Paul Valery's La jeune Parque

2024-07-01 @Literature

All too frequently Jorge Luis Borges' subtle references lead me to such less widely known French authors as Paul Valery. Stephane Mallarme’s (the symbolist and Parnassian poet’s) disciple, Valery occupied the nineteenth-twentieth century crossroad into modernism, though of heavy adherence towards the former tradition.

Based on select readings of Valery’s poetry and that he lived in France during both world wars, I don’t know … Valery inspires distinct (but otherwise unsubstantiated) melancholy.

But whatever the remembrance, Valery (or rather Valéry) produced far more academic prose: Les Dialogues; studies and essays addressing topics as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci, architecture, fine art, applied sciences, philosophic thought, politics, aesthetics and the very literature. Much of it sounds notably worthy of pursuit.

Likewise remarkable is the twenty-year (silent) period devoid of any publication until 1917, when finally appeared Valery’s chef-d'œuvre La jeune Parque.

512 rhymed alexandrine lines, a beautiful power of two, seconds only the preeminent 1024. But let’s not get hung up on Kabbalistics. Enough of that in the poem.

Although entirely respective of the traditional form, La jeune Parque expound numerous otherwise ancient philosophical questions through the incredibly ornate … what I mean to say is that it’s a mystifyingly difficult exercise of reading and interpretation.

Even the choice of metaphors, while respecting the Greco-Roman tradition (serpents, effigies, marvellous mounds and cataracts and such sparkling imagery), does not much facilitate.

Over the course of five months I’d cycled back and forth, in whole and part, and feel to only have interpreted, never mind how plausibly, so much before stumbling upon linguistic and dialectic perplexities beyond my grasp.

Probably manifest of allegorical interpretation, the entire poem presents the younger of the three Fates (the Parque sisters) in an unceasing metaphysical soliloquy. The Fates often depicted as three old hags (ie Goya’s Atropos, Las parcas), the case here is quiet different: the young one portrayed as a voluptuous and hopelessly immortal virgin.

Reads very much in spirit of a tragic theatre dialogue akin to Racine or (the very pioneer) Aeschylus, among the particularly bomb-dropping tragedians of personal familiarity.

That’s pretty much the entire poem, in an inner-woven metaphorical struggle; almost a parallel with the intractable thread-weaving allegory, both in beauty and complexity.

The young Fate abstracts reason from body, higher reason from the baser, in a metaphysical exploration taking place within her consciousness in the seemingly brief and undefined temporal span if not for a handful of select environmental cues indicative of the slow transition from the rocky twilight precipice into the rising sun.

And she explores an awful lot: the unceasing conflict of immortality vs death, chastity vs carnal sin, imperviousness to desire, duty vs transgression, fortitude vs laxity, inner darkness to elucidation: temptation over steadfast choice and deterministic doctrine to a large extent; and such and other inklings in a self-referential internal debate.

One needs be mad infatuated over esoteric poetry to appreciate this. I am one of those lunatics. Whatever your experience, Valery’s poem caused me greater stir than Yeats' (of similar period and makeup), than Donne, than the Proto-Romantics or most Neo-Classicists I recall; than most of the familiar symbolist oeuvre save for Rimbaud. But if you enjoy any of these names or movements, odds are in favour of you not abanding La jeune Parque after three lines.

Questions, comments? Connect.