Paul Valéry


Paul Valéry (1871–1945), poet, essayist, literary theoretician, was born near Marseilles (his father was French, his mother Italian) and educated at the University of Montpellier, where he read law. After settling in Paris in 1894, he developed friendships with André Gide and Stéphane Mallarmé, and co-edited the review Commerce, 1924–32. His reputation was built on his symbolist poems and some reviews, and by two prose studies, Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci (1895) and La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste (1896). After a delay of nearly twenty years, he published a poem, Le Jeune Parque (1917) and a volume entitled Charmes (‘Incantations’, 1922), which gathered up his poems of the period 1913–22, and which included the celebrated work ‘Le Cimitière Marin’ (‘The Graveyard by the Sea’), a symbolical, classically strict, modulated meditation upon the essence of life and death. In 1925 he was elected an académicien, and from 1937 he was Professor of Poetry at the Collège de France. Later writings include elegantly composed essays distilled from the vast number of cahiers that he filled out – over a period of almost forty years – with reflections upon literary theory and philosophy. Works translated into English include Le Serpent – for which TSE wrote the preface (1924). TSE wrote in a tribute: ‘Of all poets, Valéry has been the most completely conscious (perhaps I should say the most nearly conscious) of what he was doing … [I]t is he who will remain for posterity the representative poet – not Yeats, not Rilke, not anyone else’ (‘Paul Valéry’, Quarterly Review of Literature 3, 1946). Collected Works of Paul Valéry, ed. Jackson Mathews (Princeton, 1956–75).