This is my modern English translation of Paul Valéry's poem “Le cimetière marin” (“The graveyard by the sea”). Valéry was buried in the seaside cemetery evoked in his best-known poem. From the vantage of the cemetery, the tombs seemed to “support” a sea-ceiling dotted with white sails. Valéry begins and ends his poem with this image ...
Excerpts from “Le cimetière marin” (“The graveyard by the sea”)
from Charmes ou poèmes (1922)
by Paul Valéry
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
Do not, O my soul, aspire to immortal life, but exhaust what is possible.
—Pindar, Pythian Ode 3
This tranquil ceiling, where white doves are sailing,
stands propped between tall pines and foundational tombs,
as the noonday sun composes, with its flames,
sea-waves forever forming and reforming ...
O, what a boon, when some lapsed thought expires,
to reflect on the placid face of Eternity!
As a pear dissolves in the act of being eaten,
transformed, through sudden absence, to delight
relinquishing its shape within our mouths,
even so, I breathe in vapors I’ll become,
as the sea rejoices and its shores enlarge,
fed by lost souls devoured; more are rumored.
Beautiful sky, my true-blue sky, ’tis I
who alters! Pride and indolence possessed me,
yet, somehow, I possessed real potency ...
But now I yield to your ephemeral vapors
as my shadow steals through stations of the dead;
its delicate silhouette crook-*******, “Forward!”
... My soul still awaits reports of its nothingness ...
... What corpse compels me forward, to no end?
What empty skull commends these strange bone-heaps?
A star broods over everything I lost ...
... Here where so much antique marble
shudders over so many shadows,
the faithful sea slumbers ...
... Watchful dog ...
Keep far from these peaceful tombs
the prudent doves, all impossible dreams,
the angels’ curious eyes ...
... The brittle insect scratches out existence ...
... Life is enlarged by its lust for absence ...
... The bitterness of death is sweet and the mind clarified.
... The dead do well here, secured here in this earth ...
... I am what mutates secretly in you ...
I alone can express your apprehensions!
My penitence, my doubts, my limitations,
are fatal flaws in your exquisite diamond ...
But here in their marble-encumbered infinite night
a formless people sleeping at the roots of trees
have slowly adopted your cause ...
... Where, now, are the kindly words of the loving dead? ...
... Now grubs consume, where tears were once composed ...
... Everything dies, returns to earth, gets recycled ...
And what of you, great Soul, do you still dream
there’s something truer than these deceitful colors:
each flash of golden surf on eyes of flesh?
Will you still sing, when you’re as light as air?
Everything perishes and has no presence!
I am not immune; Divine Impatience dies!
Emaciate consolation, Immortality,
grotesquely clothed in your black and gold habit,
transfiguring death into some Madonna’s breast,
your pious ruse and cultivated lie:
who does not know and who does not reject
your empty skull and pandemonic laughter?
The wind is rising! ... We must yet strive to live!
The immense sky opens and closes my book!
Waves surge through shell-shocked rocks, reeking spray!
O, fly, fly away, my sun-bedazzled pages!
Break, breakers! Break joyfully as you threaten to shatter
this tranquil ceiling where white doves are sailing!
“Le vent se lève! . . . il faut tenter de vivre!
L'air immense ouvre et referme mon livre,
La vague en poudre ose jaillir des rocs!
Envolez-vous, pages tout éblouies!
Rompez, vagues! Rompez d'eaux réjouies
Ce toit tranquille où picoraient des focs!”
PAUL VALERY TRANSLATION: “SECRET ODE”
“Secret Ode” is a poem by the French poet Paul Valéry about collapsing after a vigorous dance, watching the sun set, and seeing the immensity of the night sky as the stars begin to appear.
Ode secrète (“Secret Ode”)
by Paul Valéry
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
The fall so exquisite, the ending so soft,
the struggle’s abandonment so delightful:
depositing the glistening body
on a bed of moss, after the dance!
Who has ever seen such a glow
illuminate a triumph
as these sun-brightened beads
crowning a sweat-drenched forehead!
Here, touched by the dusk's last light,
this body that achieved so much
by dancing and outdoing Hercules
now mimics the drooping rose-clumps!
Sleep then, our all-conquering hero,
come so soon to this tragic end,
for now the many-headed Hydra
reveals its Infiniteness …
Behold what Bull, what Bear, what Hound,
what Visions of limitless Conquests
beyond the boundaries of Time
the soul imposes on formless Space!
This is the supreme end, this glittering Light
beyond the control of mere monsters and gods,
as it gloriously reveals
the matchless immensity of the heavens!
This is Paul Valery’s bio from the Academy of American Poets:
Poet, essayist, and thinker Paul Ambroise Valéry was born in the Mediterranean town of Séte, France, on October 30, 1871. He attended the lycée at Montpellier and studied law at the University of Montpellier. Valéry left school early to move to Paris and pursue a life as a poet. In Paris, he was a regular member of Stéphane Mallarmé's Tuesday evening salons. It was at this time that he began to publish poems in avant-garde journals.
In 1892, while visiting relatives in Genoa, Valéry underwent a stark personal transformation. During a violent thunderstorm, he determined that he must free himself "at no matter what cost, from those falsehoods: literature and sentiment." He devoted the next twenty years to studying mathematics, philosophy, and language. From 1892 until 1912, he wrote no poetry. He did begin, however, to keep his ideas and notes in a series of journals, which were published in twenty-nine volumes in 1945. He also wrote essays and the book "La Soirée avec M. *****" ("The Evening with Monsieur *****," 1896).
Valéry supported himself during this period first with a job in the War Department, and then as a secretary at the Havas newspaper agency. This job required him to work only a few hours per day, and he spent the rest of his time pursuing his own ideas. He married Jeannie Gobillard in 1900, and they had one son and one daughter. In 1912 Andre Gide persuaded Valéry to collect and revise his earlier poems. In 1917 Valéry published "La Jeune Parque" ("The Young Fate"), a dramatic monologue of over five-hundred lines, and in 1920 he published "Album de vers anciens," 1890-1920 ("Album of Old Verses"). His second collection of poetry, "Charmes" ("Charms") appeared in 1922. Despite tremendous critical and popular acclaim, Valéry again put aside writing poetry. In 1925 he was elected to the Académe Francaise. He spent the remaining twenty years of his life on frequent lecture tours in and out of France, and he wrote numerous essays on poetry, painting, and dance. Paul Valéry died in Paris in July of 1945 and was given a state funeral.
Along with Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé, Valéry is considered one the most important Symbolist writers. His highly self-conscious and philosophical style can also been seen to influence later English-language writers such T. S. Eliot and John Ashbery . His work as a critic and theorist of language was important to many of the structuralist critics of the 1960s and 1970s.
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Keywords/Tags: Paul Valery, French poem, English translation, sea, seaside, cemetery, grave, graves, graveyard, death, sail, sails, doves, ceiling, soul, souls, dance, sun, sunset, dusk, night, stars, infinity