The Poetry of Claudel

by Paul Claudel
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1520

The two great poets of the first third of the twentieth century in France were Paul Valery and Paul Claudel. It is instructive to contrast them, for they are precisely opposites in almost every respect. Claudel was a public man in terms of personality and profession; Valery was a private man. Valery was a poet of the self and mind; his poetic method was hyperconscious, he rejected the idea of poetic inspiration, and his total output of forty-three poems is exquisitely polished, rigidly controlled, and desperate in search of abstract purity. Claudel was a poet not of the self but of man and God. His literary output is staggering: over a hundred volumes of all kinds of writing. He frankly relied on enthusiasm and inspiration; he inevitably avoided the abstract, or transmuted it into lush sensual imagery; and while his poetry achieved its own kind of form, it is not polished and precise, but bardic and overflowing. Both poets used the sea as an important symbol in their poetry. Valery’s sea is a still, crystalline equivalent for changeless, abstract thought; Claudel’s sea is a swelling, turbulent force, almost impossible to control, representing God, life, grace, inspiration, and poetry itself.

Claudel’s poetry has two fundamental sources, both, in his terms, spiritual, both capable of bestowing grace. The first is poetic sensibility (the muse), the other, God. Claudel was committed to both by remarkable emotional experiences in 1886. At that time, when he was eighteen, he was in the midst of what he described as a spiritual famine. The intellectual and artistic milieu of Paris was dominated by deterministic, scientific philosophies and by naturalistic and realistic literary techniques. All of this, with its focus on the “real,” material world, seemed empty and unsatisfying to the young poet. Also, while his family was Catholic by tradition, religion was a passive thing in Claudel’s life at this time.

Then in 1886 Claudel read Rimbaud’s ILLUMINATIONS. This poetry and other Symbolist verse seemed to break through the deadening circle of materialism that was smothering Claudel. The non-rational techniques, and anti-realistic concerns of the Symbolists gave him an almost physical impression of the supernatural. Their poetry both tied together and liberated language and the spirit. Claudel had found a way to write the kind of poetry his outgoing and anti-materialist soul wanted to pour out.

Added to this sudden literary experience was a vivid religious conversion. Claudel, a nominal Catholic, went to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame to witness the Christmas mass. Drawn to the Church, he returned later in the afternoon to the vespers service. While standing beside a pillar in the church, God suddenly and loudly spoke to Claudel, calling him by name. This experience, as Claudel says, dominated the rest of this life. All doubt was removed; he had been given grace and faith. From that time Claudel never ceased to believe or to write. Combining his literary and religious conversions, he completely identified poetry and faith. He was able thenceforth to speak of Grace who is the Muse and the Muse who is Grace.

As a result of this double commitment, Claudel wrote poetry which sought at the same time to present the essence of the spirit and the essence of language. To accomplish this end he developed and wrote in a free verse form called the verset. He was inspired in this development by the rhetoric of the Bible and the high styles of Pindar and Aeschylus. Language, for Claudel, was essentially oral; it must be spoken, not merely written, by the poet, and its poetic use must be determined by the way it sounds at any given instant. Each line is to be constructed and bound together in a musical unit as the poem composes it. The poet need not rely on a rigid predetermined pattern of syllables and rhymes and stanzas to achieve his music. He can rely on his ear and his inspiration. This verset unit of composition was perfectly fitted to Claudel’s poetic needs, for he was at his poetic best in long, free flowing odes and hymns in which flexibility in form is needed to match the changing and rushing curve of his inspiration. Further, granted this freedom, the poet was able to soar unrestrained (except by his inner sense of artistic control) after that essence of the spirit he so steadily sought in the essence of language and statement; he was able to project and dramatize his sense of the solemnity and the wonder of God and God’s creation.

Claudel’s poems seek to be what he is talking about, not to say it. As Claudel himself says in one place, a poem does not explain anything any more than a flower does.

If Claudel’s poetry is characterized by a single overall view of the world, it can probably be stated as follows: Man has two histories. One is set in the disorder of the temporal world, the other is set in the perfect order of eternity and heaven. These two histories together add up to Creation, and Creation is the poet’s subject. Since these two histories in Creation are simultaneous and interpenetrating, the poet’s task is to catch, present, and glorify their simultaneity in specific instants. Everywhere he looks, Claudel sees God’s eternal order permeating man’s perpetual disorder. A poetry that can accomplish this is a total poetry, a true poetry, that makes God, God’s glory, and God’s grave visible in artistic beauty: this total poetry was Claudel’s goal.

Connected to this overall view is Claudel’s never-failing message of hope: man and the world are capable of, and will be saved through, their resemblance to each other in God. They are like God, and, thus godlike.

A good introduction to Claudel’s vast body of poetry is the early volume POEMS OF EXILE (VERS D’EXIL), published in 1892. These eleven poems were written in 1887, just a few months after Claudel’s conversion. In them, the poet has not yet found his characteristic voice; the poems and the expression are neatly formal, but the seeds of the mature Claudel are there.

CORONA BENIGNATATIS ANNI DEI, published in 1914, which has been translated into English under the title CORONAL, shows Claudel at the peak of his poetic maturity. This large collection is divided into six parts. Each part is self-sufficient, but together they add up to a complete celebration of the Christian year. The collection is made up of a series of hymns and poems to various saints, the twelve apostles, the stations of the cross, and the mass. The tone of the collection is one of solemn joy and contemplation.

But the best and greatest of Claudel’s collections of poetry is undoubtedly his FIVE GREAT ODES (CINQ GRAND ODES), published in 1910. These poems represent Claudel’s definitive use of the verset technique in which he translates his spiritual itinerary into rhetoric, rhythm, and imagery. In the first of the odes, “The Muses,” the poet is looking at an old Roman sarcophagus on which are carved the nine muses. The poet invokes them one by one, describing their respective functions and defining their role in the process of inspiration. Claudel, in effect, writes an Art of Poetry in this piece. The image of the sea comes to dominate the poem, symbolizing liberty and motion, and the muses become the incarnations of the impatience of the Holy Spirit and its sea-like, cosmic rhythm.

In the second ode, “The Spirit and the Waters,” Claudel, in order to free his imagination, meditates on the symbolism of the waters. He discovers the universal dynamic that, always moving ties together the world, man, and God. In “Magnificat,” the third ode, the poet, thinking of the benefits of God, raises a song of thanksgiving. But among these benefits, Claudel sees false idols: everything the modern world has invented, inspired by Satan, to obscure the vision of God’s creation. These idols are, at last, the things that have deadened the spirit and hope of modern man. Poetry is seen as a way for man to pierce the veil thrown up by the idols and to help man once more see God.

The fourth ode, “The Muse Who is Grace,” is a dialogue between the muse and the poet. The subject of their discussion is the difficulty of traveling the distance between human nature and grace. In “The Closed House,” the final poem in the collection, Claudel gives an answer to the people, who call him an obscure poet. If we do not understand you, they say, you do not open our hearts to grace, and you have failed us. Again the poet and his muse have a dialogue. She explains that the poet’s present solitude is necessary, that he has given what he can. All men are locked in the closed house of the world. At the conclusion of the poem, the poet addresses the then new twentieth century and calls man back to the Church. The last page of the book is a prayer for the dead.

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