“The Graveyard by the Sea” is Paul Valéry’s most famous poem, first published in Jacques Rivière’s literary journal Nouvelle revue française and in 1922 in the collection Charmes: Ou, Poèmes. The title has also been translated as “The Cemetery by the Sea.” The poet imagines a visit to the graveyard in Sète that overlooks the Mediterranean. He has come as the noon sun, in perfect position, shines down on the white tombstones, reflecting on the sea and the white sails as doves fly overhead. The complicated poem is filled with religious images and language (temple, idols, doves) and deals with one’s struggle with life and death, being and nonbeing, and humanity’s need to decide its course. Paradox was a constant theme in Valéry’s life and writing, and this poem, with its difficult metaphors and themes, exemplifies the poet’s often felt dilemma.

The poem’s twenty-four stanzas are each six lines long. The metrical structure is decasyllabic, departing from the more easily flowing twelve-syllable Alexandrine verse of the period. The rhyme scheme is aabccb. The form was a welcome challenge to the poet. Some analysts have compared the structure of the poem to that of a clock—a twenty-four-hour day, with sixty minutes to an hour—symbolizing the actual passing of time. Valéry thought that poetry could not be summarized effectively in prose without losing its true meaning, which lay within the structure of...

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