[lit-ideas] Mallarme, the founder of Symbolism

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 13 Oct 2006 12:53:25 -0700

Edmund Wilson in Axel?s Castle credits Mallarme with founding the Symbolist
movement, and Mallarme?s inspiration was Poe.  He was so impressed with Poe
that he translated him and introduced him to Europe.  ??Mallarme had the
pride of the inner life,? said one of his friends; his nature was ?patient,
disdainful and imperiously gentle.?  He always reflected before he spoke and
always put what he said in the form of a question.  His wife sat beside him
embroidering; his daughter answered the door.  Here came Huysmans, Whistler,
Degas, Moreas, Laforgue, Viele-Griffin, Paul Valery, Henri De Regnier,
Pierre Louys, Paul Claudel, Remmy de Gourmont, Andre Gide, Oscar Wilde,
Arthur Symons, George Moore and W. B. Yeats.  For Mallarme was a true saint
of literature: he had proposed to himself an almost impossible object, and
he pursued it without compromise or distraction.  His whole life was
dedicated to the effort to do something with the language of poetry which
had never been done before. . .  He was, as Albert Thibaudet has said,
engaged in ?a disinterested experiment on the confines of poetry, at a limit
where other lungs would find the air unbreathable.


?What, then, was this purer sense which Mallarme believed he was following
Poe in wishing to give to the words of the tribe?  What, precisely, was the
nature of this experiment on the confines of poetry which Mallarme found so
absorbing and which so many other writers tried to repeat?  What, precisely,
did the Symbolists purpose?  I have called attention, in speaking of Poe, to
the confusion between the perceptions of the different senses, and to the
attempt to make the effects of poetry approximate to those of music.  And I
should add, in this latter connection, that the influence on Symbolist
poetry of Wagner was as important as that of any poet: at the time when
Romantic music had come closest to literature, literature was attracted
toward music.  I have also spoken, in connection with Gerard de Nerval, of
the confusion between the imaginary and the real, between our sensations and
fancies, on the one hand, and what we actually do and see, on the other.  It
was the tendency of Symbolism -- that second swing of the pendulum away from
a mechanistic view of nature and from a social conception of man -- to make
poetry even more a matter of sensations and emotions of the individual than
had been the case with Romanticism: Symbolism, indeed, sometimes had the
result of making poetry so much a private concern of the poet?s that it
turned out to be incommunicable to the reader . . . the symbolism of the
Divine Comedy is conventional, logical and definite.  But the symbols of the
Symbolist school are usually chosen arbitrarily by the poet to stand for
special ideas of his own -- that are a sort of disguise for these ideas.
?The Parnassians, for their part,? wrote Mallarme, ?take the thing just as
it is and put it before us -- and consequently they are deficient in
mystery: they deprive the mind of the delicious joy of believing that it is
creating.  To name an object is to do away with the three-quarters of the
enjoyment of the poem which is derived from the satisfaction of guessing
little by little: to suggest it, to evoke it -- that is what charms the


?To intimate things rather than state them plainly was thus one of the
primary aims of the Symbolists.  But there was more involved in their point
of view than Mallarme here explains. . . .?


-----Original Message-----
From:  Steve Chilson
Sent: Friday, October 13, 2006 10:24 AM


<cut> The point about Mallarmé was unfortunately lost in my own inability to
remember clearly the precise terminology he used to describe his poetic
theory when in truth, the first thing that came to mind from the original
post I'd commented

on was the expression "eyeball kicks" which is the term Ginsberg coined to
describe words juxtaposed against one another that seemingly make no sense
when paired in the every day context yet when reaching for that
nonsensical/reality sense, did.  "Hydrogen jukebox" comes to mind, for
example. If I remember correctly, the idea of stealing the meaning of
particular words by putting them beside other words that seemingly didn't go
together was to lend new meanings to both and not be shackled by the
everyday meanings of such words.  Not to make them incomprehensible but to
shave a new layer of meaning using the same auld whiskers.


I don't imagine this happens very often in classical music but it certainly
does in jazz.  Maybe that's why I appreciate the one better than the


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