Suggestion is all in a prose collection by this archetypal French symbolist poet, writes Barry Hill Divagations By Stephane Mallarme Translated by Barbara Johnson Harvard University Press, 312pp, $ 60
TEPHANE Mallarme, the bronchial, insomniac French schoolteacher who was precociously modern by the middle of the 19th century, setting the pace, as it were, for 20th- century poetics, was a glutton for punishment. ‘‘ In truth I am on a voyage,’’ he declared in 1866, ‘‘ but in unknown lands, and, if to flee torrid reality, I take delight in images of the cold . . . for a month I have been in the purist glaciers of Aesthetics — and that after having found the Void, I’ve found Beauty— and you can’t imagine in what lucid altitudes I’m venturing.’’
He was, it must be said, only 25, so can be forgiven such romantic dandyism. He was always going to sound vamped- up, a strange cocktail of omnipotence and neuroticism, not unlike his contemporary Charles Baudelaire, or the shrewder, cooler Gustave Flaubert.
But Mallarme had the grand plan. After 20 years of hard, secluded work, he would have just five short books, each of them perfect. His aesthetic studies would lead to ‘‘ the greatest work written on Poetry’’. He thought he might call his next volume The Glory of the Lie, or The Glorious Lie. ‘‘ I shall sing it as one in despair,’’ he proclaimed, and he did go on to publish a small but exquisite body of work, ravishingly sensual, symbolist poetry that has influenced generations of poets since from Paul Valery and T. S. Eliot to Australia’s Christopher Brennan, as well as several important contemporary poets.
Even so, that despair sounds affected. Mallarme seems to be constructing the poet as a celebrity, rather as if he has anticipated the modern need for the cult of the writers festival. But that is where these grandiloquent abstractions — the Void, Beauty, Glorious Lies — become important. They are the key to Mallarme’s famous linguistic crisis of the 1860s, which he resolved by finding the strategies that helped define modern writing, and a great deal of recent French theory with regard to it.
The crisis was a compound of the spiritual and philosophical. The abyss of which Mallarme spoke opened beneath him in a way that was common in the 19th century. It involved the thought that if there was no God there was nothing, a nothingness he chose to express by reference to Buddhism. In his letters he says this awareness crushed him and made him abandon his work, but this too sounds over- theatrical. There is nothing in his letters to suggest that he was a religious man.
Rather, Mallarme was a sensibility yearning for
Sabsolutes with regard to language. He bemoaned the multiplicity of languages, the house of Babel in which we live. More specifically, he lamented the way words do not really fit the world. Mallarme’s conviction was that in the absence of an ideal language poets could fill the gap.
All this sounds straightforward enough, if a touch Napoleonic. The complications, and the extra- modernities, enter when we have to appreciate Mallarme’s conviction that words could never do the job of copying the world: there could be no mimetic poetry. Rather, poetry’s task was to attune us to the spirit of things by suggestion. Beauty was Mallarme’s code for a writing that might restore, or at least hint at or simulate, ‘‘ the musicality of everything’’.
Given this, you would expect Mallarme to have produced poetry that was utterly lyrical, expressions of a unique self romantically indulged. Not so. His linguistic crisis dismantled his sense of the self. ‘‘ My thought has thought itself through . . . I have died perfectly . . . Having felled God, I still have to look in a mirror to think . . . I have become impersonal.’’
This celebrated passage invites much philosophical thought, which Mallarme sidestepped by means of poetry that must be, he now thought, impersonal with regard to the self, and symbolic rather than expressive.
What mattered was the music of the words, the rhythm of their connections and disconnections. The poem would go out into the world to signify something universal. ‘‘ More and better than Nietzsche,’’ Jean- Paul Sartre once remarked, ‘‘ Mallarme lived through the death of God.’’
During his humdrum life as a teacher, he remained a reliable husband and a good father to his two children, all the while modelling his small body of work which, as it was slowly published, earned him the reputation of being brilliant and difficult to the point of obscurity. Unlike most fellow poets he was good- humoured about the charge of obscurity. ‘‘ Of course I become obscure,’’ he snorted, ‘‘ if the reader makes the mistake of thinking he’s opening a newspaper!’’
This was in 1893, only four years before his death, by which time he had added to everyone’s difficulties, including his own, by inventing what he called the ‘‘ critical poem’’, a poetic prose that played with the spirit of the times while warding off its vulgarities. Divagations ( or Some
Musings), is a collection of such pieces, published here in English for the first time in the order Mallarme intended.
‘‘ This is a book,’’ he wrote in a defiant preface, ‘‘ just the way I don’t like them: scattered and with no architecture.’’ But he adds that the pieces do have ‘‘ a single subject of thought’’: ‘‘ if you look at them with the eye of a stranger, they resemble an abbey that, even though ruined, would breathe out its doctrine to the passer- by’’.
The breathings, the soundings, the meandering, the exploratory, provisional tone: that is the thing. Mallarme’s sentences are serpentine and intricate; suggestion is everything, especially in the famous pieces that make up the first 50 pages of the book, with which readers of Mallarme will be familiar. The first entry is called The Phenomenon of the Future, and begins with a sentence that throws us into our own century: ‘‘ Over the world as it ends in decrepitude is a pale sky that may perhaps dissipate with the clouds — streaks of used sunsets that bleed into the dormant waters of a river . . .’’
The new material, hitherto scattered in small French publications, includes pen portraits of other artists ( Paul Verlaine, Baudelaire, James McNeill Whistler, Richard Wagner, to name a few), vignettes scribbled at the theatre, reflections about the book and then, in a section wittily entitled Important Miscellaneous News Briefs, pieces under such headings as Catholicism, Gold, Confrontation, and The Court.
Despite what Mallarme said about the scattered nature of Divagations , it can be read as a profoundly coherent response to his own times, a marvellous sign of his genius for recognising the psychic and structural pressures built into modernity. In the foreground is the materialistic, French society on the eve of the Franco- Prussian War and the revolution in Paris that followed. In the background is the nervous tension in social spaces: between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy; the city and country; the Church and magic: between money and literary existence; or, to use Mallarme’s marvellous image, between the labourer digging the ditch and the poet standing beside that ditch, pen in hand.
Mallarme’s images are meant to light up the world, ‘‘ like a virtual swooping of fire across precious stones’’ as he writes in his most famous critical poem, Crisis of Verse , which occupies a commanding position here.
Divagations is also a reminder that Mallarme was a friend and admirer of such politically conscious artists as Emile Zola and Edouard Manet. Admittedly, it conveys much disdain and lapfuls of arty ennui, the kind of camp rhetoric that fed schools of fin- de- siecle decadence. But actually Mallarme’s heat came from the ground up, as you would expect of the man whose work aspired to ‘‘ the orphic explanation of the Earth’’. Barry Hill is poetry editor of The Australian. His new book of poems, Necessity, will be published next month.