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August 24, 2012 8:27 pm
Stéphane Mallarmé: The Poems in Verse, translated by Peter Manson, Miami University Press, RRP£15.95/$24.95, 288 pages
Stéphane Mallarmé, the 19th-century French poet, was a lexical innovator, whose stripped-down verse foreshadowed the hermetic sparsities of Samuel Beckett and Wallace Stevens. For much of his brief life, Mallarmé was prone to bouts of dyspepsia and desperately poor. As a trainee English teacher in 1860s London, nevertheless, he contrived a poetry of mesmeric beauty and strangeness. His most famous verse, “Un coup de dés” (A dice-throw), was compared by one critic to an absinthe flame that “burns in the void” without visible matter. To his painter friend Degas, Mallarmé insisted that poems are made not out of ideas, but out of words alone.
This new version of the poems by the Glasgow poet and mallarmiste Peter Manson is a marvel of luminous precision. Sensitive at all times to Mallarmé’s ideal of a literature stripped to the bone, the translation glows with a melancholy sense of absence (“The flesh is sad, and I’ve read all the books”). As Manson reminds us, Mallarmé was a tireless promoter of Edgar Allan Poe, in whom he saw a European sensibility at work; much of his verse, like Poe’s, aspires to the condition of music.
“The Tomb of Edgar Poe”, an atmospheric elegy, perceives an emptiness at the heart of language itself. Unlike Poe, Mallarmé never indulged an artificial paradise of drink or drugs. When not busy teaching English, he worked on an English grammar textbook.
For all his literary experiments, Mallarmé did not abandon the humdrum milieu of his teaching career. On weekends at his home near Fontainebleau he fished for pike, kept a cage of pet canaries, and suffered periodically from neurasthenia. The workaday aspect of his inspiration shows in the quatrains he wrote in honour of glaziers, cobblers and newspaper vendors, known as “Chansons bas” (Low songs).
At the heart of Mallarmé’s verse, however, is a metaphysical anguish and conviction that language is merely a collection of “meaningless signs”. Mallarmé’s peculiar habit was to repeat words out loud until they lost all sense (and afterwards take a cod liver oil prescription for nervous exhaustion).
Today, Mallarmé is associated chiefly with a mystique of creative scarcity (“the empty paper defended by whiteness”). His embrace of words alone may have had a compensatory value. Mallarmé was five when his mother died; his own son Anatole died at the age of eight. Later, he developed a keen sense of social justice and campaigned on Zola’s behalf when he was imprisoned for his defence of Drefyus.
Yet Mallarmé’s own life was dogged by ill luck. (When three different French newspapers asked him to write on London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, he managed to miss all three deadlines.)
On the eve of his death in 1898, at the early age of 56, Mallarmé instructed his daughter Geneviève to burn all his papers. Fortunately for us, she did not comply. This fine new translation will help to win him new admirers.
Ian Thomson is author of ‘Primo Levi: A Biography’ (Vintage)
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