(Translated from the French version published in Le Figaro, Supplément littéraire, Samedi 13 Octobre 1923).
The 25th anniversary of the death of Mallarmé will be celebrated tomorrow, at Valvins, near Fontainebleau. The eminent English [sic.] critic and novelist, M. George Moore, who was one of the most faithful of the Master’s disciples, has agreed to evoke for us the charming figure of the poet, both in his modest lodgings in the Rue de Rome, and in the pastoral setting where tomorrow’s ceremony will take place.
This is how I came to know Mallarmé.
At the Hotel de Russie, where I lived then, in Paris, Bernard Lopez, who wrote a hundred plays in collaboration with Dumas, Scribe, Saint-Georges, Gautier and Banville, came to dinner every Monday. After several months, the visits of M. Lopez gave me the idea of writing two plays, of which I am pleased to think that no trace now remains; but the criticism that he gave to my first attempts was a great help to me later on. One evening, in the Café de Madrid, he said to me: “We must write a play together.” “But what play? On which subject?” I asked. Bernard Lopez answered immediately: “We must write a play whose subject would be Luther,” and I exclaimed, “What an admirable idea to have thought of Luther!” Thinking about it, I remembered Luther as a German monk who had rattled the Papacy and had almost defeated it. But that would be enough.
So for the space of three months, Lopez and I spoke of nothing but Luther in the most diverse cafés of Paris. Every morning, I composed fifty, sixty, seventy, as much as a hundred lines of blank verse. On Monday, I travelled to the Hotel de Russie. If I had something particular to say to him, I went looking for him in La Place Pigalle to take him to dinner. We often ate in La Boule Noire, as the Hotel de Russie began to seem like “old hat” to me once I was living in Montmartre, in Rue de la Tour-des-Dames, not far from La Place Pigalle, where Lopez lived: his house was part of the block next to La Nouvelle-Athènes. But on the blessed evening I am going to describe, our collaborative session was prolonged to an ungodly hour in a distant café. Perhaps we had been to see a play of some kind, for it was almost midnight when we arrived at La Place Pigalle. Once there, Lopez had the idea of eating a bowl of onion soup before we parted.
Le Rat-Mort, the café next to La Nouvelle-Athènes, was renowned at this period, throughout the quartier, for its onion soup, and we had no sooner crossed the threshold when Lopez ran up, with his small, uncertain steps, to extend his pudgy hand to a man who was seated at a table, writing, with a book set down next to him. I began to grumble, foreseeing that this encounter would sidetrack our conversation about Luther, and that, for the rest of the evening, there would be no further question of the Peasants’ War. In a fit of bad temper, I left Bernard Lopez to talk with his friend, and pretended to take an interest in a woman seated before a glass of beer, on the other side of the café, until a male friend came to sit next to her. As it was no longer possible, in all fairness, for me to maintain an interest in her, my gaze turned, with a certain touch of hostility, towards the friend of Bernard Lopez, whose round head – the eyes large, and with a white hand that he brought continually up to the neck of his shirt, making efforts, always in vain, to hold it in place, for the buttonhole was too large to retain the too-small button – annoyed me. The fact that the man bore a title: M. le comte Villiers de l’Isle Adam, did not predispose me to favour him. Then again, Villiers did not win me over easily. His incoherent conversation irritated me as much as his appearance, and my aversion was on the point of turning to hatred when he began to quote passages from Paradise Lost, a poem which was then unknown to me. But as I was not in the mood, at that moment, to admit that I had never read the work, I hid my ignorance from Bernard Lopez and from Villiers, claiming that the latter’s bad English pronunciation had led me into error.
“You must make the acquaintance of Mallarmé,” Villiers said to me. “He receives guests every Tuesday evening at his home in the Rue de Rome.”
“But,” I asked him, “What is Mallarmé?”
When I learned that he was a man of letters and a poet, my mood softened and I declared myself ready to make his acquaintance.
“Waiter, give me something to write with,” cried Villiers.
And I watched him write six or seven lines on a sheet of that thin paper specific to cafés, that is almost like cigarette paper. I was very far, then, from suspecting that those six or seven lines would decide the course of my destiny.
Whatever Mallarmé’s talents might be, he was a poet, and I thought that it would be an agreeable pastime for me to go, the following Tuesday, and pay him a visit. The part of the rue de Rome close to La Place de l’Europe is lined with beautiful houses, but the far end, once one has passed the outer boulevard, is very run-down. The house inhabited by Mallarmé did not inspire much confidence, and did not seem to me to be the kind of place where one calls to pay one’s respects: how true it is that we are all influenced by appearances. An ill-maintained and tortuous staircase rose in a narrow spiral past the third floor. On the fourth floor, the door was opened to me by a short, stocky man of uncertain age, whose aspect was that of a French worker and whose voice took on an accent of cordiality when he learned that I was the bearer of a letter of introduction from Villiers. He invited me to follow him. We went into a little dining room in which there was, at one end, a white porcelain stove, and at the other, a window. For furniture, a table and some chairs were lined up along the walls.
“You who are accustomed to the sea,” he said to me, “would do well to take the rocking chair.”
“I have brought you my volume of verses, Monsieur Mallarmé,” I said to him. “It is entitled Flowers of Passion.” “That is very kind of you,” he replied, taking the book and examining it with great interest. While he was absorbed in his reading, and encouraged as I was by this welcome, I took the risk of pointing out to him a few lines of verse which seemed to me more worthy than others of his attention. His face immediately took on a serious expression and, sitting down on a chair, near the petrol lamp, he began to read. Once again, I imagined that I had before my eyes the image of a thoroughbred French peasant, and at the same time remembered that, when he had opened the door, he had made me think of a house-painter. But watching him leaf through my book under the light of the lamp, I had the impression that, if he had been a house-painter and if he had worn overalls, he would have known how to give to his overalls a charm that would have distinguished him from the others; his clothes were not lacking in a certain character. In this room, with its appearance of poverty, one saw, hung on the walls, certain curious drawings. In a corner, I caught a glimpse of a piece of Louis XV furniture which was unquestionably genuine. In the end, I was won over by his manners, which were as gentle as they were agreeable.
After an hour, his wife and his daughter brought us two glasses of rum punch with slices of lemon. This hospitable duty performed, they withdrew to allow the master to take up, once again, the lesson that he never ceased to give every Tuesday to an ever-increasing number of listeners, to the point where the little dining room became the centre of Parisian culture.
I have retained a very precise memory of the evening when, struck by my fidelity to his get-togethers, he said to me: “You are a very assiduous attender of my Tuesdays; you deserve a copy of L’Après-midi d’un Faune.” He went to his library (there were no books in the dining room, and I never penetrated further than that room), and came back with a thin brochure printed on Japanese paper, illustrated by Manet and decorated with tasselled ribbons. This booklet, published at 100 francs, is today worth several hundred.
I accepted the treasure with all the respect of which I was capable; but at the period I am speaking of, I was more interested in the play he was conceiving, than in his poems. How marvellous it was, this play! It comprised only a single character – a young man, the last of his race, living withdrawn in an old castle where the wind howls and seems to urge him to re-establish the fortune of his family. But the young man does not know if the wind is advising him to wait, or to set forth on the adventure, for, as Mallarmé said, it is in the genius of the French language that the wind is always struggling to say: “oui”. It keeps repeating ou-ou, almost managing to pronounce the word “oui”, without ever getting as far as articulating the final vowel. The young man therefore remains in doubt, and does not know if he must depart or remain. Mallarmé imitated the wind, and when he had finished, I asked him what measures he intended to take to have his play performed. He replied, as if reluctantly, that he would like to rent a caravan and perform it himself, going from village to village. He dreamed of this play for years. When he wasn’t dreaming of it, he contemplated an epic which would allow him to realise his literary ambitions. The subject of it was still more fantastic than Hamlet and the wind. A man loves a woman and wants to marry her; but the seed that is within this man (the potential child), revolted by the thought that his potential mother will cease to be a virgin, tries hard to dissuade the man from this marriage. It is still the idea of Hamlet, (to be or not to be), expressed in circumstances, or in an absence of circumstances, such as no-one has ever dreamed, and that no-one, certainly, will ever claim to have thought of before Mallarmé! He regarded this work as an epic, and one which could incorporate the most subtle thoughts. But he hastened to add that this piece would be short, for like Poe, he did not like long poems; it would amount to at most a thousand lines of verse. This epic, though, did not haunt him to the same degree as the tragedy of the young man and the wind. He believed – I am convinced, – in his Hamlet, but I do not suppose that a single line of it was ever written, in one of those mysterious notebooks of Japanese paper to which, he said, he confided the secrets of his meditations. He liked to show me these notebooks. One day, he turned the pages of one of them, as if to let me see them, but at the moment when I held out my hand to take it, he put the notebooks back into his drawer, saying: “Hugo must have known that in writing Hernani and Le Roi s’amuse, he was only continuing Shakespeare.” He was thinking, I tell myself, of the young man who, in his feudal keep, listens to the wind.
More than once, in the course of our Tuesday conversations, Mallarmé spoke to me of Valvins, and one day he invited me to spend a week there. I remember he told me that a Parisian publisher had just given him five hundred francs for L’après-midi d’un Faune, and that with this money, he had decided to buy a small boat to go travelling on the Seine. And indeed, he did acquire a small boat, a sailboat, which he liked to call his yacht. I understood that I was invited to the opening ceremony – if one may so speak – to the maiden voyage of this yacht. I had the impression that he was to some extent counting on me, and on the fact that I was born on an island. For, what can one do on an island, unless one knows how to sail, and unless one learns what one must learn in order to give advice, or some lessons, in the method of manipulating sails and steering a boat? During my first visit to the Rue de Rome, did he not offer me a rocking-chair because he believed I was accustomed to the sea? I can hear him again saying to me: “You know, my house is a peasant’s cottage, and I have no guest room to place at your disposition; you will stay at the plasterer’s, but you will take your meals with us; my wife and my daughter will be there.”
And so one morning, I left for Valvins, where I arrived at lunchtime. After lunch, we went to see the boat and prepared ourselves for the voyage. I perceived that my fears were amply justified: Mallarmé knew absolutely nothing about the right way to handle a sail, and was in the most complete ignorance of the art of steering a boat. We embarked, and Mallarmé immediately asked me how to hoist a sail. I hoisted the sail: a moment later, we were gliding on the water, but two minutes later, we were in the water… up to our knees! Mallarmé had fastened the rope, and, a small gust of wind arising suddenly, the boat leaned over and water started to pour into it. Luckily, I formed a counterweight by moving swiftly to the other side of the boat, untied the rope and, thanks to this double manoeuvre, managed to straighten up the boat which was no less than half filled with water. We had no bailer, so we had to empty the boat with our hats. When it was almost empty, and we had succeeded in avoiding being smashed against one of the arches of the bridge, Mallarmé wanted to hoist the sail again and continue the journey. I was not keen to risk another almost-shipwreck, so I replied to him:
“I have had enough for today, dear friend; the wind is blowing more strongly, let us furl the sails and row, it is safer.” And it was by oar that we returned to land. Very pleased to have acquitted myself so well, I left to others the care of teaching Mallarmé how to handle the sail and to steer a boat, and if, later on, I returned many times to Valvins, I never made another journey in a boat with Mallarmé. I learned later on that he had made great progress in the art of fluvial navigation.
During the numerous visits I made afterwards to Valvins, we contented ourselves with walks in the forest or on the riverbank, and with talking about his works, of which – of a few examples at least – I have made an English translation, published in the book called Confessions of a Young Man. That recalls to me an interesting memory. Although he knew English very well, Mallarmé, who translated Whistler, sometimes struggled to render certain of the author’s allusions to some aspects of English life, incomprehensible to anyone who was not English. He would then ask me to explain them to him. In his Ten O’clock, Whistler wrote “Art is on the town”. I explained the meaning to Mallarmé, who said to me: “And yet I cannot write ‘Art walks the streets’. [L’art fait le trottoir]” He reflected for an instant and said “Art roams the street. [L’art court la rue]” The whole text passed by in this way; I leave it to you to imagine what an admirable lesson in French it was for me!
It was during one of my visits to Valvins that Mallarmé received the poem written in French by Swinburne and entitled Nocturne. The poem begins thus:
L’amour* écoute et se penche sur l’onde
Pour recueillir rien qu’un souffle d’amour.
[Love listens and leans over the wave
to gather nothing but a breath of love.
(* The poem as published has “La nuit” for “”L’amour” in line 1)].
“I ask myself,” said Mallarmé, “if Swinburne would mind making a slight change in the second line, simply for euphony, and say:
Pour y cueillir rien qu’un souffle d’amour.”
[To pluck nothing there but a breath of love.]
Swinburne was not angry at Mallarmé for having modified his verses, for he ended up adopting the form which the latter had given them, but not without a very vigorous defense of the original text.
“We recueille a thought, we recueille a tear,” said Swinburne, “but we cueille a flower.” Mallarmé nodded his head, but did not change his opinion. “It’s very French,” he said. And the line of verse remains just as he had advised.
On another occasion, I brought to Mallarmé a book with a dedication in the form of a sonnet containing these two lines:
Je t’apporte mon drame, ô poète sublime,
Ansi qu’un écolier au maître sa leçon.
[I bring you my drama, o sublime poet,
like a pupil bringing his lesson to the teacher.]
“I could not let the second line pass,” he said, “it is not French.”
“Where is the error?” I asked, as one interrogates the sphinx. “One does not bring one’s lesson [leçon], one brings one’s homework [devoir].”
I am happy to publish these rapid notes on the much-missed friend of whom I, like so many others, retain an imperishable memory. Unfortunately – and for me it is a real source of sorrow – pressure of work detains me in London, and prevents me from joining those who will go to pay homage to the memory of the master.