- From La Jeune Parque by Paul Valéry
Paul Valéry's La Jeune Parque is widely considered one of the most important poems of the twentieth century, yet it's one that few American readers know. It's easy to see why. The poem is written in the French heroic line—rhymed alexandrines (hexameters)—held together by extraordinary attention to syntax, enjambment, and pacing. Most of the line breaks correspond to natural syntactic turns or punctuation, many are end-stopped, and well-placed caesuras abound (as we'd expect in hexameters). It is difficult to produce an English equivalent that conveys the original's elegance and fluency. Add to these factors a narrative in which nothing much happens, at least not in the usual sense: A young woman stands outside on a starry night, overlooking the ocean, contemplating her connection to time, death, and the natural world as day approaches. In Jacques Duchesne-Guellemin's summary, the Young Fate "presents herself to us with her thoughts, her memories, her questionings, all on the verge of tears; bristling, listening to her own heartbeats; blushing with shame or pale with fainting" ("Introduction to La Jeune Parque," Yale French Studies 44: 1970). Despite Valéry's success in depicting shifting emotional states through vivid metaphor and images, this is not a recipe for easy reading.
Yet the poem's influence—and its author's—are undeniable. Writing in the June 1982 Critical Quarterly, Tony Pinkney observed, "Few writers commanded as much of T. S. Eliot's critical attention as did Paul Valéry.… Eliot was convinced that it was Paul Valéry 'who will remain for posterity the representative poet, the symbol of the poet, of the first half of the twentieth century—not Yeats, not Rilke, [End Page 168] not anyone else.'" Eliot's introduction to Valéry's The Art of Poetry (Bollingen edition) confirms his admiration for the poet some call "the last symbolist"—"Valéry in fact invented, and was to impose upon his age, not so much a new conception of poetry as a new conception of the poet"—and Eliot further maintains that Valéry's two greatest poems (La Jeune Parque and "Le Cimetière Marin") are "likely to last as long as the French language."
Eliot is not the only world poet Valéry influenced. Tony Brinkley points out that echoes of "Le Cimetière Marin" are present in the "oceanic rhythms" of Wallace Stevens poems such as "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," and he also reminds us that one of Rilke's last creative projects was to translate the poetry of Valéry ("Reading Valéry in English," Cerise Press 3:7, 2011). But not La Jeune Parque, which, according to Rilke, was "untranslatable … (if only someone could convince us otherwise!)." Years later, in response, Paul Celan attempted to do just that in Die junge Parze, a version that was more Celan's than Valéry's. The Young Fate has found her way into Italian and Spanish versions, too. For those seeking a look at early editions, MoMA's permanent collection includes a beautiful 1921 edition published in Paris by Revue Nouvelle Française with a lithograph by Picasso.
La Jeune Parque has attracted several translators to English. The versions most widely available are those by David Paul (in Paul Valéry: An Anthology, Princeton University Press, 1976), and a version by Jackson Mathews (in Selected Writings of Paul Valéry, New Directions, 1950/1964). Both follow Valéry's pace in English texts that literally parallel the original—in part because the original's rhymed alexandrines, and the poem's length, are central to the ways that Valéry's thought unfolds. To alter the pacing would undermine the poem's intensity—the way its speaker responds to constantly changing perceptions.
But the differences are instructive: Paul's version ("The Young Fate") is faithful to the author's content in unrhymed lines that fall loosely into pentameter or hexameter, while Mathews's "Fragments from 'The Youngest of the Fates'" accepts the challenge of producing [End Page 169] an English version in smoothly rhymed heroic couplets. To a...