Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426
Scores of books have been written about Paul Valéry and “Le Cimetière marin,” as well as hundreds of articles by critics, teachers, poets. In 1928, Gustave Cohen, a professor at the Sorbonne, gave a series of lectures entitled Essai d’interprétation du “Cimetière marin” (attempt to interpret “The Graveyard by the Sea”) to a large audience that included Paul Valéry himself. The poet expressed his pleasure at having the intentions and the wording of the poem, reputedly obscure, so well understood. Valéry explained in a preface to the publication of the lectures that he had decided to write a monologue that would be at the same time personal and universal, one that would contain the simplest and most constant themes of his emotional and intellectual life. His poem is a meditation on life and death, on mobility and immobility, on being and nonbeing. Since, in the fashion of his friends the Symbolists, he does not explain his metaphors, the reader must puzzle out the meanings. This is harder to do from a translation than from the original, because the translator has had to incorporate English rhymes and meter as well as preserve the meanings.
The personal problem at issue in the poem is how the poet should spend the rest of his life. For the past nineteen years, his chief intellectual efforts have been directed to mathematics, art, music, and linguistics at the expense of his great poetic talent. He is trying to discover his true self. He meditates on life and eternity. The surface of the sea is calm, but underneath there is turbulence; the poet thinks of the activities of life with philosophic disdain, but behind the disdain there is a living organism. The graveyard offers the immobility of the tombs, but underneath them are the remains of the poet’s ancestors. As he looks at the sea he is filled with the idea of changelessness, but his own shadow rejects the light. He needs some assurance of the fact of change to prove his own existence. He cannot accept the idea of immortality. The true irrefutable worm is not in the grave but in life.
The story of Zeno’s stationary arrow and the tale of Achilles and the tortoise were meant to illustrate the fact that change is illusion. He must reject this idea, however; he cannot escape from change and action. At the end of the poem, the calm sea becomes turbulent, and with a triumphant cry the poet accepts the prospect of an active life.