Paul Valéry Poetry Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Paul Valéry’s youthful views about poetry, which were anti-Romanticist and somewhat cynical, led him to reject literature as his primary occupation and to lead instead a life of contemplation and study, which he hoped would enable him to understand better the relationships among the phenomena of the world. When he eventually realized that universal knowledge was unattainable and that individual facets of reality could not be frozen or studied in isolation, he began to write poetry again. Where he had earlier rejected the Romantic and Platonic notion of Muse-inspired poetry, he came to grant inspiration its place in the creative process. Perhaps he found in poetry that synthesis of world experience which he had hoped to find in his studies of scientific phenomena. In any case, the years devoted to such study had produced in Valéry a vigorous and finely honed mind, and he perceived in poetry not only a rewarding exercise of the intellect but also the nearest approach that human beings could make to expressing the ineffable.

Valéry’s poetic theories grew out of his strong interest in the workings of human psychology. His model of mental functioning, reflecting the findings of the then relatively new science of psychiatry, portrayed a network of constantly changing interactions of words, feelings, motor impulses, sensations, stimuli, responses, and so on. He thus saw human identity as infinitely varied rather than possessed of an unchanging essence. In Valéry’s psychological model, various functions are continually interacting, but only the intellect has a transcendent understanding of them, although it has no control over many of the organism’s functions. Moreover, the intellect of a scientist is likely to interpret a given electrical stimulus differently from the way the intellect of a musician or a poet would interpret it. This recognition of the variety among human intellects and of the primal authority of instinctive responses led Valéry to relinquish his earlier faith in calculated technique, a faith which had been influenced in part by Poe’s ideas about the ability of a technically skilled poet to manipulate the emotions of his readers and to produce specific predictable effects in all readers.

Valéry connected this model of psychological functioning to a theory of poetry by postulating that the intellect, when stimulated, tends to interpret and classify the information it receives as quickly as possible, in order to return to its habitual state of rest. In terms of this model, prose differs from poetry because the goal of prose is to transmit information; effective prose presents data in such a way that the information is easy to process, is easily extractable from its form, which is relatively unimportant except as a container, a vehicle. The goal of poetry, on the other hand, is to increase internal excitation and awareness and to resist the intellect’s attempts to classify and return to a resting state. Valéry therefore sought to create a poetry with “subjects” so fragile and elusive that they would simultaneously charm and mystify the intellect, and that would be presented in forms so compelling to the intellect that they would themselves become part of the message. To summarize Valéry’s psychopoetic theory, one could say that rhythm, sound, the use of metaphor and other tropes, and the emotive aspects of language in general serve to increase and sustain the involvement of the subconscious mind and the physical body in the reading process. The interplay of images, memories, ideas, melodies, and sensations prolongs the pleasurable state of internal excitement and delays closure by the intellect, which, captivated by the poem’s form, returns to it repeatedly, seeking to prolong or renew its experience.

This view of aesthetic experience has its implications for the poet as well as for the reader. Valéry recognized that the genesis of his poems was usually to be found not in a conscious decision to compose a poem upon a particular subject but rather in those verses, couplets, sentence fragments, or insistent rhythmic or sound patterns which came to him as “gifts” from that modern Muse, the unconscious. At the same time, these “inspired” verses needed to be refined by the poet’s technical and analytical skills, and integrated with other verses, fashioned more by skill than by inspiration, so as to form a seamless, aesthetic whole. To be successful, Valéry believed, a poem must present difficulties for the poet as well as for the reader; he preferred to work with traditional poetic forms with fixed rhyme schemes and other compositional requirements, because he found that his struggles with these obstacles often produced new and unexpectedly beautiful networks of meaning and sometimes altered the original thrust of the poem.

Valéry was concerned with aesthetic process more than with aesthetic results. In his view, the stimulation and prolongation of aesthetic pleasure which a poem provides is as important for the poet as for the reader. While he is engaged in the creative process, the poet experiences the intellectual growth, spiritual insight, and emotional release that poetic creation stimulates as it keeps the poet’s intellect from returning to a state of equilibrium. Because he believed that it was the poetic process and not the end product that provided aesthetic stimulation, Valéry never considered his poems finished, and he was constantly revising his work. He claimed in his essay “Au sujet du Cimetière marin” (“On ‘The Graveyard by the Sea,’” published in a bilingual edition of “The Graveyard by the Sea” by the University of Texas Press, 1971) that the published form of that poem merely represented its state on the day it was taken away from him by the editor of the Nouvelle Revue française.

Although he never felt that poetry could be a product of purely spontaneous composition, Valéry’s youthful conception of poetry as a series of calculated effects controlled by the poet was tempered as he matured. He came to believe in the role of inspiration and mystery in the poetic process, as it operated on the intellect of both poet and reader; he believed that the aesthetic experience was so rich and complex that the intellect could never fully contain or understand it.

This aesthetic individualism colored Valéry’s attitude toward his readers; he believed that, just as a poet’s unique identity marks his poem, so will different readers’ identities color their responses to it. He was therefore generous with his critics; although he may have been privately amused by some interpretations, he gave his official blessing to such endeavors, saying, “My poetry has the meaning that people give to it.”

Valéry may have been troubled, however, by those critics who sought to reduce his poems to prose summaries. In his own writings, he often stated that a poem cannot be summarized any more than can a melody, that the beauty and power of poetry stem precisely from the fact that it cannot be put into prose without disintegrating. This problem in poetic theory is illustrated by what Valéry and two well-known critical interpreters have said about “The Graveyard by the Sea,” a poem characteristic of Valéry’s work in terms of its contemplative mood, its philosophical themes, its formal perfection, and its harmonious and evocative language.

“The Graveyard by the Sea”

Perhaps his best-known poem, “The Graveyard by the Sea” was written following Valéry’s years of contemplation and study. First published in 1920, it portrays human consciousness becoming aware of itself in relation to time, death, and the expanse of the cosmos. The speaker in the poem ponders this interior vastness of consciousness in an ironic setting: a cemetry overlooking the sea, surrounded by tombstones, under the noon blaze of an apparently motionless sun.

“The Graveyard by the Sea” is composed of twenty-four stanzas of six decasyllabic lines each, with a rhyme scheme of aabccb. Valéry resurrected the decasyllabic line, which had been all but abandoned by French poets in favor of the more flowing Alexandrine. Although he welcomed the...

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