Paul Valéry Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Valéry was one of the most important French poets of the early twentieth century; he also made significant contributions to literary criticism.

Early Life

Paul Valéry was born in Sète, France, in the western Mediterranean, on October 30, 1871. The family moved to the larger town of Montpellier in 1884 when Valéry was thirteen; he was already writing poems at this early age, but the family expected him to become a lawyer. The expectations of his family were increased when Valéry’s father died in 1888, and so a year later Valéry entered the University of Montpellier to study law. After reading works by Stéphane Mallarmé, however, Valéry knew that his true vocation was as a poet not a lawyer. He began to acquire a circle of friends who shared his interests in literature, including his lifetime friend, André Gide. In 1891, he published two important poems, “La Fileuse” and the much praised “Narcisse parle,” in a small review. He was established as a poet, and so he moved to Paris, where he became a friend of his master, Mallarmé.

Life’s Work

Valéry’s early poems celebrate the wonders of nature; their major stylistic features are an evanescent mood and lush imagery. “Le Fileuse” portrays those powers of nature operating while an old woman who is spinning a thread falls asleep. Nature is the active agent; a spring waters the flowers and a stem bends to the wind. The human spinner dreams and sleeps.

The rose, your sister, where a saint delights
Perfumes your vague brow with her innocent breath;
You languish . . . you are an innocent light
At the blue window, where you spun the thread.

Nature, although invisible, is the real power and presence in the poem; the woman is a mere receptacle.

“Narcisse parle” is a longer and more important poem that uses the myth of Narcissus. Valéry was obsessed with the figure of Narcissus and wrote about him a number of times. In this early poem, Narcisse wanders in nature seeking “Some face that never wept.” He is divided and incomplete, an early exploration by Valéry of consciousness and the failure to achieve unity. Once more, much of the poem is devoted to the force and activity of nature. For example, Narcisse speaks of the “waters” as a God. He cannot, however, find the peace of the old woman in “Le Fileuse”; he remains “restless” until the union with this shadowy other is consummated. At the end of the poem, he remains solitary and can only bid farewell to what cannot be.

Alas: wretched flesh, it is time to be at one . . .
Lean: Tremble in all thou art:
Possessed, the love it has been thine to promise me
Is passing; its tremor shatters Narcissus and fails . . .

After this early success, Valéry was forced to decide whether to continue with poetry or to “cultivate his mind.” Should he be Orpheus or Narcissus? He had always been interested in the human consciousness and the best way to achieve the “true self,” or unity, and poetry was only one aspect of the human mind. It has been suggested that this crisis came about as a result of an unhappy love affair. Whatever the reason, Valéry decided in 1892 to abandon poetry. He moved to Paris, began to study and to record his thoughts in notebooks. These labors led to a study of Leonardo da Vinci, a figure who was not restricted to one mode of creation, and to the books on his character Monsieur Teste.

“Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci” (1895; “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci,” 1929) is an attempt by Valéry to reconcile the conflicting claims of the artist and the thinker in the figure of Leonardo. Valéry had been forced to choose thought over art and could not reconcile them in his own person. The essay reveals much about Valéry’s inner conflict. He contrasts the fragmented “consciousness” that can only end in “exhaustion” and despair, while the universal genius, such as Leonardo, can turn his hand to any activity and create something. He can accomplish this by restraining his ego. This formulation seems to be very similar to that of John Keats. Keats contrasted the poet of the “egotistical sublime,” who could only create out of himself, with the one who had achieved “negative capability” and could, therefore, create any type of character. For Valéry, the best poetry was not a turning loose of emotion but a process of the mind.

The cycle on Monsieur Teste is a continuation of the Leonardo essay. Teste is seen as a thinking machine, a pure intellect. Teste is discovered, for example, doing material “gymnastics,” discovering “angles” while others waste their time and minds and fail to perceive the patterns around them. Such an abstract thinking machine might seem repellent to those schooled...

(The entire section is 2022 words.)

Paul Valéry Biography

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Paul Valéry was born October 30, 1871, in the small French seaport of Sète. His childhood was bathed in the sunlight, blue sky and water, and salt air of this Mediterranean setting. The young Valéry disliked intensely the regimented nature of his schoolwork and spent much of his free time studying objects which greatly interested him: painting, architecture, and poetry, especially that of Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, and Victor Hugo. Valéry’s first poems were composed in 1884, at the age of thirteen.

In that same year, Valéry’s family moved to Montpellier. The year 1887 was marked by his father’s death; in 1888, he entered law school at the university in Montpellier. His first published poem, “Rêve,” appeared in 1889 in a small literary review. During this period, Valéry spent many hours studying mathematics (an interest which he maintained all his life), physics, and music (he especially admired the music of Richard Wagner, which had a grandeur he judged both “visceral” and “structural”).

In 1890, Valéry met Pierre Louÿs, a young Symbolist poet and editor. Louÿs was to have a great impact on Valéry’s future; not only did he help to further Valéry’s literary reputation, but also he introduced the young man to others who were to play significant roles in his life. An introduction to Louÿs’s uncle, André Gide, sparked a lasting friendship and voluminous correspondence which was to span the next fifty years. Louÿs also introduced his friend to Mallarmé. For Valéry, Mallarmé’s works exemplified such perfection of form and control of language that all other poetry seemed inferior by comparison. In their subsequent correspondence, Mallarmé praised the young poet’s work, and, perhaps as a result of this encouragement, Valéry’s literary output increased dramatically; several of his poems soon appeared in print in Louÿs’s literary review, La Conque, and elsewhere.

Valéry’s literary career had hardly begun, however, when he chose to turn away from poetry as his primary occupation in favor of a life of study and contemplation. His biographers have sought to explain this action by referring to a growing predilection for introspection among young French intellectuals, to their common dislike of the then-popular Naturalistic novel and of objective and descriptive Parnassian poetry, to Valéry’s feelings of inferiority in the face of the poetic perfection of his master, Mallarmé, and to Valéry’s unrequited (and undeclared) love for a married woman, which left him frightened of his inability to control his strong feelings. No doubt these factors affected Valéry, but his decision in 1892 to devote his life to the cultivation of his intellect can just as easily be seen as a natural consequence of his introspective nature. His decision was greatly influenced by the intellectual and poetic theories of Edgar Allan Poe, which portrayed poetry as creating certain calculated effects. Valéry believed that the techniques required to produce these effects suppressed rather than expanded the intellect; thus, although he had already written several hundred poems, he concluded that the best path toward intellectual growth and wisdom was that of the thinker rather than the artist.

Thus began the period in Valéry’s life somewhat erroneously termed the “Great...

(The entire section is 1373 words.)

Paul Valéry Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Paul Valéry (va-luh-REE) was born on the western coast of France in Sète on October 30, 1871, to a Corsican father and an Italian mother. After two years at the Dominican convent, at age five he entered the Collège de Sète (now Collège Paul-Valéry) which sat on cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Memories of the view of the sea from these years strongly influenced his writing. In 1884, the family moved to Montpellier, where Paul attended the lycée. School bored Valéry, causing him to appear disinterested in his work. He began instead to read about architecture, poetry, and mathematics. He created mind games, cultivating an inner world he sensed was unique. At age thirteen, his first attempt at poetry was a satirical...

(The entire section is 873 words.)

Paul Valéry Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The writing of Paul Valéry is musical and delicately balanced, yet often obscure. Writing was an exercise by which he clarified his own mind and analyzed the creative process itself, pursuing the highest intellectual ideals. Although remembered as a poet, his philosophical probing in prose led to the development of aesthetic and poetic theories that had an enormous effect upon later writers and philosophers. The difficulty and intricacy of Valéry’s work made it a model for others. His influence is seen in the work of writers such as T. S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Decorated before and after death with national honors, Valéry is one of the most prominent figures in French literature of the twentieth...

(The entire section is 124 words.)

Paul Valéry Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Paul Valéry (va-lay-ree) was the son of an Italian mother and a Corsican father. He first attended school in his hometown of Sète, France, then spent 1884 through 1888 at the lycée of Montpellier. His career there was undistinguished. Judging himself too untalented in mathematics to attend the Naval Academy, Valéry turned his interest to the arts, especially poetry. Among the chief literary influences on him at this time were Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier, and Charles Baudelaire; by 1889 Valéry had written a number of poems.

He served in the military from 1889 to 1890, during which time he developed an interest in Symbolist poetry. His reading of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel Against the...

(The entire section is 696 words.)