St?phane Mallarm?, a French poet, became one of the most important masters of French symbolism, a nineteenth-century movement in poetry that stressed impressions and moods rather than descriptions of reality (Online). The poetry of Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and others strongly affected Mallarm?’s writing (Online). He used symbolism to represent human emotions to make his poems unclear, thus avoiding direct communication with his readers (Online ; World Book 110,111).
Mallarm? was born in Paris on March 18, 1842 (Online). After his mother died when he was seven years old, his grandmother became his parental role model. His education included upper-class boarding schools where he often felt out of place because of his middle class background. When he was fifteen, the death of his younger sister, Maria, greatly influenced his poetic development. He turned from Romantic lyricism to much more morbid subjects like Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal. In 1860, he received his baccalaureate degree from a ?lycee? in Sens. After an apprenticeship in the Registry’s office, in 1862 he had his first sonnet published in Le papillon, a literary journal. In 1862 Mallarm? married Maria Gerhard and became a teacher in Tournon.
The difficult duties of teaching often interrupted his poetic work and thoughts. Although his students made fun of him, Mallarm? was not discouraged and continued his writing. After translating Edgar Allan Poe’s English poems into French, Mallarm?’s chief influence became Poe rather than Baudelaire. He began to compose long imaginative poems and a prose poem called Herodiade, the biblical story of Salome who caused John the Baptist’s murder. Then he wrote his best-known poem L’Apr?s-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun), which explores the difference between reality and fantasy (World Book 110,111).
After moving to Paris in 1875 and becoming a teacher at College Rollin, Mallarm? began to associate with such famous French poets as Theodore de Banville, Paul Verlaine, and Gustave Kahn (Online). These and others visited him on Tuesday evenings (les mardis), and these poets became known as les mardistes. Mallarm? spoke about using words as symbols and was considered an oracle. He became known as the ?Master of Symbolism? because of the great effect he had on the poets of his age. To honor his colleagues, he later wrote Toast funebre and ?Le tombeau d’Edgar Poe? (?The Tomb of Edgar Poe?), a poem telling of Poe’s ?eternal genius? despite his sad life. This poem is one of the most often quoted poems in French literature.
In 1869, Mallarm? started but did not complete Igitur: ou, la folie d’Elbehnon, twelve prose fragments of different lengths (Online). Classified as a story, a prose poem, and a drama, Igitur did not appeal to feelings but to the intelligence of the reader. It shows his lifelong preoccupation with death, infinity, fantasy, and absence. Despite Mallarm?’s requests to dispose of his Igitur notes at his death, his son-in-law, Dr. Bonninot, tried to reorganize the prose fragments and published them in 1925. In his final work Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance), Mallarm? showed his interest in musical verse form and set his words in different typefaces to illustrate visually the subject of the poem and to stress the unity of thought and sound.
Mallarm? thought that one should not change or paraphrase the language of a poem (Americana 143). He believed that sacred things are surrounded in mystery and that poetry has secrets that should be protected, just as religion does. According to Mallarm?, poetry is not like music because the latter cannot be understood by all. To this poet, the silences in a poem are just as important as the words. He also thought that the reason for writing poetry is the creation of poetic language; therefore, poetry itself is the subject of all poems.
Although Mallarm? tried to develop a ?Grand Oeuvre,? he spent so much time and energy thinking about the true nature of poetry that he was unable to write this work (Online). He sometimes suffered from depression and lack of creativity due to his changing poetic intentions, his dislike for instant pleasure in literature, and his insistence that the reader himself search for the symbolic meaning in poetry. His most important contribution is to the Symbolist Movement and modern poetry, for it shows his feeling that what can not be explained in poetry is able to be understood through exact symbolic language.
St?phane Mallarm? has had great influence on twentieth century poetry, although his own poetry is limited (Collier’s). His attitudes, theories, and the wholeness of his personality have greatly influenced many modern day poets. On September 9, 1898, St?phane Mallarm? died at Valvins.
?Toute l’?me r?sum?e … ? is a poem written by St?phane Mallarm? and published in 1895. This poem’s central idea is to value and appreciate those qualities or things that are constant, not those that drift away and change like the smoke of a cigar. These lines: ?Exclus-en si tu commences Le r?el parce que vil Le sens trop pr?cis rature Ta vague litt?rature? illustrate that Mallarm? develops the theme well because of the vagueness and one’s inability to completely understand the soul. The soul is something indescribable by ordinary words and language; thus Mallarm?, the master of Symbolism, uses highly symbolic language throughout the poem.
Mallarm? successfully creates the poem’s mood, one of reflectiveness, pensiveness, and spiritually through the sensory images of fire, ashes, and smoke. This line: ?Toute l’?me r?sum?e? and the reference to the soul cause one to contemplate while ?quelque cigare br?lant? and the reference to the cigar remind one of a peaceful and tranquil atmosphere associated with a relaxing smoke.
St?phane Mallarm? uses examples of metaphors and symbolism to create the meaning of the poem. ?Quand lente nous l’expirons (l’?me) dans plusieurs ronds de fum?e abolis en autres ronds? is an extended metaphor; when Mallarm? says that we exhale the soul, he actually means the living of one’s life. The rounds of smoke come and go abolished in other rounds; Mallarm? suggests through this line the importance of each day because of the shortness of life. ?Que la cendre se s?pare? shows the symbolism of ashes representing the body after death. Just as ashes are left behind after the smoke of a fire, so is the body left behind after the soul departs. Mallarm? uses an implied metaphor of smoke representing the soul which is exhaled in smoke rings. As smoke rings can change, so can the soul change. The withdrawal of the ashes is another implied metaphor of the death of someone. The final use of symbolism is ?De son clair baiser de feu.? The kiss of fire is represented as eternal life and life at the beginning when both the body and soul are united. The fuming cigar also is like Mallarm?’s writing style in which ?each word becomes alight, burns, and transmits the fire? (Chiari 143) as each word flows into the next.
This lyric poem is a sonnet consisting of four stanzas (4,4,4,2) and fourteen lines. Written in meter verse with seven syllables per line, the rhyme scheme is ?rime Crois?e? (abab, cdcd, efef, gg). Mallarm?’s concrete words include ?ronds de fum?e, cigare, la cendre, et de feu? while his positive connotative words consist of ?l’?me et le ch?ur des romances.? Mallarm? writes ?Toute l’?me r?sum?e… concisely using suggestive, rather than clear images.
?Toute l’?me r?sum?e… is difficult to understand and must be carefully re-read time and time again. St?phane Mallarm? forces his readers to interpret his vague poems, such as this one, which is full of unclear symbolism. This poem makes the reader ponder about the evolution of the soul. The poem is good and lasting because of its meaning which is to take advantage of what is here now.
Chiari, Joseph. Symbolism from Poe to Mallarm?. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1956, p.143.
?Mallarm?, St?phane.? Collier’s Encyclopedia. Volume 15.
?Mallarm?, St?phane.? Encyclopedia Americana. Volume 18. pp. 177-178.
?Mallarm?, St?phane.? The World Book Encyclopedia. Volume 13, pp. 110-111.
Online. Internet. March 17, 1999.