“If the poet thus stands ‘before the Cross,’ as the title of one of his books has it, the mystery upon which he meditates is not just one possibility of many, but is in fact the sole mystery that allows him to celebrate the universe in its totality, which means the mystery that allows him truly to be a poet, as Claudel understands the vocation.”
According to Paul Claudel, there are three qualities that a poet must possess in order to stand among the world’s greatest: inspiration, intelligence, and “catholicity.”1 By this last term, which would no doubt surprise the average literary critic, Claudel intends the quality exhibited by those poets who “have received from God such vast things to express that nothing less than the entire world is adequate for their work. Their creation is an image and a vision of creation as a whole, of which their inferior brothers offer only particular aspects.”2 If a poet’s significance tends to be as broad as his vision, then a “catholic” poet, as Claudel understands him, would be one who speaks not only to his own country and age, but in some sense to humanity. To use Thornton Wilder’s term, we might call an artist of this scope a “world poet.”
However short the list of such world poets from the twentieth century would be, “Paul Claudel” is certainly a name that belongs on it. It is strange, then, that the name seems to be recognized only within small, specialized circles. Though he is a writer of undeniable talent and vision, Claudel—who was once called by Charles de Bois the greatest living genius of the West, ranked by George Steiner as one of the two greatest dramatists of the twentieth century (along with Berthold Brecht), and compared by Hans Urs von Balthasar to the likes of Dante—has never been granted an undisputed place in French literature. Moreover, the several attempts to introduce Claudel to English-speaking audiences have regularly protested his “unjust neglect.” “Either one is for Paul Claudel, or else one is wholeheartedly against him,” wrote one critic in 1968.3 The persistent ambivalence toward Claudel is due in part to the extraordinary demands his difficult language makes on the reader and the passionate intensity of his style, which some perhaps understandably find excessive. One cannot help but suspect, however, that the primary obstacle is the unabashed presence of his faith, the fact that, in his work, the worldly action passes so organically and immediately— one wants to say “naturally”—into supernatural drama, that it simply cannot be understood without reference to the great Christian mysteries.4 For Claudel, to be Catholic is to be catholic, and vice versa.
Though a tension between faith and artistic creation has emerged in the Church from time to time since the beginning, the relationship between the two seems to be especially troubled in our age. The poet Dana Gioia recently observed that, while even nonspecialists would be able to name American Catholic writers from the middle of the last century, at the present time there is virtually no one in either literature or literary criticism who is simultaneously respected by the mainstream and a serious Catholic in a forthright, public manner.5 Balthasar also remarked that the flourishing of Catholic literature in Europe around the turn of the century “seems to have left no heirs.”6 While this split between religion and the imagination may be a function of the vagaries of artistic genius, it could also reflect a drift in the way both art and faith are understood and experienced, such that they are no longer compatible or at the least do not encounter one another in an essential way. But if this is the case, the split represents a crisis: it suggests that neither art nor faith bears any relation to meaning, to the great questions of human existence, and that both, then, have become impoverished.
Responding to this crisis requires not only forging new treasures but also recovering those that have already been given. It is in this spirit that we offer the following essay on Claudel, which intends to paint a basic portrait of the French poet. Because the name Claudel has become so obscure to English-language readers, we will give a brief account of Claudel’s life, a discussion of the meaning of poetry and the vocation of the poet as Claudel understands it, and suggest why, in spite of certain features contemporary readers might find outdated or irritating, he is particularly significant for us still now in the twenty-first century.
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