Reading Valéry in English

Le cimetière marin

Le cimetière marin
BY Paul Valéry
(Emile-Paul Frères, 1920)
PHOTO: Artcurial

The translator would like to dedicate this work to Harold Bloom.

Translator’s Note

If a painter does a portrait of Socrates and a passer-by recognizes Plato, all the creator’s explanations, protests, and excuses will not change this immediate recognition. The dispute will amuse eternity.

— Paul Valéry, Commentaries on “Charmes”

In 1955, near the end of his life, Wallace Stevens recalled that in the months and days preceding Rilke’s death (December 1926), Rilke had been translating Valéry. For Rilke this was a project that had begun more than five years earlier — in spring 1921 — when he first read, then translated “Le Cimetière marin” (the poem was first published in the June 1920 issue of Nouvelle Revue Française; Rilke discovered the poem — and Valéry — while turning through NRF a year later).[1] Soon after came the ecstatic days in 1922 when Rilke completed the Duino Elegies and composed the Sonnets to Orpheus. Translations of Valéry were Rilke’s last, major creative project, and perhaps it was with Rilke in mind, that in Stevens’ death poem “Of Mere Being,” Stevens also turned to Valéry — not only to “Palme,” whose angel, together with Rilke’s, had already influenced Stevens’ “necessary angel of the earth” — but to “Anne,” the penultimate poem in Valéry’s 1920 volume, Album de vers ancien. Here are the first stanzas from “Of Mere Being”:

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze deecor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

And here is the last stanza of Valéry’s poem:

Mais suave, de l’arbre extérieur, la palme
Vaporeuse remue au delà du remords,
Et dans le feu, parmi trois feuilles, l’oiseau calme
Commence le chant seul qui réprime les morts.

Perhaps reading Stevens with Valéry in mind can be one way that a translator can begin to find Valéry in English.

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  1. Rilke later recalled, “I was alone, I was waiting, my whole work was waiting. One day I read Valéry; I knew that my waiting was at an end.”

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