Posted on:Thursday 16th April, 2020
Like many of you, I suspect, I’ve been spending time during my enforced isolation sifting through long-neglected paperwork and files. It’s been a joy, and an almost physical pleasure, to rediscover and reread letters from old friends – to decipher one person’s tiny, cramped writing; to wallow in the beautiful, almost calligraphic, script of another; to chuckle over the cartoon-like annotations of a third.
Could letter-writing, with jigsaws and board games, see a revival as a leisure activity during these troubled times? After all, Royal Mail apparently remains open for business. And if we were collectively to put pen to paper – and not just metaphorically – are there ways in which we could make the whole process of producing and despatching a letter more inventive?
The poet Stéphane Mallarmé clearly thought so. During the 1880s and 90s he produced a series of beautifully crafted poetic quatrains that would serve to address the letters and postcards he wrote to friends (although not all of them were actually sent). Mallarmé’s close associate, the painter Whistler, was fascinated by these miniatures and approached a couple of publishers with a view to producing an edition entitled Récréations postales. But for some reason the project never came to fruition and a smaller selection of the verses appeared in the American literary magazine, The Chap-Book, in 1894 under the title Adresses ou les Loisirs de la Poste. Address quatrains subsequently formed the first part of a collection of Vers de Circonstance compiled by the poet’s daughter and son-in-law after his death in 1898 and published by the Nouvelle Revue Française in 1920.
A few examples will give you a feel for these small gems. This quatrain was addressed to Verlaine in December 1885:
Tapi sous ton chaud mac-ferlane Ensconced in your warm Inverness cape,
Ce billet, quand tu le reçois when you receive this note
Lis le haut; 6 cour Saint-François read it aloud; 6 Cour Saint-François
Rue, est-ce Moreau? cher Verlaine. Rue – is it Moreau? dear Verlaine.1
Verlaine replied by return, expressing his special admiration for the rhyme ferlane/Verlaine, which proved, he suggested, that with a fine rhyme (rime riche) one can accomplish anything (“on arrive à tout”).
Monet, more than twenty of whose letters to Mallarmé survive, and who was visited by the poet in Giverny, received this quatrain in the early 1890s:
Monsieur Monet que l’hiver ni Monsieur Monet, whose vision
L’été, sa vision ne leurre, goes astray neither in winter nor in summer
Habite, en peignant, Giverny lives painting at Giverny
Sis auprès de Vernon, dans l’Eure. located near Vernon, in the Eure.
Meanwhile, the composer Chausson, who took English lessons from the poet, was addressed thus:
Arrête-toi, porteur, au son Halt, postman, at the sound
Gémi par les violoncelles, groaned by the cellos: it’s
C’est chez Monsieur Ernest Chausson, the home of Monsieur Ernest Chausson,
22 Boulevard de Courcelles. 22 Boulevard de Courcelles.
What can we learn about Mallarmé from these occasional verses? One scholar has written about “his eclecticism in responding to the art of his time, and his extraordinary ability to create lasting friendships with talented people whose suspicions and jealousies he was adroit enough to defuse”.2 The address quatrains certainly bear witness to these skills, which helped make the poet’s Tuesday gatherings (mardis) such a vital part of French intellectual life in the late 1880s and 1890s. There are quatrains addressed to artists such as Whistler, Degas and Renoir as well as Monet; to writers such as Coppée, Heredia, Mendès and Huysmans as well as Verlaine; to composer Augusta Holmès and conductor Charles Lamoureux as well as Chausson; and to a wide variety of other male and female friends of note.
The quatrains also highlight Mallarmé’s ability to capture in just a word or two some essential feature of his addressee. We see Verlaine in his bulky (and possibly quite shabby) cape-coat; we sense the fixity of Monet’s vision; in a quatrain addressed to Whistler and his wife, we almost hear the painter’s famously raucous laughter. And, although in a preface written to introduce Whistler’s unsuccessful publishing project Mallarmé proposed to dedicate the publication to the postal service, since none of the quatrains “n’a manqué son destinataire” (failed to reach its recipient), he was not above including witty if barbed and, one would think, rather risky instructions to his postmen.3 “Don’t stretch out in the grass” starts one poem, “Take your walking-stick (or I’ll beat you with it)” begins another.
Above all, the quatrains reflect the poet’s love of language that underpins his more serious poems. The bulk of the addresses are in regular eight-syllable lines with an abab rhyme pattern. However, the syntax can at times be as complex as in Mallarmé’s longer works and unusual words drift into view – kobold, stryge, riquiqui. The poet clearly relished the challenge of finding surprising rhymes for the names of his addressees – Degas/syringas, Wrotnowska/harmonica, Grosclaude/blaude – although Huysmans’ surname seems to have defeated him, as instead he rhymes the writer’s initials, J. K., with “rappliqua”. There’s even a little English, with the salonnière Méry Laurent’s maisonette being described as “very select”.
In the preface mentioned earlier, Mallarmé expressed the hope that the publication of his quatrains would encourage people to indulge in the same pastime. And, happily, the poems continue to inspire. In 2019, the Decadence and Translation network set up a translation project based on the autograph copies of 89 quatrains held at Glasgow University Library. Seven quatrains were chosen for a case study – Whistler, Degas, Verlaine, Huysmans, Villiers, Morisot and Monet – and undergraduates were invited to take part in a translation competition. You can find the very inventive responses, as well as more background about the project, at https://dandtnetwork.glasgow.ac.uk/recreations-postales/. And even for those of us who don’t aspire to such creative heights, Mallarmé’s delicate quatrains provide a timely reminder that there can be a deep pleasure and potential for aesthetic joy in the smallest of things and the most apparently mundane of activities.
1 The English translations are by E.H. and A. M. Blackmore from their selection of Mallarmé’s poems published by Oxford World’s Classics. The images of the autograph poems are reproduced with kind permission from Glasgow University’s collection https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/files/special/mallarme/story_html5.html
2 Rosemary Lloyd. Mallarmé – The Poet and His Circle. Cornell University Press, 1999
3 Monet saw a different danger, expressing his surprise that an “intelligent postman” hadn’t purloined one of the letters