paul valeryIntroduction

Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry (1871-1945) was born in Sète on the French Mediterranean coast: his mother was Italian, and his father of Corsican descent. After a brief visit to London, the family moved to Montpelier, where Paul Valéry followed an lacklustre record at the local lycée with enrollment at the Faculty of Law. Here he began or widened his diverse interests — music, literature, painting and science — and had his first poem published. In 1891 Valéry started a friendship with Pierre Louÿs and André Gide, and a year later he met Mallarmé in Paris.

In 1892 a profound emotional crisis in Genoa led him to impose a regime of analytical and critical reflection, which led to his Cahiers, notebooks written in the early hours of every morning for the following 51 years. He took a renewed interest in science and mathematics, reading Faraday, Maxwell, Kelvin, Riemann, Lobatchevsky, Russel, Cantor and Poincaré, but was still much immersed in literature. On a visit to London in 1894 he met contributors to The Yellow Book and other writers, returning to Paris to become a member of Mallarmé's Tuesday evenings until the latter's death in 1898. The years 1896 to 1900 saw the publication of La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste, translations for Cecil Rhodes' Charted Company, work at the War Ministry, and marriage to Jeannie Gobillard, whom he had met through Degas. The couple had three children. Valéry's appointment as private secretary to Edouard Lebey, a director in the Agence Havas, now gave him time for private study.

He largely gave up poetry to concentrate on the Cahiers, but a request for a republication of earlier poems led him to begin work in 1913 on La Jeune Parque, one of the great poems in the French language, which was followed by Le Cimetière marin in 1920 and Charmes in 1922. His position in French intellectual life was established, and in the years that followed, losing his secretarial employment, Valéry undertook many lecture tours in France and abroad. He was elected to the Académie Française, became a Director of the Centre Universitaire Méditerranéen at Nice, and corresponded with many writers, artists and scientists. German occupation removed Valéry from his Centre Universitaire post, but he met De Gaulle on liberation, dying in July 1945. After a state funeral he was buried in the family grave in the cemetery by the sea at Sète.

Valéry's early poetry was in the Symbolist manner, but later, after his 20 year break from poetry, became more analytical and uncompromising in its search for ultimates: "Poetry is simply literature reduced to the essence of its active principle. It is purged of idols of every kind, of realistic illusions, of any conceivable equivocation between the language of "truth" and the language of "creation." Valéry stressed the mental process of creation, the poems being a by-product, though a perfect one: Valéry was exacting writer, taking days to find the right word. A similar intensity marked his private studies, which were not to master any branch of the sciences or mathematics, but to investigate the relationships between them, and how each expressed a different aspect of the human mind. 'The mind is a moment in the response of the body to the world,' he once said, and in his Le cimetière marin, the sea is a symbol for the understanding between man and nature, which is profound but not wholly logical, the poet giving shape to what is abstract and impersonal.

Fame and financial necessity made Valéry into a popular public speaker, noted for his sharp wit. 'Everything changes but the avant-garde,' he said. 'Books have the same enemies as people: fire, humidity, animals, weather, and their own content.' 'Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them.'

Valéry was one of many who broadened the scope of French poetry — Saint John Perse, Claudel, Peguy, Fargue, Jammes, and did so by trying to remove the emotional and quotidian. Verbal formulae based on a mathematical model were what was needed: exact expression and absolute clarity that came from self analysis and reflection. 'I have sought,' he said in later life, 'to know the substratum of thought and sensibility on which one has lived.' For 20 years Valéry wrote no poetry at all, and only seeing how bad had been his early efforts made him to start again and then be done with the matter. In fact La Jeune Parque was followed by several poems, long and short, but after their collection in Charmes, Valery turned back to being 'his own and only confidant,' taking up the Cahiers, which eventually grew to 26,000 pages. Poetry requires precision, but Valéry could not abide any form of vagueness, sentimentality, or technical shoddiness, making his verse aspire to the condition of music, a Symbolist aim, of which he was the last great exponent.

Obscure as the poems are, worse at times than Mallarmé's, they exploit the peculiarly musical quality of the French language, which makes them even less translatable. Ideas and individual words are not difficult; the broad themes and images come across; but to appreciate them properly requires familiarity with the French tongue and the rules it sets for poetry.

Useful books include W.N. Ince's The Poetic Theory of Paul Valéry (1961), C.M. Crow's Paul Valéry (1982), M. Philippon's Paul Valéry: une poétique en poèmes (1993), W. Putman's Paul Valéry Revisited (1995), W. Kluback's Paul Valéry: A Philosopher for Philosophers (1999) and P. Gifford's (ed.) Reading Paul Valéry ((1999).

Suggestion: Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry. Yale University Press. 2004. $25.17

Over one hundred poets in a handsome, bi-lingual edition, from Apollinaire to poets you probably haven't heard of. This is a solid and sensible collection, edited by Mary Ann Caws, and includes those better known in other genres: novelists, songwriters, performance artists. More women poets than is usual, and Francophone poets living well beyond French national boundaries.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.