The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)