A look at French writer and thinker Paul Valery on the anniversary of his birth

Paul Valery

Paul Valéry was an essayist, intellectual, journalist, philosopher, Symbolist poet, fiction writer and polymath who was born 142 years ago today.

Ambroise-Paul-Toussaint-Jules Valéry was born 30 October, 1871 to a Corsican father and Genoese-Istrian mother in Sète (or Cette) — a small town in Occitania. There he attended school at Collège de Sète before the family moved to nearby Montpellier, where in 1889 he began studying law. At the same time he began writing Symbolist poetry, some of which was published in La Revue maritime de Marseille. Symbolism was in many ways a response to Realism — particularly inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire. It particularly flourished in Belgium, France, and Russia.

In 1890, after completing his law studies, Valéry met Belgium-born poet Pierre Louÿs. Louÿs introduced him to the writer André Gide, who in turn introduced him to France’s preeminent Symbolist poet – Stéphane Mallarmé, whose “L’Après-midi d’un faune” inspired Claude Debussy’s wonderful symphonic poem of the same name (composed in 1894).

Pages of Cahiers

In 1892, on the night of 4 October/morning of 5 October, Valéry suffered from what he described as an existential crisis. After that he attempted to devote himself to what he called la vie de l’esprit (“the the life of the spirit”). In doing so he would get up around 5 am and jot down his thoughts in a journal every morning which afforded him the right, he said, to afterward be stupid for the remainder of the day. These journal entries are considered by many to be his greatest written accomplishment, and several volumes were published as Cahiers I (1973), Cahiers II (1974), and Cahiers (1894–1914) (1987). The total length of the journals is about 30,000 pages.

In 1894, Valéry moved from Genoa to Paris and began working at the War Office, claiming that being a poet was as useful to the state as being a good bowler. He published only two works during this period, Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci (1895) and La soirée avec monsieur Teste (1896). After his friend and mentor Stéphane Mallarmé died at the age of 56 in September of 1898, Valéry quit writing altogether for nearly twenty years.

In 1900, he married Jeannie Gobillard, a friend of Mallarmé’s family. In a double wedding ceremony at Saint-Honoré d’Eylau, Gobillard’s cousin (and daughter of Berthe Morisot’s and niece of Édouard Manet) Julie Manet married painter Ernest Rouart. The union of Valéry and Gobillard ultimately produced three children: Claude, Agathe, and François.

Paul Valery's La Jeune Parque Album de Vers Anciens Paul Valery's Charmes

Valéry’s “Great Silence” finally ended in 1917, when at 46-years-old he published “La Jeune Parque,” a long poem which he’d begun some four years earlier at the encouragement of both Gide and the publisher Éditions Gallimard. He wrote what many consider to be one of his finest poems, “Le Cimetière marin,” in 1920 and published Album des vers anciens (1920) and Charmes (1922). The first collection of his prose works, Variétés I, was published in 1924. Ulitmately more volumes followed: Variétés II (1930), Variétés III (1936), Variétes IV (1938), and Variétes V (1944).

Paul Valery

Valéry became famous in France as both a writer and public speaker and received loads of honors. In 1924 he became the president of Pen Club Français. In 1925 he was elected to the Académie Française in 1925 Valéry became a well-known public speaker and intellectual in France and to an extent, much of the rest of Europe. In 1931, was named commander of the Legion of Honor and the same year he founded the Collège International de Cannes, still in operation today. On the 100th anniversary of the death of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Valéry gave the keynote address at a German observance of the occasion. In 1932 he joined the board of national museums. In 1933 he was made director of of what became the Centre universitaire méditerranéen de Nice. More honors, titles and positions followed – many of which he was stripped by the Vichy regime as punishment for failing to collaborate with the German Occupation.

Le Cimetière marin

Le Cimetière marin (source: Le blog de Michel Croz)

Valéry died in Paris on 20 July, 1945, shortly after the end of World War II. He has honored with a state funeral and his remains are interred in Sète at the same cemetery celebrated in his poem “Le Cimetière marin.” Check the bookshelves if you’re interested in reading the man’s words. Much of his writing has been translated into various languages but learn French — it’s pretty easy!


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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