Paul Claudel

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Paul Claudel
Paul Claudel cph.3b31258.jpg
Born(1868-08-06)6 August 1868
Villeneuve-sur-Fère, France
Died23 February 1955(1955-02-23) (aged 86)
Paris, France
Education Lycée Louis-le-Grand
Alma mater Paris Institute of Political Studies
Genre Verse drama
SpouseReine Sainte-Marie Perrin
Relatives Camille Claudel (sister)

Signature Paul Claudel signature 1914.jpg

Paul Claudel (French:  [pɔl klodɛl] ; 6 August 1868 – 23 February 1955) was a French poet, dramatist and diplomat, and the younger brother of the sculptor Camille Claudel. He was most famous for his verse dramas, which often convey his devout Catholicism. Claudel was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in six different years. [1]



He was born in Villeneuve-sur-Fère (Aisne), into a family of farmers and government officials. [2] 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 an active Catholic for the rest of his life. He studied at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (better known as Sciences Po).

Paul Claudel, age sixteen, by his sister, Camille Claudel, modeled in 1884 and cast in 1893 Augustins - Paul Claudel a seize ans - Camille Claudel RA 941.jpg
Paul Claudel, age sixteen, by his sister, Camille Claudel, modeled in 1884 and cast in 1893

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), [2] 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), Rome (1915–1916), ministre plénipotentiaire in Rio de Janeiro (1917–1918), Copenhagen (1920), ambassador in Tokyo (1921-1927), [2] Washington, D.C. (1928–1933, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in 1933) [3] and Brussels (1933–1936). [2] 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, who wrote incidental music to a number of Claudel's plays.)

Due to his position in the Diplomatic Corps, at the beginning of his career Claudel published either anonymously or under a pseudonym, 'since permission to publish was needed from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' [4] :11 This led to him remaining 'an obscure author' until the editors of the Nouvelle Revue Française recognised his work and began a long collaboration with him.' [4] :12

In 1936 he retired to his château in Brangues (Isère).[ citation needed ]

After a long affair with Rosalie Vetch, a married woman with four children and pregnant with Claudel's child, ended in February 1905 (Vetch left him for another man), Claudel married Reine Sainte-Marie-Perrin on 15 March 1906. [5]


At the age of 18 Claudel discovered Arthur Rimbaud's book of poetry, Illuminations, and underwent a sudden conversion to Catholicism. Together these two events would have a profound effect on him, leading to work towards 'the revelation through poetry, both lyrical and dramatic, of the grand design of creation' [6] 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.[ citation needed ]

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.[ citation needed ]

The most famous of his plays are Le Partage de Midi ("The Break of Noon", 1906), L'Annonce faite à 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-oratorio" with music by Arthur Honegger.[ citation needed ]

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


Cover of Time Magazine (21 March 1927) Paul Claudel on TIME Magazine, March 21, 1927.jpg
Cover of Time Magazine (21 March 1927)

Claudel was always a controversial figure during his lifetime, and remains so today. His devout Catholicism and his right-wing political views, both slightly unusual stances among his intellectual peers, made him, and continue to make him, unpopular in many circles. [ citation needed ]

His address of a poem ("Paroles au Maréchal," "Words to the Marshal") to Marshal Philippe Pétain after the defeat of France in 1940, commending Petain for picking up and salvaging France's broken, wounded body, has been unflatteringly remembered, though it is less a paean to Pétain than a patriotic lament over the condition of France. As a Catholic, he could not avoid a sense of satisfaction at the fall of the anti-clerical French Third Republic. However, accusations that he was a collaborationist based on the 1941 poem ignore the fact that support for Marshal Pétain and the surrender was, in the catastrophic atmosphere of defeat, emotional collapse and exhaustion in 1941, widespread throughout the French populace (witness the large majority vote in favour of Pétain and the dissolution of the Third Republic in the French Parliament in 1940, with support stretching across the political spectrum). Claudel's diaries make clear his consistent contempt for Nazism (condemning it as early as 1930 as "demonic" and "wedded to Satan," and referring to communism and Nazism as "Gog and Magog"), and his attitude to the Vichy regime quickly hardened into opposition. [ citation needed ]

Despite in his earlier years sharing the old-fashioned antisemitism of conservative France, Claudel's response to the radical racialist Nazi kind was unequivocal, writing an open letter to the World Jewish Conference in 1935 condemning the Nuremberg Laws as "abominable and stupid." His daughter-in-law's sister married a Jew, Paul-Louis Weiller, who was arrested by the Vichy government in October 1940. Claudel went to Vichy to intercede for him, to no avail; luckily Weiller managed to escape (with Claudel's assistance, the authorities suspected) and flee to New York. Claudel made known his anger at the Vichy government's anti-Jewish legislation, courageously writing a published letter to the Chief Rabbi, Israel Schwartz, in 1941 to express "the disgust, horror, and indignation that all decent Frenchmen and especially Catholics feel in respect of the injustices, the despoiling, all the ill treatment of which our Jewish compatriots are now the victims... Israel is always the eldest son of the promise [of God], as it is today the eldest son of suffering." The Vichy authorities responded by having Claudel's house searched and keeping him under observation. His support for Charles de Gaulle and the Free French forces culminated in his victory ode addressed to de Gaulle when Paris was liberated in 1944.

Claudel, a conservative of the old school, was clearly not a fascist. The French writers who were attracted by, and collaborated with, the Nazi "New Order" in Europe, much younger men like Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, tended to come from a very different background to Claudel's: they were nihilists, ex-dadaists, and futurists rather than old-fashioned Catholics (neither of the other two major French Catholic writers, François Mauriac and Georges Bernanos, were supporters of the Nazi occupation or the Vichy regime).

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.

The chapter of the French National Honors Society at Syosset High School, in Syosset, New York, is named after Paul Claudel.

Ill treatment of his sister

Camille Claudel Camille Claudel.jpg
Camille Claudel

Claudel committed his sister Camille to a psychiatric hospital in March 1913, where she remained for the last 30 years of her life, visiting her seven times in those 30 years. [7] Records show that while she did have mental lapses, she was clear-headed while working on her art. An exhibition of her bronzes in the Swiss Foundation Gianadda from 16 November 1990 until February 1991 shows clearly what can be considered only a small proof of the timeless beauty of her sculptures, inspired by a genuine talent. Doctors tried to convince the family that she need not be in the institution, but still they kept her there. (The story forms the subject of a novel by Michèle Desbordes, La Robe bleue, The Blue Dress.)

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  1. Nobel "Paul Claudel (Nomination Database)".
  2. 1 2 3 4 "Paul Claudel |". Retrieved 10 May 2020.
  3. "Deans of the Diplomatic Corps". Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State . 1 March 2013. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  4. 1 2 Vagianos, Sylvia Caides (1979). Paul Claudel and La Nouvelle Revue Française (1909-1918). Librairie Droz. ISBN   978-2-600-03573-6.
  5. Ayral-Clause, Odile, Camille Claudel, A Life, pp. 167–168
  6. "Paul Claudel | French author". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 10 May 2020.
  7. Ayral-Clause, Odile, p. 217, 222, 225, 242, 245, 250