The Graveyard by the Sea

by Paul Valéry

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

“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 buried in the cemetery are quite comfortable.

In the next two stanzas the noonday sun, symbol of unchanging perfection, is contrasted with ephemeral man—with the poet himself, who is filled with fear, repentance, and doubt. Man, he decides, is the flaw, the changing element in the perfection of the universe. The dead lose their individuality and return to the great Whole; their bodies feed the flowers.

In the seventeenth stanza, Valéry chides himself for dreaming of a more perfect world and asks himself if he expects to write poetry when he is dead. Immortality is only an illusion; those who compare death to a maternal breast are guilty of a beautiful lie and a pious trick. The empty head of a skeleton laughs forever. Stanza 19 states that the true worm is not that which has destroyed the bodies, but is thought that feeds on life and never leaves man. Even in his sleep, the worm of thought pursues him. Valéry is referring to the dictum of René Descartes, Cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am.”

In stanza 21, Valéry asks Zeno, a Greek philosopher who denied the reality of movement by asserting that a flying arrow is immobile at each instant, if he has pierced him with the arrow that is killing him. He rejects the idea that time does not pass; movement exists, therefore life and time exist and action is possible.

In the last three stanzas, the poet reacts: The weather has changed, and a breeze has sprung up. Its salty freshness returns his soul to him. Like a man who has plunged into the refreshing sea, he emerges from his reverie filled with a taste for life. He will plunge into action.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

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...

(This entire section contains 475 words.)

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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 them to seem to disappear.

Comprehensible also is the metaphor of the poet as a shepherd among his sheep, the white marble tombs, and the sea as watchdog. The angels and doves (unfortunately translated sometimes as “pigeons”) obviously represent the consolation of the Christian religion. He urges the watchdog to frighten them as a sign that he rejects this idea of life after death.

In the second-to-last stanza, Valéry describes in startling images the sea as it reacts to the rising wind: It is delirious; it resembles a panther’s skin and a torn Greek cloak; it is a hydra, the serpent with nine heads which, according to Greek mythology, replaced each lost head with two others; it is a serpent biting its tail.

Valéry employed figures of speech and symbols to express philosophic ideas. The metaphor which unifies the structure of the poem, according to one critic, establishes a parallelism among the three separate elements: the sea, the graveyard, and the poet. Each of these elements has two aspects, one on the surface, the other interior. Other poetic devices, such as alliteration, embellish the original but cannot be preserved in translation. For example, stanza 4 of the French has nine pronounced t sounds and eight pronounced s sounds; the effect is striking.