‘Le Cimetiere marin’ is about mortality and immortality, body and soul, life and death, the inexorable passage of time. It was published in 1920, when Paul Valery was nearly 50, although he had started work on it some years before after revisiting the graveyard by the sea at Sete, a town on the Mediterranean coast, where he had been born and brought up and was later to be buried. It begins on a note of supreme tranquillity as Valéry gazes out between the pine trees and the tombs over the calm, roof-like expanse of the sea, stretching away into infinity, with what seem to be doves moving slowly and peacefully across it:
Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes.
(Quiet that roof, where the doves are walking,
Quivers between the pines, between the tombs.)
He has the impression of looking down on an age-old golden temple and he experiences an overwhelming intimation of immortality, as if his soul has been absorbed into the glittering sea so that he too reflects back to the sky above the intense light of the noonday sun. But a reflecting surface supposes a darker underside—”endre la lumière Suppose d’ombre une morne moitié”—and this thought leads Valéry to turn his gaze away from the sea towards the marble tombstones of the graveyard which sharply remind him of the mortality of his body. Though the motionless sea may appear infinite and eternal, time, he is forced to recognize, does not stand still; he cannot remain in that state of suspended animation he had experienced at the beginning of the poem; he must accept the challenge of life, instead of waiting serenely for death in the belief that beyond the grave lies immortality. This change in him is matched by a change in the sea. The wind rises and breathes into him a fresh vitality as he rushes forward to plunge into the invigorating waves:
Brisez, mon corps, cette forme pensive!
Buvez, mon sein, la naissance du vent!
Une fraîcheur, de la mer exhalée,
Me rend mon âme . . . Ô puissance salée!
Courons à l’onde en rejaillir vivant!
Le vent se lève! . . . il faut tenter de vivre!
(Break, body, break this pensive mould,
Lungs, drink in the beginnings of the wind!
A coolness, exhalation of the sea,
Gives me my soul back! . . . Ah, salt potency,
Into the wave with us, and out alive!
The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!)
The poem comes full circle when, in the final line, the doves of the opening line are seen to be white sailing boats, joyfully dipping their bows into the breaking waves that dispel the illusion of the sea being the peaceful roof of some timeless temple:
Rompez, vagues! Rompez d’eaux réjouies
Ce toit tranquille où picoraient des focs!
(And break, waves, rejoicing, break that quiet
Roof where foraging sails dipped their beaks!)
It is typical of Valéry’s complex craftsmanship that not until the end of the poem is the mysterious image of the doves elucidated, and even then only indirectly with the word ”picorer,” meaning ”to peck,” recalling the earlier image and being unusually associated with the word ”foc,” meaning ”jib-sail,” used here as a metonym for ”boat.” Many other examples could be quoted of a similarly original and expressive use of imagery, as when, in a striking oxymoron, the dead are described as having dissolved into a ”dense absence” and, in a vivid colour contrast and a startling use of the word ”boire,” the red earth is described as having ”drunk” their white bodies:
Ils ont fondu dans une absence épaisse,
L’argile rouge a bu la blanche espèce.
(They have melted into a dense unbeing,
The red clay has drained the paler kind.)
Just as the final line of the poem recalls the first line, so these two lines recall and contrast with Valéry’s earlier and very different evocatio of how he had savoured, like fruit dissolving deliciously into nothing in his mouth, the foretaste of the disembodied soul he believed he would become:
Comme le fruit se fond en jouissance,
Comme en délice il change son absence
Dans une bouche où sa forme se meurt,
Je hume ici ma future fumée.
(As a fruit dissolves into a taste,
Changing its absence to deliciousness
Within a palate where its shape must die,
Here can I savour my own future smoke.)
(translations by David Paul)
The last of these four lines is a notable example of the audacious use of assonance and alliteration that is another remarkable feature of Valéry’s poetry and of which again many other instances could be quoted, as when he describes the group of white marble tombstones as: ”Le blanc troupeau de mes tranquilles tombes” and picks out the particular detail of a tiny insect scratching in the dry and dusty soil of the cemetery: ”L’insecte net gratte la sécheresse.” Even the rhythm chosen by Valéry is seen as significant by some critics, who would contend that it is no accident that a poem concerned with the passage of time is made up of 24 stanzas and that there are 60 syllables in each stanza of six ten-syllable lines. There can be few if any poems in which form and content are so intricately and so