An influential French symbolist poet, Paul Valéry was a thinker and a writer who believed in exact representation. Rather than dwell on his history which is diverse and intriguing, his view of the world and thought were the primary influences of his writing.
Valéry was born in 1871 in Sète, a town on the Mediterranean coast of France, educated in Sette and obtained his licence in 1892 after studying law at the University of Montpellier. Valéry’s earliest publications were from his mid-twenties although he did not write full time until 1920.
In 1892, Valéry underwent a personal transformation during a severe thunderstorm in Genoa and discovered the ‘revolution of the mind’, turned his back on writing poetry and dedicated himself to gaining ‘maximum knowledge and control of his intellect.’
“The very act of writing, he decided, was one of vanity, and set to free himself at no matter what cost, from those falsehoods: literature and sentiment.”
Although Valéry did not publish poetry during his twenty year devotion to maximum knowledge and control of intellect and his tenure as private secretary to Edouard Lebey at Havas news agency, he did publish two pieces of prose: Introduction De La Methode De Leonard Da Vinci (1894) and La Soiree Avec Monsieur Teste (1896).
After Lebey’s death, Valéry was asked to collect and revise his poetry from the 1890s by publisher Gaston Gallimard. Valéry’s intent to produce a forty line poem went astray and instead he finished one of his major works. La Jeune Pataque (The Young Fate), which brought immediate fame, is the musings of Clotho, the youngest of the three Fates, as she debates between remaining a serene immortal or to choose the pain and pleasure of human life.
The musicality of La Jeune Parque is best enjoyed in French since exact translations are very difficult. As a symbolist poet, Valéry was very precise in his choice of words, an element that translations from French cannot fully replicate. Even with this understanding, these excerpts of the English translation by Alistair Elliot, published by Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1997, captures in painstaking detail as much of the beauty of the original work as possible.
Is that the simple wind? If not, who’s crying
There at this hour alone with furthest diamonds?
Who’s there, so near me at the point of crying? [opening, pg. 19]
This hand, dreaming its way across my features,
Distractedly obeying some deep order, (19)
Vain waiting… Vain’s the word: one cannot die
Who at her mirror weeps to move herself. (41)
Of interesting note, Valéry began each day by writing in his quest for greater understanding. At the time of his death, there were 261 notebooks, approximately 28,000 pages of notes, prose, and drawings. This collection, the Cahiers, is considered the modern equivalent to the “Notebooks” of Leonardo da Vinci (one of Valéry’s greatest inspirations) and contains a comprehensive examination of Self that strives to answer the question ‘What is the human mind and how does it work?’ As a writer who begins each day with a journal, albeit without the depth of Valéry’s thought, I find a sense of comfort in knowing that my pre-dawn writing habits aren’t unique.
Before I close, I leave you with one more poem by Valéry along with two very different translations.
Les Pas (Paul Valéry)
Tes pas, enfants de mon silence,
Saintement, lentement placés,
Vers le lit de ma vigilance
Procèdent muets et glacés.
Personne pure, ombre divine,
Qu’ils sont doux, tes pas retenus!
Dieux!… tous les dons que je devine
Viennent à moi sur ces pieds nus!
Si, de tes lèvres avancées,
Tu prépares pour l’apaiser,
A l’habitant de mes pensées
La nourriture d’un baiser,
Ne hâte pas cet acte tendre,
Douceur d’être et de n’être pas,
Car j’ai vécu de vous attendre,
Et mon coeur n’était que vos pas.
(Translation: C. Day Lewis)
Born of my voiceless time, your steps
Slowly, ecstatically advance:
Toward my expectation’s bed
They move in a hushed, ice-clear trance.
Pure being, shadow-shape divine,
Your step deliberate, how sweet!
God! every gift I have imagined
Comes to me on those naked feet.
If so it be your offered mouth
Is shaped already to appease
That which occupied my thought
With the live substance of a kiss,
Oh hasten not this loving act,
Rapture where self and not-self meet :
My life has been the awaiting you,
Your footfall was my own heart’s beat.
(Translation: David Paul)
Your footsteps, children of my silence,
With gradual and saintly pace
Towards the bed of my watchfulness,
Muted and frozen, approach.
Pure one, divine shadow,
How gentle are your cautious steps!
Gods!… all the gifts that I can guess
Come to me on those naked feet!
If, with your lips advancing,
You are preparing to appease
The inhabitant of my thoughts
With the sustenance of a kiss,
Do not hasten the tender act,
Bliss of being and not being,
For I have lived on waiting for you,
And my heart was only your footsteps.
There isn’t a way for me to chronicle Valéry’s life or influence in one article. In fact, I have barely touched upon the depth of thought that revealed greater truths than most of us can imagine without prompting and most likely, internal debate. Perhaps this is what his ‘revolution of self’ revealed to him.
I’m Beth Winter and I thank you for joining me for dVerse Poets Pub Pretzels & Bullfights this week.
“Our most important thoughts are those that contradict our emotions.”
– Paul Valéry