Yves Bonnefoy Essay - Bonnefoy, Yves

Bonnefoy, Yves


Yves Bonnefoy 1923-

French poet, essayist, critic, fabulist, editor, and translator.

Bonnefoy is viewed as one of the finest poets and most influential figures in contemporary French poetry. A prolific critic, editor, translator, and poet, he has written several collections of poetry and long poems that have received much critical acclaim. Commentators commend Bonnefoy's verse for its range of imagery and its exploration of profound philosophical and spiritual matters. His emphasis on the omnipresence of death in everyday life has led many commentators to consider him as the first true existential poet.

Biographical Information

Bonnefoy was born on June 24, 1923, in Tours, France. As a child, he spent his summers at his grandfather's house in Toirac; many images from his later poetry were derived from these idyllic experiences. When he was thirteen years old his father died, which had a profound impact on him. Many critics note that the recurring sense of loss in his poetry may be traced back to this tragic event. In 1941 he graduated with honors from the Lycée Descartes and then went on to study mathematics, science, and philosophy at the Université de Poitiers and the Sorbonne. In 1944, while living in Paris, Bonnefoy began to write poetry. Critics contend that this early verse was heavily influenced by such prominent Surrealist poets as Victor Brauner and André Breton. Bonnefoy became so interested in poetry and literary theory that he put aside his advanced studies in philosophy to study literary theory at the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique. Bonnefoy's first major collection of poetry, Du Mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve [On the Motion and Immobility of Douve], was published in 1953 to critical acclaim. In 1967 he co-founded the prestigious art and literary review L'Ephéme, acting as co-editor until 1972, when the periodical folded. He has been a professor at several academic institutions, including Centre Universitaire de Vincennes, the Université de Nice, the Université d'Aix-en-Provence, and the Collège de France. In addition, he has taught literature at various universities, including Brandeis, the City University of New York, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Yale University, and Geneva University. He is regarded as a respected critic and scholar, as well as a poet, and has written essays on literature, art, and architecture. He is also praised for his translations of Shakespeare. He has received several awards for his work, including the Prix Montaigne in 1978, the Prix Goncourt in 1987, and the Grand Prix Nationale de Poèsie in 1993.

Major Works

In Bonnefoy's first major collection of poetry, On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, the poet reflects on his capacity to fully express the essence of being, which he calls “presence,” a concept central to his work. The poems of the collection focus on the death, decomposition, and rebirth of the enigmatic female figure, Douve, who has been interpreted alternatively as the poet's lover, a mythological representation of all women, nature, or the poem itself. Critics note his use of metonymy and other devices to circumvent the logic of ordinary discourse. In his next collection, Hier régnant désert (1958), Bonnefoy expresses dissatisfaction with his previous poetry. Instead, he utilizes stark imagery, such as that of an iron bridge or black clay, to explore such thematic concerns as death, survival, and redemption. In Pierre écrite [1958; Words in Stone] Bonnefoy turns to the fertile imagery of a garden to express ideas about presence and to impart a fuller and more accurate perception of reality. Commentators assert that this rich garden imagery and the more optimistic tone of the poetry in this collection can be traced to his experiences with his wife at his country home at Valsaintes in Provence. Dans le leurre du seuil (1975), his next major collection, utilizes the same affirmative vision and garden imagery as Words in Stone. Yet critics maintain that it is a more ambitious work, in that it is a long poem divided into seven sections and explores Plato's theory of ideas, which Bonnefoy initially discussed in L'Anti-Platon (1947). The verses describe the journey through stages of self-doubt, revision, regeneration, and affirmation. His 1987 collection Ce qui fut sans lumière touches on themes of abandonment, love, and mortality. The poems also underscore another recurring thematic concern of Bonnefoy's poetry: the connection between art and poetry. In his critical and poetic work, he has frequently discussed the unique ability of art and the act of painting to express presence.

Critical Reception

Bonnefoy is regarded as a talented, experimental poet whose work is committed to expressing truth. Commentators have traced the development of his work, particularly in light of his claim that each of his poetry collections has been built on the one before it. Therefore, stylistic and thematic progressions from volume to volume have been central to examinations of his poetry, and critics praise his ability to experiment with different forms, imagery, and themes. Connections between his theory of language and his poetry have been a recurrent topic of critical discussion. The thematic concerns of his verse—mortality, absence and presence, excarnation and incarnation, redemption, the power of love, and the experience of transcendence—have been investigated and traced back to such philosophers as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Soren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger. In fact, his emphasis on death and the transience of all earthly things has led many critics to call him the first existential poet. Others detect the influence of classical materialism on his work and underscore his affinities with the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, the tradition of nineteenth-century French poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, and the Surrealists of the twentieth century. His interest in painting, particularly fifteenth-century Italian art, has also been examined. Stylistically, reviewers have discussed Bonnefoy's grandiloquent language, his use of metonymy and metaphor, and his tendency toward abstractions. His detractors maintain that his verse is difficult and can be viewed mainly as an offshoot of his philosophical ideas. His innovative and distinctive approach to poetics has made him one of the most significant and influential French poets in contemporary literature.

Principal Works

L'Anti-Platon 1947

Du Mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve [On the Motion and Immobility of Douve] 1953

Hier régnant désert 1958

Pierre écrite [Words in Stone] 1958

Dans le leurre du seuil 1975

Poèmes: Yves Bonnefoy 1978

Ce qui fut sans lumière 1987

Début et fin de la neige 1989

Early Poems, 1947-1959 1990

New and Selected Poems: Yves Bonnefoy 1995

Les Planches courbes 2001

L'Improbable (essays) 1959

La Seconde simplicité (essays) 1961

Rimbaud par luimême [Rimbaud] (criticism) 1961

Miró (criticism) 1964

Un rêve fait à Mantoue (essays) 1967

Rome 1630: L'Horizon due premier baroque (criticism) 1970

L'Arrièrepays (autobiography) 1972

Le Nuage rouge: essays sur la poétique (essays) 1977

Rue traversière (essays) 1977

Entretiens sur la poésie (essays) 1981

The Grapes of Zeuxis and Other Fables/Les Raisons de Zeuxis et d'autres fables (fables) 1987

La Vérité de parole (essays) 1988

The Act and Place of Poetry: Selected Essays (essays) 1989

Alberto Giacometti: Biographie d'une oeuvre [Alberto Giacometti: A Biography of His Work] (criticism) 1991

Remarques sur le dessin (essays) 1993

The Lure and the Truth of Painting: Selected Essays on Art (essays) 1995

Théâtre et poésie: Shakespeare et Yeats (criticism) 1998

Baudelaire: La Tentation de l'oubli (criticism) 2000

Keats et Leopardi: Quelques traductions nouvelles (criticism) 2000

André Breton à l'avant de soi (criticism) 2001

Sous l'horizon du langage (essays) 2002

L'arbre au-delà des images (criticism) 2003

Le poète et “le flot mouvant des multitudes”: Paris pour Nerval et pour Baudelaire (criticism) 2003

Shakespeare and the French Poet: With an Interview with Yves Bonnefoy (essays and interview) 2004


F. C. St. Aubyn (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: St. Aubyn, F. C. “Yves Bonnefoy: First Existentialist Poet.” Chicago Review 17, no. 1 (1964): 118-29.

[In the following essay, St. Aubyn discusses “similarities between Bonnefoy's approach to poetry and the existentialist approach to being.”]

Since 1953 Yves Bonnefoy has published, in addition to an earlier work he has subsequently preferred to forget, three volumes of poetry, a book on French gothic art, a critical biography of Rimbaud, two volumes of essays, and translations of at least three of Shakespeare's plays. His first significant volume of poetry appeared when Bonnefoy was thirty. His development would thus seem to have been a slow maturation...

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David Mus (review date June 1976)

SOURCE: Mus, David. “Stances on Love.” Poetry 128, no. 3 (June 1976): 163-77.

[In the following review, Mus provides a stylistic analysis of Dans le leurre du seuil, asserting that Bonnefoy's verse is grandiloquent and difficult for English-speaking readers.]

Je veux que la fréquentation d'un maître me rende à moi-même; toutes les fois que je sors de chez Poussin, je sais mieux qui je suis.” I would love to apply this mot of Cézanne's to my reading of Yves Bonnefoy's new book [Dans le leurre du seuil]. If only I knew more about myself, or about him for that matter, as I put it down … But the élan with which I enter the experience...

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Marc Hofstadter (essay date fall 1978)

SOURCE: Hofstadter, Marc. “The Search for Transcendence in Yves Bonnefoy's Un feu va devant nous.Romance Notes 19, no. 1 (fall 1978): 4-9.

[In the following essay, Hofstadter examines “experiences of transcendence” in “Un feu va devant nous,” the third section of Pierre écrite.]

Death is an almost overwhelming reality in Yves Bonnefoy's poetry. In his vision of things, death undermines all happiness and all permanence. Not something we encounter at the end of life only, it is indistinguishable from the actual world around us. Pervading all things, it often causes reality to become silent and barren for us, alien in its otherness. It may seem to be...

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Mary Ann Caws (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Caws, Mary Ann. “The Poet and the Voice.” In Yves Bonnefoy, pp. 4-20. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the following essay, Caws explores the major themes and images of On the Motion and Immobility of Douve and Hier régnant désert.]

L'Anti-Platon (The Anti-Plato [abbreviated AP]), an odd series of nine brief prose poems published in 1947, opens with a call to human specificity, in opposition to the realm of vague Platonic Ideas. Bonnefoy will never relax his concern with the particular, and even in moments of his greatest temptation toward another land, a crossroads to another life, he maintains his visible loyalty to the...

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Alex Argyros (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Argyros, Alex. “The Topography of Presence: Bonnefoy and the Spatialization of Poetry.” Orbis Litterarum 41, no. 3 (1986): 244-64.

[In the following essay, Argyros considers the complex relationship between critical interpretations of Bonnefoy's verse, his own theoretical writings, and his long poem, On the Motion and Immobility of Douve.]

For the most part, the poetry of Yves Bonnefoy has been read as an expression or application of Bonnefoy's numerous theoretical statements concerning the function of poetry. In other words, Bonnefoy's poetry has been understood as the practical materialization of his esthetic speculations. Critical work on Bonnefoy,...

(The entire section is 8924 words.)

Richard Stamelman (essay date January 1988)

SOURCE: Stamelman, Richard. “The Crack in the Mirror: The Subversion of Image and Representation in the Poetry of Yves Bonnefoy.”1French Forum 13, no. 1 (January 1988): 69-81.

[In the following essay, Stamelman explores the dimensions of “Bonnefoy's subversion of representation in his poetry and writings on art.”]

“C'est simple,” Yves Bonnefoy writes in “L'Entaille,” a recent poem in prose:

On trempe un doigt dans la gouache bleue, on le fait glisser sur les mots à peine tracés dans l'encre noire, et du mélange de l'encre et de la couleur monte, marée, algues qui remuent dans l'eau trouble, ce qui...

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John T. Naughton (essay date winter 1989)

SOURCE: Naughton, John T. “The Notion of Presence in the Poetics of Yves Bonnefoy.” Studies in 20th Century Literature 13, no. 1 (winter 1989): 43-60.

[In the following essay, Naughton considers the notion of presence as a unifying element of Bonnefoy's poetry as well as a recurring topic of critical discussion.]

The notion of presence is a common element, linking Yves Bonnefoy's earliest pronouncements about poetry to his latest. Just as the polarity between incarnation and excarnation has helped to clarify his poetics, so too the idea of presence, together with its opposite, absence, is useful for an understanding not only of Bonnefoy's...

(The entire section is 6933 words.)

James Lawler (essay date summer 1992)

SOURCE: Lawler, James. “‘La neige piétinée est la seule rose’: Poetry and Truth in Yves Bonnefoy.” L'Esprit Créateur 32, no. 2 (summer 1992): 43-54.

[In the following essay, Lawler underscores the search for truth in the poetry of Début et fin de la neige.]

Can poetry aspire to a kind of truth? Is it possible, two hundred years after Goethe, to think of a convergence? Do we not know that the gods have disappeared, that the myths have small virtue, that language is deceptive? Char calls poetry and truth “synonymous,” but his vision is as unarguable as the Sorgue. On the other hand, Yves Bonnefoy, from as early as his Traité du pianiste (1946),...

(The entire section is 4285 words.)

James McAllister (essay date May 1994)

SOURCE: McAllister, James. “Metonymy and Metaphor in Yves Bonnefoy's Poetry.” French Forum 19, no. 2 (May 1994): 149-60.

[In the following essay, McAllister contends that Bonnefoy favors metonymy over metaphor in his verse.]

Yves Bonnefoy's conception of writing as un-writing (désécriture) fosters poetic texts in which metonymy intertwines with metaphor so that metonymic processes both extend and subvert analogical associations. Denouncing metaphor as the stuff of esthetic lies, he turns to metonymy to tear through the opaque fabric of analogy for an authentic approach to reality. His comments on the genesis of “A San Francesco le soir”...

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Mary Ann Caws (essay date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Caws, Mary Ann. “Yves Bonnefoy, Sostenuto: On Sustaining the Long Poem.” L'Esprit Créateur 36, no. 3 (fall 1996): 84-93.

[In the following essay, Caws maintains that Bonnefoy's moral concerns help to sustain his long poems.]

Often, a general question apparently about form is not that only: it aims at something specific, and goes beyond form. The one I want to ask now, both generally and in a specific meditation on the work of Yves Bonnefoy—concerns the long poem, and so implies connectedness and interruption. In so doing, it concerns more than that: I take it as a question not only aesthetic, but moral.

What is it, then, that...

(The entire section is 3600 words.)

Emily Grosholz (essay date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Grosholz, Emily. “The Valsaintes Poems of Yves Bonnefoy.” L'Esprit Créateur 36, no. 3 (fall 1996): 52-64.

[In the following essay, Grosholz finds allusions to Bonnefoy's Valsaintes country home in his verse.]

The shadow of an old house falls across the poems in Yves Bonnefoy's Pierre écrite (1965), Dans le leurre du seuil (1975) and Ce qui fut sans lumière (1987).1 The house itself is never the topic of the poems, and is only fleetingly described in some of its details now and then. In general, the diction of Bonnefoy's poetry is quite abstract, and he pointedly excludes most references to particular places,...

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Dimitrios Kargiotis (essay date January 2001)

SOURCE: Kargiotis, Dimitrios. “Death and the Problematics of Representation in Bonnefoy's Du mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve.Neophilologus 85, no. 1 (January 2001): 53-69.

[In the following essay, Kargiotis analyzes the various modalities and functions of death in On the Motion and Immobility of Douve.]

“L'esprit […],” says Yves Bonnefoy in “Les tombeaux de Ravenne,” “s'interroge sur l'être, mais rarement sur la pierre” (11). Neglecting the value of experience, humans struggle to master concepts, but we forget that concepts cannot embrace the totality of the real: “[y] a-t-il un concept d'un pas venant dans la nuit, d'un cri,...

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Further Reading


Bishop, Michael. “An Infinity of Flashing Briefness: The Poetics of Yves Bonnefoy.” Neophilologus 70, no. 2 (April 1986): 194-207.

Articulates the principal features of Bonnefoy's poetics through an examination of his verse.

———. “Image, Justesse, and Love: Breton, Reverdy, and Bonnefoy.” Symposium 42, no. 3 (fall 1988): 187-97.

Examines questions of love, being, and consciousness in the work of Andre Breton, Pierre Reverdy, and Yves Bonnefoy.

Bonnefoy, Yves. “Lifting Our Eyes from the Page.” Critical Inquiry 16, no. 4 (summer 1990): 794-806.


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