Stéphane Mallarmé

Edouard Manet’s portrait of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé.

For many years — from 1880 on — the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé conducted an informal seminar on things intellectual in his apartment near the Saint-Lazare railroad station in Paris. Everybody who was anybody in the world of literature, music and art came to these meetings, held on Tuesday evenings. The attendees talked, smoked cigars and drank brandy long into the night. Were they mostly men? Probably, though I’ll bet painter Berthe Morisot was there. She was a friend of Edouard Manet, who painted Mallarmé’s portrait. Unfortunately no records were kept of these meetings.

Mallarmé (1842-1898) was married and had a child. Then, as now, poetry didn’t pay well so Mallarmé made his living as a high school teacher. After getting his degree he taught in the provinces for several years, before getting a job in Paris, where the pay was better, and the talk more interesting. This was what most teachers aimed at: start in the provinces, then move up to Paris: in Paris you had arrived. However, from all reports Mallarmé was not a good teacher. His real love was writing poetry. Then came reading it, then reading about it and talking about it (along with smoking cigars and drinking brandy). Teaching came last.

Moreover the kind of poetry Mallarmé aspired to write was difficult to put on paper. He was not interested in describing things in the world around him; this was mere reportage. He wanted to describe the reality behind those things. The invisible world is hard to describe! He seems to have settled on describing his feelings about things, rather than the things themselves. So his poetry is subtle, suggestive and allusive; in other words, hard to read.

In Paris he could not have lived in more unpoetic surroundings. The Rue de Rome, where his apartment was located, was a commercial and industrialized neighborhood. The locomotives that chugged in and out of the Saint-Lazare station nearby burned coal; the air must have been all but unbreathable most of the time. Mallarmé’s discussions must have been punctuated by toots and clangs from steam engines deep into the evening. But perhaps this was calculated. Mallarmé would not be distracted in his poetic efforts by the picturesque scenery preferred by most of the Impressionist painters, for example.

There were legends about Mallarmé’s teaching.

He would brusquely enter the classroom, throw a glance at the students, plop his briefcase down on his desk, turn to the blackboard, and write out an assignment. “This is due at the end of the period, gentlemen,” he said, barely looking up. (Schools in that day were segregated; there were no young ladies present). He sat down, reached inside his briefcase to pull out a literary review, and immersed himself in the latest ideas. At the end of class he collected the papers, jammed them into his briefcase, and left. Did he grade them? Probably not; the system was end-weighted, and the only grades that counted were those on the Bac finals.

How often Mallarmé did this is unclear. Most of the time? Part of the time? Most learning was rote in those days, and Mallarmé’s technique was a relief from lectures and note-taking. Principals were not crazy about him, but respected his reputation as a poet. Is there something for us here today?

What if today an instructor, brimming with excitement, announced to the class that he/she had to take class time off to read a vital article in the New York Review of Books — It couldn’t wait! – then gave the students a written assignment to finish by the end of class. The next day the instructor reports to the class on his/her reading of the article, starts a discussion, thus raising the level of instruction. In fact The New York Review of March 7 contains several appropriate articles, like “Reading in an Age of Catastrophe,” a revisionist review of the literature of the 1940s, and “The Man Who Questioned Everything,” on the French philosophe Diderot. The students don’t know who Diderot was? Maybe they ought to.

Mallarmé’s influence on modern literature was considerable. It shows up in the allusive, indirect poetry of Wallace Stevens and John Ashberry. Even a painter like Cy Twombly, who paints landscapes which reflect more his feelings about the landscapes rather than the landscapes themselves, shows this influence.

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Ed Rossmann lives in Aurora and has been an educator most of his life, including 17 years in high school.