Valéry, Paul (1871–1954)

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VALÉRY, PAUL (1871–1954)


French poet and essayist.

Ambroise-Paul-Toussaint-Jules Valéry, from a Corsican-Italian family, was born and raised in Sète, a town in the south of France where, at age thirteen, he wrote his first poems. He attended the lycée in Montpellier, graduating in 1888. Although he developed a growing interest in the arts, Valéry entered law school. Over the next four years he had his first literary encounters, meeting such writers as Pierre Louÿs, AndréGide, andStéphane Mallarmé. He also published his first poems, in a symbolist's style.

In 1894 Valéry moved to Paris, law degree in hand, with the firm intention of meeting the writers of the capital. That same year he began writing "La soirée avec Monsieur Teste" ("Monsieur Teste") which was published in 1896 and again in 1906. Teste served as Valéry's literary double. The previous year, 1895, he wrote Introduction àlaméthode de Léonard de Vinci (Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci). Da Vinci's overarching ambition in the arts and mathematics thoroughly fascinated the young Valéry. Mathematics, physics, and philosophy would indeed play major roles in Valéry's complex work. He was intrigued not only by da Vinci's genius but by his overall "mastery" that any artist must acquire. This was the benchmark by which Valéry would measure his own work.

In 1900 Valéry was appointed to the Ministry of War and began to earn a regular income; when he married, Gide and Louÿs were his witnesses. The same year, he became private secretary to Edouard Lebey, the head of the Havas news agency, and he remained at this post until Lebey's death. Valéry had taken the side of Alfred Dreyfus in the famous political scandal, one of his rare direct interventions in politics before the 1920s.

In terms of literature, Valéry in the period between 1898 and 1917 produced little, and some critics have characterized this period as one of silence or crisis. Indeed, Valéry published only reviews and a few studies and poems, but he never gave up writing entirely. He continued keeping his diary, which eventually filled 261 notebooks. According to Judith Robinson-Valéry, he wrote religiously almost every day from 1894 to 1945. In any event, his major works were composed either before 1898 or, perhaps especially, after 1917. In that year he published a striking poem, La jeune Parque (The Young Fate), meant to relieve his anguish about the war. This work announced Valéry's return to poetry. In Michel Jarrety's view, the poem was conceived as the "tomb of a language to be worked over according to the strictest classical constraints."

Valéry's pessimistic view of Western civilization at the end of the Great War is well known: "We as a civilization now know that we are mortal." The 1920s were years when Valery established himself as a writer who would never become facile even while accepting a great number of assignments. He meticulously compiled his essays in a five-volume series, each entitled Variété (1924–1944). In 1920 he published a collection of his early poems and also met the poet Catherine Pozzi, with whom he had a passionate affair. In 1922 he published a new collection, Charmes, that contained his most famous poem, "Le cimetière marin" ("The Graveyard by the Sea"), which had already appeared in 1920 in La nouvelle revue française. Valéry said of the poem that it had come from a "poetic universe" in which "resonance overtakes causality and the effect of 'form,' far from fading away, is requested by it. The idea claims its voice."

In 1925 Valéry was elected to the Académie Française and from 1937 he would lecture on poetry at the Collège de France . These years were also a period of meetings and travels with literary celebrities, artists, and politicians in his capacity as president of the French writers' association PEN (1924–1934) or in his role as participant in the International Commission of Intellectual Cooperation and in the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation. Increasingly, he became involved in politics. He spoke out in favor of women's right to vote, collaborated with the League of Nations, and took a keen interest in developments in European federal ideas. In 1933 he was appointed head of the Centre Universitaire Méditerranéen in Nice. He had welcomed Marshal Philippe Pétain to the Académie Française, but in 1940 he took a stand against the Vichy government and of Pétain's meeting with Adolf Hitler in Montoire and left his post at the Centre. The following year he gave a eulogy in honor of Henri Bergson, an act of courage considering Bergson was Jewish. Valéry died in Paris on 20 July 1945 and, after being accorded a state funeral, was buried at the cimetière marin (sailor's cemetery) in Sètes.

See alsoFrance; Gide, André.


Primary Sources

Valéry, Paul. Oeuvres. Edited by Jean Hytier. 2 vols. Paris, 1957–1960.

——. Cahiers. Edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. 2 vols. Paris, 1974–1983.

——. Cahiers/Notebooks. Edited by Brian Stimpson. 2 vols. New York and Frankfort, 2000.

Secondary Sources

Allain-Castrillo, Monique, et al., eds. Paul Valéry et le politique. Paris, 1994.

Berne-Joffroy, André. Valéry. Paris, 1960.

Jarrety, Michel. Valéry devant la littérature. Paris, 1991.

Oster, Daniel. Monsieur Valéry. Paris, 1981.

Nicolas BeauprÉ

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Valéry, Paul (1871–1954)

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