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Paul Valery's Album des Vers Anciens

Paul Valery's Album des Vers Anciens: A Past Transfigured

Suzanne Nash
Copyright Date: 1983
Pages: 340
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  • Book Info
    Paul Valery's Album des Vers Anciens
    Book Description:

    Questioning the view that the work is not representative of the poet's mature accomplishment, Suzanne Nash argues that the revisionary process involved in its creation led Valery to reflect on problems fundamental to poetic production and thus provided inspiration for all his later poetry.

    Originally published in 1983.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5622-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-18)

    In 1912, twenty years after he had abandoned the practice of poetry, Paul Valéry received a letter from André Gide, urging him to publish a collection of his early verse. InFragments des mémoires d’utt poème(1933) Valéry speaks of his surprise and distaste at having to respond to Gide’s request. He had long ago, as he thought, removed himself from the public eye, and, though he continued to write notebooks, he was their sole reader. Like his own M. Teste, he had achieved a virtually autonomous existence as a writer, “purified,” as he put it, of the unreliable and...


      (pp. 21-51)

      Few writers have studied the complexities of language more seriously than Valéry; few have addressed themselves more incisively to the problems related to its transformation into poetry. Yet any effort to paraphrase or synthesize Valéry’s commentaries concerning reading, influence, and originality is bound to meet with considerable frustration. His position on these matters varies significantly according to whether he speaks as a critical reader of others’ literary works or in response to commentaries on his own text. But, moreover, one finds in his pronouncements themselves, whether offered from the perspective of critic or poet, a puzzling inconsistency regarding the very...

      (pp. 51-63)

      Valéry’s unwillingness to recognize Baudelaire’s formative role in the dialogue leading to his own generative exchange with Mallarme is particularly apparent in the strategies he uses to present Baudelaire as reader of Poe and Hugo inSituation de Baudelaire.When Valéry published the essay in 1924 (it was delivered first as a lecture), the reputation of this poet whom he considered he had outgrown (“Il me souvient comme je me suis presque détaché de Hugo et de Baudelaire à dix-neuf ans, quand Ie sort sous Ies yeux me mit quelques fragmentsd’Hérodiade” (OeuvresI, p. 649) was at its peak. He...

      (pp. 63-83)

      Valéry treats the predecessor whom he elects and then challenges through his own poetic structures far more generously than he does Baudelaire, whose influence remains hidden and unacknowledged in his mature poetry. In the public essays written after Mallarmé’s death, Valéry is unstinting in his praise, and even in his private manuscript notes, interviews, andCahiersentries he consistently declares Mallarmé’s work to be the model against which he defines his own originality. This certainty of his difference from Mallarmé, however, he experiences as a sign of his superior insight, even when Mallarmé is alive, and he keeps it a...

      (pp. 83-97)

      The most obvious change in the poetry Valéry writes from 1891 on is the increased importance he accords the natural world through imagery, diction, and phonetic effects. This emphasis on natural forms reverses the direction of Mallarme’s imagery, which characteristically struggles to free itself of its rootedness in material existence, and reflects Valéry’s acceptance of the seduction-toward-the world inherent in both thought and language. Edmund Wilson was onė of the first to note the tension between the sensuous and the abstract in Valéry’s work, a tension which he interpreted as a sign of an irresolvable conflict that Valéry considered fundamental...

      (pp. 97-112)

      Michel Bréal’sEssai de Semantique(Paris: Librairie Hachette et Cie., 1897), which Valéry read and reviewed in 1898, must have confirmed views he had regarding the critical link between structures of thought and structures of grammar and was doubtless an enabling factor in his effort to find ways to translate his de-mystified view of the poet’s product into poetic forms consistent with that view.⁷⁶ As early as 1893 or 1894, Valéry had written the “Letter on Lord Kelvin,” in which he stated the fundamental importance of the analogyzing process to both thought and its expression:

      L’esprit tel a donc la...


    • “LA FILEUSE”
      (pp. 115-141)

      The introductory poem to theAlbum de vers anciens,“La Fileuse,” dramatizes more powerfully than any other in the collection Valéry’s complex critical engagement with his past. Very self-consciously a threshold text, it presents a female spinner, seated before a window opening onto a garden. Setting, hour, and state of mind are all characterized by a dynamics of passage. As the sun goes down, the spinner falls asleep, and the garden, which has been the source of her inspiration, appears to burn in the twilight glow—“le dernier arbre brûle”—almost as if the poet were ridding himself of a...

    • “HÉLÈNE”
      (pp. 141-149)

      If the poem that opens theAlbumburns away the Romantic and Symbolist illusions that inspired Valéry’s early poetry, the next six poems¹⁴ question the ambiguous attraction both Parnassian and Symbolist stances held for Valery during these formative years:

      Je sens que Ie parnassien qui a d’abord été Moi se dissout et s’évapore. . . . Il me semble que ce n’est plus l’heure des vers sonores et exacts, cerclés de rimes lourdes et rares comme des pierres! Peut-être faut-il écrire des choses vaporeuses, fines et légéres comme des fumées violettes et qui font songer à tout, et qui ne...

      (pp. 149-157)

      Like “Hélène,” “Naissance de Vénus” adopts a Parnassian stance, focusing not on the sleep-dream polarity associated with Symbolism, but on awakened perception and an impulse toward fusion with the natural world.

      De sa profonde mère, encor froide et fumante,

      Voici qu’au seuil battu de tempêtes, la chair

      Amèrement vomie au soleil par la mer,

      Se délivre des diamants de la tourmente.

      Son sourire se forme, et suit sur ses bras blancs

      Qu’éplore l’orient d’une épaule meurtrie,

      De l’humide Thétis la pure pierrerie,

      Et sa tresse se fraye un frisson sur ses flancs.

      Le frais gravier, qu’arrose et fuit sa course...

    • “FÉERIE”
      (pp. 157-160)

      In contrast to “Hélène” and “Naissance de Vénus,” “Féerie,” “Au bois dormant,” and “Le Bois amical” evoke a neo-Symbolist aesthetic privileging inwardness, dissolution of plastic form, and transcendent, mystical ideology. In these poems the movement we saw in the pseudo-Parnassian works from unconsciousness, associated with death or disorder, to consciousness associated with life and order, is reversed. In “Féerie” the human form is called “Ombre” and the landscape around her is figured as a vague extension of her being: “La Iune mince verse . . . une jupe de tissu.” In “Au bois dormant” the fictional subjectivity is a sleeping...

      (pp. 160-163)

      In the 1926 Stols edition of theAlbum, Valéry placed yet another version of the same poem, “Meme Féerie,” immediately after “Féerie.” Rather than continue the critical discrediting of the Symbolist vision effected in “Féerie,” however, this new version, written sometime after 1922, curiously enough, reaffirms it:

      La Iune mince verse une lueur sacrée,

      Comme une jupe d’un tissu d’argent léger,

      Sur Ies masses de marbre où marche et croit songer

      Quelque vierge de perle et de gaze nacrée.

      Pour Ies cygnes soyeux qui frôlent Ies roseaux

      De carènes de plume à demi lumineuse,

      Sa main cueille et dispense une...

      (pp. 163-169)

      Like “Même Féerie,” “Au bois dormant” strikes one as an exercise in the writing of Symbolist-type verse.

      La Princesse, dans un palais de rose pure,

      Sous Ies murmures, sous la mobile ombre dort,

      Et de corail ébauche une parole obscure

      Quand Ies oiseaux perdus mordent ses bagues d'or.

      Elle n’écoute ni Ies gouttes, dans leurs chutes,

      Tinter d’un siècle vide au lointain Ie trésor,

      Ni, sur la forêt vague, un vent fondu de flûtes

      Déchirer la rumeur d’une phrase de cor.

      Laisse, longue, l’écho rendormir la diane,

      O toujours plus égale à la molle liane

      Qui se balance et bat...

    • “BAIGNÉE”
      (pp. 169-175)

      Over and over, Valéry’s improving reinterpretations produce alluring structures within which is inscribed the figure of his own divided and self-questioning consciousness. As I have suggested earlier, Parnassianism, associated with exteriority and plastic form, and Symbolism, associated with profundity and mystical idealism, as two opposing imaginative stances, not only recall the literary climate of the past and its constitutive influence on Valéry’s early work, but seem to stand for a tension inherent in both language and human consciousness, and hence, even more fundamentally, in the workings of the creative process. The wakeful, questioning, form-conscious mind is tied to and, to...

    • “UN FEU DISTINCT . . .”
      (pp. 175-180)

      Because of the unusual importance it accords perception and commentary by the lyric speaker, “Un Feu distinct. . .” produces a very different overall effect from “Baignée,” and far more seriously undermines the principle of organicity at stake in the earlier poem’s treatment of the body as a model for artistic form. Un feu distinct m’habite, et je vois froidement

      La violente vie illuminée entière. . . .

      Je ne puis plus aimer seulement qu’en dormant

      Ses actes gracieux mélangés de lumière.

      Mes jours viennent la nuit me rendre des regards,

      Après Ie premier temps de sommeil malheureux;

      Quand Ie...

      (pp. 180-197)

      From the very beginning of this study I have called upon the Narcissus myth to illustrate various aspects of Valéry’s thought concerning the genesis of theAlbum de vers anciensbecause he used it himself, either explicitly or implicitly, as a point of reference throughout his long career. What is more, the many recreations of the myth—the two versions of “Narcisse parle”(La Conque,1891 and theAlbum,1920), “Fragments de Narcisse” (Charmes,1922), “Etudes pour Narcisse (1927), the Narcissus ofParaboles(1935),Le Cantate de Narcisse(1939), andL’Ange(1945)—testify to the central importance of the Narcissus...

    • “EPISODE”
      (pp. 197-205)

      The recognition in the opening poems, through the use of such techniques asmise en abymethat the poetic self is caught within a system of staggered mirrors, is affirmed on a hori zontal plane in the second half of theAlbumby the use of repetition and echoing among the poems within the collection. Indeed, Valery chooses a specular moment to actualize this technique in line 40 of “Narcisse parle,” where he recalls “Au bois dormant:” “Qui se mire dans Ie miroir au bois dormant.” At the same time there is a much higher degree of experimentation with form...

    • “VUE”
      (pp. 205-210)

      Valéry grants the predecessor whom he has elected a far more obvious place in theAlbumthan any other single poet, and he pays homage to him in a variety of ways. “Episode,” “Vue,” and “Valvins” are all poems to Mallarmé. If in “Episode” Valery cunningly invites a figure from Mallarmé’s own creation to motivate the actions of his muse, in “Vue,” he impresses Mallarmé’s unmistakable scriptural image onto the page, recreating for the reader his own astonishment when he first saw the manuscript of “Un Coup de dés . . ”II me sembla de voir la figure d’une pensée,...

    • “VALVINS”
      (pp. 210-217)

      The title “Valvins” of the last of the three poems in the “Mallarmé” series is taken from the name of Mallarmé’s summer house, where Valéry spent many hours of quiet exchange with the older poet in the little skiff on the Seine or walking in the woods.⁶⁴ James Lawler has written movingly of the profound importance that Mallarmé’s friendship had for Valéry and has documented Valvin’s particular significance as a place of communal reflection:

      Yet one of the constant notes of the whole correspondence is the image of Valvins as some kind of idyllic escape. “. . . Le fantastique...

    • “ETÉ”
      (pp. 217-228)

      Valéry picks up the word “ete” from the octet of “Valvins” for the title of his next poem, an ode to summer, as if to refuse both the valorization of absence (that which has been, “a ete”) implicit in the Mallarméan vision and the belatedness of his own historical situation. But the ambiguity of the title remains, nonetheless, carrying with it the shadow of anteriority introduced by Mallarme’s book in the sestet of “Valvins.” That shadow, as literary referént in general, will impose itself more and more forcefully as theAlbumdraws to a close and accounts in part, at...

      (pp. 228-239)

      In the 1920 edition of theAlbum,“Eté” concluded the grouping of “nature” poems begun by “Episode” and was followed somewhat abruptly by “Anne.” This poem, set in a prostitute’s bedroom, strenuously questions the hope for lyric renewal tentatively posed by all the preceding works. Valéry must have been aware of the awkwardness of the transition, because in the Stols edition of 1926 he inserted between “Eté” and “Anne” “Profusion du soir, poeme abandonné,” which he had reworked, as he told J. P. Monod, “pour corser l’Album de vers anciens.”⁸⁴ “Profusion du soir,” one of Valéry’s greatest works, presents...

    • “ANNE”
      (pp. 240-254)

      “Profusion du soir” provides a useful perspective for reading the last two poems in the collection, “Anne” and “Air de Semiramis,” both of which strike one as such extreme expressions of familiar Valéryan themes as to suggest self-irony. Indeed, the hyperbolic rhetoric of these concluding poems invites one to interpret the end of theAlbumas a reflection of the despair Valéry felt in 1893 when he abandoned the writing of poetry for solitary meditation of another sort (“une maternite muette de pensees”).⁹² The change Valéry made on the title page from the historically correctAlbum de vers anciens,1890-1900,...

      (pp. 254-264)

      Dés l’aube, chers rayons, mon front songe à vous ceindre! A pleine il se redresse, il voit d’un oeil qui dort Sur Ie marbre absolu, Ie temps pale se peindre,

      L’heure sur moi descendre et croître jusqu’à l’or. . . .

      . . . “Existe! . . . Sois enfin toi-même!” dit l’Aurore,

      “O grande ame, il est temps que tu formes un corps!

      Hâte-toi de choisir un jour digne d’édore,

      Parmi tant d’autres feux, tes immortels trésors!

      Déjà, contre la nuit lutte l’âpre trompette!

      Une lèvre vivante attaque l’air glacé;

      L’or pur, de tour en tour, éclate et se...

      (pp. 264-268)

      Thus the ferociousness of Sémiramis’ project represents as much a strategy of self-defense as an ironic depiction of her creator’s own overwhelming drive for appropriation of his past and sense of self-sufficiency. Seen in this light, the selfcritical note which concludes the collection of verse poems lends the unmitigated confidence, indeed, almost rhapsodic enthusiasm expressed in the prose poem, “L’Amateur de poemes,” which serves as an epilogue to the work as a whole, an ironic tonality. In elegantly cadenced phrases the speaker as reader of the preceding work compares the ephemeral, fragmented nature of thought unfavorably to the writing of...

    (pp. 269-274)

    The revisionist and increasingly self-questioning dimensions of the various editions of theAlbum de vers anciensreveal more convincingly than any of his explicitly theoretical essays the complexity and depth of Valéry’s thought on the writing of poetry. When he considered publishing his early poems in 1912, he conceived of his project as anything but a conventional collection of lyric poems, each to be read and admired for its own qualities. The work was rather to be a form of imaginative investigation, and its organizing structures of selfreflection, in effect, translate into poetic form Valéry’s intention to engage critically with...

    (pp. 275-316)
    (pp. 317-322)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 323-328)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 329-329)