Stéphane Mallarmé: Symbolism and Decadence (Presentation)

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This painting was done by Mallarmé's close friend, Edouard Manet
This portrait of Mallarmé was done by Mallarmé’s close friend, Edouard Manet in 1876
This photograph was taken by Nadar, Mallarmé's close friend, in 1896
This photograph was taken by Nadar, Mallarmé’s close friend, in 1896

Stéphane Mallarmé, born Étienne Mallarmé, was born in 1842 and died from a larynx problem in 1898 at age 56.  He supported himself with primarily with his post as an English teacher, although he attained much fame as a poet after moving to Paris in 1871.  Although his weak health and depressive nature kept him from finishing a lot of his work, he was famous among the artistic circles in fin de siècle Paris.  His famous Tuesday salon, Les Mardistes, featured artists and intellectuals such as: W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Stefan George, and Paul Verlaine.  He is generally considered a founding father of the symbolist school of poetry, and his poetry has had a lasting influence on cubism, futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism.

Symbolism:  Early Influences

Symbolism, like Decadence, was a reaction against naturalist and realist “anti-idealist” depictions of life.  Instead of depicting the gritty realities of everyday life, Symbolism embraced the imagination, the spiritual, the fantasy, and the dream.  Truth, according to the Symbolists, could only be represented indirectly through symbols, rather than objectively stated.

Symbolism emerged from a school of poetry called Parnassianism.  Parnassianism, influenced by Théophile Gauthier’s motto “L’art pour l’art,” was a reaction against the lyricism and over-sentimentality of Romantic poetry and the Romantic poet seen as a socio-political activist.  The poetry of the Parnassians is characterized by their emotional detachment and avoidance of the first personal pronoun in order to create a  sense of objectivity.  Parnassian poetry is praised for its word play and complexity, but is also often criticized as being “overworked” (the Parnassians loved the sonnet form and alexandrine lines).  Many Symbolist poets (including Mallarmé) published early work in the Parnassien’s journal, Le Parnassien Contemporain.

Distinguishing Décadence and Symbolism:

In 1886, Jean Moréas published the Symbolist Manifesto in a literary supplement of the French newspaper, Le Figaro.  Moréas declared Symbolism as “hostile to plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description.”  In a way, Moréas also rejected the idea of l’art pour l’art :  symbolism was to “clothe the ideal in a perceptible form” whose “goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the ideal.”  Once Moréas claimed the term “symbolist,” Symbolism began to distinguish itself from Decadence (Genova 84).

Links to the Symbolist Manifesto: (English); (French)

Symbolism can be said to have grown out of the Decadence aesthetic.  Whereas Decadence features ornamentation, Orientalism, precious imagery, consumerist materialism, and morbid content, Symbolism is oriented more towards the dream, the fantasy, and gestures with words (rather than with objects) to the ephemeral transcendent ideal.

Still, Mallarmé owed a lot to Decadence.  In 1874, Mallarmé founded his own journal, La Dernière Mode, which reviewed such decadent themes such as jewelry, fashion, restaurant menus, soirées and salons, and the theatre.  Mallarmé wrote and designed almost everything in this journal under pseudonyms such as “Miss Satin,” “Mme de Ponty,” and “Ix” (referring to Mallarmé’s poem “Le sonnet en yx“).  The journal constantly refers to itself as a magazine in its second year of publication (e.g. there were ‘letters to the editor’ even in its first issue).

Frontpage of La Dernière Mode

(For more information about La Dernière Mode, see Mallarmé on Fashion by Furbank and Cain)

Poetic method:

Mallarmé was deeply influenced by Baudelaire’s poetry, whose heavy use of imagery and polysemy to convey both a sensual and semantic atmosphere is something that Mallarmé refines constantly throughout his own work.

Mallarmé is famously quoted as saying, “Le vers ne doit donc pas, là, se composer de mots, mais d’intentions, et toutes les paroles s’effacer devant la sensation” (MOC I. pp. 663)  [Poetry should not make itself out of words but rather out of intentions; and all words should efface themselves before sensation]

Words are not to be taken at face value, but rather as gestures towards a truth in sketch form.  Mallarmé’s poetry is therefore associated with the Impressionist school of painting, famous for using gestural forms and colors to outline a truth rather than to represent it realistically.  (For a development of Mallarmé’s impressionism see James Kearns’ Symbolist Landscapes)

In an interview with Jules Huret in 1891, Mallarmé claimed that in poetry:  ‘Il faut… qu’il n’y ait qu’allusion.  La contemplation des objets, l’image s’envolant des reveries suscités par eux, sont le chant: les Parnassiens, eux, prennent la chose entièrement et la montrent: par là ils manquent de mystère.  …Nommer un objet c’est supprimer les trois quarts de la jouissance du poème qui est faite du Bonheur de deviner peu à peu; le suggérer, voilà le rêve’ (MOC II. 99)

[There must only be allusion.  The contemplation of objects, the image evaporating before the dreams they elicit, make the song (poem).  The Parnassians, they take the thing in its entirety and show it all, in this way they miss the mystery.  To name an object is to eliminate three fourths of the joy of the poem, which is made of the happiness of guessing little by little; to suggest an object- there’s the dream]

Mallarmé also emphasized the importance of emotion in poetry, proposing that “an idea is always wedded to an emotion. Ideas must be felt.  A symbol is a synthesis of signs into a union of concept and feeling” (Smith, 37).

The emphasis on suggesting, rather than naming, creates an intense emphasis on the way that words and ideas become more and more complex and nuanced throughout a poem.  To create this evolution of words is a process that took Mallarmé an extreme amount of time.  For example, in a letter to Henri Cazalis dated 7 January 1864, Mallarmé says that for the poem “L’Azur,” “Je te jure qu’il n’y a pas un mot qui ne m’ait coûté plusieurs heures de recherché, et que le premier mot, qui revêt la première idée, outré qu’il tend lui-même l’effet general du poème, sert encore à preparer le dernier.  L’effet produit, sans une dissonance, sans une fioriture, même adorable, qui distrait,–voilà ce que je cherche” (MOC I. pp. 654).  [I swear to you that there is not a word that did not cost me several hours of research, and that the first word, which dreamed the first idea, as well as extended the general effect of the poem, still serves to prepare for the last word.  The effect produced, without a dissonance, without an embellishment (even adorable, that distracts)– that’s what I’m looking for]


Mallarmé was heavily criticized (and still is to this day) for being too obscure.  Of course, Mallarmé himself considered his poetry only accessible to an elite group of readers.  He claimed, “Si un être d’une intelligence moyenne, et d’une preparation littéraire insuffisante, ouvre par hazard un livre ainsi fait et pretend en jouir, il y a malentendu, il faut remettre les choses à leur place” [If a being of medium intelligence, and an insufficient literary preparation, opens by chance a book thus made and claims to enjoy it, he has misunderstood it, it’s necessary to put things in their places] (Abott 55)

Damian Catani defends Mallarmé’s poetic elitism in the modernist context, however, claiming, “Mallarmé did not seek to derive a universally pertinent source of solace exclusively from language, but from those more concrete, tangible manifestations of modern life that were invariably shaped and motivated by economic or political factors, were instantly recognizable by ‘la Foule,’ [the crowd] and which unlike language, demanded no degree of concentrated intellectual engagement.  Mallarmé’s reason for embarking on non-linguistic avenues of enquiry… is related to his awareness … of living in an interregna, a period of historical transiton in which ‘la Foule’ is not yet ready to grasp his aesthetic in its abstract theoretical form’ (The Poet in Society 13).


Mallarmé published 11 poems in the 1866 edition of Le Parnasse Contemporain, .  His poems appeared alongside Charles Baudelaire (who died in 1867), Sully Prudhomme, Paul Verlaine, Théophile Gauthier, and Mallarmé’s close friend Henri Cazalis.  Mallarmé’s poem “Hérodiade” (or Salome) was his only poem published in the 1871 edition.

This is the publication to which Huysmans makes reference in A Rebours while describing Des Esseinte’s private library,

“A number of sheets bound in onager skin which had been glazed under a hydraulic press, dappled with water-coloured silver clouds, and supplied with endpapers of Chinese flowered silk, on which the slightly faded flower sprays possessed that etiolated charm which Mallarmé praised in such an enchanting poem.  These pages, nine in all, had been taken from uniqued copies of the first two Parnasses, printed on parchment, and were preceded by the title: Quelques vers de Mallarmé, penned by an amazing calligrapher in coloured uncial characters picked out, like those of old manuscripts, with flecks of gold” (159).

The collection Poésies, which includes the poems “L’Azur,” “Les Fenêtres,” and “Hérodiade,” was first published in 1887 by La Revue indépendante.  After Mallarmé’s death the collection was republished in 1899 to include Mallarmé’s comments about each poem’s background and choices.  For example, we learn there that Mallarmé wrote “Les Fenêtres” six months after his father’s death.

Mallarmé was also celebrated in the third article of Paul Verlaine’s publication, Poètes maudits  (Damned poets) in 1904, along with Arthur Rimbaud and Marceline Desbordes-Valraore.  (Link to this article on Wikisource found here)  This type of championship, continued by younger poets, helped to keep Mallarmé’s popularity and poetic legacy alive (Genova 47).

Artistic Influence:

Mallarmé’s poetry was an inspiration for many different artists working in the late 19th century.  His poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” (1876) inspired Claude Debussy to create his symphonic work, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in 1894:

Which in turn inspired caricatures of Mallarmé as the faun demi-god Pan:  luque

German composer Paul Hindermith wrote a string accompaniment for Mallarmé’s “Hérodiade” in 1944.

(This performance includes a very clear version of Mallarmé’s ‘Hérodiade’ read in French)

Readings:  It may be helpful to get a sense of the richness of the aural and musical quality of Mallarmé’s works to listen to a reading.  Here are some links on Youtube:  L’Azur:  (or, for a more bizarre version try,

Discussion Questions:

Mallarmé was greatly influenced by Baudelaire, and often used his form of the prose-poem.  What connections do you see between their work?  Differences?

Does Des Esseintes’ decadent description of Mallarmé hold up to your own experience of his poetry?

“This poet who, in an age of universal suffrage and a period when money reigned supreme, lived apart from the world of letters, protected by his contempt from the stupidity surrounding him, taking pleasure, far from society, in the revelations of the intellect, in the fantasies of his brain, further refining already specious ideas, grafting on to them thoughts of exaggerated subtlety, perpetuating them in deductions barely hinted at and tenuously linked by an imperceptible thread.  He tied this braid of convoluted, euphuistic ideas with a stylistic knot that was tenacious, solitary, and secret, full of contracted phrases, of elliptical expressions, of daring tropes” (160)

“Alert to the most remote analogies, he would often employ a single term simultaneously giving, by association, the form, scent, colour, quality, and brilliancy of the object or being for which a host of different epithets would have been needed to reveal all its aspects, all its nuances, if it had simply been given its technical name.  Mallarmé thus contrived to eliminate the terms of the comparison which arose of its own accord in the reader’s mind, by analogy, as soon as he had penetrated the symbol, and, avoiding the diffusion of the reader’s attention on to each quality individually suggested by a sequence of adjectives, he concentrated in on one single word, on a totality, and produced, as in the case of a painting, an effect that was unique and comprehensive, a whole” (160)

How does rereading this description of Mallarmé make you think of Des Esseintes and his own aesthetic, given the differences between Decadence and Symbolism?

What aspects of fin de siècle culture we have seen before reappear in Mallarmé’s texts?  How do they relate to Mallarmé’s poetics and aesthetic style?


Abott, Helen.  Between Baudelaire and Mallarmé: Voice, Conversation, and Music.  London: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009.

Catani, Damien.  The Poet in Society:  Art, Consumerism, and Politics in Mallarmé.  New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

Furbank, P.N. and A. M. Cain.  Mallarmé on Fashion: A Translation of the Fashioin Magazine La Dernière mode, with Commentary.  Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2004.

Genova, Pamela A.  Symbolist Journals:  A Culture of Correspondence.  Studies in European Cultural Transition vol. 13. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl.  Against Nature.  Trans.  Margaret Mauldon.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.

Kearns, James.  Symbolist Landscapes: The Place of Painting in the Poetry and Criticism of Mallarmé and his Circle. London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 1989.

Moréas, Jean.  Le Manifeste du Symbolisme.  Le Figaro Supplément Littéraire (18 Sep 1886) : 1-2.  <;

Scott, David.  Pictorialist Poetics.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Smith, Richard Candida.  Mallarmé’s Children: Symbolism and the Renewal of Experience.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Verlaine, Paul.  “Stéphane Mallarmé.”  Les Poètes Maudits (3) 1904: 1-3.  Wikisource.


Nadar photograph:

Manet portrait:

La Dernière Mode print:

Caricature as Pan:

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