French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé claimed he had no biography—writing to his fellow poet Paul Verlaine in response to a request for a headnote in an edition of his poems, he replied, “My life is devoid of anecdote.”
Born in Paris March 18, 1842, to a middle-class family, he was raised by his maternal grandparents after his mother died when he was five. He was educated in a series of boarding schools, where he abandoned his Catholic faith at an early age. Although he was christened Étienne, he preferred to style himself Stéphane, which is an older French form of Stephen.
Mallarmé took a government job and a mistress, a German governess named Marina Christina Gerhard. In 1862 the pair ran off to London and married. Returning to France, Mallarmé accepted a post teaching English in a secondary school, and his professional career consisted of a series of such jobs, first in the provinces and finally in Paris. He also began turning out a body of fairly unremarkable poetry, much of it derived from the works of Charles Baudelaire.
Amid the whirl of Paris literati, Mallarmé presided over a salon, which attracted celebrated authors and artists—including W. B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Paul Verlaine, André Gide, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, James McNeil Whistler, and Auguste Rodin. Quite a crowd! They meet on Tuesdays and came to be known as Les Mardistes, from the French mardi.
Mallarmé also became more experimental with his poetry and in 1876 published the finished version of “L’après-midi d’un faune,” a landmark of Symbolist poetry, and the inspiration for Claude Debussy’s Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune and ballets by Nijinsky, Jerome Robbins, and others. It recounts the experiences of a faun who wakes from his afternoon sleep and has sensual encounters with several nymphs. For the last fifteen years of his life Mallarmé was a well-known and influential figure in French literature.
On September 9, 1898, at his home in Valvins, a village northeast of Paris, now known as Vulains-sur-Seine, Mallarmé had a sudden series of throat spasms. In these laryngeal spasms the vocal cords abruptly close when taking in a breath, blocking the flow of air into the lungs. They can be triggered by a variety of causes—allergy, asthma, exercise, irritants such as smoke or dust, stress, or acid reflux disease. In any event, Mallarmé was unable to breathe and died of suffocation at the age of fifty-six.
He was buried in the nearby Samoreau Cemetery, and the eulogist was his friend and fellow poet Valéry. In an eerie echo of Mallarmé’s cause of death, Valéry found his words stuck in his throat and he was temporarily unable to speak.