Paul Valéry

(1871—1945) French poet, essayist, and critic

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French poet, essayist, and critic. He was elected to the Académie Française in 1925.

Valéry was born in the small Mediterranean town of Sète, the son of a customs officer. He studied law at the University of Montpellier and in the early 1890s made the acquaintance of the writers André Gide and Pierre Louÿs (1870–1925), who published Valéry's first poems in his symbolist review La Conque and introduced him to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–94). In 1892, however, Valéry suddenly decided to abandon poetry and devoted himself for some twenty years to more intellectual writings, notably Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci (1895); abstract speculation, embodied in La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste (1896; translated as An Evening with Monsieur Teste, 1925); and to his careers in the War Office (1897–1900) and the Havas News Agency (1900–22).

Valéry's return to the world of poetry was marked by the publication of La Jeune Parque (1917), a long symbolic poem that had taken five years to write and won him instant acclaim. It was soon followed by the collections Album de vers anciens (1920) and Charmes (1922); the latter contains one of Valéry's best-known poems, ‘Le Cimetière marin’ (translated by C. Day Lewis as ‘The Graveyard by the Sea’, 1946), a philosophical meditation on death in the cemetery of his native Sète. It is on these three works, in which lyrical sensuousness is skilfully blended with intellectual eloquence, that Valéry's fame as a poet rests. Apart from his lectures at the Collège de France, where he became professor of poetry in 1937, he dedicated the rest of his life to prose writings.

In the Socratic dialogue Eupalinos ou l'Architecte (1923; translated as Eupalinos, or the Architect, 1932) Valéry revived his early interest in architecture. His most notable literary essays appeared in the collections Variété (1924–44) and Tel quel (1941–43), and Regards sur le monde actuel (1931; translated as Reflections on the World Today, 1948) contains his views on politics and other aspects of modern civilization. His only play, Mon Faust, was published in unfinished form in 1946, after his death. Throughout his life Valéry rose early in the morning to record the workings of his mind and his meditations on a variety of subjects: mathematics, religion, politics, philosophy, language; these notes were published posthumously as Cahiers (1958–62).

A well-known and highly revered society figure, much in demand for his erudition and conversational skills, Valéry travelled all over Europe on lecture tours, mingling with writers, scientists, and political leaders with equal ease. Widely recognized as one of the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century, he was given a state funeral on his death in the summer of 1945. His grave can be found at Sète, in the cemetery of his famous poem.

Subjects: Literature.