Paul Valéry Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Valéry was one of the most important French poets of the early twentieth century; he also made significant contributions to literary criticism.

Early Life

Paul Valéry was born in Sète, France, in the western Mediterranean, on October 30, 1871. The family moved to the larger town of Montpellier in 1884 when Valéry was thirteen; he was already writing poems at this early age, but the family expected him to become a lawyer. The expectations of his family were increased when Valéry’s father died in 1888, and so a year later Valéry entered the University of Montpellier to study law. After reading works by Stéphane Mallarmé, however, Valéry knew that his true vocation was as a poet not a lawyer. He began to acquire a circle of friends who shared his interests in literature, including his lifetime friend, André Gide. In 1891, he published two important poems, “La Fileuse” and the much praised “Narcisse parle,” in a small review. He was established as a poet, and so he moved to Paris, where he became a friend of his master, Mallarmé.

Life’s Work

Valéry’s early poems celebrate the wonders of nature; their major stylistic features are an evanescent mood and lush imagery. “Le Fileuse” portrays those powers of nature operating while an old woman who is spinning a thread falls asleep. Nature is the active agent; a spring waters the flowers and a stem bends to the wind. The human spinner dreams and sleeps.

The rose, your sister, where a saint delights
Perfumes your vague brow with her innocent breath;
You languish . . . you are an innocent light
At the blue window, where you spun the thread.

Nature, although invisible, is the real power and presence in the poem; the woman is a mere receptacle.

“Narcisse parle” is a longer and more important poem that uses the myth of Narcissus. Valéry was obsessed with the figure of Narcissus and wrote about him a number of times. In this early poem, Narcisse wanders in nature seeking “Some face that never wept.” He is divided and incomplete, an early exploration by Valéry of consciousness and the failure to achieve unity. Once more, much of the poem is devoted to the force and activity of nature. For example, Narcisse speaks of the “waters” as a God. He cannot, however, find the peace of the old woman in “Le Fileuse”; he remains “restless” until the union with this shadowy other is consummated. At the end of the poem, he remains solitary and can only bid farewell to what cannot be.

Alas: wretched flesh, it is time to be at one . . .
Lean: Tremble in all thou art:
Possessed, the love it has been thine to promise me
Is passing; its tremor shatters Narcissus and fails . . .

After this early success, Valéry was forced to decide whether to continue with poetry or to “cultivate his mind.” Should he be Orpheus or Narcissus? He had always been interested in the human consciousness and the best way to achieve the “true self,” or unity, and poetry was only one aspect of the human mind. It has been suggested that this crisis came about as a result of an unhappy love affair. Whatever the reason, Valéry decided in 1892 to abandon poetry. He moved to Paris, began to study and to record his thoughts in notebooks. These labors led to a study of Leonardo da Vinci, a figure who was not restricted to one mode of creation, and to the books on his character Monsieur Teste.

“Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci” (1895; “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci,” 1929) is an attempt by Valéry to reconcile the conflicting claims of the artist and the thinker in the figure of Leonardo. Valéry had been forced to choose thought over art and could not reconcile them in his own person. The essay reveals much about Valéry’s inner conflict. He contrasts the fragmented “consciousness” that can only end in “exhaustion” and despair, while the universal genius, such as Leonardo, can turn his hand to any activity and create something. He can accomplish this by restraining his ego. This formulation seems to be very similar to that of John Keats. Keats contrasted the poet of the “egotistical sublime,” who could only create out of himself, with the one who had achieved “negative capability” and could, therefore, create any type of character. For Valéry, the best poetry was not a turning loose of emotion but a process of the mind.

The cycle on Monsieur Teste is a continuation of the Leonardo essay. Teste is seen as a thinking machine, a pure intellect. Teste is discovered, for example, doing material “gymnastics,” discovering “angles” while others waste their time and minds and fail to perceive the patterns around them. Such an abstract thinking machine might seem repellent to those schooled...

(The entire section is 2022 words.)