Stéphane Mallarmé

French Symbolist poet (1842–1898)

Stéphane Mallarmé (March 18 1842September 9 1898), born Étienne Mallarmé, was a poet and critic. He was a major French symbolist poet, and his work anticipated and inspired several revolutionary artistic schools of the early 20th century, such as Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism.

I am inventing a language which must necessarily burst forth from a very new poetics, that could be defined in a couple of words: Paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces
If only I'd chosen an easy work!


It is in front of the paper that the artist creates himself.
The flesh is sorrowful, alas! And I’ve read all the books.


  • Degas was discussing poetry with Mallarmé; "It isn't ideas I'm short of... I've got too many" [Ce ne sont pas les idées qui me manquent... J'en ai trop], said Degas. "But Degas," replied Mallarmé, "you can't make a poem with ideas. … You make it with words." [Mais, Degas, ce n'est point avec des idées que l'on fait des vers. . . . C'est avec des mots.]
    • From Degas, Manet, Morisot by Paul Valéry (trans. David Paul), Princeton University Press, 1960.
  • J'invente une langue qui doit nécessairement jaillir d'une poétique très nouvelle, que je pourrais définir en ces deux mots: Peindre, non la chose, mais l'effet qu'elle produit.
    • I have finally begun my Herodiade. With terror, for I am inventing a language that must necessarily burst forth from a very new poetics, that could be defined in a couple of words: Paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces. … the line of poetry in such a case should be composed not of words, but of intentions, and all the words should fade away before the sensation..
    • On his unfinished work Hérodiade, in a letter to Henri Cazalis (30 October 1864); Oeuvres Complètes (1945) edited by Mondor & Jean-Aubry, p. 307, as translated in Mallarmé : The Poet and his Circle ([1999] 2005) by Rosemary Lloyd, p. 48.
  • If only I'd chosen an easy work! But, precisely, I, who am sterile and crepuscular, have chosen a terrifying subject, whose sensations , if they are strong, reach the point of atrocity, and if they are vague, have the strange attitude of mystery. And my Verse hurts me at times, and wounds me as if it were of iron! I have, moreover, found an intimate and unique way of painting and noting down the very fleeting impressions. I should add, which is even more terrifying, that all these impressions follow one another as in a symphony, and I often have entire days when I ask myself if this impression can accompany that one, what is their relationship and effect … You can guess that I write few lines in a week.
    • On his unfinished work Hérodiade, in a letter to Henri Cazalis (15 January 1865), as translated in Mallarmé : The Poet and his Circle ([1999] 2005) by Rosemary Lloyd, p. 48.
  • It is in front of the paper that the artist creates himself.
    • Letter to Eugène Lefébure (February 1865), published in Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarmé (1988), p. 48.
  • Yes, I know, we are merely empty forms of matter, but we are indeed sublime in having invented God and our soul. So sublime, my friend, that I want to gaze upon matter, fully conscious that it exists, and yet launching itself madly into Dream, despite its knowl edge that Dream has no existence, extolling the Soul and all the divine impressions of that kind which have collected within us from the beginning of time and proclaiming, in the face of the Void which is truth, these glorious lies!
    • Letter to Henri Cazalis (April 1866), published in Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarmé (1988), p. 60.
  • In a museum in London there is an exhibit called "The Value of Man": a long coffinlike box with lots of compartments where they've put starch—phosphorus—flour—bottles of water and alcohol—and big pieces of gelatin. I am a man like that.
    • Letter dated 17th May 1867.
  • Hyperbole! can you not rise
    In triumph from my memory,
    A modern magic spell devise
    As from an ironbound grammary:
    For I inaugurate through science
    The hymn of all hearts spiritual

    In the labor of my patience,
    Atlas, herbal, ritual.
    • "Prose" (1885).
  • O Spirit of litigation, know,
    When we keep silent in this season,
    The stem of multiple lilies grew
    Too large to be contained by reason
    • "Prose" (1885).
  • La chair est triste, hélas! et j'ai lu tous les livres.
    • The flesh is sorrowful, alas! And I've read all the books.
    • "Brise Marine", line 1 (1887), as translated in Mallarmé : The Poet and his Circle ([1999] 2005) by Rosemary Lloyd, p. 70.
  • Le monde est fait pour aboutir à un beau livre.
    • The world was made in order to result in a beautiful book.
    • Remark made to Jules Huret, who published it in his Enquête sur l’évolution littéraire (1891); as translated in Stéphane Mallarmé (1969) by Frederic Chase St. Aubyn, p. 23.
  • L'acte poétique consiste à voir soudain qu'une idée se fractionne en un nombre de motifs égaux par valeur et à les grouper; ils riment.
    • The poetic act consists in suddenly seeing that an idea splits into a number of motives of equal value and in grouping them; they rhyme.
    • "Crise de Vers", La Revue Blanche (September 1895) as translated in Mallarmé : The Poet and his Circle ([1999] 2005) by Rosemary Lloyd, p. 231.
  • L'oeuvre pure implique la disparition élocutoire du poëte, qui cède l'initiative aux mots.
    • The work of pure poetry implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields the initiative to words.
    • "Crise de Vers", La Revue Blanche (September 1895 )as translated in Mallarmé : The Poet and his Circle ([1999] 2005) by Rosemary Lloyd, p. 55.
  • Ce n'est pas avec des idées qu'on fait des vers, c'est avec des mots.
    • We do not write poems with ideas, but with words.
    • A remark reported in Psychologie de l'art (1927) by Henri Delacroix, p. 93; as translated in Literary Impressionism (1973), Maria Elisabeth Kronegger, p. 77.

Hérodiade (1898)

Unfinished work (1864 - 1898) Existing fragments were published in editions of Mallarmé's poems after his death.
  • When the sad sun sinks,
    It shall pierce through the body of wax till it shrinks!

    No sunset, but the red awakening
    Of the last day concluding everything
    Struggles so sadly that time disappears,
    The redness of apocalypse, whose tears
    Fall on the child, exiled to her own proud
    Heart, as the swan makes its plumage a shroud
    For its eyes, the old swan, and is carried away
    From the plumage of grief to the eternal highway
    Of its hopes, where it looks on the diamonds divine
    Of a moribund star, which never more shall shine!
    • Nurse.
  • Are you a living princess or her shadow?
    Let me kiss your fingers and their rings, and bid you
    Walk no longer in an unknown age...
    • Nurse.
  • A kiss would kill me, woman,
    If beauty were not death...

    By what attraction
    Am I drawn, what morn forgotten by the prophets
    That pours on the dying distance its sad rites?
    • Hérodiade.
  • Away with those perfumes that do me harm!
    I hate them, nurse, and would you have me feel
    Their drunken vapors make my senses reel?
    • Hérodiade.
  • How, save through obscure
    Terrors, imagine more implacable still
    And as a suppliant the god who some day will
    Receive the gift of your grace! and for whom,
    Devoured by anguish, do you keep the unknown
    Splendor and mystery of your being?
    • Nurse.
  • I wait, but do not know for what or why
    Or perhaps you are uttering the last bruised sighs,
    Ignorant of the mystery and of your cries,
    Of a childhood feeling its frozen gems
    Being broken off at last amidst its dreams.
    • Hérodiade.
  • I am alone in my monotonous country,
    While all those around me live in the idolatry
    Of a mirror reflecting in its depths serene
    Herodiade, whose gaze is diamond keen ...

    O final enchantment! yes, I sense it, I am alone.
    • Hérodiade.
  • The sun as it's halted
    Miraculously exalted
    Resumes its descent Incandescent.
  • I feel in my sinews
    The spreading of shadows
    Converging together
    With a shiver

    And in solitary vigil
    After flights triumphal
    My head rise
    From this scythe
    Through a clean rupture
    That serves to dissever
    The ancient disharmony
    With the body
    As drunk from fasting
    It persists in following
    With a haggard bound
    Its gaze profound
    Up where the frozen
    Absolute has chosen
    That nothing shall measure
    Its vastness, O glacier
    But according to a ritual
    Illumined by the principle
    That chose my consecration
    It extends a salutation.
    • Hérodiade.

The Afternoon of a Faun (1876)

L'après-midi d'un faune as translated by Roger Fry in Poems : Stéphane Mallarmé (1936)
  • These nymphs I would perpetuate.
    So clear
    Their light carnation, that it floats in the air
    Heavy with tufted slumbers.

    Was it a dream I loved?

  • All alone I gave
    Myself for triumph the ideal sin of roses.
  • No water murmurs but what my flute pours
    On the chord sprinkled thicket; and the sole wind
    Prompt to exhale from my two pipes, before
    It scatters the sound in a waterless shower,
    Is, on the horizon's unwrinkled space,
    The visible serene artificial breath
    Of inspiration, which regains the sky.
  • Inert, all burns in the fierce hour
  • Then shall I awake to the primitive fervour,
    Straight and alone, 'neath antique floods of light,
    Lilies and one of you all through my ingenuousness.
  • My breast, though proofless, still attests a bite
    Mysterious, due to some august tooth;
    But enough! for confidant such mystery chose
    The great double reed which one plays 'neath the blue.
  • I, proud of my rumour, for long I will talk
    Of goddesses; and by picturings idolatrous,
    From their shades unloose yet more of their girdles:
    So when of grapes the clearness I've sucked,
    To banish regret by my ruse disavowed,
    Laughing, I lift the empty bunch to the sky,
    Blowing into its luminous skins and athirst
    To be drunk, till the evening I keep looking through.
    Oh nymphs, we diverse MEMORIES refill.
  • Ah well, towards happiness others will lead me
    With their tresses knotted to the horns of my brow:
    You know, my passion, that purple and just ripe,
    The pomegranates burst and murmur with bees;
    And our blood, aflame for her who will take it,
    Flows for all the eternal swarm of desire.
  • Etna! 'tis amid you, visited by Venus
    On your lava fields placing her candid feet,
    When a sad stillness thunders wherein the flame dies.
    I hold the queen!
  • No more, I must sleep, forgetting the outrage,
    On the thirsty sand lying, and as I delight
    Open my mouth to wine's potent star!
    Adieu, both! I shall see the shade you became.