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This article is taken from PN Review 85, Volume 18 Number 5, May - June 1992.

The Shaping of Modern French Poetry: Mallarmé the Maestro Roger Little

MALLARMÉ is such an obvious master of form, increasing his technical wizardry as his poetry developed, that, as in the case of Gerard Manley Hopkins, we show due respect and are readily persuaded that what he has to say is no less carefully considered and likely, in consequence, to reward our intellectual attention. Nor, in either case, are we disappointed. Each in his not dissimilar way asserts himself as high priest of poetry, relishing the rare word, delighting in intricate patterns of sound, stretching syntax to its limits of comprehensibility and sometimes beyond, but all this, for the most part, within the traditional patterns of verse. Admiration comes easily, whereas the case for Rimbaud's prose poems has to be argued and proven by equivalent attention being focused on texts which pointedly reject traditional verse forms and the assumptions and expectations they create in the reader's mind.

Yet in addition to the verse poems which form the familiar bulk of his output, Mallarmé created the experimental text of Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard, and although this was, from Mallarmé's point of view, an unsatisfactory and paltry spin-off from the Grand Oeuvre (with its alchemical overtones) which he envisioned but never accomplished, from the absolute Livre which he saw as the finality of the world, its interest has proved exceptional for subsequent generations of poets. To fail in some overreaching ambition may represent a higher achievement than success achieved within narrow limits.

The very ...


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