Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596
Paul-Louis-Charles-Marie Claudel was born in Villeneuve-sur-Fère (Tardenois), France, on August 6, 1868, the youngest of three children. His 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 whose profession turned him into a nomad, and he had little time for his children. Claudel’s mother, Louise Cerveaux, came from a family that had its origins in Villeneuve-sur-Fère. The family moved often, following the transfers of the father from Villeneuve-sur-Fère, Bar-le-Duc, Nogent-sur-Seine, Wassy, Rambouillet, and Compiègne, until the mother finally agreed to move and settle with her children in Paris. Paul Claudel was fourteen at the time.
Contrary to what one might expect, Paris did not fascinate the young Claudel, nor did Paris bring a respite to the endless family quarrels that were a part of Claudel’s childhood. The pressure of Claudel’s anarchist instincts, which the restless atmosphere of the capital exacerbated, led him to thoughts of suicide. As he grew into adulthood, however, he also saw the positive side of Parisian life. He discovered the “mystical” beauty of Richard Wagner’s music; he joined the group that gathered around Stéphan Mallarmé; and he enjoyed the company of classmates and colleagues who later became well-known personalities in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1886, Claudel discovered the works of Arthur Rimbaud, in the June issue of La Vogue magazine, where he first read Les Illuminations (1886; Illuminations and Other Prose Poems, 1932) and Une Saison en enfer (1873; A Season in Hell, 1932).
On December 25, 1886, Claudel went to Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where, during the early afternoon Office of Vespers, he experienced the stirrings of faith that would change the course of his life and work. His life and his obvious talent took on purpose. He was to remain forever a poet committed to God and humankind.
After passing the examination for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Claudel entered into a diplomatic career that continued until 1935. His first consular assignment took him to New York and Boston in 1893. By this time, he was the author of Tête d’or and The City. His first encounter with American life inspired in him the L’Échange, a masterpiece that presents a realistic image of late nineteenth century American life and civilization. His diplomatic life took him next to China. Between 1895 and 1900, Claudel held posts in Fuchou, Shanghai, and Hankou. During this period, he began writing poetry. On his return to France in 1900, he thought of abandoning poetry and becoming a monk but changed his mind. He then decided to pursue his diplomatic career, which led him back to China.
On his return to China in 1900, he met “Ysé” (Rose Vetch), with whom he shared an adulterous relationship for four years. This experience was another turning point for the man and the artist. The idea of woman as at once temptress and the source of salvation for man, a theme that can be found in many of his works, was conceived out of this episode. This theme is especially pronounced in such works as Break of Noon, The Tidings Brought to Mary, and The Satin Slipper, in which the dichotomy between the two aspects of woman is transformed and transcended.
In 1906, 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 time until his death in 1955, Claudel’s professional life never knew an eclipse.
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