The elegance of Paul Valéry’s verses

Yesterday, I was watching “The Wind Rises – one of the latest animated movie from Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, about whom I can warmly recommend the documentary “Kingdom of Dreams & Madness” which is a sort of ‘making of’ for “The Wind Rises”.

The movie opens, explore and (somehow) concludes with quoting French poet, philosopher and essayist Paul Valéry.

Le vent se lève!… Il faut tenter de vivre!

Which in the original poem is preceded by these verses (not quoted in the movie):

Oui! Grand mer de délires douée,
Peau de panthère et chlamyde trouée
De mille et milles idoles du soleil,
Hydre absolue, ivre de ta chair bleue,
Qui te remords l’étincellante queue
Dans un tumulte au silence pareil,

Le vent se lève!… Il faut tenter de vivre!

And which I translate as:

Yes! Mighty, gifted sea of wild frenzies,
The panther skin and the pierced chlamys
By thousands of sun-induced false divinities,
Supreme hydra, intoxicated by your blue flesh,
Bite again your own glittering tail,
In the tumult of a shining silence,

The wind is rising! . . . We must attempt to live!

Now if you cannot read French, you would think my (probably poor) translation does not make any sense. Well, it doesn’t – and only because the original doesn’t either. Poetry, and I find this is particularly true of French poetry, sublimates words and forms to generate something in the reader’s mind. It was never intended to be easy to read, in the same way Miró works are not intended to be open and clear to everyone. Verses – and art in general, call for contemplation.

But how powerful regardless, is this verse selected by Miyazaki: bite yourself as much as you want, believe what you want, every morning, the wind also rises, and you also need to live. Attempt as you must, a much better translation than “need” (used in the movie and most translations of the poem I could find on the Internet). We all attempt to live.


I am now carried away by Paul Valéry himself – who was last night guilty, by unknowingly (sic) forcing me into regressing further and into exploring his works. For I found his poem “Le cimetière marin“, from which the wind rises quote originates, in a French anthology of French poetry (this one if you must know), and was driven to read a few more lines of his there. Among them, the introduction of his book “La Soirée avec M. Teste” which is French for “The Evening with Monsieur Teste“, available in a translated version here. It is a quotation a little longer so I will spare you the French.

Foolishness is not my strong suit. I have met many individuals; I have visited a number of nations ; I took part in various enterprises, without loving them ; I ate almost every day ; I have touched women. I see again now hundreds of faces, two or three grand shows, and perhaps the essence of twenty books. I retained neither the best nor the worst of these things: there stayed what could.

This calculus spares me the astonishment of old age. I could also recount the victorious moments of my spirit, and picture them as one, composing a happy life… But I believe to always have judge myself well. I rarely lost sight of who I am ; I have despised myself, I have adored myself – and then, we grew old together.

This is the beginning of a novel, but how it rhymes, and how rhythmic this two paragraphs are – the editor of the anthology is right to stop here. In the same way Miyazaki was right to pick only a verse, cryptic but so clear in an ever cryptic poem.

Now I could go on about the beholder’s interpretations of the two sets of verses. How personal I can take both to be, but this is not my topic today, and I should leave Paul Valéry’s words vibrating in you, if they do. I should leave you to contemplate how an evening with a certain Monsieur Teste might have been. Meanwhile, I will watch another of Miyazaki’s movie, because elegance of verses is not only to be found in verses themselves. Poetry abounds in our world of images and pictures and sounds and noises. We may just need to look a little deeper.