Paul Valéry  

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Ambroise-Paul-Toussaint-Jules Valéry (October 30, 1871July 20, 1945) was a writer, and philosopher. In addition to his fiction (poetry, drama and dialogues), he also wrote many essays and aphorisms.


Valéry is best known as a poet, and is sometimes considered to be the last of the French Symbolists. But he published fewer than a hundred poems, and none that drew much attention before 1917, when he produced la Jeune Parque at forty-six years of age. Before la Jeune Parque, Valéry's only publications of note were dialogues, articles, some poems, and a study of Leonardo da Vinci. In 1920 and 1922 he published two slim collections of verses. The first, Album des vers anciens (Album of ancient verses), was essentially a revision of early but beautifully wrought smaller poems, some of which had been published individually before 1900. The second, Charmes (from the Latin carmina, meaning "songs"; the collection includes le Cimetière marin, and many smaller poems with very diverse structures), further confirmed his reputation as a major French poet.

Valéry's technique is quite orthodox, in its essentials. His verse rhymes and scans in the traditional ways, and has much in common with the work of Mallarmé. His poem Palme inspired James Merrill's celebrated 1974 poem Lost in Translation.

His far more ample prose writings, peppered with many aphorisms and bons mots, reveal a conservative and skeptical outlook on human nature, verging on the cynical. But he never said or wrote anything giving aid or comfort to any form of totalitarianism popular (in certain quarters, at least) in his lifetime. Raymond Poincaré, Louis de Broglie, Andre Gide, Henri Bergson, and Albert Einstein all respected Valéry's thinking and became friendly correspondents. Valéry was often asked to write articles on topics not of his choosing; the resulting intellectual journalism he collected in five volumes titled Variétés.

Valéry's most striking achievement is perhaps his monumental intellectual diary, called the Cahiers (Notebooks). Early every morning of his adult life, he contributed something to the Cahiers, prompting him to write: "Having dedicated those hours to the life of the mind, I thereby earn the right to be stupid for the rest of the day." The subjects of his Cahiers entries often were, surprisingly, science and mathematics. In fact, arcane topics in these domains appear to have commanded far more of his considered attention than his celebrated poetry. The Cahiers also contain the first drafts of many aphorisms he later included in his books. To date, the Cahiers have been published in their entirety only in photostatic reproduction, and only since about 1980 have they begun to receive the scholarly scrutiny they deserve.

Selected works

  • Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci (1895)
  • La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste (1896)
  • La Jeune Parque (1917)
  • Album des vers anciens (1920)
  • Charmes (1922)
  • Regards sur le monde actuel. (1931)
  • Variétés I; II; III (1936)
  • Variétes IV (1938)
  • Mauvaises pensées et autres (1942)
  • Tel quel (1943)
  • Variétes V (1944)
  • Vues (1948)
  • Œuvres I (1957), édition établie et annotée par Jean Hytier, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade / nrf Gallimard
  • Œuvres II (1960), édition établie et annotée par Jean Hytier, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade / nrf Gallimard
  • Prose et Vers (1968)
  • Cahiers I (1973), édition établie, présentée et annotée par Judith Robinson-Valéry, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade / nrf Gallimard
  • Cahiers II (1974), édition établie, présentée et annotée par Judith Robinson-Valéry, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade / nrf Gallimard
  • Cahiers (1894-1914) (1987), édition publiée sous la direction de Nicole Celeyrette-Pietri et Judith Robinson-Valéry avec la collaboration de Jean Celeyrette, Maria Teresa Giaveri, Paul Gifford, Jeannine Jallat, Bernard Lacorre, Huguette Laurenti, Florence de Lussy, Robert Pickering, Régine Pietra et Jürgen Schmidt-Radefeldt, tomes I-IX, Collection blanche, Gallimard

In English translation:

  • 1964. Selected Writings of Paul Valery. New Directions.
  • 1977. Paul Valery: An Anthology. James Lawler, ed. Bollingen (Princeton Univ. Press).
  • 1989. The Outlook for Intelligence. Denise Foliot and Jackson Mathews, trans. Bollingen (Princeton Univ. Press).
  • 2000- Paul Valéry's Cahiers/Notebooks. Volumes I- . Editor-in-chief: Brian Stimpson. Associate editors Paul Gifford, Robert Pickering. Translated by Paul Gifford. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

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