Reading Valéry in English

But in English “ce toit” only translates as “this roof,” so in the English I have repeated the deictic in a way that does not occur in French. For me the repetition is a kind of notice, a way of noticing, that the English is only a translation because repetition (as Wordsworth said) can be a way of indicating as an excess what the words themselves cannot say.[5] “This tranquil roof, this quiet ceiling where doves / March among the graves, among fluttering pines.” What the English cannot say is that, as a homonym, “ce toit” also says ce toi. In French “ce toit” has the intimacy of thou, which in English (“this roof”) you cannot say. To find Valéry in English is also necessarily to run up against limits in English, though as Wittgenstein said about the limits of language, this running-up-against can point to something. In addition, as compensation, in a later stanza where Valéry addresses “ce toit” directly, in the second person with an apostrophe — “Édiface dans l’ame, / Mais comble d’or aux mille tuiles, Toit !” — I have included French in the English: “Roof! Toit! Tiled with a thousand facets!” And still later, when “Le cimetière marin” says, “Je suis en toi le secret changement,” I have included the French again, “I en toi, in you, the secret changing.”[6]

For me, Valéry seems closer to Shelley or Hart Crane in whose language, as Yeats writes of Shelley, ‘all [things] now flow, change, flutter, cry out, or mix into something else.’ Yeats also write of Shelley’s poetry that its metamorphic energies occur ‘without frenzy’ or ‘breaking and bruising.’

Hartman says that Valéry makes an “extreme use of poetry’s general tendency to endow the sound of a word with a meaning independent of that word’s ordinary signification,” and this creates mixed metaphors — or better, a “metamorphosis of metaphor” — change within images where it is the poetry’s verbal music, not stable meaning or stabilizing syntax, that provides continuity and offers shifting instances of the “primary experience” in Valéry’s poetry, that is, the experience “of possibility as such.” “Ce toit” might then be “Le cimetière marin‘”s image for possibility, where “what matters for poets,” as Valéry insisted, is not “the images themselves,” but “the energy of image-formation… the sensation of a leap, a short cut, a surprise.” As a result, in an American idiom Valéry could begin to seem Emersonian, his poetry infused with the power that for Emerson was to be found in “the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.” In “Le cimetière marin,” “ce toit” is only the beginning of the poem’s metamorphic changes, only a moment of transition as childhood memory becomes this landscape and this poem. Here, pervasive affinities between Valéry’s poetry and Stevens’ will only be of limited assistance, however, since Stevens’ microtones and Valéry’s apostrophes have a distinctively different resonance.

For me, Valéry seems closer to Shelley or Hart Crane in whose language, as Yeats writes of Shelley, “all [things] now flow, change, flutter, cry out, or mix into something else.” Yeats also writes of Shelley’s poetry that its metamorphic energies occur “without frenzy” or “breaking and bruising.” This seems to me less true for Crane than for Shelley, and for either Crane or Shelley than for Valéry, for whom the tranquility in Charmes articulates an “assumed infinity” that helped defend Valéry against the violence of his era, a kind of spiritual sanity with which to withstand, to “keep the mind proof…” of World War One. There is hyperbolic intensity in Valery that seems more akin to Crane and Shelley than to Stevens, in an American idiom to the “impacted density” of a poem like “The Broken Tower,” which Harold Bloom has compared to Bud Powell’s piano jazz (there “the bells,” Bloom says, also seem to “break down their tower / And swing I know not where”), but in Valéry this intensity is expressed with a “calme [qui] m’écoute,” a hyperbolic quiet that is less like Crane’s or Powell’s than Powell’s close friend, Thelonious Monk. In Monk and Valéry as in Crane and Powell, after every conclusion there may always be that feeling of the one more which for Wordsworth identified the visionary imagination, the sense of “something evermore about to be.” Yet in Monk and Valéry, unlike Crane and Powell, this excess does not feel like “desperate choice.” In translating Valéry into an American idiom, Monk’s jazz may help place him, however tentatively, uniquely between Stevens and Crane.

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  1. In the 1800 note to “The Thorn,” Wordsworth writes “that an attempt is rarely made to communicate impassioned feelings without something of an accompanying consciousness of the inadequateness… [and] the Speaker will cling to the same words, or words of the same character… not only as symbols of the passion, but as things, active and efficent, which are themselves part of the passion.”
  1. The connection between “le toit” and “toi” is also extended when the poem uses the verb “tuer” (to kill) and the noun “le tortue” (tortoise) in the Zeno stanza, and in both one hears a repetition of the pronoun “tu”: “M’as-tu percé de cette fléche ailée… la flèche me tue ! / Ah! le soleil… Quelle ombre de tortue / Pour l’âme, Achille immobile à grands pas !” In this stanza and the next, I have tried to compensate with the pronouns “you” and “your,” though this is not the same.

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