Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Poem by Paul Valéry



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I've been enjoying re-reading the anthology, French Symbolist Poetry, translated by C.F. MacIntyre and published by U.C. (Berkeley) Press. It features poems by Nerval, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Corbiere, Mallarme, Rimbaud, LaForgue, and Valéry. These poets were original in their own right but also influenced poetry in English, including that of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound.

One by Paul Valéry caught my eye--titled simply "Caesar." It starts this way:

Caesar, serene Caesar, your foot on all,
hard fists in your beard, and your gloomy eyes
pregnant with eagles and battles of foreseen fall,
your heart swells, feeling itself the omnipotent cause.

It ends this way:

The spacious world, beyond the immense horizon,
the Empire awaits the torch, the order, the lightning
that will turn the evening to a furious dawn.

Happily out on the water, and cradled in hazard,
a lazy fisherman is drifting and singing,
not knowing what thunder collects in the center of Caesar.


What makes this a "symbolist" poem as opposed to just a regular old poem? The striking juxtaposition of images, I think--so striking that they begin to generate surrealism without generating confusion: "hard fists in your beard," for example--this isn't a logical, "realistic" image, but it makes emotional sense. The same goes for "thunder collects at the center of Caesar." Here Caesar becomes an institution or a phenomenon, or both--but not just a leader, dictator, or man.
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