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Paul Valéry (1871-1945) - in full Ambroise-Paul-Touissaint-Jules Valéry


French poet, essayist, and critic, who ceased writing verse for twenty years to pursue scientific experiments. Valéry was a member of the 19th-century poetic school of Symbolism, and its last great representative. Throughout his life Valéry filled his private notebooks with observations on creative process and his own methods of inquiry. He insisted that the mental process of creation was alone important the poems were a by-product of the effort. "Enthusiasm is not an artist's state of mind", stated Valéry. T.S. Eliot has compared Valéry's analytical attitude to a scientist who works in a laboratory "weighing out or testing the drugs of which is compounded some medicine with an impressive name."

"Poetry is simply literature reduced to the essence of its active principle. It is purged of idols of every kind, of realistic illusions, of any conceivable equivocation between the language of "truth" and the language of "creation." (from Littérature, 1929)

Paul Valéry was born in Cette (now Sète), the son of a Corsican customs officer, Barthelmy Valéry, and Fanny Grassi, who was the daughter of the Genoese Italian consul and descended from Venetian nobility. Valéry spent his childhood in the port town of his birth, and remained through his life close to his Mediterranean origins. He was educated in Sette and at the lycée in Montpellier. He studied law at the University of Montpellier, and obtained his licence in 1892. Mathematics fascinated Valéry, but before his voluntary service in the infantry he had been prevented from becoming a candidate for the Naval School due to his weakness in this subject. After moving to Paris he became a regular attendant at Stéphane Mallarmé's literary 'Tuesday evenings' and the older poet's favorite disciple. Valéry's other early idols were Edgar Allan Poe, whose poems he also translated, and J-K.Huysman. Mallarmé's influence is seen in Valéry's masterpiece La Jeune Parque (1917). Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, Valéry started to write in notebooks, which were published posthumously in 1957-60 in Cahiers (Notebooks).

After a passionate attraction for a young Spanish girl, Valéry went through a personal crisis. During a violent thunderstorm, as he later reported, he decided to free himself "at no matter what cost, from those falsehoods: literature and sentiment." In 1896 Valéry was employed in London by the press bureau of the British South Africa Company. He then worked for three years in the artillery munition bureau of the French Army. In 1900 he married Jeannie Gobillard, a niece of the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. In the same year he joined the Havas news agency to became the private secretary of Edouard Lebey, a key executive of the company, who was afflicted with paralysis agitans. Valéry held this position until 1922.

In 1892 Valéry experienced the "revolution of the mind" during a stormy night in Genoa. He turned his back on writing poetry and dedicated himself to gaining "maximum knowledge and control of his intellect." The very act of writing, he decided, was one of vanity. During these silent years as a poet he published two prose works. In Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci (1894) he stated that "all criticism is the cause of the work as in the eyes of the law the criminal is the cause of the crime. Far rather are they both the effects." La soirée avec monsieur Teste (1896) was the first of the numerous pieces of the Teste cycle. The painter Edgar Degas, who called him 'Monseur Angel,' refused the dedication of the book. M. Teste (Mr. Head) is an intellectual monster, whose whole existence is given up to the examination of his own intellectual process. The work was published in Le Centaure, and reprinted by Paul Fort, in his periodical Vers et prose.

Valéry's mathematical and philosophical speculations were interrupted by André Gide and the publisher Gaston Gallimard, who persuaded Valéry to collect and revise the poetry he had written in the 1890s. "A poem is never finished, only abandoned," had Valéry himself once said. Thus Valéry broke his silence after 20 years of solitude and study. Valéry's original plan was to produce a poem of some forty lines, but he finished with five-hundred-line poem. La Jeune Pataque, one of his major works, brought him immediate fame.

Une esclave aux longs yeux chargés de molles chaines
Change l'eau de mes fleurs, plonge aux glaces prochaines,
Au lit mystérieux prodigue ses doigts purs;
Elle met une femme au milieu de ces murs
Qui, dans ma réverie errante avec décence,
Passe entre mes regards sans briser leur absence,
Comme passe le verre au travers du soleil,
Et de la raison pure épargne l'appareil.

(from 'Intérieur')

Valéry's early poems were collected in Album de vers anciens 1890-1900 (1920). With the Charmes ou Poèmes (1922) Valéry attained the status of most significant contemporary French poet. In his most famous poem, 'Le Cimetière marin', the poet meditates as he looks at the cemetery by the sea at Sette where his parents and he himself ultimately are buried. He initially feels that he loves and envies the stillness of death, but comes then to the famous lines: 'The wind rises!... We must try to live!'

Lebey's death left Valéry without employment, and he had to earn his living by publishing his writings. He lectured, wrote prefaces to ancient and modern works, and contributed to periodicals. However, Valéry was horrified to find out, that his letters to Pierre Louÿs were sold without his own consent on the rare-book market. The letters were retrieved by Julien-Pierre Monod, the grandfather of the director Jean-Luc Godard, and published in 1925 as XV Lettres de Paul Valéry à Pierre Louÿs. Eventually Monod began to manage the poets money, organized his lecture tours, and served as his secretary. Valéry referred to him as his "minister".

Valéry was elected to the Académie Française in 1925 and in 1933 he was made administrative head of the Centre Universitaire Méditerranéen at Nice. His fee as member of the académie was eighty-three francs. Valéry's 'mélodrames' Amphion and Sémiramis, with music by Arthur Honegger, played at the Paris Opera in 1931 and 1934. In 1939 he wrote the libretto for Germaine Taillefer's Cantate du Narcisse.

In spite of being seemingly indifferent to his public, Valéry was a keen observer of his age. Until his death, Valéry was almost looked upon as official representative of France's culture. One of his major ideas was that architecture, music, and poetry were the offspring of the science of numbers, echoing the thoughts of Pythagoras "all is number".

On Anatole France's death Valéry was admitted to the Academy, but instead of composing an 'éloge' about France he broke the precedent by unconventionally criticizing the author. Whereas France had occupied himself with politics and finally declared himself a Communist, Valéry was not a political thinker. Also France represented to many French literary people all that was outmoded. Valéry was appointed in 1937 professor of poetry at the Collège de France, but according to the poet Yves Bonnefoy who attended his lectures, he was not an inspiring lecturer. Standing in front of his audience, he just read his notes, in a low and monotonous voice. 

Valéry died in Paris on July 20, 1945. His last principal work was the Faust fragments on which he began to work in 1940. 'Station sur la terlasse'  (1942) in Cahiers was a poetic meditation on the aftermath of the end of the world he knew. Between the years 1957 and 1961 the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique published a facsimile reprint of his Cahiers. Two large volumes of selections came out in 1973.

For further reading: Paul Valéry: études by E. Noulet (1938, 1951); The Art of Poetry, Collected Works, vol VII by T.S. Eliot (1958); The Poem Itself, ed. by S. Burnshaw (1960); Paul Valéry by A. Berne-Joffroi (1960); The Poetic Theory of Valéry by W.N. Ince (1961); Paul Valéry by E. Sewell (1961); Paul Valéry: Consciousness of Nature by C. Crow (1972); Paul Valéry et le théâtre by H. Laurenti (1973); The Poet as Analyst: Essays on Paul Valéry by J.R. Lawler (1974); Paul Valéry by C.G. Whiting (1978); Margins of Philosophy by J. Derrida (1982);  Literature and Spirituality, ed. by David Bevan (1992); Paul Valery Revisited by Walter Putman (1995); Paul Valery: Illusions of Civilization by Paul Kluback (1996); Paul Valery: A Philosopher for Philosopgers, the Sage by William Kluback (1999); Reading Paul Valery, ed. by Paul Gifford (1999) - Suom.: Valéryn runoja on julkaistu teoksissa Helikonin lähde ja Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni (1974). 'Kalmisto meren rannalla' löytyy Lauri Viljasen suomentamana teoksesta Ranskan kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja (1934). - See also: Saint-John Perse, Colette

Selected bibliography:

  • Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci, 1895
    - Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci (translated by Thomas McGreevy, 1929)
  • La soirée avec monsieur Teste, 1896
    - An Evening with Monsieur Teste (translated by Ronald Davis, 1925; Merton Gould, 1936) / Monsieur Teste (translated by Jackson Mathews, 1947)
  • La jeune Parque, 1917 [The Young Fate ]
    - La jeune Parque (translated by Alistair Elliot, 1997)
  • La soirée avec monsieur Teste, 1919 (rev. ed. Monsieur Teste, 1946) - An Evening with Mr. Teste (tr. 1925) / Monsieur Teste (tr. 1947)
  • Album de vers anciens 1890-1900, 1920
  • Charmes ou Poèmes de Paul Valéry, 1922 (inludes 'Au Platane,' 'L'Abeille,' 'Ébauche d'un serpent,' 'Les Grenades,' 'Le Cimetière Marin,' 'Palme')
    - 'A Graveyard by the Sea' (translated by C. Day Lewis, in Selected Writings of Paul Valery, 1964; Jean-Pierre Attal, 2000) / The Collected Works in English: Vol. 1: Poems (translated by David Paul, 1971) / Charms (translated by James L. Brown, 1983) / Sketch of a Serpent and Other Poems (translated by Jan Schreiber, 1986) / Sketch of a Serpent = (Ebauche dun serpent) (translated by Lynn Hoggard, 1987)
    - 'Kalmisto meren rannalla' (teoksessa Ranskan kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja, suom. Lauri Viljanen, 1934); 'Plataanille' (suom. teoksessa Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni, 1974)
  • Eupalinos ou l'architecte, L'âme et la danse, 1923
    - Eupalinos; or, The Architect (translated by William McCausland Stewart, 1932) / Dance and the Soul (translated by Dorothy Bussy, 1951)
  • Dialogue de l'arbre, 1923
  • Fragments sur la Mallarmé, 1924
  • Variété 1-5, 1924 (5 vols., first two vols., as Variety, 1927-38)
  • Une conquête méthodique, 1924
  • Durtal, 1925
  • Études et fragments sur le rêve, 1925
  • XV Lettres de Paul Valéry à Pierre Louÿs, 1925
  • Propos sur l'intelligence, 1925
  • Le retour de Hollande - Descartes et Rembrandt, 1926
  • Petit recueil de paroles de circonstance, 1926
  • Analecta, 1926
  • Rhumbs: (notes et autres), 1926
  • Autres rhumbs, 1927
  • Maîtres et amis, 1927
  • Quatre lettres de Paul Valéry au sujet de Nietzsche, 1927
  • Discours de réception, 1927
  • Essai sur Stehdhal, 1927
  • Lettre à Madame..., 1928
  • Poésie: Essais sur la poétique et le poète, 1928
  • Poésies, 1929
  • The Ideal Book, 1930 (translated by Theodore W. Koch)
  • Littérature, 1930
  • Morceaux choisis; prose et poésie, 1930
  • Variation sur une "pensée", 1930
  • Propos sur la poésie, 1930
  • Cahiers B., 1930
  • Oeuvres, 1931-50 (12 vols.)
  • Amphion: mélodrame, 1931 (play, music by Arthur Honeger)
  • Regards sur le monde actuel, 1931
  • Pièces sur l'art, 1931
  • Discours de l'histoire, 1932
  • Choses tues, 1932
  • Discours en l'honneur de Goethe, 1932
  • Moralités, 1932
  • La politique de l'espirit, 1932
  • De la diction des vers, 1933
  • Poésies, 1933 (augmented edition, 1942)
  • L'idée fixe ou deux hommes à la mer, 1933
  • Calepin d'un poète, 1933
  • Sémiramis: mélodrame, 1934 (play, music by Arthur Honegger)
  • Suite, 1934
  • Analecta, 1935
  • Paraboles, 1935
  • Hommage à Albert Thibaudet, 1936
  • Villon et Verlaine. L'Homme et la coquille, 1937
    - Sea Shells (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1998)
  • L'Homme et la coquille, 1937
  • Degas, Danse, Dessin, 1938
    - Degas, Dance, Drawing (translated by Helen Burlin, 1948)
  • Technique au service de la pensée, 1938
  • Discours aux chirurgiens, 1938
  • Introduction à la poétique, 1938
  • Existence du symbolisme, 1939
  • Conférences, 1939
  • Mélange, 1941
  • Tel quel, 1941-43 (2 vols.)  
  • Mauvaises pensées et autres, 1945
  • Souvenirs poétiques, 1946
  • Eupalinos, ou, L'architecte. L'âme et la danse. Dialogue de l'arbre. L'idée fixe, 1944
  • Au sujet de Nerval, 1944
  • Regards sur le monde actuel et autres essais, 1945
    - Reflections on the World Today (translated by Francis Scarfe, 1948)
  • Henri Berrgson, 1945
  • Essais et témoignages inédits, 1946
  • Mon Faust: ébauches, 1946
  • L'ange, 1946
  • Souvenirs poétiques, 1947
  • Vues, 1948
  • Selected Writings, 1950
  • Écrits Divers sur Stéphane Mallarmé, 1950
  • Histoires brisées, 1950
  • Lettres à Quelques Uns, 1952
  • Les Bucoliques, by Virgil, 1953 (translator)
  • Agathe ou la sainte du sommeil, 1956
  • The Collected works of Paul Valéry, 1956-1975- (15 vols., edited by Jackson Mathews)
  • Dialogues, 1956 (translated by William McCausland Stewart; with two prefaces by Wallace Stevens)
  • Degas, Manet, Morisot, 1960 (translated by David Paul; with an introduction by Douglas Cooper)
  • Collected Works, 1956-75 (15 vols., ed. by Jackson Mathews)
  • Cahiers, 1957-60 (29 vols.) - Cahiers = Notebooks (translated by Paul Gifford et al.)
  • uvres, 1957-60 (2 vols., ed. by Jean Hytier)
  • The Art of Poetry, 1958 (translated from the French by Denise Folliot; introd. by T. S. Eliot)
  • The Outlook for Intelligence, 1962 (translated by Denise Folliot and Jackson Mathews; with a preface by Franc¸ois Valéry)
  • Self Portraits: The Gide/Valéry Letters 1890-1942, 1966
  • Paul Valéry: An Anthology, 1977 (edited by Jackson Mathews)
  • Poèmes secrets inédits; suivis de Fragments de lettres inédites, 1983  
  • Sketch of a Serpent and Other Poems, 1986 (translated by Jan Schreiber)
  • Cahiers 1894-1914, 1989 (2 vols., edited by Nicole Celeyrette-Pietri and Judith Robinson-Valery)
  • Poèmes macaroniques: et autres textes inédits, 1991
  • Deux prèfaces de Paul Valéry, 1996 (edited by Jean Dubu)
  • Cahiers = Notebooks, 2000-2010 (5 vols., translated by Paul Gifford et al.)
  • Paul Valéry-André Fontainas: correspondance, 1893-1945: Narcisse au monument, 2002 (edited by Anna Lo Giudice)
  • Au miroir de lhistoire: choix de lettres 1895-1938, 2004 (edited by Micheline Hontebeyrie, preface by Nicole Celeyrette-Pietri)
  • Souvenirs et réflexions, 2010  (edited by Michel Jarrety)

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