His great poem, The Graveyard by the Sea, is a long stroll through mortality, a mental narrative that begins in an attitude of post-human calm, and then gradually returns to the agon of ongoing existence.

The poet is walking through a cemetery that overlooks the sea. He begins with an epigraph from Pindar, reminding him to “make what you can of the possible.”

Here are some excerpts (I’ve just given a link up there to the entire poem. Here’s another translation.), with a bit of commentary.

The sea, the sea, the recommencing yet!
O recompense, in long abstraction set
Over the gods’ own calm, to gaze and gaze.

The poet begins by feeling the vast sense of calm anyone would feel perched above quiet waves, beneath a quiet blue sky, and adjacent to silent white tombstones and mausoleums. Yet the sea itself is a principle of infinite movement – recommencing yet – always beginning anew – and the poet must know that he gazes at it not as a god but as a man whose own movement through the world will end.

… what a peace we fancy here below!
Over a blue abyss the noon at pause
– Pure products, then, of an eternal cause
Time’s all a shimmer, and to dream’s to know.

The poet still fancies himself a god, one among many pure products in an eternal noontime pause.

O silence, mine! … and structure in the soul
With domes of gold, tile over tile… you, Roof!

The silence is not merely the world’s; it is the poet’s. He continues to align himself with the architecture of eternity (structure in the soul).

I scale pure heights and grow at home here …

I could get used to this place, to this sense of immunity from my own humanity.

But now the poet smells perishable fruit from nearby trees, and

I sniff in this my drift – to ash in air.
Soul’s worn away…

I’ll burn to nothingness under this same hot sun; my very life is a process of erosion.

On mansions of the dead my shadow trails
With many a lesson in its meager length.

Yes, this is my reality. I’m a meager body with a meager shadow, pretending the world is my mansion.

My true location is

Between the nothing and the pure event.
I on the edge of grandeur hang and hark:
The reservoir reverberant, surly, dark
– Threats of erosion in the echo sent.

Here is where I live – after the nothingness that prevailed before my birth, and before the realm of the eternal into which I will eventually be absorbed. I struggle to write from this place, always just on the edge of grandeur, always stuck in the realm of relative inexpressivity. I throw my words into the reverberating ocean, but what comes back is precisely a reminder of my transience.

Yet there’s something therapeutic about this stark encounter with death and infinity:

Once here, the future yawns, an empty stare.
The curt cicada grates the bone-dry air.
All’s burnt away, undone, in sky refined
To some astringent essence. Wide debris –
Life, with its wild addiction not to be!
Here bitterness is sweet, and clear the mind.

What a line – life with its wild addiction not to be… Exclaimed as the poet surveys the immensity of death strewn all about him. As if we can’t wait to go, as if the very pleasure and even obsession of our lives is to achieve the end of our lives. A bitter thought but clarifying, like this essential scene.

Yet while we live, we alone can give voice to the earth and its mysteries. And so we are not negligible; we are in fact indispensable:

Impeccable head, tiara without flaw,
See I’m the secret change astir in you.

… The fears you move – I hold them, I alone.
Repentance, doubt, compulsion, moods I’ve known
Show as your noble diamond’s only blur.

Still, dead is dead, and it’s no good pretending that

When you’re a mist, your singing lips can live…
Away! The world’s in flight! My flesh a sieve.
Days of the holy hankering finish too.

A few more stanzas of wry and melancholy meditation on our fate (“Shovels of earth sent packing to your beds.”) follow; and then there’s a dramatic transition:

Off with those poses of a thoughtful dunce!
Revel in wind; it quickens! Drink and thrive!
A coolness breathing from the open sea
Restores – O vigor of salt! – my soul for me!
Plunge in the surf! Come springing out, alive!

… The freshening wind! Let’s live, or try to! Look,
The vast air ruffles, and claps shut my book;
Reckless, the surf goes geysering on the rocks.
Sun-spangled pages, dazzled, blow away!
Shatter in a jubilant spray
This quiet roof…

No more writing, reading, pondering; time rather to put bittersweet astringency behind me and take up my life, just as it is, once again.

Trackback URL for this post:

4 Responses to “This month, in 1945, Paul Valery …”

  1. dmf Says:

    My mother, who hates thunder storms,
    Holds up each summer day and shakes
    It out suspiciously, lest swarms
    Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
    But when the August weather breaks
    And rains begin, and brittle frost
    Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
    Her worried summer look is lost,

    And I her son, though summer-born
    And summer-loving, none the less
    Am easier when the leaves are gone
    Too often summer days appear
    Emblems of perfect happiness
    I can’t confront: I must await
    A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
    An autumn more appropriate.

    “Mother, Summer, I” by Philip Larkin

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Wonderful Larkin poem, dmf. Thanks.

  3. dmf Says:

    thank you for the fine teaching, when I was an undergrad in the PC 80’s the lit program was highjacked for establishing identity politics so I steered clear and never got to study poetry tho I love it.

  4. University Diaries » A Kafkaesque Suicide Says:

    […] consider the possibility that it’s death after which one hungers. Paul Valery, in his poem, “Graveyard by the Sea,” talks about “the wild addiction not to be.” There are more of these seemingly […]

Comment on this Entry

Latest UD posts at IHE