If Stéphane Mallarmé was not the greatest poet of modern times—although an impressive case for that, too, could be mounted—he was certainly the most poetic. And poetic not only in his work, but also in his life. No one else has lived poetry quite so singlemindedly as he did.

The tendency persists to think of the “poetic” poet as Byron, Baudelaire, or Rilke. But Byron’s womanizing, incest, covert homosexuality, swimming the Hellespont, and early death for the Greek cause (in a sickbed, to be sure) are poetic only by narrowly romantic standards. Baudelaire’s bohemian existence as a poète maudit, with drink, drugs, a mulatto mistress, venereal disease, and premature demise, is poetic only within a similarly narrow, décadent frame of reference. Rilke, a great poet, carried sensitivity to new, indeed sickly, heights; wrote reams of verse and even more letters (many to women...


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