The Poem

“The Graveyard by the Sea,” written in 1920, is Paul Valéry’s best-known poem. It consists of twenty-four stanzas of six lines each. The poet returns in imagination to the cemetery of Sète, a city on a cliff above the Mediterranean, where he was born and where he dreamed as a youth among the tombs of his ancestors. He imagines himself sitting on a tombstone at noon and contemplating the white sails on the calm sea, which he describes as doves pecking on a roof, while he wrestles with the problems of life and death, of being and nonbeing, and thinks about the future course of his life.

In his monologue, Valéry thinks of the sea as the roof of the temple of time sparkling with diamonds, and he enjoys the idea of mingling with the sky and the sea. As his shadow passes over the tombs, he realizes that he himself is subject to change; he recalls his nineteen years of what he calls indolence. (Actually, since 1894 he had been working first in the Ministry of War and later in the news agency Havas. He was a married man and the father of two children, devoting his free time to research on the nature of thought.) He accuses himself of idleness because he has not made full use of his poetic talent.

In stanza 11, the poet imagines himself a shepherd among the quiet white sheep, the tombs. He refuses the Christian consolation symbolized by the marble doves and angels and contemplates eternal nothingness, reflecting in stanza 13 that the dead...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Forms and Devices

All six lines in each stanza end with a rhyme in the pattern aabccb. This rigidity called for great expertise on the part of Valéry and his translators. If a translator is truly faithful to the thought of a poem, it is the music that suffers most in passing from one language to another. If he must limit each line to ten syllables and adhere to a difficult rhyme scheme, he can hardly hope to imitate the music of the original.

This difficult poem requires the reader to penetrate a host of metaphors. The reader must equate the calm sea with a roof and the sails with doves pecking on the shining roof of the temple of time under a blazing noontime sky while the poet meditates on great philosophical problems and on his own existence. Stanza 5 contains a simile: The poet inhales his future as a hungry mouth obscures the contour of a piece of fruit. This is perhaps the only reasonably simple comparison in a forest of unexpected (and unexplained) images used as symbols.

The theme of the poem rests on these original, complicated, and obscure symbols. One eminent critic insists that the whole poem is a metaphor, to which each image refers. Another famous scholar declares that the noonday sun is the symbol of eternity and the sea is the symbol of human consciousness. Less difficult to conceive is the idea that the sea seen through the trees is a prisoner of the leaves. It devours the graveyard grills because the sea, sparkling in the sun, causes...

(The entire section is 475 words.)