Paul Valéry came rapidly to enduring prominence in French literature on the strength of his earliest work. His abstract poetry was widely noted for its unusually sensate quality, and he is arguably the most important figure in a transitional period of French poetry, forming a bridge from the prior Symbolist school to the subsequent Surrealist movement. Valéry was notably prolific not only as a poet but also as a philosopher and essayist who earned a firm reputation for dealing with a wide range of subject matter. Politics, science, the arts, and language were among the numerous concerns of his voluminous life’s work. His greatest reputation, however, remains for his poetry, and he was deemed by some critics the greatest French poet of the twentieth century. Charms comprises poems written from 1917 through 1921, a period that proved to be significant in Valéry’s artistic growth, and this volume is generally regarded as a seminal work.
The year Charms was published coincides with the death of Édouard Lebey, then director of the French press association and Valéry’s employer since 1900. Having worked as Lebey’s private secretary for more than twenty years, the poet’s sudden state of unemployment caused him a brief period of serious concern as to how he would continue to earn a living. Trusting the encouragement and advice of friends as well as Gaston Gallimard, his publisher, Valéry seized this opportunity to begin earning his living solely from his literary work. This proved to be more easily accomplished than he first expected, as his reputation was on the rise. Charms did much to enhance the poet’s popularity and reputation, containing some of his best-known and most highly regarded work, highly regarded by critics and by the poet himself.
Poetic form held a high degree of importance to Valéry, and the twenty-one poems gathered in Charms indicate the diversity of traditional structures he explored. The book’s title is the French derivation of the Latin word carmina, meaning song, and it includes several odes and ballads that draw from English structures in addition to French. Valéry came to poetry during World War I, finding in it a welcome distraction from the daily pressures of that time of great stress and uncertainty. Even after the war, the period during which he wrote these poems, he continued to perceive the solitary reflection afforded the poet in the act of writing to be of higher intellectual value than the mundane or tedious demands of day-to-day living. Poetry was a vehicle Valéry used to separate himself from those aspects of life. He believed that the higher level of concentration necessary to follow a given structure allowed him to retreat that much further, which may explain his claim that form is of greater importance than content. The manifestation of this concept in Charms is an engaging sense of intimacy between the poet and his work, a sort of private circle, into which the reader enters upon entering the poems themselves.
Valéry adamantly refuted critics who attempted to apply overall conceptual interpretations to Charms, insisting that the poems were written at intervals spread too wide for this to have even been possible. One of his responses to critics was that any particular meaning in his poetry is that which the individual reader may take. His intention was to capture his reader with a more eclectic range of interests and frameworks to house them. There are a number of sonnets, although the styles range from Spenserian to Elizabethan to Italian. There are also several ballads, but again the styles and lengths vary considerably. The first and final poems of the collection are an unusual instance of poems appearing in the same form, both being regular odes.
As such, the thematic map of the work is as multidirectional as the structures of the poems themselves. The reader will find a reworking of the Narcissus myth, along with deeply symbolic meditations on a random array of temperaments and locations. Given Valéry’s attachment to form, however, the collection draws a sense of cohesion by way of a conceptual thread. However secondary an element the poet believed content to be, his subjects are undoubtedly distinguished by the varying rhythms and tones that inform them.
The opening poem, entitled, appropriately enough, “Dawn,” begins as a simple ode to the breaking of day: “at the rosy/ Apparition of the sun./ I step forth in my own mind/ Fully fledged with confidence.” Four stanzas later, the images of the awakening physical world become increasingly laden with deeper spiritual implications: “These spiritual toils of theirs/ I break, and set out seeking/ Within my sensuous forest/...
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