The two great poets of the first third of the twentieth century in France were Paul Valery and Paul Claudel. It is instructive to contrast them, for they are precisely opposites in almost every respect. Claudel was a public man in terms of personality and profession; Valery was a private man. Valery was a poet of the self and mind; his poetic method was hyperconscious, he rejected the idea of poetic inspiration, and his total output of forty-three poems is exquisitely polished, rigidly controlled, and desperate in search of abstract purity. Claudel was a poet not of the self but of man and God. His literary output is staggering: over a hundred volumes of all kinds of writing. He frankly relied on enthusiasm and inspiration; he inevitably avoided the abstract, or transmuted it into lush sensual imagery; and while his poetry achieved its own kind of form, it is not polished and precise, but bardic and overflowing. Both poets used the sea as an important symbol in their poetry. Valery’s sea is a still, crystalline equivalent for changeless, abstract thought; Claudel’s sea is a swelling, turbulent force, almost impossible to control, representing God, life, grace, inspiration, and poetry itself.
Claudel’s poetry has two fundamental sources, both, in his terms, spiritual, both capable of bestowing grace. The first is poetic sensibility (the muse), the other, God. Claudel was committed to both by remarkable emotional experiences in 1886. At that time, when he was eighteen, he was in the midst of what he described as a spiritual famine. The intellectual and artistic milieu of Paris was dominated by deterministic, scientific philosophies and by naturalistic and realistic literary techniques. All of this, with its focus on the “real,” material world, seemed empty and unsatisfying to the young poet. Also, while his family was Catholic by tradition, religion was a passive thing in Claudel’s life at this time.
Then in 1886 Claudel read Rimbaud’s ILLUMINATIONS. This poetry and other Symbolist verse seemed to break through the deadening circle of materialism that was smothering Claudel. The non-rational techniques, and anti-realistic concerns of the Symbolists gave him an almost physical impression of the supernatural. Their poetry both tied together and liberated language and the spirit. Claudel had found a way to write the kind of poetry his outgoing and anti-materialist soul wanted to pour out.
Added to this sudden literary experience was a vivid religious conversion. Claudel, a nominal Catholic, went to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame to witness the Christmas mass. Drawn to the Church, he returned later in the afternoon to the vespers service. While standing beside a pillar in the church, God suddenly and loudly spoke to Claudel, calling him by name. This experience, as Claudel says, dominated the rest of this life. All doubt was removed; he had been given grace and faith. From that time Claudel never ceased to believe or to write. Combining his literary and religious conversions, he completely identified poetry and faith. He was able thenceforth to speak of Grace who is the Muse and the Muse who is Grace.
As a result of this double commitment, Claudel wrote poetry which sought at the same time to present the essence of the spirit and the essence of language. To accomplish this end he developed and wrote in a free verse form called the verset. He was inspired in this development by the rhetoric of the Bible and the high styles of Pindar and Aeschylus. Language, for Claudel, was essentially oral; it must be spoken, not merely written, by the poet, and its poetic use must be determined by the way it sounds at any given instant. Each line is to be constructed and bound...
(The entire section is 1520 words.)