restricted access Mallarmé’s Madness: Poetry, Pedagogy, and Translation
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Mallarmé’s Madness:
Poetry, Pedagogy, and Translation

Stéphane Mallarmé was a notoriously bad English teacher. Reports by school inspectors and former students criticize not only Mallarmé’s lack of attention towards his pedagogical duties but also his poor knowledge of the English language and his failure to improve.1 In an attempt to assuage his critics and maintain his teaching position, Mallarmé wrote a series of pedagogical works: Les Mots anglais, a philological study of the English language, complete with a dossier of two manuals of grammatical rules and translations, Thèmes anglais pour toutes les grammaires, and Recueil de “Nursery Rhymes.”2

These texts, however, did little in the way of reassuring his detractors. On the one hand, Les Mots anglais stops short of expounding the grammatical rules of the English language, opting instead to construct families of English words on the basis of seemingly fortuitous sound-sense associations, thereby offering itself more as the illustration of a theory of poetics than as a pedagogical manual. On the other hand, the book of Thèmes and the collection of nursery rhymes present not only an unconventional choice of materials for language teaching (old proverbs, out-of-date sayings, and children’s songs) but also an idiosyncratic method of translation (word-by-word back-translations, replete with errors, mistranslations, and misunderstandings) that constitutes an arguably questionable pedagogical tool.

Unsurprisingly, these works failed to mitigate the worries of Mallarmé’s employers and students; worse still, they fueled the already negative opinions about his teaching methods, eliciting disparaging judgments that connected his teaching failings to his famously obscure poetic productions and, ultimately, to speculations [End Page 141] about his mental health. According to class inspectors who assessed Mallarmé’s teaching, the manuals were deemed to be mad products of an unstable mind, filled with “niaiseries,” on a par with those “étranges élucubrations” or “productions insensées” that had brought him poetic fame—a sentiment that is summed up as follows: “On serait tenté de se demander si l’on n’est pas en présence d’un malade” (quoted in Mondor, Vie de Mallarmé, 371, 414).3

Madness would not only explain why Mallarmé was such a bad teacher but it would also explain why his poetry was as impenetrable as it was renowned to be. Indeed, madness would be responsible for the linguistic idiosyncrasy that was believed to be at the origin of that strange and foreignizing French that Jacques Scherer dubbed le mallarméen—an idiolectal construct, founded upon an non-idiomatic, yet systematized, reorganization of syntax, understandable in full only by its inventor and sole practitioner, Mallarmé.4 As such, the term madness would be synonymous, to a degree, with the more commonly used terms “obscurity” and “difficulty,” which have come to overdetermine the reception of Mallarmé’s poetry as being fundamentally resistant to interpretation.5

Yet, subsuming the term to these readings limits its potential for reassessing Mallarmé’s work and its reception. Indeed, the suggestion that there might be an enlightening correspondence between the “niaiseries” of his teaching and the “productions insensées” of his poetry is an evocative one.6 It implies bringing together two sides of Mallarmé that have typically been maintained as separate by critics—on the one hand, the traditional image of Mallarmé the poet, haunted by the pursuit of a pure language and author of some of the most hermetic poetry of all time; on the other, the less well-known figure of Mallarmé the teacher and translator, creator of what critics have called an “everyday poetics.”7

Bringing these two images together not only goes against much of the scholarship, but also runs counter to Mallarmé’s characterization of his work. Mallarmé clearly dismissed the works he did for pedagogical purposes, describing them as “concessions à la nécessité” and “des besognes propres et voilà tout . . . dont il sied de ne pas parler,” and commenting on the fact that teaching English to French schoolchildren was a painful chore that interrupted the noble activity of poetic composition.8 And, if he did on occasion express enthusiasm for the practice of translation, this mainly referred to his translations of poems...