On October 6, 1879 Mallarmé’s only son, Anatole, died at the age of eight after a long illness. The disease, diagnosed as child’s rheumatism, had slowly spread from limb to limb and eventually overtaken the boy’s entire body. For several months Mallarmé and his wife had sat helplessly at Anatole’s bedside as doctors tried various remedies and administered unsuccessful treatment. The boy was shuttled from the city to the country and then back to the city again. On August 22 Mallarmé wrote to his friend Henry Ronjon of “the struggle between life and death our poor little darling is going through, . . But the real pain is that this little being might vanish. I confess that it is too much for me; I cannot bring myself to face this idea.”
The fragments that follow represent Mallarmé’s efforts to write about Anatole’s death. First published in 1961 in an edition scrupulously prepared by the French critic Jean-Pierre Richard (Pour un tombeau d’Anatole, Editions du Seuil), they reveal a side of Mallarmé that is all but hidden in his finished works: the man of direct feeling. Or, more precisely, they reveal how the artistic preoccupations of this most hermetic and cerebral of poets originated in the emotional depths of personal experience. Having read them, one can no longer approach Mallarmé’s finished work in quite the same way.
These selections are culled from the 202 fragments presented in Richard’s book. Although the pieces seem to resemble poems on the page, they should not be confused with poetry per se. They are notes towards a possible poem, sketches for a work that never came to be written. If, in spite of themselves, they carry the force of poetry, it is because they are the raw data of poetry, ur-texts of the poetic process. Beyond that, they stand as a rare example of utmost brevity wed to utmost feeling.
child sprung from
the two of us—showing
us our ideal, the way
and mother who
survive him as
the two extremes—
badly coupled in him
—from whence his death—o-
bliterating this little child “self”