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French Forum 26.1 (2001) 106-108

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Book Review

The Poet and His Circle

Rosemary Lloyd. Mallarmé: The Poet and His Circle. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. 258 pp.

It is undeniable that the voice of Stéphane Mallarmé embodies one of the most original, complex, and significant of the entire nineteenth century, a voice that continues to resonate for contemporary scholars and poets, our steady interest evidenced by the continual appearance of critical studies and biographies of Mallarmé, as well as by the 1999 founding of Le Bulletin des amis de Stéphane Mallarmé. Celebrated as a singularly gifted poet and as a dazzling theorist, Mallarmé was also an accomplished correspondent, a sophisticated letter writer for whom even the act of addressing an envelope presented an opportunity for a creative poetic gesture. It is this realm of discursive expression, the epistolary, that Rosemary Lloyd examines in her extremely thoughtful and well-documented new study, a book that sheds as much light on the cultural dynamics of the fin-de-siècle as it does on the aesthetics, ethics, and personality of Mallarmé himself.

Lloyd posits her analysis of Mallarmé the poet and the man within the framework of literary biography, and as a complement to the many biographical studies of Mallarmé available today–such as those by Henri Mondor, Austin Gill, Gordon Millan, and Jean-Luc Steinmetz–her inquiry focuses on the image Mallarmé actively projects of himself as a poet in the numerous letters he wrote to friends, colleagues, and the poets and artists whose work he most admired. Indeed, one of the most engaging aspects of Lloyd’s study is her emphasis on the notion that Mallarmé was acutely aware of the ideological impact and aesthetic influence of his own written word, and she suggests that he took great pains to carefully construct a self-image that would present him as a pure poet, an individual destined to explore the potential of verse. In fascinating, often touching letters, Mallarmé wrote to those he considered as his [End Page 106] friends, such as the early group of texts addressed to Paul Verlaine, Henri Regnault, Eugène Lefébure, Henri Cazalis, and Emmanuel Des Essarts, as well as the later group of such influential cultural figures as James Whistler, Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, J.-K. Huysmans, and Emile Zola. The corpus of these missives, taken as a whole, can thus be read as a subtle and indirect treatise on the relationship Mallarmé perceived between poetry and experience for the contemporary artist.

Not surprisingly, Lloyd’s examination first uncovers an intimate side of Mallarmé’s psyche, through letters that speak of his marriage, the death of his son, and the constant frustrations of his professional life; such texts are complemented by his letters to his daughter and to Méry Laurent, in which a passionate and hesitant side to Mallarmé is brought to light. The letters also illustrate a deeply personal sense of friendship as an important element in Mallarmé’s life, particularly during the years of "exile" when he lived far from Paris and from the center of intellectual and artistic activity. Moreover, Mallarmé’s correspondence is revealed to be a rich corpus of texts in which we can follow the evolution of the thinker and the theorist in Mallarmé, and it is possible to trace in these letters the evolution of Mallarmé’s own aesthetics, the ideas in progress throughout his maturity, particularly after his years of crisis and depression in the late 1860s, and the correspondence from 1870 to the end of his life, in 1898, is animated by an energetic and often optimistic tone. Stylistically, argues Lloyd, many of the letters Mallarmé wrote have as a fundamental purpose to explore the possibilities of rhetoric and the limits of language; they frequently give the impression of representing, at least on one level, creative, exploratory exercices de style which Mallarmé composed to sharpen and perfect his most crucial discursive formulations.

Further, Mallarmé’s correspondence (much of which was carried out with the most well-known members of the mardiste...


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