Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Paul Valery, La Jeune Parque

Paul Valery, La Jeune Parque, tr. Alistair Elliot, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1997.

The account he gives in ‘Souvenir’ (one of the essays in Melange, 1941) is much more startling, and directly concerns the prolonged (four-year) composition of La Jeune Parque: / It often happened to me to decide what philosophers call, rightly or wrongly, the ‘content’ of the thought… through considerations of form. I took, if you like, the thought [about to be expressed] as ‘unknown’, and, through a series of approximations, as many as were needed, I advanced nearer and nearer to ‘it’. (9)

The plot sketched out above (young person contemplating her future) is derived from a translator’s very careful reading of the final published text of the poem. To the author, however, it might well appear like proclaiming that one has ‘solved’ a Rorschach test. To correct this impression I should like to quote from three of Valery’s letters. The first was written to Mme Genevieve Bonniot-Mallarme (Mallarme’s daughter) in spring 1916: ‘I put some verses onto paper. At first it was just a page… this page, fertilized by certain difficulties, swelled out… I’l now getting on for 300 verses … and I’m beginning to see the end of this longueur (as long as the war). I still don’t know the title or… the subject.’ Then in the 1917 letter to Mockel already cited, Valery wrote, ‘There are serious gaps in the expositions and the construction. I only managed to get out of the situation by working on bits, separate bits. (11-12)

Clearly, though, the point of this book is to throw un ambiguous light on a shifting and unstable object, which even its creator admitted to be obscure—obscure, I think I have shown, to him too. (14)

One strange phenomenon deserves recording here: at some points I was completely unable to understand the original. The words could be grasped individually, but I couldn’t see what they drove at. What I have been calling their ‘drift’ completely escaped me. The only thing was to swing my machete and keep blazing on, and, to my astonishment, language plus metre produced meaningful English which connected backwards and forwards with the rest of the text. (16)

Is that the simple wind? If not, who’s crying
There at this hour alone with furthest diamonds?
Who’s there, so near me at the point of crying? [opening, pg. 19]

This hand, dreaming its way across my features,
Distractedly obeying some deep order, (19)

What are you doing, hair on end? That freezing hand!
And what’s that flutter like a torn leaf, quivering
Still in the islands of my naked breast?
I sparkle now, linked to this unknown heaven—
Grape-cluster twinkling at my taste for sourness. (19)

Following there a snake which had just bitten me.
Coils of desires, towed by this snake! What a jumble
Of treasures that evade my greedy reach—
And what a dark thirst for limpidity! (19-21)

My own betraying soul brings forth a fang:
This poison’s mine! It lights me, sees itself,
Brings colour to a girl who hugs her body,
Jealous—jealous of who, though? Where’s the threat?
What silence whispers to my one possessor?
Gods! in my heavy wound a secret sister
Burns, and prefers her most attentive self. (21)

Go! I no longer need your artless kind,
Dear Serpent—I can hug my dizzying self!
You can stop offering me your stirring knots,
Your loyalty that escapes me and predicts me…
My soul can manage… Go! Adorn some ruin! (21)

Anything can appear, with infinite waiting. (23)

But full of ready fancy as you seem,
Quick Reptile, surging through caressing coils,
Sudden impatience, languorous repose,
What are you, set against my eternal night?
You watched me sleeping in fine negligence…
But with these dangers I collude, dear wand
Of Bacchus: I trick and outmanoeuvre them. (23)

I’ll stay awake. I am still coming out—
Pale and portentous, damp with unshed tears—
Of an absence in a mortal shape, that cradles
Only itself. Cracking the quiet tomb open,
I rest on elbows, troubled, but in charge: (23)

Speak out! I was the equal and the wife of day;
Smiling I formed the single prop, with love,
For the almighty vault of sky I worshipped… (25)

What a dazzle on my blindly gilded lashes!
O eyelids heavy now with a night of treasure,
I felt my way in prayer through your gold darkness.
Riddled with the eternal all around me,
I offered it my velvet fruit to eat;
No whisper reached me that a wish to die
Might ripen in the sun in that blond flesh.
My bitter taste had not yet come to me. (25)

Each shining day, a prisoner free to roam,
I would set out on fire and tread rich earth,
Catching and freeing shadows under my dress.
O happy then! … (25)

I think, as the world’s rim turns gold, I weigh
The taste for death of the priestess at Delphi
Inside whom moaned a hope the world would end.
And I recall my riddles, my own gods,
My steps held up by words addressed to the sky, (27)

For, the mind’s eye across its silken shores
Had seen too many days grow bright and fade,
Their colours and their courses all predicted.
My lucid boredom, studying how they differed,
Gave me a lead on life—a sad advance:
Each dawn uncovered the whole enemy day.
I was perhaps half dead, or maybe half
Immortal, … (29)

‘My eyes on heaven should mark there my temple,
I want over me an altar like no other!’—
As the marble pallor of my flesh cried then…
This earth seems now only a coloured blindfold
Which runs, refusing help to a forehead white and dizzy—
The whole world sways and quivers on my stalk,
The crown of thought floats out of reach of mind,
And death wants to breathe in this priceless rose
Whose sweetness dovetails with its somber end. (31)

Spring will arrive to break the sealed-up fountains:
Spring shocking us, smiling and violating, come
From nowhere. … (31)

The trees, filled out and clothed again in scales,
Loaded with arms aiming at all horizons,
Advance their thundering fleeces against the sun,
Climbing the bitter air with all their wings
Of leaves in thousands, feeling them so new— (31)

What mortal woman, knowing death, could stand
Against these tides?
Even I, so pure—my knees
Foreknow the terrors of defenceless knees.
Air crushes me; birds pierce, with cries of children
Unheard of, even the shade where my heart shrinks,
And then the roses…My sigh lifts them, showing
Alas! more strength than the soft arms that shut the basket…
And in my hair, no heavier than a bee
That dives drink for the sharpest kiss, I feel
The delicious dawn of my equivocal day.
The light! Or you, Death! May the quickest catch me! (33)

There! I see, fleeing the honours of the flesh,
The powerless dead float by, the bitter millions…
Whispers, looks, strokings—no! My fellow-guests,
Who crowd here thirsty for me, begging to live,
No, you shall get no hold on life through me!
Go, haunting spirits and vain sighs of night,
Join the unfingered numbers of the dead!
I shall not grant the light to any shades;
I shall keep far from you, my mind opposed and clear—
No, you shan’t get that lightning form my lips!
Any my heart too refuses you its flash.
I pity all of us, you whirls of dust! (33-35)

I’ll ask no more: only your weak illumination
Form now on, imminent tear, eager so long
To melt across my face, my only answer—
Tear who hold shimmering to my human gaze
A fan of paths that lead to death; but you
Come from the soul, pride of the mortal maze.
You bring me from the heart this unwilled drop,
Liquor diverted from my precious sap
To reach my eyes and sacrifice my shadows,
A tender libation from beyond the mind…
Deep in my system from a cave of fear
Mysterious salts are dumbly dripping water.
How are you born? What labour, always sad and new,
Draws you, belated tear, from bitter darkness?
You climb my steps, my stages: mortal… mother…
And tearing your way through, a stubborn burden,
All of my lifetime, your deliberate slowness
Chokes me… I’m silent, tasting your sure progress…
—Who summons you to succor my young wound? (35)

Good morning, deities of rose and salt!
You first new playthings of the infant light,
O Islands, still unseen, that I predict—
Soon to be buzzing hives when the first flame
Makes your rock, blushing, feel its paradisal power;
Your tops, scarce tamed but fertilized by fire,
Your woods, humming with animals, high thoughts,
And hymns of men crowned with just heaven’s gifts,
O Isles—who wear chaste zones of noisy sea,
Mothers still virgin though you carry life—
You seem to me to kneel to marvelous Fates:
Nothing in air equals the flowers you set,
But undersea, deep down, how cold your feet must be! (39)

Vain waiting… Vain’s the word: one cannot die
Who at her mirror weeps to move herself. (41)

And I, each heartbeat nearer to that fate,
Saw my procession, rocked in cypress wood…
Towards a scented future as pure smoke
I felt myself led, offered, and consumed,
All of me, all, betrothed to lucky clouds!
I even thought I was that branching tree
Of fumes, whose grandeur, lightly lost in air,
Surrenders to its longing to expand. (40)

Yesterday, the deep flesh, the mastering flesh,
Betrayed me… Not with dreams, nor with caresses!—
No demon came or odour offering risk
Of imagined arms that die round a man’s neck,
Nor by the Swan-God buffeting me with feathers—
His burning whiteness never grazed my thoughts…
Though he’d have known here the most tender nest!
For under cover of my smooth closed limbs,
Untouched I lay in the dark, an offering one might worship…
But Sleep was taken with so great a sweetness,
And, tangled in myself, my lair of hair,
I feebly lost the empire of my nerves.
In my own arms, I became someone else… (43)

If the world’s breath blows hard and blasts with fury
Burst wave on beaten wave, if water thunders
At the cape, slaughtering a monster full of whiteness,
And from the high seas retches up all depth
Onto this rock, from which a blinding dazzle
Of icy sparks leaps high toward my thoughts
And over my skin, rough bite of wakefulness—
Then, Sun, I yield: against my will I worship
This body where you come to know yourself,
Sweet, strong return to the delight of birth,
Fire towards which a virgin lifts her blood
In the golden shape of a responding breast! (47)


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