Yves Bonnefoy Bonnefoy, Yves (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bonnefoy, Yves 1923–

Bonnefoy is a French critic, poet, translator, essayist, and art historian. The central thematic concern of his poetry is the life-death relationship. Bonnefoy has increasingly devoted more time to his art history studies. His translations of Shakespeare's plays are also widely acclaimed. (See also CLC, Vol. 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Sarah N. Lawall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Place is a key concept in the work of Yves Bonnefoy. The "true place" is real yet ideal, specific yet transfigured, embedded in the world yet overflowing the limits of ordiinary perception: "Hic est locus patriae." Nonetheless, Bonnefoy's place is not simply location, a richly symbolic landscape with coordinates on both geographic and metaphysical maps. It is also an activity that takes place within poetry, and this active sense comes to define the way place itself is described. After the original act of knowing and naming objects before us, creating in that manner a true place, there comes a stylistic dynamism of exchange, openness and multiple awareness that structures the work as the very site of consciousness….

Place and act [in Bonnefoy] are two complementary and inextricable terms. The poetic place implies a special activity—a naming of things as they are—and the poetic activity is located firmly on this earth, in an experience interpreted by the text. Actual descriptions of place emphasize one or another of these complementary poles but tend gradually to incorporate structures of activity, interrogating and fragmenting the outlines of the given scene. The four walls of the emblematic orangery in Du mouvement et de l'immobilite de Douve and of L'ordalie do not remain intact in Dans le leurre du seuil, but break apart before the invasions of nature…. Finally, the act of naming (with its subjective and even prophetic overtones in "L'acte et le lieu") is transformed into a multiplicty of voices, a faire parler: not so much a temple with a hidden god as a vault of echo, a diverse and decentered utterance. What happens is that the "act" comes more and more to define the "place" and structures of exchange to dominate the way in which place is described. (p. 411)

Physical place—whether it be the gravestones of Pierre écrite, the torn leaf of "L'acte et le lieu," the baroque chair in a Belgian church … or the television and church inscriptions of Dans le leurre de seuil—grounds infinity and serves as check and balance to the poet's subjectivity. However purified and fragmentary, these material points of departure give substance to the poetic image and keep it from being locked into a utopian imagination. (pp. 411-12)

Scenes throughout Bonnefoy's poetry and criticism evoke the interrelationship of different places that all seem to be levels of the same place, transparent layers fusing inextricably the quest beyond with an acute physical awareness of life and death on this earth. References to an arriere-pays, an intuited ideal country that Bonnefoy has called a constant demonic fantasy, and descriptions of thresholds before some unattainable other region persist throughout his work…. [The elements of Bonnefoy's typically spare] landscape are always clearly outlined, even if isolated and often fragmentary: a shoulder, face, or arm, water surfaces, a barge pole, branch, or cloud, foliage and a windowpane. There is no blurring or vagueness in Bonnefoy's vision but sharply perceived fragments of a total framework whose proportions remain to be determined. The poet sketches a landscape of reference points in reality, pictures esthetically complete in themselves but retaining—like sketches—an openness between their parts that leaves room for continued metamorphosis and potential fulfillment.

The literary work itself is a place, a landscape or inscape of signs. Such signs evoke the volume and color of the three-dimensional world, but they also run the risk of being merely signs and retreating to their own...

(The entire section is 1502 words.)

Marc Hofstadter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Death is an almost overwhelming reality in Yves Bonnefoy's poetry. In his vision of things, death undermines all happiness and all permanence. Not something we encounter at the end of life only, it is indistinguishable from the actual world around us. Pervading all things, it often causes reality to become silent and barren for us, alien in its otherness. It may seem to be the prime force in existence, to dominate our lives.

But there are times when reality turns and reveals another face. Such occasions are described in a number of places in Bonnefoy's prose. The world turns slowly within the moment, leaving time and space behind. All that we had seemed to lose, through death, is returned to us. Nothingness is replaced by a fullness of being, and we begin to live the "vraie vie" which Rimbaud, one of Bonnefoy's masters, sought. Bonnefoy calls what happens in these moments "présence," a condition in which all seems part of an illuminated, vital unity. It is because of such experiences that life is worth living after all; they give us hope and a possibility of fulfillment. Presence, not death, though he writes of death so much, is the goal and heart of Bonnefoy's efforts.

We can come near to such presence or illumination, though, only through mortal things, through the things of our world. Since finitude is the only realm we live in, it must be the object of transformation if we are to attain to a sacred condition. Bonnefoy therefore writes a great deal of things of the earth: stones, birds, stars, leaves, water, blood—and of humble, domestic objects: tables, lamps, hearths…. Instead of showing us sensuous particulars, or ideas, Bonnefoy reveals the mythic and permanent aspects of objects, the region in which they take on shape as elemental presences. We are transported to worlds of significance and resonance beyond our normal perceptions. All being suffused with a hushed, other-worldly beauty, we are spoken to, a truth fills us with its being. The world becomes thoroughly meaningful, with a meaning beyond mere reference, and we feel liberated and transformed. Such a moment passes, and we are returned to our world of limitation and death, but poetry can keep awake the moment's memory. (pp. 4-5)

Poems like "La chambre," "L'epaule," "L'arbre, La lampe," "Les chemins," "Le myrte," "La lumière, changée," "Le coeur, L'eau non troublée" and the culminating "Le livre, pour vieillir" [from the section of Pierre écrite titled "Un feu va devant nous"] convey us to realms characterized by silence, immobility and a suffusing light, qualities central for Bonnefoy, I will try to show, to experiences of transcendence. The poems embody faithfully in their structures Bonnefoy's descriptions of the coming of presence, which involves a slow turning within the moment—a gliding, gradual transition that takes place almost outside of time, in an expanded instant, as though in a dream. This kind of experience is repeated, in differing ways, in many of the poems of "Un feu va devant nous." Each constitutes a moment of special insight and revelation. (pp. 5-6)

The world of "La chambre" is characterized by immobility, silence and light. It is full of activity and communication but these take place as though in a dream, enclosed within the slow stillness of a single moment. The qualities of the earth...

(The entire section is 1383 words.)

Joseph Frank

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The obsessive and dominating theme of Yves Bonnefoy's writings is] the conflict between faith and reason, hope and despair, life and death, light and darkness, between "le vrai lieu" and "le désert." No writer of our time has expressed this theme in more impressive and convincing accents than Yves Bonnefoy. And it is because he refuses, like Dostoevsky, to surrender either pole of the terrible antinomy—because he feels each with equal purity and equal strength—that his work is so powerful and (I use the word advisedly) so exhilarating. For it is only by being able to endure, as Hegel would say, the full power of the negative, that whatever positive emerges—tentative and minimal as it must inevitably be in our own time—maintains its ability to console and to persuade. (pp. 400-01)

It seems to me that students of Yves Bonnefoy would be well advised to explore [his] "Russian connection," [or the influence of such writers as Dostoevsky, Borigde Schloezer, Lev Shestov, and Wladimir Weidlé on his work] and to weigh its share in supporting the values that he espouses. My own guess would be to regard this Russian component as contributing to reinforce and strengthen Bonnefoy's reaction against the seductions of estheticism in all its forms and varieties (a seduction so strong in the French late nineteenth-century tradition), his fascination with the metaphysical aspirations of Rimbaud and the religious velleities of Baudelaire, his...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Richard Stamelman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Yves Bonnefoy's] is a poetry that refuses to close its eyes to those experiences of loss that identify temporal existence. Death, absence, nothingness, ruin, dispersion and errancy are events that his poems uncover in the common realities of a drifting cloud, a bird's cry,… and the reflected light of a setting sun. To the myopia which keeps us from seeing and understanding the lessons of the past, this poetry gives corrective vision, reminding us that time is fatal, death ever-present and exile inescapable.

The major concern of poetry, Yves Bonnefoy writes, is to "name what has been lost."… Poetry, he suggests, must meditate on death and loss. The poet cannot plunge into the dreamy waters of a...

(The entire section is 2268 words.)