World Literature

Paul Valery

 

BORN: 1871, Cette (now Sete), France

DIED: 1945, Paris, France

NATIONALITY: French

GENRE: Fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The Young Fate (1917)

Album of Old Verse, 1890-1900 (1920)

The Graveyard by the Sea (1920)

Songs; or, Poems (1922)

 

 

Paul Valery. Valery, Paul, photograph. Hulton Archive / Getty Images.

 

Overview

Paul Valery is widely regarded as one of the most important French poets and intellectuals of the twentieth century. He is best known for such highly introspective poems as The Young Fate and ‘‘The Graveyard by the Sea.’’ His poetry reveals his concern with human consciousness, artistic form, and the creative process. Having endorsed Edgar Allan Poe’s dictum that a poet should create solely from his powers of concentration and intellect (rather than depending on inspiration), Valery developed a theory maintaining that literary composition, like science and mathematics, is valuable only as a mirror to the workings of the creative mind.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

From Silence to Defining Voice. Paul Valery was born in the French Mediterranean coastal town of Cette. When he was fourteen, his parents moved to the nearby city of Montpellier, where he attended secondary school. After his graduation, he entered law school at the University of Montpellier. During this time he met the poet and novelist Pierre Louys, who introduced him to the circle of writers associated with the symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme. Mallarme became the single most influential figure in shaping Valery’s aesthetic sensibility. Unlike Mallarme, however, Valery’s principal interest lay in the process of poetic composition rather than the poem itself, which he considered necessarily imperfect due to the limitations of language and the artist’s creative powers. After his initial appearances in French literary journals during the early 1890s, Valery entered what many critics refer to as his ‘‘silent period,’’ almost twenty years in which he wrote virtually no poetry and published very little prose. From approximately 1898 to 1917, he lived a quiet, studious life, investigating mathematics and psychology with the intent of developing a scientifically based theory of creative activity. He recorded his insights in personal notebooks, the Cahiers, or Notebooks, which were eventually published in twenty-nine volumes. He emerged from his silent period with the publication of The Young Fate, which established his reputation as France’s most outstanding living poet and one of Europe’s premier artists and intellectuals. In 1925 he was elected to the French Academy. Although he served as professor of poetry at the College de France from 1937 until his death in 1945, his literary work during the last twenty years of his life consisted primarily of prose.

Principal Works. Valery’s three principal works of poetry are Album of Old Verse, 1890-1900, The Young Fate, and Songs; or, Poems. Published in 1920, Album is composed primarily of his early poetry and shows a tendency toward imitation, particularly of the rigorous formalism of Mallarme’s work. Valery himself considered Album ‘‘an unsatisfactory collection, studies that do not exist as a harmonious whole.’’ The Young Fate is a poem of some five hundred lines that took nearly five years to complete. By depicting a sequence of psychological states and emotions, the poem portrays the sensibility of a young woman who represents the universal self. An extremely complex work, the poem combines the external natural world with the woman’s inner self through a series of interrelated images, and its movement is sustained by the shifting states of the protagonist’s awareness. The poems in Songs; or, Poems feature a wide variety of forms and reflect the dominant concerns of Vahhy’s thought. Such poems as ‘‘Aurore’’ and ‘‘Palme,’’ for example, concern the earliest stages of poetic creation, suggesting that a poem forms deep within the poet’s mind and body. ‘‘Ebauche d’un serpent’’ (‘‘Silhouette of a Serpent’’), noted for its changing tone and rhyme schemes, focuses on intellectual activity, contrasting the perfection of pure thought with the imperfections of earthly existence. ‘‘The Graveyard by the Sea,’’ which depicts a progression of moods as the poet meditates on the sea and light of the Mediterranean coast, addresses the theme of death and the compromise the individual must make between pure thought and the phenomenal world.

Nonpoetic Works. In 1931 and 1934 Valery collaborated with the composer Arthur Honegger to produce two short opera-ballets, Amphion and Semiramis, both of which touched upon themes from similarly named poems Valery had written previously. A third and final collaboration with another composer, Germaine Taillefer, gave rise in 1938 to Cantate du Narcisse (published 1939), yet another treatment of the Narcissus theme that had figured in both the Album and Songs; or, Poems.

Valery served as a faculty member of the College de France, but lost this position as well as others he held after the German occupation of parts of France during World War II. The interim French government known as the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the German government in order to prevent occupation of the rest of France, objected to Valery’s lack of support. Paul Valery died of a heart ailment on July 20, 1945. Even on the occasion of his death, the two worlds might be said to have been reconciled. He was given a lavish state funeral in Paris attended by thousands of mourners, but he was then buried in the quiet cemetery by the sea in Cette.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Valery's famous contemporaries include:

Clarence Darrow (1857-1938): An American lawyer and leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, Darrow became a national figure in the 1920s for his defense of such controversial figures as the murderous duo of Leopold and Loeb and the teacher John Scopes, who was arrested for including evolution in his school lessons.

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945): Austrian-born dictator of Germany, Hitler held absolute power in Germany from 1933 to his death. At first admired by some for pulling Germany out of a crushing economic depression and restoring a sense of national pride, he in time revealed himself to be a megalomaniac who dragged his country into the most destructive war of all time and directly or indirectly caused the deaths of tens of millions.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967): American painter of rural New England scenes and small-town America, his most famous work, Nighthawks (1942) depicts late-night diners in a brightly lit cafe.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940): American novelist whose work evokes the 1920s Jazz Age, a term he himself originated. His writing focuses on the ''Lost Generation" of young Americans living in the aftermath of World War I.

Philippe Petain (1856-1951): French general and France's oldest head of state. Initially considered a national hero for his leadership in World War I, Petain is today despised by his countrymen for assuming the office of prime minister of the German puppet state of Vichy France after Germany's occupation in 1940. He was convicted of treason after the war and at first sentenced to death; the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970): French general and leader of the Free French forces in World War II, de Gaulle became the first postwar president of the French Fifth Republic, successfully stabilizing and rebuilding his country's shattered political and economic infrastructures.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Valery's poetry is often linked to the symbolist movement due to his efforts to describe thoughts outside of a formal structure. What exactly comprised a symbolist poem can best be seen in the following works:

The Flowers of Evil (1857), a poetry collection by Charles Baudelaire. Often called the father of the symbolist movement, Baudelaire faced legal action after the publication of the decadently erotic poetry in this, his most well-known collection.

''The Afternoon of a Faun'' (1876), a poem by Stephane Mallarme. Perhaps the definitive symbolist poem, this dreamlike, lyrical work describes the sensual experiences of a faun after waking up from a morning's nap.

Wisdom (1880), a poetry collection by Paul Verlaine. One of Verlaine's later works, the subject matter of the poems in this volume, which focus on maturation, reflect the tumultuous life events experienced by the poet and the bitter lessons he had learned by that point.

A Season in Hell (1873), a prose work by Arthur Rimbaud. Taking the sensuality of symbolism to deliriously nightmarish extremes, the enfant terrible of French poetry looked ahead to such twentieth-century movements as Dadaism and surrealism.

 

Works in Literary Context

Scholars generally concur that the central theme of Valery’s most accomplished poems, The Young Fate and ‘‘The Graveyard by the Sea,’’ is the mind’s struggle between total detachment from the world and total involvement. Commentators also agree on the important role that Valery’s appreciation of music played in the development of his style; for instance, the concept of modulation, which is a method for gradually changing key, tone, or mood in a musical work, plays a prominent role in the progression of psychological states depicted in The Young Fate and ‘‘The Graveyard by the Sea.’’ In discussing his theories of poetic composition scholars have focused on his aversion to the idea of poetry as a spontaneous expression and his claim that poetry should not evolve from ideas but from rhythms and words.

The Influence of Mallarme and Poe. A brief comparison of Valery’s famous poem The Young Fate to Mallarme’s ‘‘Herodiade’’ concretely illustrates the nature of the older writer’s influence on the young one. Both poems depict a young woman engaged in narcissistic introspection, both embody a severely formal, musical prosody, and both deliberately reject any identifiable ‘‘content,’’ or theme. Valery’s poem is, in fact, more obscure and less musical than Mallarme’s simply because it is more purely metaphysical.

Valery’s passion for ‘‘scientific speculation,’’ which is how he preferred to label his metaphysical writing and that of others, was the reason for his lifelong fascination with American writer Edgar Allan Poe. In The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Julian Symons has described Poe as divided between two obsessive tendencies in his writings, a visionary one and a logical one. Although Mallarme and French poet Charles Baudelaire had celebrated the visionary qualities in Poe, Valery most fully admired his powers of reason, as revealed through Poe’s pseudoscientific meditation on the nature of human knowledge, ‘‘Eureka,’’ and through his brilliant practical logician, Auguste Dupin, the detective of ‘‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’’ and ‘‘The Purloined Letter.’’

Valery’s unyielding positivism (rationalism) is thus another characteristic setting him apart from other French writers. In an early letter to Andre Gide, Valery wrote: ‘‘Poe, and I shouldn’t talk about it for I promised myself I wouldn’t, is the only writer—with no sins. Never was he mistaken—not led instinctively—but lucidly and successfully, he made a synthesis of all the vertigoes.’’

Music and Letters. In the highly formal, mannered musicality of Valery’s verse, the influence of Mallarme is unmistakable. Valery’s Notebooks record his conviction that the subject of a poem was far less important than its ‘‘program’’: ‘‘A sort of program would consist of a gathering of words (among which conjunctives are just as important as substantives) and of types of syntactical moments, and above all a table of verbal tonalities, etc.’’ Mallarme had said something very similar in ‘‘Music and Letters’’: ‘‘I assert, at my own aesthetic risk, this conclusion: . . . that Music and Letters are the alternate face here widened towards the obscure; scintillating there, with certainty of a phenomenon, the only one, I have named it Idea.’’

For Mallarme, as for his younger disciple, Idea was not a theme that could be formulated in a sentence or two; it was not a thought but rather the ongoing process of thought within the mind. Yet although Mallarme believed that the end product of thought had to be a poem, Valery disagreed. In his view, thought was always an end in itself; poetry was simply a more or less desirable byproduct to be pursued as long as it stimulated the mental processes. As he put it in his Notebooks, ‘‘In sum, Mallarme and I, this in common—poem is problem. And this, very important.’’ But Valery also declared: ‘‘For him: the work. For me, the self.... Poetry has never been an objective for me, but an instrument, an exercise.’’ Responding to seventeenth- century poet and critic Nicolas Boileau’s time-honored dictum that ‘‘my verse, good or bad, always says something,’’ Valery asserted in the Notebooks, ‘‘There is the principle and the germ of an infinity of horrors.’’

Symbolism. Clearly Valery was heir to the symbolist tradition of Mallarme. On the other hand, he is understood as having broken away from symbolism, as having rejected the cult of poetry for its own sake in favor of a cult of the mind. These views need not be contradictory. Critics have focused on Valery’s relation to symbolism, the theme and style of his works, and his theories of poetic composition. Many early commentators, emphasizing his relationship to Mallarme and the apparent similarity in technique and effect between Valery’s poetry and that of the Symbolists, interpreted Valery’s works as a direct extension of symbolism. Later critics, however, noting Valery’s rejection of the symbolist notion of art for art’s sake, have argued that Valery was attempting to move beyond symbolism and look at poetry in a new way.

 

Works in Critical Context

Paul Valery occupies a position in the history of French letters that is at once strategic and highly problematic. Critics have affixed to him various labels, all of them partially correct. He has been called the last French symbolist, the first post-symbolist, a masterful classicist, an advocate of logical positivism, and a cerebral narcissist.

Critic Francis Scarfe stated in his essay ‘‘The Art of Paul Valery’’: ‘‘I hesitate to say what estimate of Valery could be made on the basis of his essays and aphoristic jottings alone. It is possible to rescue a critic and a critical system even from them.... But there are so many Vaierys to be rescued, and when that is done a heap of unclassifiable Valerys still remain. Outside his poems, dialogues and libretti he left—as Leonardo left—nothing but a clutter of magnificent fragments. Only his poetry stands unchangeable and complete. Any final judgment on Valery must be a judgment of his art and via his art.’’

The Young Fate. The publication of The Young Fate (known as La Jeune Parque in French) in 1917 essentially marked a rebirth of Valery’s creative life. Reviews of the work were largely positive, despite the work’s perceived difficulty. J. Middleton Murry, in a review for the Times Literary Supplement, writes, ‘‘French poetry and French symbolism have a message which we should understand— that the achievement of poetry, in whatever kind, is due to the exact probity with which it is pursued. Because of this La Jeune Parque is beautiful like an enchanted house set in a haunted garden. We could not live in it; but we enter, explore its darkest rooms with gratitude, peer through its windows as though they were our own, and go on our way comforted that someone should have so honourably labored on the mansion of his dream.’’ According to scholar Alastair W. Thomson, the author himself stated of the work, ‘‘Its obscurity brought me into the light; neither one nor the other was the result of my wishes.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Analyze how Valery’s style differs among his prose, poetry, and drama. How is it similar? What messages does he convey through each?

2. Both Valery and Edgar Allan Poe, whom he admired, are known for their gothic themes and images. Do they use these images and metaphors for the same purposes? Read a work by each writer and form an argument that explains why the authors are drawn to gothic imagery.

3. Stephane Mallarme exerted a strong influence on Valery. Choose one of Valery’s works (such as The Young Fate) and discuss how Mallarme’s style is apparent.

4. Valery employed musical methods, most notably modulation, in his poetry. What other concepts of musical theory can be applied to poetry? Try writing a poem that integrates modulation or another musical technique into its structure.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bertholet, Denis. Paul Valery, 1871-1945. Paris: Plon, 1995.

Gifford, Paul, ed, Reading Paul Valery: Universe in Mind. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Guerlac, Suzanne. Literary Polemics: Bataille, Sartre, Valery, Breton. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Kluback, William. Paul Valery: Illusions of Civilization. New York: P. Lang, 1996.

________. Paul Valery: The Continuous Search for Reality. New York: P. Lang, 1996.

________. Paul Valery: The Realms of the Analecta. New York: P. Lang, 1998.

Nash, Suzanne. Paul Valery’s Album de vers anciens: A Past Transfigured Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

‘‘Paul Valery (1871-1945).’’ Poetry Criticism. Ed. Drew Kalasky. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994, pp. 344-404.

Putnam, Walter C. Paul Valeery Revisitied. London: Twayne, 1995.

Taylor, Benjamin. Into the Open: Reflections on Genius and Modernity. New York: New York University Press, 1995.