(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

From the beginning of his poetic career, Yves Bonnefoy’s work has sounded the note of a serious pursuit of the truths which language reveals. His early divergence from the later figures of the Surrealist movement in France seems to have been provoked by what he perceived as a lack of purpose in their pursuits. For Bonnefoy, poetic language, above all, is a place or a function which grants access to the truths of existence. The path to those truths may of necessity be a difficult one, but once one is on that path, there can be no turning back. Bonnefoy is a highly original and engaging writer of criticism in which he explores these issues, but it has always been in his poetry that he has sought to discover their ground.


The early works Anti-Platon and On the Motion and Immobility of Douve introduce his poetry of high seriousness and announce a break from Surrealist practice. If Bonnefoy declares early his stance “against Plato,” as the title of the first collection states, it is to restore the real dimension of experience, this object here and now, over against any sort of Platonic ideal. By extension, the importance of this real object leads Bonnefoy to examine the importance of this real life, here and now, in its affective dimension. Perhaps paradoxically, the importance of life emerges fully only when one confronts the actual death of someone. The poems in the second collection take up this theme; they are also the poems which established Bonnefoy as one of the most important poets of his generation.

On the Motion and Immobility of Douve

The figure of Douve in Bonnefoy’s second collection is based on a young girl of his acquaintance who died a sudden and tragic death. (He gives her name only in a later collection; see below.) As the form in the poems alternates between highly organized quatrains and looser prose-poem utterances, so the investigation in the poems moves between the image of the dead young woman and death in general. As the sequence progresses, the speaker seeks to discover his own destiny based on an identification with the words of the young woman. In this work, death is present in the form of a person who is no longer there. She is troubling, however, because she poses the question of existence, of essence, of being. It is by means of this questioning that the poet discovers his own means of expression. More even than the torment of mourning, there seems to emerge the injunction to silence as the most accurate means of representing death.

There is a progression, then, in the poems of this collection as far as the identification of the poet with the figure of the dead woman by means of her speech. When she speaks in the first part of the collection, it is in the past tense, and she speaks of natural forces, wind and cold. The poet-speaker sees her, however, and as a result there is a separation, the separation of death. The only way to overcome this separation is by the identification involved in speaking. Changing to the present tense, the speaker says, “Douve je parle en toi” (Douve, I speak in you):

Et si grand soit le froid qui monte de ton être,
Si brûlant soit le gel de notre intimité,
Douve, je parle en toi; et je t’enserre
Dans l’acte de connaître et de nommer.

(And though great cold rises in your being,

However burning the frost of our intimacy
Douve, I speak in you; and I enshroud you
In the act of knowing and of naming.)

This is one of the strong moments of identification and the beginning of poetic creation, as Bonnefoy describes it in his essay “The Act and the Place of Poetry”: “So Dante who has lost her, will name Beatrice.” Over against the natural forces that are imaged here as present because of her death, the act of naming and of knowing restores a certain presence to the lost loved one. Even so, this is a first stage: Far from being consoling, it leads the poet to the point of anguish.

The central part of the collection, “Douve parle” (Douve speaks), begins with this identification in speaking, “ce cri sur moi vient de moi” (this cry above me comes from me). Paradoxically, in the series of poems bearing the title “Douve speaks,” she finishes by saying: “Que le verbe s’éteigne” (Let the verb be extinguished). That which one must recognize in oneself as death surpasses the function of speech. The poet enters this region of contradiction when he says: “Je parle dans ton sang” (I speak in your blood).

This progression reaches its completion in the injunction, which the figure of the woman makes to the speaker, to remain silent. The poem which begins “Mais que se taise” (But that one be silent) requires silence above all of the one “Qui parle pour moi” (Who speaks for me). In the following poems, she is even more direct, saying simply, “Tais-toi” (remain silent; shut up). The speaker finds himself in a place of radical transformations, during a time of anguish and of struggle: “Quand la lumière enfin s’est faite vent et nuit” (When the light at last has become wind and night). The figure of the dead woman has led the speaker to a privileged place of being, where the poet not only recognizes himself in his own expression but also is faced with his own anguish, his authentic attitude toward death.


(The entire section is 2226 words.)