Meaning in the music of Val'ery's verse. New study finds rhyme -- and reason -- in Frenchman's poems

Paul Val'ery and Music: a study of the techniques of composition in Val'ery's poetry, by Brian Stimpson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 339 pp. $49.50. Paul Val'ery, who is as much a French institution as Charles de Gaulle or the Acad'emie Franaise, was both a poet and a thinker. Through self-scrutiny -- sometimes painful, sometimes enchanted -- he became the legitimate heir of Montaigne and one of the most important writers of our century.

Discussing Val'ery's intellectual attitude toward his work, Brian Stimpson writes: ``[Val'ery's] practice displays a profoundly experimental and human approach that places the concrete image at the heart of his experience. At every moment the whole range of the poet's emotional and intellectual faculties are called into action: Each experiment is a step towards self-discovery.''

Stimpson's book explores the artistic side of this great man. It's a model of scholarly criticism.

Val'ery is not an easy subject. We note Cocteau's image for Val'ery, ``the depths of his soul broken open by laughter''; and, as Val'ery himself wrote in his ground-breaking poem, ``The Young Fate'' (1917), ``Were purpose clear, all would seem vain to you.'' And yet, as an ingenious and meticulous discussion of Val'ery's poetry by way of his thoughts about music, Stimpson's book suggests much about poetry in general.

Readers influenced by modern critics ask, ``Can a modern poem, however admirable in form, make a meaningful statement about life?'' Why this question should be asked is one of the problems of modern thought, and a big, complex issue, and Paul Val'ery (1871-1945) had something to do with it. A kind of intellectual dandy, a formalist, Val'ery wrote a beautiful essay on the seashell as a dynamic form, and he liked to say things like: ``In our opinion, the poem's only aim is to prepare its clim ax.''

His opinion carries special weight, if only because, after a brilliant debut as a young friend of the master symbolist St'ephane Mallarm'e, Val'ery the poet fell silent for 20 years. And when he started writing poetry again it was apparent that he had been thinking the whole time, and thinking about things that nourished him as a poet. He had isolated the creative, life-giving element in experience. Perhaps his most famous line is from ``The Cemetery by the Sea'' (1922): ``Le vent se l`eve! . . . il fa ut tenter de vivre'' (``The wind rises . . . we must try to live'').

In fact, the poetry that Val'ery came to write, as Stimpson's study amply demonstrates, means a lot. ``The Cemetery by the Sea'' is widely recognized as one of the great lyrics of this century. The demon of revision possessed this alert man, who put his verses through as many versions as did his friend Degas with some of his prints. But in the end, Val'ery's poems, so simple on the surface -- so ``classical'' -- are profound in their organization and wholeness. Stimpson's acute observations about the co nsecutive manuscripts of the poems give us a unique view of how thoroughly Val'ery did his work.

We are prone to think of the creative element as irrational. Val'ery's strict classicism of form, however, in which the musical devices of sound and rhythm themselves are meaningful, did not betray his main subject, but rather helped reveal it. The order that meter and rhyme discover is musical, but since what is being metered and rhymed is words, meaning is discovered, too.

Evidence for this method of discovery is presented on every page of Stimpson's study, which is based on the poetry manuscripts and the voluminous notebooks as well as the published texts. Stimpson demonstrates in detail why Val'ery considered a melody an idea inseparable from a form. Writing about the composition of ``Les Pas,'' Stimpson shows how an initial melody can be developed into many subsequent lines; lines change place, countermelodies appear, ``predominant sibilants'' give way to ``the consona nt p.''

By studying Val'ery's musical strategies in Stimpson's book, we come to learn why poetry can mean so much. The meaning is in the choices made by the poet, and these can be known only by learning the poem not only by heart, but by mind. After all, Val'ery considered poetry comparable to architecture as an art of composition. And yet he was aware that, in Stimpson's words, ``However often the poems are reread, however many other impressions and analyses are built up, a reading of the poems can never becom e a purely intellectual affair, for the reader is inevitably led to form the sounds himself or herself and add the vocal pleasure of the lines to his or her understanding of the themes and images.''

It may be such a thorough study is a necessary prologue to the discovery of poetry's capacity for meaning. The New Directions paperback ``Selections from Paul Val'ery'' provides workable English translations of the major poems and some of the prose.

Everyone who cares about language can gain much from reading a poet like Val'ery; for in this poetry, language is treated with utmost respect, both as sound and as reference. Val'ery is often said to have brought the classical and symbolist strains in French letters to a conclusion. I don't read him that way. Rather, his lifelong commitment to the superrational creative force has left as a legacy a handful of poems that provide standards for the future.

Tom D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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