Paul Valéry Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Paul Valéry’s diverse and copious writings include plays, such as Mon Faust (pb. 1946; My Faust, 1960); musical drama such as Amphion (pr., pb. 1931; English translation, 1960), Sémiramis (pr., pb. 1934; English translation, 1960), and Cantate du Narcisse (pr. 1939; The Narcissus Cantata, 1960); dialogues such as Eupalinos: Ou L’Architecte (1921; Eupalinos: Or, The Architect, 1932) and L’Âme et la danse (1925; Dance and the Soul, 1951); the witty Monsieur Teste series; essays on a wide range of subjects; translations (such as that of Vergil’s Eclogues, 43-37 b.c.e.); numerous book prefaces, speeches, and university lectures; and an extensive correspondence with many illustrious contemporaries, such as André Gide and Stéphane Mallarmé. Dwarfing this work in terms of volume alone are the nearly twenty-nine thousand pages of his notebooks, which he kept from 1894 until his death in 1945. They record his thoughts on such diverse subjects as psychology, mathematics, culture, and literary theory, and are considered to contain some of the most beautiful prose ever written in the French language. Virtually the only literary form which Valéry did not attempt was the novel. He considered the genre, with its contradictory demand to create a fictional reality, to be alien to his sensibilities, once remarking that he was incapable of composing a work which began with a line such as “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.”


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The honors bestowed upon Paul Valéry by the French people attest the veneration in which he was held by his fellow countrymen. His talents were also recognized by many outside France. Not only was he instrumental in acquainting the rest of the world with French culture, but also he enjoyed an international reputation as a literary figure and as a keen analyst of politics and culture. For a number of years, he served on the Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations. In 1935, he became a member of the Academy of Sciences of Lisbon. Highly respected by the British and the Portuguese, he received honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford (1931) and Coimbra (1937). Valéry was the last member of a trio of poets with similar aesthetic ideals and compositional practices (the other members were Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé); he was the last major French poet to use the strict rules of French versification. The Surrealist poets, for example, although finding much to admire in his work, preferred other methods of poetic composition, such as automatic writing. Although Valéry left no literary disciples to practice his aesthetic ideals, his works and literary philosophy interested and stimulated such diverse literary figures as T. S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Tzvetan Todorov and other structuralists share with Valéry an interest in the relationship between the component elements of a work, although Valéry focuses on the process of composition rather than on the analysis of the resulting literary discourse. Todorov credits Valéry with redefining the word “poetics” to emphasize literary language rather than rules of rhyme and versification. Others, such as New Novelist Jean Ricardou, find Valéry’s aesthetic in accord with their rejection of the subjectivity, the false sense of “psychology,” the insistence upon verisimilitude, and the lack of compositional rigor which they find characteristic of the traditional novel Thus, Valéry still speaks to a wide range of writers and readers, and the beauty of his poetry, the incisive observations and lucid prose of his notebooks, and the continuing influence of his literary theories assure his continued importance in French literature.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What aspects of Paul Valéry’s poetry differ substantially from the work of a man with whom he is often compared, Stéphen Mallarmé?

What artistic works other than poems influenced Valéry?

Specifically, how did Valéry’s mathematical knowledge contribute to his poetry?

What features of the cemetery that Valéry visited helped him back into the active life of a poet?

For Valéry, what was the challenge and difficulty of making poetry from ordinary language?

Examine Valéry’s theory of the relationship between poetry and abstract thought.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Anderson, Kirsteen. Paul Valéry and the Voice of Desire. Oxford, England: Legenda, 2000. An exploration of the power of voice as image and theme throughout Valéry’s writing. Anderson highlights the tension between a dominant “masculine” imaginary and the repressed “feminine” dimension which underpins Valéry’s work.

Gifford, Paul, and Brian Stimpson, eds. Reading Paul Valéry: Universe in Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A collection of essays by internationally recognized scholars offering a comprehensive account of Valéry’s work. Perspectives are offered on the immense range of Valéry’s experimental and fragmentary writings.

Kluback, William. Paul Valéry: Illusions of Civilization. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. A discussion of the meaning of civilization, in particular, Western civilization, as it was investigated in the philosophical works of Valéry. Studies the infrastructure of Valéry’s philosophy as it embraced the questions of civilization, history, evil, love, and mortality.

Kluback, William. Paul Valéry: The Realms of the “Analecta.” New York: Peter Lang, 1998. A study of a particular aspect of Valéry’s philosophical work, the Analects. This is the realm of the imagination, of the image and metaphor. Readers are presented with epigrams that are designed to confuse and challenge their thinking.

Putnam, Walter C. Paul Valéry Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1995. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Valéry. Includes bibliographical references and index.