Paul Valéry was born October 30, 1871, in the small French seaport of Sète. His childhood was bathed in the sunlight, blue sky and water, and salt air of this Mediterranean setting. The young Valéry disliked intensely the regimented nature of his schoolwork and spent much of his free time studying objects which greatly interested him: painting, architecture, and poetry, especially that of Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, and Victor Hugo. Valéry’s first poems were composed in 1884, at the age of thirteen.
In that same year, Valéry’s family moved to Montpellier. The year 1887 was marked by his father’s death; in 1888, he entered law school at the university in Montpellier. His first published poem, “Rêve,” appeared in 1889 in a small literary review. During this period, Valéry spent many hours studying mathematics (an interest which he maintained all his life), physics, and music (he especially admired the music of Richard Wagner, which had a grandeur he judged both “visceral” and “structural”).
In 1890, Valéry met Pierre Louÿs, a young Symbolist poet and editor. Louÿs was to have a great impact on Valéry’s future; not only did he help to further Valéry’s literary reputation, but also he introduced the young man to others who were to play significant roles in his life. An introduction to Louÿs’s uncle, André Gide, sparked a lasting friendship and voluminous correspondence which was to span the next fifty years. Louÿs also introduced his friend to Mallarmé. For Valéry, Mallarmé’s works exemplified such perfection of form and control of language that all other poetry seemed inferior by comparison. In their subsequent correspondence, Mallarmé praised the young poet’s work, and, perhaps as a result of this encouragement, Valéry’s literary output increased dramatically; several of his poems soon appeared in print in Louÿs’s literary review, La Conque, and elsewhere.
Valéry’s literary career had hardly begun, however, when he chose to turn away from poetry as his primary occupation in favor of a life of study and contemplation. His biographers have sought to explain this action by referring to a growing predilection for introspection among young French intellectuals, to their common dislike of the then-popular Naturalistic novel and of objective and descriptive Parnassian poetry, to Valéry’s feelings of inferiority in the face of the poetic perfection of his master, Mallarmé, and to Valéry’s unrequited (and undeclared) love for a married woman, which left him frightened of his inability to control his strong feelings. No doubt these factors affected Valéry, but his decision in 1892 to devote his life to the cultivation of his intellect can just as easily be seen as a natural consequence of his introspective nature. His decision was greatly influenced by the intellectual and poetic theories of Edgar Allan Poe, which portrayed poetry as creating certain calculated effects. Valéry believed that the techniques required to produce these effects suppressed rather than expanded the intellect; thus, although he had already written several hundred poems, he concluded that the best path toward intellectual growth and wisdom was that of the thinker rather than the artist.
Thus began the period in Valéry’s life somewhat erroneously termed the “Great...
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