Paul Claudel (1868 - 1955) joined the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs after university, where he had begun writing poetry and attending Mallarmé's 'Tuesdays', and in 1895 was made vice-consul in Shanghai, following junior postings in Boston and New York. He would spend the rest of his life as a prominent diplomat and writer, although I suspect that in England he is a lot less well known than his sister Camille (portrayed in the 1988 film Camille Claudel by Isabelle Adjani). When he arrived in the Far East he began composing prose poetry; the first one was written in Ceylon before he reached his destination in China. Some of these poems were sent home and published in outlets lke La Revue de Paris and La Revue blanche. Claudel returned in 1899 intending to become a priest, and his book Connaisance de l'Est came out in 1900. But having abandoned his religious vocation and returned to China, he supplemented this volume with a smaller group of poems written in the period up to 1905.
No doubt Knowing the East can be read critically in terms of Orientalism and French imperialism, but I found a lot of beauty in these poems. Some titles: 'The City at Night', 'Sea Thoughts', 'The Sadness of Water', 'Noon Tide', 'Hours in the Garden', 'Libation to the Coming Day'. Things I was reminded of as I read them: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Francis Ponge, Lafdacio Hearn, Victor Segalen, Empire of Signs, Invisible Cities. This quote, from their translator James Lawler, summarises my first impressions of the book.
'With what pleasure do we savour these landscapes, this continent so far removed from our own: coconut palms, banyans, Japanese pines; the Yang-tse of 'Drifting', 'The River', 'Halt on the Canal'; Confucian, Buddhist, and Shinto temples and tombs; hermitages, suspended houses; crushing heat, night as clear as day; festivals for the dead, a festival for the rivers; wheat harvests, rice harvests; torrential rain, apocalyptic storms; cities that seem chaotic but have a concealed pattern and sense, 'flayed' Chinese gardens, the Shogun's golden ark. One may label the images picturesque but that is not the way I read them. I recall Julien Green saying of Claudel that he was a man "who had known how to live elsewhere," words I take to mean that we do not find a quest for oddness but affectionate deployment fold by fold of a reality the poet comes to know.'
In keeping with the theme of my blog, here are a few examples of how Claudel treats landscape in his poems:
- Stopping to survey the mountains that surround him, he measures with his eyes the route he will take. As he walks, he savours the slow passage of time and thinks about 'the bridge still to cross in the quiet peace of the afternoon pause, these hills to go up and down, this valley to traverse.' He already sees the rock where he will watch the sunset.
- One December day, 'a dark cloud covers the entire sky and fills the mountain's irregular clefts with haze: you would think it dovetailed to the horizon.' He sweeps the quiet countryside with his hand, caressing the hyacinth plains, the tufts of black pines, and he checks with his fingers the 'details embedded in the weft and mist of this winter day - a row of trees, a village.'
- On the vast yellow river he thinks about the nature of water. 'As the segments of a parallelogram come together and meet, so water expresses the force of a landscape reduced to its geometrical lines.' Each drop expresses this as it finds the lowest point of a given area. 'All water draws us, and certainly this river...'
- He describes knocking on a small black door somewhere in Shanghai and being led through a succession of corridors to a garden. He follows a labyrinthine path until he can look down on 'the poem of the roofs'. Later he reaches 'the edge of the pond, where the stems of dead lotus flowers emerge from the still waters. The silence is deep like that of a forest crossroads in winter.'
- And in a Tokyo shop, he finds himself looking at miniature landscapes (bonkei). 'Here is the rice field in spring; in the distance, the hill fringed with trees (they are moss). Here is the sea with its archipelagos and capes; by the artifice of two stones, one black, the other red and seemingly worn and porous ... Even the iridescence of the many-coloured waters is captured by this bed of motley pebbles covered by the contents of two carafes.'