BORN: 1923, Tours, France
GENRE: Poetry, translation, literary criticism
Du mouvement et de l’immobilite de Douve (On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, 1953)
Hier regnant desert (In Yesterday’s Desert Realm, 1958)
Anti-Platon (Against Plato, 1962)
Pierre icrite (Words in Stone, 1965)
Dans le leurre du seuil (Lure of the Threshold, 1975)
Yves Bonnefoy. Michal Cizek / AFP / Getty Images
Poet, translator, and respected critic of both literature and art, Yves Bonnefoy is widely acknowledged as the most significant and influential figure in contemporary French poetry. Critics note in Bonnefoy’s work affinities with both the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century and the surrealists of the twentieth century. He is admired for his investigation of spiritual and philosophical matters and his preference for exploring the subconscious rather than material reality and conscious perceptions.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Landscape and Loss. Yves Bonnefoy was born in Tours, France, on June 24, 1923, the son of Marius Elie Bonnefoy, a railroad worker, and Helene Maury Bonnefoy, a teacher. Bonnefoy spent his childhood summers at his grandfather’s house in Toirac, near the Lot River. This summer landscape, he is quoted as saying in the preface to New and Selected Poems: Yves Bonnefoy (1995), ‘‘formed me in my deepest choices, with its vast, deserted plateaus and gray stone,’’ providing images and themes that his poetry has probed ever more deeply over the years. His early life was also profoundly influenced by the loss of his father, who died when Bonnefoy was thirteen. Bonnefoy reacted to this loss by immersing himself in his studies. A more lasting and more poetically resonant impact of his father’s loss may be found in the sense of desolation that pervades his early work, relieved, however, by moments of clarity and illumination redolent of his idyllic childhood summers.
Literary Success. In 1944 Bonnefoy arrived in Paris— which was occupied by Nazi German troops at the time—to study mathematics and philosophy at the Sorbonne. He began to write poetry under the influence of such surrealists as Andre Breton and Victor Brauner. His study of the German philosopher George Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel is also evident throughout his work. Hegel’s theory operates both thematically and structurally in Bonnefoy’s poetry, allying his work with surrealism.
With the encouragement of Jean Wahl, Bonnefoy put aside his philosophy thesis and worked for three years at the National Center for Scientific Research, studying English literary creativity, reading literary theorists, and writing his own poetry. His first major collection, On the Motion and Immobility of Douve (1968), was published in 1953 to immediate acclaim and established his reputation. The collection of short poems centers around a mysterious female, Douve. She variously represents earth, woman, love, and poetry. The progress of the poem portrays changing moods and metaphysical transformations and sets up dialectics such as mind/spirit, hope/ despair, and life/death.
The publication of In the Shadow’s Light, and Early Poems, 1947-1959 reinforced Bonnefoy’s reputation as a great postwar poet, one dedicated to crafting verses that embrace and envelop human feelings and emotions. In 1966 Bonnefoy cofounded a journal of art and literature, L’Epheme, with Gaetan Picon, Andre du Bouchet, and others; he coedited the review until it ceased publication in 1972. Since the 1970s, Bonnefoy has taught literature at several universities. He wrote many philosophical essays on the nature of writing and continued to published poetry, including the lauded 1975 collection Dans le leurre du seuil (Lure of the Threshold).
In the 1980s and 1990s, Bonnefoy turned his attention to translating the poetry of such writers as John Donne, John Keats, and William Butler Yeats. At present, Bonnefoy continues to write essays and translate Shakespeare’s plays into French.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Bonnefoy's famous contemporaries include:
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986): French author and theorist, most recognized for her metaphysical novels, she laid significant groundwork for contemporary feminist thought in her 1949 analysis of women's oppression, The Second Sex.
James Dewey Watson (1928- ): A molecular biologist and codiscoverer of the structure of DNA.
Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980): Movie director known for his thriller and suspense films.
Madeleine Albright (1937- ): The first female United States Secretary of State.
Anne Frank (1929-1945): A young Dutch writer who penned her famous Diary of a Young Girl while she hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): Author, philosopher, and critic, this Frenchman is renowned for his philosophical principles of existentialism.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Foremost to Bonnefoy's themes is the presence of death in everyday life, leading some to label him ''the first existentialist poet.'' Other works that explore humankind's preoccupation with death and the possibility of immortality include:
Fear and Trembling (1843), a book by Soren Kierkegaard. In his interpretation of the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac, Binding of Isaac, Kierkegaard explores the conflicts between theology and philosophy, ethics and morality.
Notes from the Underground (1864), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Widely considered to be the first existentialist novel, this work influenced numerous writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Joseph Heller, and Ralph Ellison.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1985), a philosophical treatise by Friedrich Nietzsche. Among the many themes explored in Nietzsche's best-known work is that of eternal recurrence, the concept that everything that has occurred in history will repeat itself an infinite number of times.
Nausea (1938), a novel by Jean-Paul Sartre. Famous as one of the most important existentialist texts, this novel explores thirty-year-old protagonist Antoine Roquentin's struggle with existential angst, unreality, and the hostility of the human condition.
Works in Literary Context
The Unity of Things. Much of Bonnefoy’s poetry is preoccupied with loss and death, and the transience of all earthly things is emphasized as a paradoxical compensation for the loss of hope for immortality. Some critics view his work as a quest for what Bonnefoy himself terms “le vrai lieu’’ (the true place), a location in time or space, or a state of mind wherein the fundamental unity of all things is perceived. Bonnefoy’s insistence on the importance of accepting the presence of death in everyday life has prompted many commentators to regard him as the first existentialist poet. Jean Starobinski commented: ‘‘The work of Bonnefoy offers us today one of the most committed and deeply pondered examples of [the] modern vocation of poetry. His writings as poet and essayist, in which the personal accent is so clear, and in which the I of subjective assertion is manifested with force and simplicity, have for [their] object a relation to the world, not an internal reflection on the self. This oeuvre is one of the least narcissistic there is.’’
Works in Critical Context
Bonnefoy’s first three volumes of verse, On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, In Yesterday’s Desert Realm, and Words in Stone, are often considered a poetic cycle. Each volume is composed of short, interrelated poems that expand or resolve themes present in the others.
On the Motion and Immobility of Douve. Critics have variously interpreted Douve as the speaker’s beloved, a mythological symbol for all women, a river or moat, a forest, the poetic principle, and as the poem itself. Against a surreal and stark landscape in which wind, stone, and fire are discernible elements, Douve repeatedly dies, decomposes, and comes back to life. Michael Bishop remarked: ‘‘Death, despite its ‘frightful,’ ‘silly’ orchestrations is felt, throughout these intense poems, to be doubly positive. It is the one phenomenon that, for Bonnefoy, flings us back towards our existence, our leaking yet potentially full being-in-the-world.’’
In Yesterday’s Desert Realm and Words in Stone. In the collection In Yesterday’s Desert Realm, Bonnefoy explores the significance of death and its presence in daily life. Although Bonnefoy employed a more optimistic tone and less-violent imagery in this collection, the poems are generally considered more difficult and have garnered the least critical attention of the three volumes in the cycle. In an essay, Marc Hofstadter presented the idea that In Yesterday’s Desert Realm is a continuation of the journey begun in On the Motion and Immobility of Douve and the journey is completed in Words in Stone. Hofstadter wrote: ‘‘Beginning in despair of the validity of the search or of the self’s ability to pursue it... In Yesterday’s Desert Realm takes the poet and us through a journey that ends, after all, in an opening up towards presence. Words in Stone emphasizes presence in the here-and-now and maintains the optimism which concluded In Yesterday’s Desert Realm by praising the present moment as not only all there is but all that the speaker desires.’’
Responses to Literature
1. As you read Lure of the Threshold, note the imagery Bonnefoy chooses. In a short analysis, note images that are particularly striking and explain how these images relate to the themes Bonnefoy explores.
2. Using Lure of the Threshold as an example, discuss the role of the past in Bonnefoy’s verse.
3. Bonnefoy is often considered the first surrealist poet. Others have argued that he is the first existentialist poet. Use several of Bonnefoy’s poems to provide examples of these labels.
4. Using specific examples from his first three volumes of poetry—On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, In Yesterday’s Desert Realm, and Words in Stone— describe Bonnefoy’s views on death.
Caws, MaryAnne. Yves Bonnefoy. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Entretiens sur la poesie: Yves Bonnefoy. Neuchatel, Switzerland: A La Baconniere; Paris and Lausanne, Switzerland: Payot, 1981.
Enlarged as Entretiens sur la poesie: 1972-1990: Yves Bonnefoy. Paris: Mercure de France, 1990.
Gavronsky, Serge. Poems and Texts. New York: October House, 1969.
Hamburger, Michael. The Truth of Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 1970.
Lussy, Florence de, comp. Yves Bonnefoy. Introduction by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. Preface by Jean Starobinski. Paris: Bibliotheque Nationale/Mercure de France, 1992.
Naughton, John T. The Poetics of Yves Bonnefoy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Stamelman, Richard. Lost Beyond Telling: Representations of Death and Absence in Modern French Poetry. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Thelot, Jerome. Poetique d’Yves Bonnefoy. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1983.
Guppy, Shusha. ‘‘Yves Bonnefoy: The Art of Poetry LXIX.’’ Paris Review 131 (Summer 1994): 108-33.