A Brief Introduction to the Method of Paul Valéry. Le Serpent, par Paul Valéry. With a Translation into English by Mark Wardle and an Introduction by T. S. Eliot
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[ 559 A Brief Introduction to the Method of Paul Valéry1 Le Serpent, par Paul Valéry. With a Translation into English by Mark Wardle and an Introduction by T. S. Eliot London: R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1924. Pp. 51; Introduction, 7-15. We are so accustomed, in considering contemporary English poetry, to identify tradition with lack of invention, and on the other hand originality with oddity; our poetry is of such various and incompatible inheritances – English, Irish, and American – that it is impossible for us to point to the work of any one poet as representing our time, or even as representing one living generation. If we assign the place of honour to Mr. Yeats – and there is certainly none other whose accomplishment and influence entitle him to that position – we must qualify our respect by the admission that an Irish poet can only be accepted with qualifications, by English disciples. It is difficult for us, naturally wasteful, to understand the economy of French literature; to understand that the unity and uniformity of the French mind is such that what appear traditional or revolutionary are only movements within one tradition; andthatthereforeonepoetcanbeapprovedbyallparties,asunitingtheinnovations made by an adventurous generation with the traditional merits of French classical poetry. Undoubtedly, Valéry does not represent the most “advanced” experimentation of French verse: that experimentation will be reintegrated into the tradition by a later generation: what Valéry represents, and for which he is honoured and admired by even the youngest in France, is the reintegration of the symbolist movement into the great tradition. Valéry is the heir, so to speak, of the experimental work of the last generation : he is its completion and its explanation. And in saying this, I am not derogating to the extent of one syllable from his originality: those who have worked in verse know that poetry like that of Paul Valéry is as original and as necessary as any other.2 We must not be deceived by the fact that Valéry never writes in vers libres. Vers libre was only a part of the symbolist movement; it is not the essential innovation of even such skilful inventors as Jules Laforgue and Gustave Kahn.3 Valéry takes over, and develops, the music, the fluidity, even many of the technical turns of symbolism; his idiom is frequently suggestive of it, and is never a repudiation of it. 1924 560 ] Où sont nos amoureuses? Elles sont aux tombeaux . . .4 O saisons! O châteaux! . . .5 maybecomparedwithanypartofValéry’sbeautiful“CantiquedesColonnes”: Servantes sans genoux, Sourires sans figures, La belle devant nous Se sent les jambes pures. Pieusement pareilles, Le nez sous le bandeau Et nos riches oreilles Sourdes au blanc fardeau . . .6 The indefinable difference is the difference between the fluid and the static: between that which is moving toward an end and that which knows its end and has reached it; which can afford to stand, changeless, like a statue. There are two considerations about order. One is the amount of material organised, and the degree of difficulty of that material; the other is the completeness of the organisation. Rimbaud, for instance, may have had the vision of a larger organisation than Valéry’s: but it is not so achieved. And in comparison with such poets as Stuart Merrill, there is no question: Valéry is their justification.7 To Rimbaud, to Verlaine, and to Gérard de Nerval, the relationship in the “Cantique des Colonnes” is evident. Valéry’s kinship with Mallarmé is too evident to need mention – in particular it is manifest in “Les Grenades” and in an early draft of “Narcisse.”8 There is also (and not merely through Mallarmé) a kinship with Baudelaire: Où sont des morts les phrases familières, L’art personnel, les âmes singulières? La larve file où se formaient les pleurs.9 There are other lines in Le Cimetière Marin – to my mind one of Valéry’s finest poems – which arouse other associations: Où tant de marbre est tremblant sur tant d’ombres . . . Chanterez-vous quand serez vaporeuse? . . . Entre le vide et l’événement pur . . .10 [ 561 A Brief Introduction to the Method of Paul Valéry (the last which suggests so strongly though accidentally Brutus’s Between the acting of a dreadful thing And the first motion, all the interim is Like a phantasma or a hideous dream).11 Beau ciel par qui mes jours sont troubles ou sont calmes, Seule terre où je...


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