Paul Ambroise Valéry

Paul Ambroise Valéry (1871-1945), often regarded as the greatest French poet of the 20th century, was Mallarmé's successor in the hermetic and intellectual tradition and the challenger of all advocates of spontaneity, inspiration, or sentimental effusiveness in poetry.

Paul Valéry was born in Sète, on the Mediterranean, on Oct. 30, 1871, of a French father of Corsican descent and an Italian mother. As a boy, looking out over the sea, he dreamed of becoming a ship captain. But he was too deficient in mathematics to qualify for the Naval Academy, so after attending the lycée at Montpellier, where his father had moved, he went to the University of Montpellier as a student of law. Literature, however, interested him more than jurisprudence. In 1890 he met Pierre Louÿs and André Gide, who spoke to Valéry about the literary life of Paris.

Symbolism was the fashion of the day, and the young provincial, who had been writing verse with increasing zeal for the past 5 years, was eager to make contact with the capital. He sent two of his poems to Stéphane Mallarmé, who praised them, and during the next 2 years Valéry published a number of poems in avant-garde magazines. Then, in the course of a night of violent lightning and thunder in the fall of 1892 while visiting relatives in Genoa, the promising young poet had a psychological experience that reoriented his life. For reasons not entirely clear, Valéry came out of this crisis with the decision to dedicate himself solely to the pursuit of knowledge. He went to Paris and, in a bare hotel room, spent his days studying and meditating problems of mathematics and psychology.

However, if Valéry had renounced poetry, he had not renounced the company of poets. Gide, Louÿs, and Henri de Régnier visited him, and he went to the Rue de Rome on Tuesdays, when Mallarmé received. Nor had Valéry, during what is referred to as his period of great silence, renounced all writing. In 1894 he began La Soirée avec M. Teste (The Evening with Monsieur Teste), a strange account of a man who strives to live by intellect alone. In 1895 the Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci, which posited an ideal of intellectual and creative ability, appeared. He had also made the first entries in the notebooks in which for 50 years he set down his reflections. However, he published no new verse.

The question of gainful employment was settled provisionally by an appointment in the War Department. The job did not please Valéry, and in 1900, the year of his marriage, he gave it up for a position as private secretary to an administrator of the Havas newspaper agency. For the next 20 years Valéry spent 3 or 4 hours a day in this service, an employment that assured him a livelihood yet left him adequate leisure for his own work. He occupied the early years of the century with his family (he had a son and a daughter), with his friends, and with the social and cultural events of the capital.

In 1912, at Gide's urging, Valéry assembled some of his old poetry for publication. It needed a little touching up, he decided, and in so doing he found himself once more composing verse. La Jeune Parque (The Young Fate) began as an exercise. When all of its 500 verses had been written and the work presented to the literate of Paris (1917), the acclaim was unanimous.

In the postwar period Valéry published poetry and essays and gave speeches. As usual, he attended plays, recitals, and dinner parties. The pattern of his life was fixed. He complained about his social chores and his health and worried about money, but he could not complain about lack of recognition. In France and abroad he was received everywhere as one of the greatest men of letters. He was made a member of the French Academy in 1925 and appointed to a chair of poetry at the Collège de France. During World War II, in spite of discouragement and privation, he carried on his duties much as before. He died in Paris on July 20, 1945, and was given a state funeral.

Although Valéry differs from Henri Bergson in many respects, he resembles the philosopher in being more interested in how the mind arrives at its goal than in the goal itself. All his studies of mathematics, philosophy, psychology, art, architecture, literature, and the dance were for the purpose of understanding the mind at work. He often felt that his quest was futile and that to renounce accomplishment or action for knowledge was a wrong choice. The question of doing versus knowing was for Valéry a lifelong preoccupation: it is a major theme in his writing; it was a major factor in his long silence; and it is really the key to his psychology as an artist and as a man. Valéry prepared 250 drafts of The Young Fate. He believed that vigor, precision, and cool skill created a poem, not inspiration.

Other works by Valéry are Le Cimetière marin (1920; The Graveyard by the Sea), which offers a good example of his poetics; Odes (1920); Album de vers anciens (1920); and Charmes (1922). His prose works include five collections of essays, all entitled Variété (1924-1944; Variety).

Further Reading on Paul Ambroise Valéry

Excerpts from Valéry's Notebooks are in The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, edited by Jackson Mathews (1956-1975). Henry A. Grubbs, Paul Valéry (1968), provides an excellent discussion of the poet's life and work together with a critical bibliography. Other recommended studies are Elizabeth Sewall, Paul Valéry: The Mind in the Mirror (1952); Jean Hytier, The Poetics of Paul Valéry (1953; trans. 1966); and Norman Suckling, Paul Valéry and the Civilized Mind (1954).

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