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Mallarmé and the Philosophers

Lecturer: Mark Hewson

Originally Taught: Summer School 2012

This course will provide an introduction to the French poet, Stephane Mallarmé.  The course will work through Mallarmé’s career, focussing on his theory of poetry, on key hermetic poems and sketching an approach to his final poem, “A throw of the dice”. A key theme will concern Mallarmé as a specifically modern poet – as a poet responding to the question of the meaning of poetry in the modern (urban, industrial, scientific, democratic) age.

The course will combine the study of Mallarmé with examination of some of the philosophical texts that have made use of his work in order to develop their own questions.  Philosophers who have given a significant place to Mallarmé in their work include Blanchot, Foucault, Derrida, Badiou and Rancière.  Extracts from these writers will accompany the study of key texts by Mallarmé.

Course Schedule:
This is a schedule of the writings of Mallarmé to be studied in the course.  The writings of various critics and philosophers on his work will be considered at intervals in this sequence, mainly in the latter weeks. The titles here are from the English versions in Weinfeld’s translation: they may be slightly different in Blackmore’s or in other translations: I include the French for some that are likely to vary. All of these texts will be made available as PDFs.

1. Early Poems:
  • The Windows
  • The Azure
  • ‘Weary of Bitter Sleep’ (‘Las de l’amer repos’)
  • Sea Breeze
  • The Flowers
2. Hérodiade and the Metaphysical Crisis:
  • ‘Scene’ from Hérodiade.
  • A Phenomenon of the Future
  • Mallarmé’s Letters of 1866-1867 (on his ‘metaphysical crisis’)
  • ‘Her pure nails on high displaying their onyx’ (‘Ses purs ongles très haut dédiant leur onyx’): also known as the Sonnet in X.
3. Poems
  • ‘When the shadow menaced with its fatal law’ (‘Quand l’ombre menaça de sa fatale loi’)
  • ‘The virginal, vibrant and beautiful dawn’ (‘Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’)
  • Funereal Toast to Theophile Gautier (‘Toast funèbre)
  • The Tomb of Edgar Poe
  • For the sake of voyaging – heedlessly (‘Au seul souci de voyager’)
4. Prose-texts on Poetry, Art and Culture
  • Art for All
  • Restricted Action
  • The Mystery in Letters
  • The Crisis in Verse
5. The last poem:
  • A Throw of the Dice

All readings will be in English.  
The best translation of the poetry and prose-poems is Stéphane Mallarmé, Collected Poems.  Translated with commentary by Henry Weinfeld.  University of California Press, 1996.  The translator includes good commentaries, and this makes it an especially useful work.  Also good, less expensive and easier to obtain, is Stéphane Mallarmé, Collected Poems and Other Verse, Translated by E.H. Blackmore. Oxford World Classics, 2008.  A good, readable introduction to Mallarmé’s life and work is the biography by Gordon Millan, Mallarmé: A Throw of the Dice, Secker, 1994.

A Reader will be distributed in the first class, containing the main poems to be studied, as well as extracts from various philosophical readings of Mallarmé.