Paul Claudel

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Paul Claudel : biography

6 August 1868 – 23 February 1955

An interesting parallel to Claudel, for Anglophones, is T. S. Eliot, whose later political and religious views were similar to Claudel’s. As with Eliot, even those who dislike Claudel’s religious and political beliefs, have generally admitted his genius as a writer. The British poet W. H. Auden, at that time a left-leaning agnostic, acknowledged the importance of Paul Claudel in his famous poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (1939). Writing about Yeats, Auden says in lines 52-55:

"Time that with this strange excuse/Pardoned Kipling and his views,/And will pardon Paul Claudel,/Pardons him for writing well." (These lines are from the originally published version; they were excised by Auden in a later revision.)

Jean-Charles de Castelbajac wrote a song "La soeur de Paul" pour Mareva Galanter/2010. George Steiner, in "The Death of Tragedy," calls him one of the three "masters of drama" in the twentieth century.

Paul Claudel was elected to the Académie française on 4 April 1946.

Biography

He was born in Villeneuve-sur-Fère (Aisne), into a family of farmers and government officials. His father, Louis-Prosper, dealt in mortgages and bank transactions. His mother, the former Louise Cerveaux, came from a Champagne family of Catholic farmers and priests. Having spent his first years in Champagne, he studied at the lycée of Bar-le-Duc and at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in 1881, when his parents moved to Paris. An unbeliever in his teenage years, he experienced a sudden conversion at the age of eighteen on Christmas Day 1886 while listening to a choir sing Vespers in the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris: "In an instant, my heart was touched, and I believed." He would remain a strong Catholic for the rest of his life. He studied at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (better known as Sciences Po).

The young Claudel seriously considered entering a Benedictine monastery, but in the end began a career in the French diplomatic corps, in which he would serve from 1893 to 1936. He was first vice-consul in New York (April 1893), and later in Boston (December 1893). He was French consul in China (1895–1909), including consul in Shanghai (June 1895), and vice-consul in Fuzhou (October 1900), consul in Tianjin (Tientsin) (1906–1909), in Prague (December 1909), Frankfurt am Main (October 1911), Hamburg (October 1913), ministre plénipotentiaire in Rio de Janeiro (1916), Copenhagen (1920), ambassador in Tokyo (1922–1928), Washington, D.C. (1928–1933) and Brussels (1933–1936). While he served in Brazil during the First World War he supervised the continued provision of food supplies from South America to France. (His secretaries during the Brazil mission included Darius Milhaud, later world-famous as a composer, and who wrote incidental music to a number of Claudel’s plays.) In 1930, Claudel received an LL.D. from Bates College.

In 1936 he retired to his château in Brangues (Isère).

Claudel married Reine Sainte-Marie-Perrin on 15 March 1906.

Work

In his youth Claudel was heavily influenced by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and the Symbolists. Like them, he was horrified by modern materialist views of life. Unlike most of them , his response was to embrace Catholicism. All his writings are passionate rejections of the idea of a mechanical or random universe, instead proclaiming the deep spiritual meaning of human life founded on God’s all-governing grace and love.

Claudel wrote in a unique verse style. He rejected traditional metrics in favour of long, luxuriant, unrhymed lines of free verse, the so-called verset claudelien, influenced by the Latin psalms of the Vulgate. His language and imagery was often lush, mystical, exhilarating, consciously ‘poetical’; the settings of his plays tended to be romantically distant, medieval France or sixteenth-century Spanish South America, yet spiritually all-encompassing, transcending the level of material realism. He used scenes of passionate, obsessive human love to convey with great power God’s infinite love for humanity. His plays were often extraordinarily long, sometimes stretching to eleven hours, and pressed the realities of material staging to their limits. Yet they were physically staged, at least in part, to rapturous acclaim, and are not merely closet dramas. The most famous of his plays are Le Partage de Midi ("The Break of Noon", 1906), L’Annonce Faite a Marie ("The Tidings Brought to Mary", 1910) focusing on the themes of sacrifice, oblation and sanctification through the tale of a young medieval French peasant woman who contracts leprosy, and Le Soulier de Satin ("The Satin Slipper", 1931), his deepest exploration of human and divine love and longing set in the Spanish empire of the siglo de oro, which was staged at the Comédie-Française in 1943. In later years he wrote texts to be set to music, most notably "Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher" ("Joan of Arc at the Stake", 1939), an "opera-oratario" with music by Arthur Honegger.

As well as his verse dramas, Claudel also wrote much lyric poetry, for example the Cinq Grandes Odes (Five Great Odes, 1907).