Paul Valéry World Literature Analysis
To study the writing of Paul Valéry is to explore the world of a man who saw irony and paradox in life itself. This is reflected even in his having been sometimes called the “greatest living poet of France” when, in fact, his poems were less important to him than the process by which they were created. Not only a poet, Valéry wrote in almost every medium except the novel, admitting that he saw no purpose in anecdotal fiction.
Valéry’s literary career and style follow an unorthodox path of development. Generally thought of first as a great poet, he began writing poetry at about age thirteen. The bulk of his poetic output came early in his life, between the years 1917 and 1922. As a young writer, Valéry rejected the existing Romanticism and adopted a somewhat cynical stance. Often identified with the Symbolist school, which was active in Paris in the early 1900’s, he later departed from many of its principles to follow his own course. The man whose work he most admired was Stéphane Mallarmé, a leader of the Symbolists. His early association with writers such as Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine in Tuesday night gatherings at Mallarmé’s had a profound effect upon Valéry’s own work. The Symbolist ideals of purity, precision, and conscious direction in writing were guideposts in his writing. He detested vagueness and saw in the structure of language an algebraic type of formula which was exhibited in the inherent rhythm of words.
The turning point in Valéry’s literary career was the experience called his “Genoa night” in 1892. After a disturbing nightmare, he turned away from writing poetry, which had begun to seem like a false and confining manner of expression, and turned his attention to the cultivation of his mind. The twenty years hence are referred to as the “Great Silence,” although he was still producing prose works and making valuable contributions to his notebooks. He studied the works of great artists before him who had looked for new means of self-expression. For example, he analyzed the composition of Richard Wagner’s musical dramas with their employment of innovative combinations of literary and musical devices. He was fascinated by the notebooks of the artist Leonardo da Vinci not so much for the sketches of the inventions, but for the process by which the genius arrived at his conclusions. Edgar Allan Poe’s ability to manipulate the emotional responses of his readers by word choices and poetic structures made him seem, at one point in Valéry’s life, the perfect poet.
Valéry read the works of major philosophers and contemplated the eternal mysteries of life, recording his thoughts daily in notebooks. To him, the mark of genius was the ability to bring apparently unrelated things into one connected system. After years of philosophical and intellectual delvings and the mature realization that absolute knowledge is unattainable, Valéry turned back to poetry. He had begun to see verse not as the limiting form he once had, but as possibly the only form that might allow him the ideal means of expression.
An interest in mathematical and architectural concepts had been part of Valéry’s study since college days. The mathematical aspects involved in the meter and forms of poetry and the challenge of relating ideas within the framework of a poem was the impetus he needed. His understanding of the aesthetic experience made revision an important part of Valéry’s writing. It was not the actual poem that resulted from his work that he felt was important. He admittedly wrote poetry for himself, to develop his own mind, and it was the act of writing that, for him, was the meaningful experience. Whatever was published he considered simply the state of the poem at that particular moment. It was this attitude wherein the poem itself had no set significance that allowed him to react casually to his critics, feeling it their right to interpret as they saw fit. His poetry represented a systematic study of his own thoughts and the way in which his mind worked. The relationships of the ideas within a poem to each other and to the structure of the whole poem were intricate and delicately balanced. His use of devices such as rhythm, sound, metaphor, and imagery were intended to develop the mind’s subconscious involvement with the work. Valéry considered poetry a means of evoking excitement and an awareness of the deeper meanings of life, not only for the poet, but also for the reader. He assumed that for a poem to have true aesthetic value, it should present some of the same struggle for the reader as it had for himself. This is illustrated in some of his most famous poems, which are obscure and difficult to analyze in terms of their symbolism and structure.
Prose, on the other hand, was to Valéry a medium for transmitting information, not emotion. Much of his later writing is prose in the form of essays, dialogues, and jottings from his notebooks on various subjects, containing insights from his intellectual quests. Psychology and psychiatry were of great interest to him and he studied writings from the emerging new fields to help him better understand his own motivations. He considered intellect the sole power by which humanity had transcendent understanding of the different psychological aspects of the mind. The characters in his prose reflected his discoveries and probings. His preparation for the essay on the life of Leonardo da Vinci provided ample opportunity to study the processes of genius. He also created Monsieur Teste, a fictional character on an intellectual and philosophical journey whose story was representative of Valéry’s own.
“The Graveyard by the Sea”
First published: “Le Cimetière marin,” 1920 (collected in An Anthology of French Poetry from Nerval to Valéry in English Translation with French Originals, 1958)
Type of work: Poem
In an imaginary return to his hometown cemetery, the poet attempts to...
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