Paul Claudel’s Five Great Odes

Paul Claudel was a famous French poet and dramatist, and a six-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was something of a controversial figure before the outbreak of World War II, an outspoken Catholic in the avowedly anti-clerical Third Republic, but the defeat of France in 1940 and Claudel’s poetic response commending former World War I hero and head of the collaborationist Vichy regime, Marshal Philippe Pétain, forever stained his reputation. Anglophone readers, if they know of Claudel at all, typically owe their familiarity to Auden, whose exquisite tribute to the late William Butler Yeats takes a memorable swipe at Claudel the person, even as it praises Claudel the poet: “Time […] / Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives, / Pardons cowardice, conceit, / Lays its honors at their feet. / Time that with this strange excuse / Pardoned Kipling and his views, / And will pardon Paul Claudel, / Pardons him for writing well.” Such was my introduction to Claudel, and I set out to discover the poet whose verses pardoned his person.

Claudel’s Odes, it should be said from the outset, are decidedly Christian, not merely in their imagery or their underlying philosophy, but in their structure: Claudel frequently addresses himself to God, in tones of devotion and supplication, to appeal for strength or reprieve, or to praise the beauty and oneness of God’s creation. His translator, Jonathan Geltner, described him as “among the last artists of the Christian civilization of western Europe: an artist who wrote from the heart of that civilization, not as an isolated survivor of it living on in an altered world.” In this respect, he is frequently compared to T.S. Eliot, though not the Eliot of The Waste Land but the Eliot of Four Quartets. At one point in my life, I would have found such a stance deeply alienating, so foreign is it to my upbringing, and that prejudice may have put a premature end to any possible appreciation. Now, however, I am envious. “I believe without changing one point / what my fathers believed before my time.” How many Europeans, living in the aftermath of the First World War, could utter such a statement, let alone commit it to verse? Against the nihilism and anomie that swept up entires generations, Claudel raises a Catholic banner.

As the tree in each new springtime
laboring by its very soul invents
the green, the same which is eternal, creates from nothing
its pointed leaves,
I, human,
know what I made,
from the dust of earth and from this power
of birth and creativity
I make use, as master craftsman,
I am in the world, exercising in all places
my inborn knowledge.
I know each thing and each thing knows itself in me.
I carry to each thing its deliverance.
But my work
nothing remains alone, but is linked
with another in my heart.

But after exalting this very liberation, this freedom to be in the world, “exercising in all places / my inborn knowledge,” he turns against it: “I am free, but deliver me from freedom.” It isn’t sufficient merely to be; existence alone isn’t enough.

I can well see the ways I might not be, but there is
only one way
to be: that is to be in you, who alone are truly yourself.
The water
comprehends the water, the spirit scents the essential.
My god, who have separated
the waters above from the waters below,
My heart groans for you, deliver me from myself
because you truly are!
What is this freedom of mine, and am I not meant
to play some other part?
What is necessary for me is to remember you.
My God, I see the perfect man upon the Cross,
perfect upon the perfect Tree.
Your Son and ours, in your presence and in ours,
nailed by the feet and the hands,
heart broken in two and the great waters
have pierced him to the core.
Deliver me from time and take my miserable heart,
take it, God, this heart that still beats…

It is through this remembrance of Christ’s example that he discovers the condition of his emancipation: “O my God, I see now that the key that frees / is not the one that opens but the one that closes.” The key that closes is sacrifice, the ability to make sacred, to proclaim higher and lower values, and thereby eschew the latter for the former. “I no longer take my place among things created,” he will boast, “my part is with that which creates: lusty and liquid spirit.” Or, in one of his more developed metaphors:

Shall I dig the sea like a garden, planting peas here
and cabbage there? Shall I plant upon the sea
a smart rotation of crops,
alfalfa or wheat, beets yellow or purple?
But she, the sea, is life itself, without which everything is
dead – and I want the life without which everything is

The crops are stand-ins, of course, for life’s ordinary pursuits – power or money or fame, all of which are attractive in their own right, and frequently pursued as ultimate aims, but Claudel wants something pure and refined, something fundamental.

I read a great deal about Claudel in researching this review, and he is not nearly the unpardonable monster he has been made out to be. He was an outspoken critic of Vichy France’s anti-Semitism, and likely risked his own life to help a Jewish family member escape to New York. He was also no cloistered cleric, sheltering a fragile faith from the realities of the world, but someone who lived and compromised himself, and whose writings at once express the need for repentance and convey repentance itself. In any event, his poetic self – the only self now available to us – is deeply sympathetic, proselytizing at us through the pages to a life beyond life:

Mercy is not the casual gift of something you have
plenty of already: it is a passion like knowledge;
scientific, yet it is the discovery of your visage in the bottom
of this heart you have made.

The oneness of all people, in Claudel’s Catholic imagining, begins with the recognition that to be able to forgive others, we must necessarily be able to forgive ourselves. And this recognition is concomitant with his poetic mission, his spiritual mission: “You have not given me the poor to feed nor the sick to clothe / nor bread to break, but the word that is received / more fully than are bread and water, and the soul / dissolving in the soul.” To read Claudel’s Great Odes is to be swept away by that very spirit; it is a deeply edifying experience.