Other Literary Forms
Although Paul Claudel’s poetry occupies a prominent place in his writings, it was his theater that brought him a worldwide reputation. Gallimard published Claudel’s Œuvres complètes (1950-1967) in twenty-seven volumes. Claudel stated repeatedly that human drama is not complete unless a supernatural element enriches it and brings to it a vertical sense. From the day of his conversion to Roman Catholicism on December 25, 1886, the Bible became his daily companion. In his poetry, the influence of the Bible manifests itself in an exuberant lyric vein, while in his plays it is evident in his conception of the conflict between good and evil—not so much a question of metaphysics as a struggle that takes place within the soul, among Satan, man, and God. Claudel’s study of the Bible also resulted in a series of exegetical works that constitute a third important part of his creative artistry. Finally, the numerous volumes of Claudel’s correspondence and the two volumes of his journal are indispensable guides to his inner life.
The literary fate of Paul Claudel can be compared to that of Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), who, despite the initial indifference and lack of enthusiasm with which people of his generation received his writings, predicted that his works would be understood and successful by the end of the nineteenth century. Stendhal even dedicated his novel, La Chartreuse de Parme (1839; The Charterhouse of Parma, 1895), not without irony, “to the happy few” who were able to understand his art and thought. Time has proved that Stendhal judged with perspicacity both his own work and the evolution of the literary taste of his country. In the same way, when Symbolism was giving clear signs of its vitality, Ferdinand Brunetière, very skeptical of the success of the new movement, in an article published by La Revue des deux mondes on November 1, 1888, dared challenge all the members of it by saying: “Give us a masterpiece and we will take you seriously.” Literary scholar Henri Guillemin is surprised that Brunetière did not recognize the signs that were pointing to the man who was to come: “He was there, the man of masterpiece,” he says, and in less than two years Claudel would publish his play Tête d’or (1890; English translation, 1919). Yet, despite this and many other masterpieces, Claudel remained unknown to the general public until after World War II.
Claudel was too religious for the secular Third Republic of France; his poetry ignored the Alexandrine meter and largely did without rhyme, while his plays dramatized a soul-searching and soul-saving adventure in which the eternal destiny of man took priority over psychology. Above all, Claudel did not use the literary language most of the French cherished, and he was accused of writing French poetry in German.
Nevertheless, Claudel persisted on his solitary course, largely undistracted by the literary fashions of the twentieth century. By the end of his life, he was numbered among the preeminent poets and playwrights of modern France.
Paul-Louis-Charles-Marie Claudel was born in Villeneuve-sur-Fère (Tardenois), France, on August 6, 1868. He was the youngest of three children, with two sisters, Camille and Louise. Their father, Louis-Prosper Claudel, was a civil servant who came to Villeneuve-sur-Fère from La Bresse, a small town in the Vosges region. By nature, he was an unsociable and taciturn person. His profession as civil servant left him little time for his children. Claudel’s mother, born Louise Cerveaux, came from a family that had its origins in Villeneuve-sur-Fère. Like her husband, she was an unaffectionate parent; according to Claudel, she never kissed her children. The difficult character of the oldest child, Camille, may have been responsible for the mother’s attitude and, indeed, adversely affected all the relationships in the family. In 1882, after many years of following her husband from place to place—Louis-Prosper Claudel had held posts in Villeneuve-sur-Fère, Bar-le-Duc, Nogent-sur-Seine, Wassy, Rambouillet, and Compiègne—Louise Claudel yielded to the pressure of Camille and agreed to settle with her children in Paris. Camille was eighteen years of age, Louise sixteen, and Paul fourteen.
Contrary to what one might expect, Paris did not fascinate the young Claudel: The crushing feelings of loneliness and boredom from which he suffered became even more frightening in the big city. Nor did Paris offer a respite from the endless family quarrels. In the restless atmosphere of the country’s capital and under the pressure of his anarchist instincts, Claudel at one time contemplated suicide. Fortunately, as he grew into adulthood, he saw the positive side of Parisian life. He discovered the “mystical” beauty of Richard Wagner’s music; at the age of nineteen, he was admitted to Stéphane Mallarmé’s circle; and while still in the lycée, he enjoyed the company of classmates who were to become leading figures in French cultural and political life in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1886, purely by accident, Claudel discovered Arthur Rimbaud, in the June issue of La Vogue magazine, when he read Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (1886; Illuminations, 1932) and Une Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell, 1932).
On December 25, 1886, Claudel went to Notre-Dame of Paris, and there, during the early afternoon Office of Vespers, his “heart was touched” and he “believed.” The nightmares that had haunted his youth were banished; his life and his obvious talent acquired a purpose. A creative enthusiasm inspired him to “evangelize” all the layers of his being. The process of this evangelization was to be reflected in his writings, both poetry and drama; he was to remain forever a poet committed to God and men.
After passing the examination for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Claudel entered into a diplomatic career that lasted until 1935. His first consular assignment took him to New York City and Boston in 1893. By that time, he had published Tête d’or and La Ville (1893; The City, 1920). His visit to the United States inspired him to write L’Échange (1954; the exchange), a masterpiece that presents a realistic image of American life and civilization. His diplomatic life took him next to China; between 1895 and 1900, Claudel held posts in Foochow, Shanghai, and Hankow. It was at this time that he turned to poetry. Upon his return to France, in 1900, Claudel thought of abandoning poetry and becoming a monk, but he was not accepted in either Solesmes or Ligugé. He decided then to pursue his diplomatic career, which took him back to China.
It was in 1900, on shipboard en route to China, that he met a married Polish woman, “Ysé” (Rose Vetch). They shared an adulterous affair which lasted four years. In 1906, while on vacation in France, Claudel married Reine Sainte-Marie Perrin, daughter of the architect of the Basilica of Fourvière in Lyons. Three days after his marriage, Claudel returned to China, accompanied by his wife. From that year on, Claudel’s professional life never knew an eclipse; from China, he went on to Prague, Frankfurt, Rome, and Brazil. Finally, as ambassador, he served in Japan, the United States, and Belgium.
The last years of Claudel’s life were filled with honors and recognition. Even the Académie Française reversed its 1936 rejection of him, and in 1946 Claudel was elected one of the Immortals of France. Perhaps the most striking symbol of Claudel’s success is the fact that, on the night of his death in February, 1955, the Comédie-Française was rehearsing L’Annonce faite à Marie (1912; The Tidings Brought to Mary, 1916).
One of the outstanding characteristics of Paul Claudel’s work is its cosmic dimension. His poetry does not form an exception to this general rule, for Claudel chose as its subject the visible world, enriching it with the invisible things of his faith. He was tempted neither to sacrifice the visible for the sake of the spiritual nor to do the opposite.
When he refers to his poetry in “La Maison fermée” (“Within the House”) of Five Great Odes, Claudel uses this analogy: “The Word of God is the way that God gives himself to humankind. The created word is that way by which all created things are given to man.” The universe of Claudel, one might say, is a man-centered world but certainly not to the exclusion of God. In an analogous sense, the poet is called upon to redeem visible things from the corruption of time and to elevate them, by his created word, to the heights of eternity. “To name a thing,” Claudel says in his Poetic Art, “means to produce it inextinguishable, for it is to produce it in relationship to its principle, which does not include cessation.” In a sense, therefore, the peculiar vocation of the poet is to be a prophet in the etymological sense of the word: He speaks for the visible universe.
However ironic it may sound, one has the impression that Claudel, after his conversion, wanted to “convert his conversion” to his own powerful nature, to the splendor of visible things, and to invite God himself to join him in his celebration of this world. By embracing nature and by calling things by their names, however, the poet determines their place in the intention of their Creator. There is nothing that horrified Claudel more than the idea of a material infinite; he considered it a “scandal of the reason.” Speaking of Dante’s poetic endeavor, Claudel reminds himself that a true poet does not need “greater stars” or “more beautiful roses” than those nature furnishes. His task is to use words, those “resonant phantoms,” to produce an enjoyable and intelligent picture of the universe.
If it is true that Claudel attained in Five Great Odes the summit of his poetic creation, it is because his genius had reached a level of synthesis where painful experiences and poetic inspiration were molded into a harmonious unity. Yet this synthesis was achieved only after a lengthy poetic development, beginning with Claudel’s assimilation of Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé.
When, in June, 1886, Claudel discovered in La Vogue Rimbaud’s Illuminations and A Season in Hell, he recognized in these poems the sign of his own deliverance. Rimbaud’s poetic language fascinated Claudel; the simplest term Claudel could find to describe the fascination was “bewitchment.” In an age marked by secularism and aggressive materialism, a young poet dared to speak of the nostalgia of the soul for freedom and of the reality of invisible things. Claudel was not naïve; he could hear blasphemy and cursing in the desperate cries of Rimbaud, but he was happy to inhale that “living and almost physical impression of the supernatural” that the poems of Rimbaud communicated to his soul. Claudel learned much from Rimbaud, not least the daring juxtaposition of images with no clear link among them. Above all, however, Rimbaud made Claudel aware that the material world, when it comes into contact with the spirit, becomes very fragile. Upon reading Rimbaud, Claudel said, he had the impression of hearing the voice of the most authentic genius of his time.
Like most poets of his generation, Claudel was also influenced by Mallarmé. As early as 1887, Claudel was among those who went to listen to the master of the Symbolist movement. It was a great privilege to be admitted to Mallarmé’s salon; in the quasi-religious ambience of the Symbolists, to be recognized by Mallarmé was to be consecrated. Little is known of the extent of their personal relationship, but, while on his first diplomatic mission in China, Claudel was eager to continue his correspondence with the “master”; he even dared to express his reservations concerning Mallarmé’s aesthetic principles. In his “La Catastrophe de l’Igitur,” published in Positions et propositions I in 1928, Claudel recognizes that Mallarmé was the first poet to place himself in front of an object and ask the question, “What does that mean?” Claudel acknowledges that Mallarmé’s way of trying to infuse the lifeless object with life was worthy of admiration, but he also underscores Mallarmé’s failure to give the necessary answer to, or explanation of, his own question.
According to Claudel, if things and objects mean something, the poet has the obligation to speak for them. Mallarmé, on the contrary, hoped to condense in his verse the whole reality of things, by transferring them from the realm of “sensibility” to that of “intelligibility.” The difference, then, between Claudel and Mallarmé is that, whereas Mallarmé believed that poetry is the ultimate forum of intelligibility and that there is nothing else to be...