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, and his translations of Shakespeare's plays are widely acclaimed.
By general critical consensus Yves Bonnefoy is one of the finest poets to emerge in France since World War II; and, remarkably, his reputation came with … [his first book], Du Mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve (1953)…. This book is a sequence of short poems, separated into several sections, and must be read as such; it is as well a difficult work of "magie suggestif", which is reminiscent in part of the hermetic qualities of Mallarmé and Valéry and others whose technique involves obliquity, spiritual plenitude and vacancy. "Douve", the proper name of the title, cannot be fixed in a single identity except as a feminine principle, she is variously glimpsed as earth, woman, the beloved, and is associated with the origins of poetry and the poem itself. The sequence proceeds through changing moods and the transformations of inward metaphysical drama that is deliberately ambiguous and elusive, though it clearly is implicated with love and separation, a journey into death and rebirth. It is a poem for reflective rereading with attention to recurrent gestures, rhythms, images. (p. 269)
Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in Poetry (© 1969 by the Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), January, 1969.
One of the deepest incitements to poetry since the Romantics has been a search for Eden. Yves Bonnefoy's L'Arrière-pays is another account of such a search, and an important one. He rediscovers the paradox of Poe, that it is precisely the seemingly utter sufficiency of natural beauty which dissatisfies, by urging to something beyond itself. He looks, however, for the lost place of benediction, the vrai lieu, not in the néant or an imaginary elsewhere but in a world "of flesh and of time" like ours, not in the unreal but in the real transformed by human vision. The book both celebrates the earth as it is and desires its "resurrection".
In form, it is a kind of essential autobiography, organized around the single quest for the arrière-pays, and reports M Bonnefoy's travels, mainly as an art critic, to various places and paintings. He responds to the latter, with continually stimulating penetration, as attempts to fulfil our need for images, for seeing the earth remade. It also relates crucial experiences that have fed his writing though he refers them curiously less to his poetry than to certain unfinished stories. He reveals himself, indeed, a compelling storyteller, delicate, symbolic, erudite, no doubt under the conscious influence of Nerval; even though it is part of the discipline of which the book is the narrative to reject this "imaginative" type of composition.
L'Arrière-pays is a spacious work, despite its relative shortness, and is written with M Bonnefoy's usual impassioned high seriousness, in a grave and poetically vibrant language whose syntax, at times, is pointedly classical. It is full of ideas (for instance, on the metaphysical nature of Latin), of writer's wisdom, and of pregnant phrasing.
A comparison with Philippe Jaccottet's very similar Paysages avec figures absentes … shows its possible limitations. There is less really probing contact with individual sites and canvases: M Bonnefoy's imagination, which is anything but abstract, works nevertheless not so much through a response to detailed particulars as through the establishing of general, though still passionate, mental structures, in a way that one associates with French classicism. One may, of course, prefer his method; here it makes his pursuit of a relationship with nature an intellectual hygiene rather more than a hygiene of the whole man. One also becomes aware in M Jaccottet of a dimension that is absent from L'Arrière-pays, the dimension of human pain and evil, which is arguably vital to a study of natural beauty as lacking its plenitude, and of ourselves as exiles. None of which is to deny, however, that this is a severe and admirable work, which anyone concerned for poetry and painting ought to know. (p. 839)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1972; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 21, 1972.
Silence—as the other side of speech, of consciousness, of being—is a recurrent yet often ambiguous theme in Yves Bonnefoy's poetry. A master of dense and beautiful lyrics, Bonnefoy seeks nonetheless the "summit of imperfection." An anti-Platonist who wishes to "name" the objects of this earth, he decries at the same time the inadequacy of all language. The following two papers take up different aspects of this quest for silence through language; juxtaposed, they propose different readings of the same area in the same poetry. They may well be contradictory. Does Bonnefoy's speech resolve into silence, or into multiple voices? Is his ultimate "comprehension" a stilled, higher vision, or an ambiguous self-awareness? Is his "passage" the passage to an intuited arrière-pays, or a progression forever halted on the threshold? Does Bonnefoy's style evoke silence as a decrescendo formed of echo and inner allusion, or does it represent silence by a ceaseless interplay of decentered references? Do these readings cancel each other out, or is there something to be gained by pursuing divergent view-points in the same context? (p. 193)