Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Scores of books have been written about Paul Valéry and “Le Cimetière marin,” as well as hundreds of articles by critics, teachers, poets. In 1928, Gustave Cohen, a professor at the Sorbonne, gave a series of lectures entitled Essai d’interprétation du “Cimetière marin” (attempt to interpret “The Graveyard by the Sea”) to a large audience that included Paul Valéry himself. The poet expressed his pleasure at having the intentions and the wording of the poem, reputedly obscure, so well understood. Valéry explained in a preface to the publication of the lectures that he had decided to write a monologue that would be at the same time personal and universal, one that would contain the simplest and most constant themes of his emotional and intellectual life. His poem is a meditation on life and death, on mobility and immobility, on being and nonbeing. Since, in the fashion of his friends the Symbolists, he does not explain his metaphors, the reader must puzzle out the meanings. This is harder to do from a translation than from the original, because the translator has had to incorporate English rhymes and meter as well as preserve the meanings.

The personal problem at issue in the poem is how the poet should spend the rest of his life. For the past nineteen years, his chief intellectual efforts have been directed to mathematics, art, music, and linguistics at the expense of his great poetic talent. He is trying to discover his true...

(The entire section is 426 words.)