional toasts, speeches, and responses, prearranged and machine-made, were the order of the evening. He was proclaimed “ prince ” of the young poets ; but Mallarmé sat immovable, fatigued, and bored. It was no place for him. When a wise man is placed in a ridiculous position, the fools, as Goethe says, have their innings. We blunder the moment we cease to reason and permit others to reason for us. Mallarmé, who was king in his own sphere, cut a poor figure at this banquet. In this attitude the poet descended to the arena of strife, on a level with others of not half his merit who had dinners given in their honor. How difficult it is to refuse at the right moment! The art of saying “ no ” is the supreme art in the life of every thinker. Of all things connected with the daily routine of a man of talent, this thing of knowing when and how to refuse is the simplest and the rarest. It is so easy to know and so hard to do. But until we learn to do it wre can expect nothing but misunderstanding and failure.

It was remarked by a journalist that Mallarmé, at this banquet, looked as if he had come to bury his last friend. And no wonder; for he had descended from his sanctuary in the Rue de Rome to a place where his star gave no light. He was attracted beyond his orbit by the comets and meteors of the phenomenal world, and he could say with Joseph Roux : “ When I return from the country of men I take nothing with me but illusions and disillusions.”

Francis Grierson.