Text: xxauthorxx, “xxtitlexx,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. 1-8 (This material is protected by copyright)


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PAUL VALÉRY AND THE POE LEGACY IN FRANCE

LOIS VINES

“Rien de plus original, rien

de plus soi que de se nourrir

des autres. Mais il taut les

digerer. Le lion est fait de

mouton assimile.”

Valéry, Choses tues.

Paul Valéry’s death in 1945 marks the end of the century-long Poe cult in France, initiated by Baudelaire in 1846 when he discovered Poe’s stories and decided to devote himself to the task of translating them into French. Baudelaire’s vow to make Poe known in France was carried out with missionary-like fervor by his successors Mallarmé and Valéry. No major French author since Valéry has taken up the banner for Poe, to whom three generations of French writers were devoutly attached.

Although Baudelaire and Mallarmé have both been the object of extensive research relating their thought and work to Poe’s, the influence of Poe on Valéry has not been examined in a comprehensive manner. Studies on the influence of Poe in France make only brief mention of Valéry.(1) The best essay on the subject is T. S. Eliot’s article “From Poe to Valéry,” written over thirty years ago.(2) Eliot’s appraisal of Poe’s effect on Valéry makes two essential points: first, Valéry’s concept of pure poetry derives from Poe’s idea that “a poem should have nothing in view but itself”; and, second, Valéry’s interest in observing himself writing a poem comes from his reading of “The Philosophy of Composition.” After Eliot’s article appeared, twenty-nine volumes of Valéry’s hand-written notebooks were reproduced (each containing some 900 pages) and three volumes of correspondence were published. This material brings to light additional aspects of Poe’s effect on Valéry, which will be examined in the present discussion.

Baudelaire and Mallarmé both played a part in the influence of Poe on Valéry because of the intricate chain of relationships that existed among them. Although Poe’s effect on Valéry was unique, the Frenchman did nevertheless share a certain image of the American poet handed down to him by his compatriots. This continuity of admiration is interesting in itself. Poe died a year after Baudelaire’s first translation of one of his tales appeared in France. That Baudelaire had never met or corresponded with Poe did not diminish his devotion to translating Poe’s stories, his cosmological poem Eureka, and some of his essays. Mallarmé admired both Poe and Baudelaire and supposedly came to Paris to meet the author of Les Fleurs du Mal but did [page 2:] not have the courage to approach him at a bookstall. Mallarmi learned English, he said, in order to understand Poe better, whose poems he rendered into French, thus completing a difficult task Baudelaire had not attempted. With a sense of mission accomplished, Mallarmé dedicated the volume of poems to the memory of Baudelaire.

Valéry admired Poe, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé, with whom he had a personal association for seven years before Mallarmé died in 1898. Valéry’s first contact with Poe’s work was through Baudelaire’s translations and the introductions that accompanied them. Baudelaire mentioned in his 1852 essay that he could not give an account of Eureka because it required a special article. Valéry wrote that special article, “Au sujet d’Eureka,”(3) as a preface to the 1923 edition of Baudelaire’s translation of the cosmological poem. In an essay on Baudelaire, Valéry expressed most eloquently his own admiration for Poe.(4) Valéry also made a contribution to the French version of Poe by translating fragments from the “Marginalia.”(5) The text is particularly interesting because Valéry added his own marginal notes alongside those he was translating.

Poe played a significant role in the relationship between Valéry and Mallarmé. The younger poet’s first letter to Mallarmé, written from Montpellier when he was only nineteen, mentions Poe in a rather name-dropping fashion. Knowing Mallarmé’s fondness for Poe, Valéry introduced himself as a person who is “profondément pénétrée des doctrines savantes du grand Edgar Allan Poe — peut-être le plus subtil artiste de ce siècle.”(6) When Mallarmé and Valéry met a year later in Paris, Valéry recalled that it was the subject of Poe that brought the two of them together in a close relationship. But they got an essentially different message from their common mentor. Impressed by Poe’s devotion to the technique of writing verse, Mallarmé dreamed of perfecting the art of writing and of giving it a universal value to be realized in a book. Poe’s effect on Valéry was, in one sense, just the opposite. Although he too was intrigued by poetic technique, it was not for him a means to the same end. Valéry’s ultimate goal was not to create a supreme work, but rather to understand the mind, his own mind, during the act of artistic creation. This particular effect of extreme intellectual self-consciousness distinguishes Poe’s influence on Valéry from that of his predecessors.

Early in his literary career Valéry was obsessed with reading Poe. Traces of this immersion are evident in three of his prose pieces composed between 1889 and 1895. His first literary essay, entitled “Sur la technique littéraire,”’ is a naive paraphrasing of “The Philosophy of Composition.” Valéry begins [page 3:] by declaring that the most important consideration of the poet must be to create the maximum effect on the reader. As the essay continues, certain phrases bear a striking resemblance to Baudelaire’s translation of Poe’s essay. Valéry: “le poème n’a d’autre but que de preparerson denouement;” Poe: “le poème doit preparer son denouement;” Valéry: “cent vers entreront dans les plus longues pieces;” Poe: “[le poeme aura] une longueur de cent vers eviron.”(8) Valéry goes on to mention Poe by name, but there is no indication that the ideas he expresses in the first part of the essay come directly from Poe. The essay would have been published by the Courrier libre in Paris had the literary journal not gone out of business. The manuscript was found after Valéry’s death and finally published more than half-a-century after it was written. Although the essay clearly lacks originality, it is interesting to our study because it shows that Valéry was indeed “penetrated,” as he said, by the ideas of Poe.

Valéry’s next attempt at writing an essay was very successful. His “Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci,” written at age twenty-three, is still considered to be one of his best prose pieces. The original approach to the subject was inspired by his reading of Poe. Having been invited to prepare an article on Leonardo, Valéry decided that instead of bringing together biographical details and descriptions of the artist’s work, he would recreate the mind that engendered the work. Poe’s description of how he wrote “The Raven” suggested to Valéry the possibility of a new critical method. He was convinced that the only valid means of evaluating an artist’s (or a writer’s) work was to examine the relationship between what the mind was attempting to do and how well it succeeded.

Since Valéry’s approach to the study of Leonardo was different from anything that had previously been done, he begins the essay by explaining his new method to the reader. Here again, part of his explanation seems to come directly from “The Philosophy of Composition.” In a paragraph beginning with the statement “mainte erreur, gâtant les jugements qui se portent sur les oeuvres humaines, est due à un oubli singulier de leur génération,”(9) Valéry puts forth the idea that our judgment of creative works is distorted because we are notaware of their genesis. He goes on to explain that most authors do not have the courage to take a look at how a particular work was created; other writers, says Valéry, could not even understand the process. Like Poe, Valéry attributes this failure to the vanity of the author, who would prefer to give the impression that his work sprang forth on its own. As both authors point out, inspiration plays a role in the creative process, but conscious effort, chance, and decisions made at the last minute are also [page 4:] involved. Valéry was fascinated by the drama that takes place in the creative mind and believed that Poe was the first to describe it.

It was this “comèdie de l’intellect,” as Valéry called it, that intrigued him for a lifetime. His essay on Leonardo sets forth his approach to literary criticism, which he was to use later to evaluate the work of other writers. Valéry never questioned whether Poe’s description of how he composed “The Raven” was a hoax. It was of no importance. He believed that Poe placed the study of literature on an analytical basis, and that was the goal to which he himself aspired. He expresses this idea very clearly in one of his notebooks: “Poe le premier a songé à donner un fondement théorique put aux ouvrages. Mallarmé et moi-même. Je pense avoir été le premier à essayer de me ne pas recourir du tout aux notions anciennes mais a tout reprendre sur des bases purement analytiques.”(10) In the same way that Valéry recreated the mind of Leonardo, he also formed an image of Poe which we can piece together from remarks in his notebooks and correspondence. He pictured Poe as a literary innovator who could apply intellectual rigor to creative work.

At about the same time that Valéry was preparing his study of Leonardo da Vinci (1894-95), he began working on another prose piece that would eventually be titled La Soiree avec Monsieur Teste. His notebooks and letters show that during the same period he was reading Poe’s tales, a fact that some critics have overlooked.(11) In a notebook dated 1894, he makes reference to an idea for a literary project, calling it for the moment “La vie et les aventures de Ch. August Dupin.”(12) An unpublished manuscript of an early draft of La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste bears the title “Mémoires du ChevalierDupin.”(13) A careful examination of La Soirée avec Monsieur Teste and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” provides convincing evidence that Poe’s story served as a model for Valéry when he created his own fictional character Edmond Teste.(14)

Valéry saw in Dupin a mind capable of observing its own analytical faculties. Not only was Dupin able to think logically, he also took pleasure in retracing the mental processes by which he discovered a coherent pattern in supposedly unrelated events. Teste is portrayed as an intellectual superman who understands how his own mind functions. He never engages in spectacular feats of logic that characterize Dupin. The only mystery he attempts to unravel is that of his own mind. He aspires to no practical application of his mental power and is absorbed by only one question, “Que pent un homme?” — what is a man capable of intellectually? Teste is in this sense a purified Dupin; he seeks intellectual self-comprehension for its own sake and makes no attempt to exhibit his superior mind in public. [page 5:]

The descriptions of Leonardo’s creative mind and Edmond Teste’s analytical brain reveal Valéry’s obsession with intellectual rigor and self-comprehension. After publishing the prose pieces on Leonardo and Teste and several poems, Valéry went through a twenty-year period during which he devoted himself to observing his own mind. His main goal was no longer to try to publish, but rather learn more about how his own brain came to grips with mathematics, the sciences, and the creative process of writing a poem. His notebooks during those years contain many examples of mathematical equations interspersed with comments on literary problems. Looking back on this period in a letter to Albert Thibaudet, dated 1911, Valéry describes the role that Pole played in this shift of focus in his life:

. . . Celui qui m’a fait le plus sentir sa puissance fut Poe. J’y ai lu ce qu’il me fallait, pris de ce délire de la lucidite qu’il communique. Par consequence, j’ai cesse de faire des vets. Cet art devenu impossible à moi de 1892, je le tenais deja pour un exercise, ou application de recherches plus importantes. Pourquoi ne pas développer en soi, cela seul qui daps la genese du po’eme m’intéresse?(15)

These lines express one of the most important aspects of Poe’s influence on Valéry. This “demon of lucidity,” as Valéry sometimes called Poe, pointed him in the direction of solving the mystery of his own mind. Valéry never claimed to have succeeded, but he never lost sight of his goal. The last line he scribbled in a notebook before his death was “aprés tout, j’ai fait ce que j’ai pu. . . . “(16)

During the long period referred to above, Valéry did not actually stop writing. He continued to compose poems and to develop topics that interested him, but little of his writing appeared in print. Finally, Andre Gide convinced him to publish a collection of poems. The slender volume entitled Charmes came out in 1917, and Valéry was immediately recognized as an outstanding poet. A constant theme represented symbolically in many of the poems is the drama of artistic creation.(17) Valéry went one step farther than Poe. Not only did be observe himself while writing a poem; the creative process itself became the subject of his poetry.

Valéry’s interest in Poe was not simply a youthful enthusiasm. Comments in his notebooks show that he continued to read Poe and think about him for the rest of his life. A series of references in his notebooks dated 1919-20 indicate that he was thinking about giving a lecture on Poe. He refers to Poe as “la conscience consciente” and as “l’ingenieur de l’esprit.”(18) He mentions that he would have difficulty talking about Poe because he had read him so much. There are also several references to Eureka, which was to become the [page 6:] subject of Valéry’s only published essay on Poe, written when he was fifty years old.

Valéry saw in Eureka, once again, a drama of the intellect. He believed that any cosmogony is a myth, but at the same time he admired the heroic effort of the human brain as it tries to grasp the very notion of a universe and a beginning. This history of thought, says Valéry, might be summarized in these words: “Il est absurde par ce qu’il cherche, il est grand par ce qu’il trouve.”(19) He admired Poe for his leap of the imagination backed up by scientific explanations. Valéry did not like several features of Eureka; he was unimpressed by the pretensions of the author, did not care for the solemn tone of the preamble, and was disappointed that all the consequences were not deduced with precision. And, as a final criticism, Valéry says, “il y a un Dieu.”Nonetheless, he was fascinated by the ideas developed in Eureka. Poe awakened in him an interest in science, which had been numbed by the dismal instructors of his school days. In Poe’s discussion of the symmetrical and reciprocal relationship of matter, time, space, gravity, and light, Valéry recognized a similarity with the formal symmetry of Einstein’s universe. In spite of his admiration for Poe’s scientific affirmations, Valéry concludes that the universe escapes intuition and logic. He says however: “c’est la gloire de Phomme que de pouvoir se depenser dans le vide.”(20) He was convinced that imagination plays an important role in science and that scientific analysis is involved in creative achievements. Valéry believed that Poe was the first writer to see these relationships.

The admiration for Poe’s poetic theory that Valéry expressed in his first literary essay did not diminish over the years. From 1937 until just a few months before his death, Valéry taught a course in poetics at the renowned Collège de France, where a chair had been established in his honor. Poe was often the subject of his lectures.(21) He explained “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle” to his students while giving examples from his own experience, gathered from many years of observing himself write. Like Poe, he believed that writing poetry is a conscious act calculated to arouse emotion in the reader. Valéry liked creating verse within the strict rules of classical French prosody. A sudden inspiration or a stroke of luck might play a role in the creation of a poem, but for the most part, poetic composition requires a conscious, analytical approach to language. Valéry believed that Poe was the first to recommend eliminating from poetry all subjects that can best be treated in prose-history, politics, morality, etc. This was an important point for Valéry, and much has been made of his concept of “la poesie pure,”(22) which was reaffirmed by his reading of Poe.

Looking back on his literary career, Valéry remarked in 1933 that Leonardo, [page 7:] Poe, and Mallarmé had a deep influence on him.(23) He explained the particular way in which this influence operated in his case. Certain aspects of the works of these men caught his attention, and he would then imagine the mind that had created the work. This mental image, formed in his own mind, had the greatest effect on him. Valéry wrote several essays about Leonardo and Mallarmé. Since he published relatively little on Poe, it has been necessary to sift through his letters and notebooks in order to recreate his mental image of Poe. There emerges from this material a striking portrait. Valéry’s Poe was a literary genius, a logical thinker who attempted to place creative work on an analytical basis, and the first writer to explore the psychological aspects of literature. Several of the references to Poe in Valéry’s final notebooks repeat Baudelaire’s phrase describing Poe as “ce merveilleux cerveau toujours en éveil.”(24) “That marvelous brain always on alert” appropriately fixes the image of Poe that became a legacy in France.


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NOTES

1.  Patrick F. Quinn states in the introduction to The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale, IL, 1957) that he does not attempt to examine Poe’seffect on Valéry. Cetestin Pierre Cambiaire’s The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe in France (New York, 1927; rpt. New York, 1970) mentions Valéry in two paragraphs, pp. 159-160.

2.  HudR, 2 (1949), 327-342.

3.  Oeuvres de Paul Valéry, ed. Jean Hytier, 2 vols. (Paris, 1957, 1969), 1:854-867.

4.  Ibid., “Situation de Baudelaire,” pp. 598-613.

5.  “Quelques fragments des Marginalia,” traduits et annotes par Paul Valéry, Commerce, 14 (1927), 11-41. Commerce was a literary review published in Paris between 1924 and 1932. Valéry was one of the three editors.

6.  Lettres à quelques-uns (Paris, 1952), pp. 28-29.

7.  Valéry, Oeuvres, 1:1809-11. Henri Mondor obtained the manuscript in 1946 from Charles Boes, former editor of the Courrier libre, and published it under the title “Le premier article de Paul Valéry” in the collection Dossiers, 1 (Paris, 1946).

8.  Valéry, Oeuvres, 1:1810. Poe, Oeuvres en prose, Iragsl. Charles Baudelaire, ed. Y. -G. Le Dantec (Paris, 1951), pp. 984-985.

9.  Valéry, Oeuvres, 1:1156-57.

10.  Valéry, Cahiers (Paris, 1957-61),12:703.

11.  For example, one of the most respected Valéry critics, Emilie Noulet, believed that he had not bothered to read Poe’s tales. See Noulet, Paul Valéry (Brussels, 1951), p. 85. T. S. Eliot discusses Poe’s tales in the article mentioned above, but makes no connection with Valéry’s work. [page 8:]

12.  Valéry, Cahiers, 1:50.

13.  Valéry, Oeuvres, 2:1881. Jean Hytier describes the manuscript, which was exhibited in 1956.

14.  For a detailed account, see my article “Dupin-Teste: Poe’s Direct Influence on Valéry,” FrF, 2 (1977), 147-159. One of the most interesting similarities is the role of the narrator in both stories.

15.  Lettres à quelques-uns, pp. 97-98. The italics are Valéry’s.

16.  Quoted in Valéry, Oeuvres, 1:70, by Valéry’s daughter, who wrote the “Introduction Biographique.”

17.  For a detailed discussion of this subject see Noulet, Paul Valéry.

18.  Valéry, Cahiers, 6:767-768.

19.  Valéry, Oeuvres, 1:862.

20.  Ibid.

21.  Valéry’s lectures at the College de France were never published, but one of his students, Lucienne Julien-Cain, recounted what he said about Poe in her book Trois essais sur Paul Valéry (Paris, 1958); pp. 129-150.

22.  T. S. Eliot gives a good explanation in “From Poe to Valéry.”

23.  Valéry made this remark and the explanation on influence in his introduction to Rene Fernandat’s book Aulour de Paul Valéry (Grenoble, 1999).

24.  Valéry, Cahiers, 22:489, 702; 23:74;25:625;27:234. — these notebooks date from 1989-48.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - PAOT, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and Our Times - xxtitlexx (xxauthorxx, 1986)