Possibly one of the (by some considered) hardest French poets to translate into English, Mallarmé is widely known for his very delicate use of sound relationships in his work. His use of sound in poetry means that while the words on the page can easily be translated from French to English, the poetry then goes lost – since the ambiguities in the phonology of verbal French disappears when the word is forever changed on the page.
But apart from the above, making Mallarmé a challenge to translate, these sound aspects of his poetry has also led to his work being the inspiration to musical compositions, such as Claude Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894), a perhaps liberal interpretation of Mallarmé's poem L'après-midi d'un faune (1876). His poetry can also be found in the music of Maurice Ravel (Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé (1913)), Darius Milhaud (Chansons bas de Stéphane Mallarmé, 1917)) and Pierre Boulez (Pli selon pli, 1957-62).
Mallarmé was born in Paris, where he was mostly very poor. Still, working as an English teacher he did form gatherings for intellectuals at his house where they discussed art, philosophy and poetry – and it was perhaps here that he established himself, among his peers and friends, as a major French salon poet of symbolism. This group of intellectuals became known as ‘Les Mardistes’ because they gathered mostly on Tuesdays (Mardi, in French). It is often suggested that Mallarmé during the time he hosted these gatherings had an impressive influence on an entire generation of writers and intellectuals.
But who inspired this great poetic force? It seems Mallarmé’s work shows several different styles and sources of inspiration – from Dadaism, Surrealism and even Baudelaire (at least in the beginning of his career). As Mallarmé grew more mature and experienced it seems his work becomes more concerned with form – as opposed to his overall achievements that so famously handled both style and content with incredible skill and grace.
In fact, Mallarmé was so skilled in form and content, that he is often said to have had something to do with the growing importance placed on the relationship between form and content in how poetry is read, interpreted and experienced.
His most famous work include: L'après-midi d'un faune (1876), Les Mots anglais, (1878), Les Dieux antiques (1879), Divagations (1897) and Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard (1897).
He died in Valvins in 1898.