Translator's Note: Paul Claudel
Paul Claudel is virtually unheard of in the English-speaking world today. This is not surprising, since his oeuvre is almost totally unavailable in English. He is also unknown, I suspect, because of his vehement religious commitment.
His output was vast and formally varied, but it is as a lyric religious poet that Claudel made his greatest contribution to the modern canon. It is in this work, coeval with the dramatic works, that Claudel developed his characteristic method of versification, the long and deeply rhythmical “verset,” which did so much for the development of twentieth-century French prosody. To an English speaker, this resembles Whitman’s style, which is as it should be, for Claudel learned much from the American.
Claudel’s spiritual inclinations are not precisely my own, but I see great value in reintroducing a poet as consistently committed to a catholic (in the sense of all-encompassing) system of belief as was Claudel. Such poets are extraordinarily rare. George Santayana called them philosophical poets when he identified Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe as the paragons of the type. Claudel is not of the stature of those poets. But he speaks with enormous conviction and consistency, while remaining capable of sudden turns and unexpected formulations of ancient ideas and sentiments. This is where his charm finally lies, and not primarily in the cosmic scope of his work or his religious optimism.
All of the stanza breaks in “The Day of Gifts” are my own, and margins have been altered to produce specific points of enjambment. It is possible to decrease the margins to a point where most of Claudel’s long versets can fit into a single line, but I feel this would detract from the aesthetic experience of reading the poem, and make it harder to determine a proper vocalization. Nor is it how the poems usually appear. So, if individual versets are going to take up multiple lines anyhow, one might as well take advantage of the fact and make the enjambments contribute as much as possible; in other words, to make of the accidental something intentional. Not to think too deeply on such a minor matter, but you could say that that principle was one Claudel applied throughout life generally, and perhaps to his poems themselves. —JONATHAN MONROE GELTNER
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This poem originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Poetry magazine