Ambroise-Paul-Toussaint-Jules Valéry (1871 – 1945) was a French poet, essayist, and philosopher. His interests were sufficiently broad that he can be classified as a polymath. In addition to his poetry and fiction (drama and dialogues), he also wrote many essays and aphorisms on art, history, letters, music, and current events.
Valéry is best known as a poet, and he is sometimes considered to be the last of the French symbolists. However, he published fewer than a hundred poems, and none of them drew much attention. On the night of 4 October 1892, during a heavy storm, Paul Valéry underwent an existential crisis, an event that made a huge impact on his writing career. Eventually, around 1898, he quit writing altogether, and, for nearly twenty years, Valery did not publish a single word. This hiatus was due, in part, to the death of his mentor, Stéphane Mallarmé. Then, in 1917, he finally broke his ‘great silence’ with the publication of La Jeune Parque; he was forty-six years of age. [Wikipedia]
So deadly delicate your sting!
Yet, O golden bee, I place
Over this soft curve, saddening,
Nothing but a dream of lace.
Prick the breast’s fine gourd and press
Home where love dies, where sleeps his spell!
Thus may some of my rosiness
Rise to the round and stubborn flesh!
I need a hurt that’s keen and swift.
A torment prompt and soon done with
Is better than one that sleeping lies.
O may my body be made warm
By this tiny gold alarm
Without which love sleeps or dies.
Translated by Lionel Abel
In the shadow of the blaze
Of his grace informed with dread,
An angel on my table lays
A bowl of milk, a loaf of bread;
And in his eyes reveals to me
The signal of a sacred plea
That speaks to my inner sight:
Calm, calm, O stay calm!
Think how the heavy palm
Carries all her breadth and height!
In such measure as she may yield
To world’s abundant benefits,
Her bodily form becomes fulfilled,
Her fruitfulness her bondage is.
Oh, admirable! That vibrant head!
How she, like slow fiber-thread
Partitioning its time of growth,
Divides without let or halt
The burden of the starry vault,
The fascination of the earth!
Beautiful, moving arbiter
Between the shadow and the sun,
She simulates the sybil, her
Sleep and sagacity in one.
The same place all surrounding,
The full-blown palm accepts the abounding
Salutations and farewells …
What noble, what tender states!
With what good warrant she awaits
None but the god’s sap in her cells!
The slight gold that is her murmur
Rings to the finger of the air,
And with plates of silken armor
Dresses the desert’s soul for fair.
And the voice, time out of mind,
She gives back to the sandy wind
That sprinkles her with all its grain,
Becomes its own self’s oracle,
And boasts about the miracle
Chanted by self-consuming pain.
While never she herself defines,
Between the sky and desert floor,
Every further day that shines
Accumulates her honey store.
Her sweetness is the piecemeal ration
Of all that divine duration
Which keeps no day-book of the days,
But dissembles them instead
In a juice that brings to a head
All love’s aroma, all love’s ways.
If that discipline, your cult,
From time to time, thawed in despair,
In spite of all your tears default
Save in boredom’s darkened air
Yet no miser is that wise
Tree that makes and multiplies
Such gold profusion with such sway:
Through the ceremonial sap
To its fulfillment rises up
Hope that is of eternity!
These days that seem vain, all vain,
For all the universe, all lost,
Have roots that with their might and main
Labor through the sandy waste.
Substance, tough like hair created,
By dark chaos designated,
Never can its course prevent
To earth’s very entrails, but
Those deep waters searches out
Which the lofty summits want.
Patience, patience be
In the blue vaults of the sky!
In each mote of silence see
The chance of its own ripeness lie!
Expect the fortunate surprise:
A dove, a light wind to rise,
The slightest variance from ease,
A woman leaning, the least strain,
Will release that blessed rain
In which we fall upon our knees!
Though a nation now collapse,
O Palm! … nor hope to rise again!
But down into the dust lapse
Among the shorn empyrean!
You have not lost this day and hour
If you survive in buoyant flower
The negligence to which you bowed;
Like the man of thought whose soul
Consumes itself in growing whole
From gifts with which it is endowed!
Translated by Denis Devlin
THE GRAVEYARD BY THE SEA
This quiet roof, where dove-sails saunter by,
Between the pines, the tombs, throbs visibly.
Impartial noon patterns the sea in flame –
That sea forever starting and re-starting.
When thought has had its hour, oh how rewarding
Are the long vistas of celestial calm!
What grace of light, what pure toil goes to form
The manifold diamond of the elusive foam!
What peace I feel begotten at that source!
When sunlight rests upon a profound sea,
Time’s air is sparkling, dream is certainty –
Pure artifice both of an eternal Cause.
Sure treasure, simple shrine to intelligence,
Palpable calm, visible reticence,
Proud-lidded water, Eye wherein there wells
Under a film of fire such depth of sleep –
O silence! . . . Mansion in my soul, you slope
Of gold, roof of a myriad golden tiles.
Temple of time, within a brief sigh bounded,
To this rare height inured I climb, surrounded
By the horizons of a sea-girt eye.
And, like my supreme offering to the gods,
That peaceful coruscation only breeds
A loftier indifference on the sky.
Even as a fruit’s absorbed in the enjoying,
Even as within the mouth its body dying
Changes into delight through dissolution,
So to my melted soul the heavens declare
All bounds transfigured into a boundless air,
And I breathe now my future’s emanation.
Beautiful heaven, true heaven, look how I change!
After such arrogance, after so much strange
Idleness — strange, yet full of potency –
I am all open to these shining spaces;
Over the homes of the dead my shadow passes,
Ghosting along — a ghost subduing me.
My soul laid bare to your midsummer fire,
O just, impartial light whom I admire,
Whose arms are merciless, you have I stayed
And give back, pure, to your original place.
Look at yourself . . . But to give light implies
No less a somber moiety of shade.
Oh, for myself alone, mine, deep within
At the heart’s quick, the poem’s fount, between
The void and its pure issue, I beseech
The intimations of my secret power.
O bitter, dark, and echoing reservoir
Speaking of depths always beyond my reach.
But know you — feigning prisoner of the boughs,
Gulf which cats up their slender prison-bars,
Secret which dazzles though mine eyes are closed –
What body drags me to its lingering end,
What mind draws it to this bone-peopled ground?
A star broods there on all that I have lost.
Closed, hallowed, full of insubstantial fire,
Morsel of earth to heaven’s light given o’er –
This plot, ruled by its flambeaux, pleases me –
A place all gold, stone, and dark wood, where shudders
So much marble above so many shadows:
And on my tombs, asleep, the faithful sea.
Keep off the idolaters, bright watch-dog, while –
A solitary with the shepherd’s smile –
I pasture long my sheep, my mysteries,
My snow-white flock of undisturbed graves!
Drive far away from here the careful doves,
The vain daydreams, the angels’ questioning eyes!
Now present here, the future takes its time.
The brittle insect scrapes at the dry loam;
All is burnt up, used up, drawn up in air
To some ineffably rarefied solution . . .
Life is enlarged, drunk with annihilation,
And bitterness is sweet, and the spirit clear.
The dead lie easy, hidden in earth where they
Are warmed and have their mysteries burnt away.
Motionless noon, noon aloft in the blue
Broods on itself — a self-sufficient theme.
O rounded dome and perfect diadem,
I am what’s changing secretly in you.
I am the only medium for your fears.
My penitence, my doubts, my baulked desires –
These are the flaw within your diamond pride . . .
But in their heavy night, cumbered with marble,
Under the roots of trees a shadow people
Has slowly now come over to your side.
To an impervious nothingness they’re thinned,
For the red clay has swallowed the white kind;
Into the flowers that gift of life has passed.
Where are the dead? — their homely turns of speech,
The personal grace, the soul informing each?
Grubs thread their way where tears were once composed.
The bird-sharp cries of girls whom love is teasing,
The eyes, the teeth, the eyelids moistly closing,
The pretty breast that gambles with the flame,
The crimson blood shining when lips are yielded,
The last gift, and the fingers that would shield it –
All go to earth, go back into the game.
And you, great soul, is there yet hope in you
To find some dream without the lying hue
That gold or wave offers to fleshly eyes?
Will you be singing still when you’re thin air?
All perishes. A thing of flesh and pore
Am I. Divine impatience also dies.
Lean immortality, all crêpe and gold,
Laurelled consoler frightening to behold,
Death is a womb, a mother’s breast, you feign
The fine illusion, oh the pious trick!
Who does not know them, and is not made sick
That empty skull, that everlasting grin?
Ancestors deep down there, O derelict heads
Whom such a weight of spaded earth o’erspreads,
Who are the earth, in whom our steps are lost,
The real flesh-eater, worm unanswerable
Is not for you that sleep under the table:
Life is his meat, and I am still his host.
‘Love,’ shall we call him? ‘Hatred of self,’ maybe?
His secret tooth is so intimate with me
That any name would suit him well enough,
Enough that he can see, will, daydream, touch –
My flesh delights him, even upon my couch
I live but as a morsel of his life.
Zeno, Zeno, cruel philosopher Zeno,
Have you then pierced me with your feathered arrow
That hums and flies, yet does not fly! The sounding
Shaft gives me life, the arrow kills. Oh, sun! –
Oh, what a tortoise-shadow to outrun
My soul, Achilles’ giant stride left standing!
No, no! Arise! The future years unfold.
Shatter, O body, meditation’s mould!
And, O my breast, drink in the wind’s reviving!
A freshness, exhalation of the sea,
Restores my soul . . . Salt-breathing potency!
Let’s run at the waves and be hurled back to living!
Yes, mighty sea with such wild frenzies gifted
(The panther skin and the rent chlamys), sifted
All over with sun-images that glisten,
Creature supreme, drunk on your own blue flesh,
Who in a tumult like the deepest hush
Bite at your sequin-glittering tail — yes, listen!
The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!
The huge air opens and shuts my book: the wave
Dares to explode out of the rocks in reeking
Spray. Fly away, my sun-bewildered pages!
Break, waves! Break up with your rejoicing surges
This quiet roof where sails like doves were pecking.
Translated by C. Day Lewis