Interview with Stéphane Mallarmé
One of the most widely admired authors in the literary world, along with Catulle Mendès1. Of average height, greying beard trimmed to a point, a large, straight nose, the long, pointed ears of a satyr, almond-shaped eyes shining with extraordinary brightness, a unique expression of refinement tempered with a great air of generosity. When he speaks, his words are always accompanied by numerous gestures: graceful, precise, and eloquent; his voice hangs slightly on the ends of words, gradually becoming softer. A powerful charm emanates from the man, in whom we can discern an unyielding pride, soaring above everything, the pride of a god or a visionary before which, once you understand it, you must immediately bow inwardly.
We are currently witnessing, he told me, an extraordinary spectacle, one unique in the history of poetry: each poet going into his own corner to play, on a flute all his own, whatever tune he pleases; for the first time since the beginning, poets no longer have to sing for their supper. Until now, of course, one needed the great organ of formal metre as an accompaniment. Well, we’ve played it too much and grown tired of it. I’m quite certain that the great Hugo2, when he died, was convinced that he had put poetry to rest for a century; yet Paul Verlaine3 had already written Sagesse4 [Wisdom]. We can forgive this illusion on the part of a man who had performed so many miracles, but he didn’t count on the eternal instinct, the constant and ineluctable lyrical urge. Above all, [Hugo was] unaware of this incontestable notion: that in an unstable society, that lacks unity, no stable, definitive art can be created. From this incomplete social organization, which also explains people’s anxiety, arises an unexplained need for individuality that is directly reflected in current literary works.
More immediately, what explains the recent innovations is that we have realized that the old verse form5 is not the absolute, unique, and immutable form, but rather a way of being certain of writing good verse. We say to children, “Don’t steal, you will be honest!” That’s true, but it’s not all; outside of established principles, is it possible to write poetry? We thought that yes it was, and I believe that we were right. Verse is everywhere where there is rhythm in language, everywhere, except in advertising posters and on the fourth page of newspapers6. In the genre called prose, there are lines of verse, sometimes admirable, of every cadence. But in reality, there is no prose; there is the alphabet, and then verse that is to varying degrees tight or diffuse. Whenever an effort is made on style, there is versification.
I said earlier that, if we have arrived at contemporary verse, it is above all because we’ve grown tired of formal verse; even its supporters are weary of it. Is it not highly unusual that, upon opening any book of poetry, we are certain of finding uniform, conventional rhythms from beginning to end, exactly where, on the contrary, we claim to be interested in the fundamental diversity of human feelings?! Where is the inspiration? Where is the unexpected? And how tiring! Formal verse should only be used when there is a crisis of the soul. Present-day poets have understood this clearly; with finely-judged discretion they have wandered around it, approached it with unusual timidity, one could say with some apprehension, and instead of using it as a principle and a starting point, have made it suddenly appear as the climax of a poem or a sentence.
In fact, the same transformation has occurred in music: the clearly-delineated melodies of the past have made way for an endless number of fragmented melodies that enrich the material without making us feel the cadence as strongly.
That is what has caused the split, I asked?
That’s right. The Parnassians7, fond of very strict verse, beautiful in itself, didn’t see that this was simply an effort that complemented their own; an effort which at the same time had the advantage of creating a sort of interregnum for the great verse that was exhausted and which begged for mercy. Because we should know that the newcomers’ attempts are not intended to abolish the great verse form; they are aimed at giving a poem more air, at creating a kind of fluidity, of mobility between florid lines of verse, which they were missing a bit up until now. In orchestras, we suddenly hear very beautiful peals of brass; but we can see very well that if there was only that, we would quickly get sick of it. The younger generation space out these great lines so that they only appear at the moment when they are needed to create the full effect: this is why, instead of remaining fastidious and sedentary as at present, the alexandrine, which nobody invented and which burst forth all by itself from the instrument of language, will henceforth be freer, more surprising, more spacious. Its value will lie in only being used for major movements of the soul. And the future volume of poetry will be that through which runs the initial great line of verse accompanied by an endless number of motifs borrowed from an individual’s auditory sense.
There is, then, a split because both sides are unaware that their efforts can work together rather than be mutually destructive. Because, if on the one hand, the Parnassians have indeed been the absolute servants of verse, sacrificing everything to it including their personality, the younger generation have taken their cue directly from music, as if there had been nothing prior to this; but they are only spacing out the stiffness, the Parnassian constriction, and in my opinion the two efforts can be complimentary.
These opinions don’t stop me from personally believing that with the wonderful knowledge of verse, the supreme art of [line] breaks, which masters like Banville8 possess, the alexandrine can be used with endless variety, and follow all possible movements of passion: Banville’s Forgeron9 [The Blacksmith] for example, has some alexandrines which are interminable, and others which, on the contrary, are unbelievably concise.
Except that, our instrument [being] so perfect, and one which we have perhaps used too frequently, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if we gave it some rest for a while.
So much for the form, I said to Mr Mallarmé. What about the content?
I believe, he replied, that, as far as content is concerned, the younger generation is closer to the poetic ideal than the Parnassians who, like philosophers and rhetoricians of old, still treat their subjects directly. I, on the other hand, think that there must only be allusion. The contemplation of objects, the images that soar up from the reveries induced by them, are the song; the Parnassians grasp the object in its entirety and show it. In doing so they lack mystery, they remove from [readers’] minds the delectable pleasure of believing that they are the ones creating. To name an object is to remove three-quarters of the enjoyment of a poem, which derives from the pleasure of gradually perceiving it; to suggest it, that is the dream. It is the perfect use of that mystery which is the symbol: to evoke an object little by little to illustrate a mood or, inversely, to choose an object and draw out from this a mood, by a gradual deciphering.
Here, I said, we are bordering on a serious objection which I wanted to raise with you: obscurity!
That is, indeed, equally dangerous, he replied, whether the obscurity results from a reader’s inadequacies, or from those of the poet. But avoiding this task [of deciphering the poem] is tantamount to cheating. If a person of average intelligence, who is not sufficiently prepared from a literary point of view, by chance opens a book written like this and pretends to enjoy it, there is a misunderstanding somewhere. We should set the record straight [about this]. In poetry there must always be enigma, and the goal of literature, there is in fact no other, is to evoke objects.
Was it you, sir, I asked, who created the new movement?
I abhor schools, he said, and everything that resembles one; I hate everything doctrinaire concerning literature which, on the contrary, is a very individual matter. In my opinion, the position of poet, in this society which doesn’t allow him to live [from poetry], is that of a man who isolates himself to carve his own tombstone. What has made me appear to be the head of a school is firstly, that I have always been interested in the ideas of the younger generation; then, no doubt, the honesty with which I have acknowledged what was new in the contribution of newcomers. Because I am, at heart, a recluse; I believe poetry is designed for the pomp and highest ceremonies of an established society, in which there is a place for that splendour which people seem to have lost all notion of. The attitude of a poet in an age like ours, when he is on strike from society, is to set aside all the flawed means that might be available to him. Nothing that we can offer him is equal to his vision and his secret work.
I asked Mr Mallarmé what place Verlaine has in the history of this poetic movement.
He was the first to react to the flawless, imperturbable nature of the Parnassians. In Sagesse, he gave us his fluid verse with, already, its intentional dissonance. Later, around 1875, [came] my Après-midi d’un faune10 [The Afternoon of a Faun], which apart from a few friends like Mendès, Dierx et Cladel11, caused an uproar amongst all Parnassians, and the piece was almost unanimously rejected. I was trying there, in fact, to set alongside the alexandrine in all its guises, a kind of ongoing game tinkling around it, a musical accompaniment so to speak performed by the poet himself which only allowed the formal metre to emerge on important occasions. But the father, the real father of all the younger generation, is Verlaine, the magnificent Verlaine, whose attitude both as a man and a writer I find wonderful. Because he is the only one, in an era where the poet is outside the law, to have made all the pain and suffering acceptable, with such nobility and an equaly splendid aplomb.
What do you think of the end of Naturalism?12
The childishness of literature up until now has been to believe, for instance, that choosing a certain number of precious stones and writing down their names on a piece of paper, even very beautifully, was to make precious stones. But no! Poetry being an act of creation, we must find in the human soul moods, glimmers of such absolute purity that, well sung and well lit, they form something precious for man: here there is symbol, here there is creation, and here the word poetry finds its meaning. In short, it is the only human creation possible. And if the precious stones with which we adorn ourselves don’t genuinely express a mood or feeling, then we have no right to wear them.
Consider, added Mr Mallarmé chuckling, what is admirable about novelty stores13, which is sometimes to have revealed to us, through the superintendent of police, that a woman wrongfully adorns herself with something whose deeper meaning she is unaware of, and which as a consequence doesn’t belong to her…
To come back to Naturalism, it seems to me that by that we mean the books of Émile Zola14, and that the term will in fact die when Zola has completed his œuvre. I have huge admiration for Zola. He has, strictly speaking, produced not so much genuine literature as suggestive art, making use of literary elements as little as possible; he has taken words, it’s true, but that’s all; the rest comes from his wonderful organization which immediately resonates in the minds of the masses. He really has some strong qualities: his incredible feeling for life, his crowd movements, the skin of Nana, whose texture we have all caressed, all painted in tremendous washes, it is an œuvre of a truly admirable organization! But there is something more intellectual than this in literature. Things already exist, we don’t need to create them; we only need to understand the connections [between these things]; and lines of verse and orchestras are made up of the threads of these relationships.
Do you know the work of the Realists?15
A little. In my opinion, after the great works of Flaubert16, the Goncourt brothers17, and Zola, which are kinds of poems, we’ve returned today to the old French taste of the last century, far more humble and modest, which doesn’t involve using the resources of painting to show the external form of things, but instead involves dissecting the motives of the human soul. But there is, between that and poetry, the same difference as there is between a bodice and a fine bosom.
Before leaving, I asked Mr Mallarmé for the names of those who in his view represent current poetic developments.
Those in the younger generation, he replied, who seem to have achieved a certain mastery, that’s to say produced original work, unrelated to anything that has come before, are Morice18; Moréas19, a delightful singer; and especially the person who up until now has made the greatest effort, Henri de Régnier20, who like de Vigny21, lives over there, a bit far away, in silence and isolation, and before whom I bow in admiration. His latest book, Poèmes anciens et romanesques22 [Old and Romance Poems], is a pure masterpiece.
Fundamentally, you see, said Mr Mallarmé shaking my hand, the world is made to end up as a good book.
1 Catulle Mendes (1841-1909), French poet, playwright, and novelist.
2 Victor Hugo (1802-1885), French poet, novelist, and dramatist.
3 Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), French poet.
4 Sagesse was first published in 1881.
5 The French alexandrine, two hemistichs of six syllables, separated by a caesura.
6 During the 19th century, the fourth page of French newspapers was typically given over to advertising.
7 Parnassiansim was a French neo-classical literary movement of the 19th century that occurred roughly after Romanticism and before Symbolism.
8 Théodore de Banville (1823-1891), French poet and writer.
9 Le Forgeron was first published in 1889.
10 Mallarmé wrote several versions of this poem, the final text was first published in 1876.
11 Léon Dierx (1838-1912), French poet, and Léon Cladel (1834-1892), French novelist.
12 Naturalism was a French literary movement of the late 19th century.
13 Magasins de nouveautés, which originated in the late 18th century, were the precursors of modern French department stores.
14 Émile Zola (1840-1902), French novelist, playwright, and journalist.
15 Realism was a French literary movement that started in the mid 19th century.
16 Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), French novelist.
17 Edmond de Goncourt (1822-1896) and Jules de Goncourt (1830-1870), French writers.
18 Charles Morice (1860-1919), French poet, playwright, and essayist.
19 Jean Moréas (1856-1910), Greek poet, essayist, and art critic who wrote mainly in French.
20 Henri de Régnier (1864-1936), French poet.
21 Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863), French poet, playwright, and novelist.
22 Poèmes anciens et romanesque was first published in 1890.
Interview with Stéphane Mallarmé by Aaron Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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