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Villiers and Mallarmé: Two Symbolists

by Arthur Symons

Un livre comme je ne les aime pas, says Mallarmé characteristically (ceux épars et privés d'architecture) of this long expected first volume of collected prose, Divagations, in which we find the prose poems of early date; medallion or full-length portraits of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Poe, Whistler, and others; the marvellous, the unique, studies in the symbolism of the ballet and the theatrical spectacle, comparatively early in date; Richard Wagner: rêverie d'un Poète français, Le Mystère dans les Lettres; and, under various titles, the surprising Variations sur un Sujet. The hesitation of a lifetime having been, it would seem, overcome, we are at last able to read Mallarmé's 'doctrine,' if not altogether as he would have us read it. And we are at last able, without too much injustice, to judge him as a writer of prose.

[Pg 301]

In saying that this volume is the most beautiful and the most valuable which has found its way into my hands for I know not how long, I shall not pretend to have read it with ease, or to have understood every word of it. D'exhiber les choses à un imperturbable premier plan, en camelots, activés par la pression de l'instant, d'accord—écrire, dans le cas pourquoi, indûment, sauf pour étaler la banalité; plutôt que tendre le nuage, précieux, flottant sur l'intime gouffre de chaque pensée, vu que vulgaire l'est ce à quoi on décerne, pas plus, un caractère immédiat. No, it has always been to that labyrinthe illuminé par des fleurs that Mallarmé has felt it due to their own dignity to invite his readers. To their own dignity, and also to his. Mallarmé is obscure, not so much because he writes differently as because he thinks differently from other people. His mind is elliptical, and (relying on the intelligence of his readers) he emphasises the effect of what is unlike other people in his mind by resolutely ignoring even the links of connection that exist between them. Never having aimed at popularity, he has never needed, as most writers need, to make[Pg 302] the first advances. He has made neither intrusion upon nor concession to those who after all need not read him. And when he has spoken he has not considered it needful or seemly to listen in order that he might hear whether he was heard. To the charge of obscurity he replies, with sufficient disdain, that there are many who do not know how to read—except the newspapers, he adds, in one of those disconcerting, oddly printed parentheses, which make his work, to those who can rightly apprehend it, so full of wise limitations, so safe from hasty or seemingly final conclusions. No one in our time has more significantly vindicated the supreme right of the artist in the aristocracy of letters; wilfully, perhaps, not always wisely, but nobly, logically. Has not every artist shrunk from that making of himself 'a motley to the view,' that handing over of his naked soul to the laughter of the multitude? but who in our time has wrought so subtle a veil, shining on this side, where the few are, a thick cloud on the other, where are the many? The oracles have always had the wisdom to hide their secret in the obscurity of double meanings or of what has[Pg 303] seemed meaningless; and might it not after all be the finest epitaph for a self-respecting man of letters to be able to say, even after the writing of many books: I have kept my secret, I have not betrayed myself to the crowd?

It has been the distinction of Mallarmé that he has always aspired after an impossible liberation of the soul of literature from what is fretting and constraining in 'the body of that death,' which is the mere literature of words. Words, he has realised, are of value only as notations of the free breath of the spirit; words, therefore, must be employed with an extreme care in their choice and adjustment, in setting them to reflect and chime upon one another; yet least of all things for their own sake, for the sake of what they can never, except by suggestion, express. Thus an artificiality, even, in the use of words—that seeming artificiality which comes from using words as if they had never been used before, that chimerical search after the virginity of language—is but the paradoxical outward sign of an extreme discontent with even the best of their service. Writers who use words fluently, seeming to disregard their importance, do so from an[Pg 304] unconscious confidence in their expressiveness, which the scrupulous thinker, the precise dreamer, can never place in the most carefully chosen among them. To evoke, by some elaborate, instantaneous magic of language, without the formality of an after all impossible description; to be, in fact, rather than to express; that is what Mallarmé has consistently, and from the first, sought in verse and prose. And he has sought this wandering, illusive, beckoning butterfly, the soul of dreams, over more and more entangled ground; and it has led him into the depths of many forests, far from the sunlight. He would be the last to permit me to say that he has found what he sought; but (is it possible to avoid saying?) how heroic a search, and what marvellous discoveries, by the way!

Yes, all these, he admits perhaps proudly, are divagations, and the secret, eternal, and only beauty is not yet found. Is it, perhaps, in a mood, a momentary mood, really of discouragement, that he has consented to the publication—the 'showing off,' within covers, as of goods in a shop-window: it is his own image—of these fragmentary[Pg 305] suggestions towards a complete Æsthetic? Beautiful and invaluable I find them; here and there final; and always, in form, hieratic.

Certain writers, in whom the artist's contempt for common things has been carried to its utmost limit, should only be read in books of beautiful and slightly unusual form. Perhaps of all modern writers Villiers and Mallarmé have most carefully sought the most remote ideal, and seem most to require some elaborate presentation to the reader. Mallarmé, indeed, delighted in heaping up obstacles in the reader's way, not only in the concealment of his meaning by style, but in a furtive, fragmentary, and only too luxurious method of publication, which made it difficult for most people to get his books at all, even for unlimited money. Villiers, on the contrary, after publishing his first book, the Premières Poésies of 1859, in the delicate type of Perrin of Lyons, on ribbed paper, with old gold covers, became careless as to how his books appeared, and has to be read in a disorderly crowd of volumes, some of them as hideous as the original edition of L'Eve Future, with its red stars and streaks, its Apollo and Cupid and grey city [Pg 306]landscape. It is therefore with singular pleasure that one finds the two beautiful books which have lately been published by M. Deman, the well-known publisher of Rops: one, the fullest collection of Mallarmé's poems which has ever been published, the other a selection of twenty stories by Villiers. The Mallarmé is white and red, the poems printed in italics, a frontispiece by Rops; the Villiers is a large square volume in shimmering dark green and gold, with headpieces and tailpieces, in two tints, by Th. van Rysselberghe. These scrolls and titles are done with a sort of reverent self-suppression, as if, for once, decoration existed for a book and not the book for the decoration, which is hardly the quality for which modern decorators are most conspicuous.

In the Poésies we have, no doubt, Mallarmé's final selection from his own poems. Some of it is even new. The magnificent and mysterious fragment of Hérodiade, his masterpiece, perhaps, is, though not indeed completed, more than doubled in length by the addition of a long passage on which he was at work almost to the time of his death. It is curious to note that the new passage is[Pg 307] written in exactly the style of the older passage, though in the interval between the writing of the one and the writing of the other Mallarmé had completely changed his style. By an effort of will he had thought himself back into an earlier style, and the two fragments join without an apparent seam. There were, it appears, still a hymn or lyric spoken by St. John and a concluding monologue, to be added to the poem; but we have at least the whole of the dialogue between Hérodiade and the Nurse, certainly a poem sufficiently complete in itself. The other new pieces are in the latest manner, mainly without punctuation; they would scarcely be alluring, one imagines, even if punctuated. In the course of a few centuries, I am convinced, every line of Mallarmé will have become perfectly clear, as a corrupt Greek text becomes clear in time. Even now a learned commentator could probably do much to explain them, at the cost of a life-long labour; but scholars only give up their lives to the difficult authors of a remote past. Mallarmé can afford to wait; he will not be forgotten; and for us of the present there are the clear[Pg 308] and lovely early poems, so delightfully brought together in the white and red book.

L'insensibilité de l'azur et des pierres: a serene and gem-like quality, entirely his own, is in all these poems, in which a particular kind of French verse realises its ideal. Mallarmé is the poet of a few, a limited poet, perfect within his limits as the Chinese artist of his own symbol. In a beautiful poem he compares himself to the painter of tea-cups who spends his life in painting a strange flower

Sur ses tasses de neige à la lune ravie,

a flower which has perfumed his whole existence, since, as a child, he had felt it graft itself upon the 'blue filigree of his soul.'

A very different image must be sought if we wish to sum up the characteristics of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. An uncertain artist, he was a man of passionate and lofty genius, and he has left us a great mass of imperfect work, out of which we have to form for ourselves whatever notion we can of a man greater than his work. My first impression, on looking at the twenty stories which make up the present selection, was that the selection had been badly made.[Pg 309] Where is Les Demoiselles de Bienfilâtre? I asked myself, remembering that little ironical masterpiece; where is Le Convive des Dernières Fêtes, with its subtlety of horror; Sentimentalisme, with its tragic and tender modernity; La Reine Ysabeau, with its sombre and taciturn intensity? Story after story came into my mind, finer, it seemed to me, in the artistic qualities of the story than many of those selected. Second thoughts inclined me to think that the selection could scarcely have been better. For it is a selection made after a plan, and it shows us, not indeed always Villiers at his best as a story-teller, but, throughout, Villiers at his highest point of elevation; the man whom we are always trying to see through his work, and the man as he would have seen himself. There is not a collection of stories in French of greater nobility than these Histoires Souveraines in which a regal pomp of speech drapes a more than regal sovereignty of soul. The Villiers who mocked mean things and attacked base things is no longer there; the idealist is at home in his own world, among his ideals.

1897, 1899.

Book: Shattered Sighs