“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 the lines themselves. Much of the musical and rhythmical quality of the poem is lost in translation. Many experts have attempted to analyze and to explain Valéry’s poetry, especially “The Graveyard by the Sea.” In a lecture about the poem, Valéry stated his intentions to write a monologue that was personal but universal, containing the most recurrent themes of his emotional and intellectual life.
Many possible thematic and symbolic interpretations may be made of the poem, but there are some points upon which almost all agree. There are three basic symbols with which the speaker is involved—the cemetery, the sea, and the sun. Each symbol has two sides. The sea is calm on the surface, yet full of turbulence underneath. The sun at noon is bright and changeless, yet casts a dark shadow. The cemetery’s tombstones represent immobility, yet beneath them are the souls of the departed. The personal problem being confronted is how the poet will spend the rest of his life. Having just spent nineteen years in silence with respect to his poetic gift, he is at a crossroads in his literary life. The supreme paradox is that even if the poet tries to choose nothingness, he cannot, because he is unable consciously to experience nothingness. He leaves the cemetery with a triumphant conviction to return to poetry.