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.

In Valéry’s “Anne,” Stevens’ “palm… beyond the last thought” may have at first been “la palme… au delà du remords.” In Stevens, Valéry’s “l’oiseau calme” who begins “le chant seul qui réprime les morts” may become the “gold-feathered bird” “in the bronze décor” who “sings… a foreign song” from the tree outside. A poem does “not present, but receive,” Valéry once noted. It “is waiting for a meaning.” Is the Valéry, then, waiting for “Of Mere Being”? Perhaps in that sense, Valéry’s quiet phoenix who sings from the fire, beyond remorse, “parmi trois feuilles,” as it awaits meaning in Stevens’ poem, can also be a figure for poetry, perhaps even for Valéry’s verse as Stevens turned toward it in “Of Mere Being,” finding it “at the end of the mind.” Valéry writes that poetry can be phoenix-like, “constantly reborn from its own ashes… as the effect of its effect — its own harmonic cause.” If for the moment Valéry’s phoenix is also a poem “beyond the last thought” (that is, “waiting for a meaning” as in Stevens’ poem, which, in turn, is also “waiting for a meaning” because, as Valéry suggests, the poet too “is only a mere reader”) then Of Mere Being may offer a way of characterizing a possibility for Valéry’s verse in English — as an effect in English of Valéry’s poetry in French — “in the bronze decor” where “the wind moves slowly in the branches.”

Even in these poems, however, as in all the texts in Charmes, the reflecting surface balances between mirroring and reflections of otherness.

For a translator of Valéry into English, Wallace Stevens’ poetry is probably an inevitable reference. It is difficult to read “Le cimetière marin” and not find Stevens. Who else in English is more like Valéry, particularly if the English involved is also to be found in an American idiom? While Stevens’ feel for oceanic rhythms recalls Whitman’s and Wordsworth’s, doesn’t it also recall Valéry’s and thereby connect two traditions? Just as childhood in Whitman or Wordsworth is associated with the Atlantic Ocean, the mariner’s cemetery by the Mediterranean in “Le cimetière marin” is a memory from childhood (of this seascape of which he once reported that “nothing formed and impregnated me more,” and that nothing “taught me better.”) “The mobile and the immobile flickering / In the area between is and was are leaves,” Stevens wrote in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” leaves “resembling the presences of thought,” but also that would seem wave-like as they “covered the high rock” “as if nothingness contained a métier… in the predicate that there is nothing else” in Stevens’ poem “The Rock.” Like the “waves [as they] scree and dare, leaping from rock to rock” among “dazzling pages” in the last stanza of “Le cimetière marin.” In “Of Mere Being,” this flickering becomes the fire of Valery’s phoenix, transposed from “is” and “was” onto a reflective screen between mind and world, while in “Le cimetière marin” this screen is called “ce toit tranquille,” a figure of speech for a presencing in which the dazzling light of sea, churchyard, and fluttering pines, of doves (or dovelike sails) among the graves and pines, have become verbal reflections on the pages (or leaves) of Valéry’s text. (In the first edition of Charmes, all the pages resemble leaves of a much older book). “Ce toit tranquille,” the poem begins, “où marchent les colombes / Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes” where “Midi le just y compose de feux / La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée,” and in this fire even doves (and sails) will begin to seem pheonix-like. “Et toi,” Valéry had written in a much earlier poem “Été”: “Et toi, maison brûlante, Espace, cher Espace / Tranquille, où l’arbre fume et perd quelques oiseaux”; perhaps “Le cimetière marin” begins by offering a roof for this burning house where, as Geoffrey Hartman writes so beautifully, “what is described is a yielding… to the brightness of burning space” in “the unprejudiced splendor of the eye.”

Ce toit” — in English, “this roof”: presumably the antecedant of “this” is the mariner’s graveyard named in the title, “Le cimetière marin,” but inasmuch as the title also names the poem, won’t the antecedant of “ce toit” also be the poem itself beginning with “ce toit tranquille”? Just as the deictic opening of “The Auroras of Autumn” refers to both the auroras and the poem, Valéry’s graveyard by the sea is also the poem in which the seascape occurs.[2] Poem and world coincide like complementary realities. How to translate this reflective surface where a sailors’ graveyard is also Le cimetière marin? Valéry wrote that for him “the Narcissus theme” became a “poetic autobiography.” In La Jeune Parque, “Narcisse parle,” and “Fragments du Narcisse,” reflective surfaces mirror explicitly what “Narcisse parle” calls “ma chair… à mes yeux opposées,” and “Fragments du Narcisse,” “la face des eaux” and “mes charmes,” in that way also naming the volume of poetry in which the poem appears.[3] Even in these poems, however, as in all the texts in Charmes, the reflecting surface balances between mirroring and reflections of otherness. The poet’s gaze in “Le Cimetiére marin” may have first been trained to see in a mirror, but insofar as that gaze has been brought from mirror to landscape, where the eye might still expected mirroring, reflections have a freedom of their own. The experience is analagous to the novelist’s recognition that the novel’s characters have come alive and freed themselves of their author. As a pragmatic fiction, this may also be what Valéry means when he says that a poet is only another of the readers to whom “the verse is listening.” Like “un grand calme [qui] m’écoute où j’écoute l’espoir” in “Narcisse parle,” for the poet, it is not a question of “his intentions” but “of what he has made independent of himself.” Like Milton’s Eve, Valéry’s Narcissus may need to recognize the image he sees as his own, though Valéry’s poet will also go beyond this recognition and learn not to see the image as his own. He will go from self-reflection to the elation that Wordsworth celebrated, that reflection begins to offer otherness. For example, in “Tintern Abbey,” where the poem’s narrator gazes at his own reflections in the landscape and knows not to call these thoughts his own, but, regarding them as thou, as if in the second person, “see[s] into the life of things.[4]Ce toit tranquille, où marchent les colombes,” Le cimetière marin begins. Ce toit, but perhaps also as a near homonym since the the sound is the same: ce toi. And in English, perhaps, this thou.

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.

To return to “the palm at the end of the mind”: Bloom finds in Stevens’ last poem, not only a memory of “Palme,” but also of Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” which denies the “cloudy palm / Remote on heaven’s hill” but concludes with the image of “casual flocks of pigeons,” with their “ambiguous undulations as they sink, / Downward to darkness, on extended wings.” Bloom suggests there is a memory of the same image in “The Broken Tower,” in the “visible wings of silence sown / In azure circles, widening as they dip / The matrix of the heart” and build “within a tower that is not stone.” Recollections of “Sunday Morning” may be one way that Crane’s death poem and Stevens’ join in each other’s company. “Sunday Morning” was published in 1915 — of necessity without Valéry in mind — but after “Le cimetière marin” appeared, perhaps both Stevens and Crane could have found “Sunday Morning” in the opening of Valéry’s poem. I would like to think that as Stevens’ “casual flocks of pigeons” descend, they become Valéry’s doves as they “march among the graves.” In this connection, for Stevens and Crane the concluding lines of Rilke’s Duino Elegies might have also provided a gloss: “Und wir, die an steigendes Glück / denken, emphfänden die Rührung, / die uns beinah bestürzt, / wenn ein Glückliches fällt.

Le cimetière marin” ends where it begins, with doves but now as sails (were they always sails to begin with?), with “ce toit tranquille où picoraient des focs !” From the Mariner’s graveyard at Seté, the Mediterranean can have the appearance of a roof, irregularly supported by tombstones. Sails on the water can become like doves, walking this roof and feeding. As a repetition where the poem’s initial image happens again but differently, the conclusion of Le cimetière marin seems to sharpen the focus. But here too for me English runs into its limits since in English what the French would literally say lacks Valéry’s luminous precision: “this tranquil roof where sails are pecking.” For “ce toit tranquille,” I have again substituted a repetition: “this tranquil ceiling — / this quiet roof.” For the implied metaphor in “où picoraient des focs,” I have substituted a simile: “where sails like doves are brooding.” “Brooding” cannot pretend to be a literal translation of the French; instead it ends Valéry’s poem with an allusion to two poems in English that helped shape an American idiom: to Paradise Lost where the spirit of God “with mighty wings outspread / Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss,” and to “Resolution and Independence” where the Miltonic sublime recurs very quietly: “over his own sweet voice the Stock-dove broods.” The “Stock-dove is said to coo,” Wordsworth later wrote in explanation, “but, by the intervention of the metaphor broods,” the image “react[s] upon the mind… like a new existence.” In recalling this “intervention” at the end of “Le cimetière marin,” I hope that the image from Milton and Wordsworth has once again found “a new existence,” in this case for 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.”
  1. “This is where the serpent lives,” The Auroras of Autumn begins — in the auroras of the title, and in the poem named by the title, with a reference to Emersonian necessity (in an earlier poem, Stevens had connected “the sense of the serpent” with “Ananke”), but also with reference to La Jeune Parque and Ébauche d’un serpent, the poem from Charmes that Valéry sometimes published on its own and in a binding that looked like snake skin.” Like Stevens’ serpent, in Charmes, Valéry’s is “pareille à la nécessité.” And in La Jeune Parque, when “je me voyais me voir, sinueuse, et dorais / De regard en regard, me profondes forêts,” at that moment “j’y suivais un serpent qui venait de me mordre.” A favorite drawing of Valéry’s is of a snake encircling a key.
  1. Melville offers Narcissus in an American idiom near the beginning of Moby Dick: “And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
  1. In Paradise Lost, Book IV, Eve remembers her first conscious moments when “a murmuring sound / Of waters” led her to a reflecting pool where she found an image of herself in “the wat’ry gleam.” “Tintern Abbey” begins with Eve’s sound: “again I hear / These waters, rolling from their mountain-spring / With a sweet inland murmur.” In Paradise Lost, God’s voice saves Eve from Narcissus’s fate by leading her from the reflecting pool and the image he warns her is herself. Is this a deception since the image is an image and not herself? In “Tintern Abbey,” where no warning voice intervenes, Wordsworth fully engages the reflections in the landscape with it’s “gleams of half-extinguished thought,” a beautiful anticipation of “Le cimetière marin,” its “smoke transformations — and / murmuring to the consumated soul, / [its] sky rumors, chanting the shore-changes.” Milton associates “murmuring… waters” with Narcissus. Not only in the Narcissus poems but throughout Valéry’s poetry the French equivalents of “murmur”—the onomatopoetic words le murmure, murmurer, la rumeur — recur. In Ovid, however, this sound is not associated with Narcissus but with Orpheus after his dismemberment, when the Meanads throw his severed head into the Nebrus where “mournfully the lifeless tongue murmured [lingua murmurat exanimis],” and “mournfully the river banks replied.”
  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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