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Stéphane Mallarmé

            During his days in Paris, Wilde frequented the meetings of a circle of Mallarmés acolytes. His presence there was not universally accepted, however. Led by a feuding Whistler, many felt Wilde had betrayed Mallarmé. The reason? Salomé, which Wilde was engaged in writing at the time, was seen as infringing upon Mallarmés great unfinished work, with which he was engaged in constant, disheartening struggle, Hérodiade.
           
            Mallarmé began the Hérodiade at the age of 22 and worked on it for the rest of his life, publishing only one of its three sections while living. The poem was primarily a working out of Mallarmés aesthetics. The ideas about language, beauty, and art which he developed in this poem and elsewhere would later become the basis for the symbolist movement and have an enormous influence on late-nineteenth century literary avante-gardes, including the Decadent, Aesthete, and “Art for Art’s Sake” movements in which Wilde was intricately involved.

            Yet while the Hérodiade and Salomé both use the same legend to explore some of these aesthetic views the artists had in common, they do so in very different ways:

The "ostensible subject" of the poem—the biblical story of Herodias, Salome, and John the Baptist (Mallarme seems to have collapsed Herodias and her daughter Salome into one figure: he gives Herodiade a father but no mother)—is merely a pretext for the real subject of the poem, Beauty. We can go further than this. The ostensible subject of the poem and its real subject are, in the case of Herodiade, incommensurate with each other and even in contradiction with each other. Indeed, this contradiction was precisely what Mallarme was aiming for in the poem, and this means that the ostensible subject of the poem was arrived at not in spite of the contradiction with its real subject but because of that contradiction. F. C. St. Aubyn reminds us of the many representations of the story in the art and literature of the period (see Stephane Mallarme, 38—41), and certainly, the Romantic-decadent overtones of the Salome story made it a subject ready-to-hand. But for Mallarme, in contrast to many of his contemporaries who revelled in the sadistic overtones of the story, what the "ostensible subject" provided was a vehicle for its own transcendence, and this means that the poem is ultimately an allegory of the poetic process itself.
(web source)

The view of Salomé as an infringement, or even an attack (Ellmann 339), on Mallarmé is thus suspect. Wilde, while not interested in the historical reality of Salomé as was Flaubert, nevertheless was intensely interested in the idea of Salomé, in the details and associations of the myth and the possibilities of the subject matter in a straightforward fashion completely unlike Mallarmé’s use of the same story in a more subversive, abstract fashion.
            Indeed, Mallarmé himself seems to have seen no conflict between the two works. He responded to a copy of the book sent him by Wilde in the following letter:

« Mon cher Poète
            J’admire que tout étant exprimé par de perpétuels traits éblouissants, en votre Salomé, il se dégage, aussi, à chaque page, de l’indicible et le Songe.
            Ainsi les gemmes innombrables et exactes ne peuvent servir que d’accompagnement sur sa robe au gest surnaturel de cette jeune princess, que définitivement vous évoquâtes.
                                    Amitiés de
                                    Stéphane Mallarmé
                                                            (Ellmann 375)

My dear Poet
            I marvel that, while everything in your Salome is expressed in constant, dazzling strokes, there also arises, on each page, the unnuterable and the Dream.
            So the innumerable and precise jewels can serve only as an accompaniment ot the gown for the supernatural gesture of that young Princess whom you definitively evoked
            Friendly greetings from
            Stéphane Mallarme

LINKS:

Complete French/English Text of Mallarme's Herodiade w/ critical essay:

Literary Influences

Flaubert

Mallarmé

Huysmans

Maeterlinck

Moreau and Beardsley

Images

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