Paul Claudel by Michael Donley, Gracewing, £12.99
The author subtitles his book “Poet of the Sacred Cosmos and Prophet of a Christian Ecology”, and it is from this perspective that he analyses the writing of the great French poet. Paul Claudel (1868-1955) is not well known in the English-speaking world, which is a pity. Like the later poetry of TS Eliot, Claudel’s verse was “simply the outcome of his profoundly orthodox understanding of Christianity”, in his case the Catholic faith. Claudel is too wide-ranging and complex a thinker to be pigeonholed simply as a “religious poet”. His large output, including plays, essays, diaries and letters, shows him to have been at the forefront of an early 20th-century renaissance in Christian artistic endeavour.
Claudel wrote a revealing letter to fellow writer André Gide, in which he asked rhetorically if religion is “an impoverishment, a restriction, for the creative artist”. He answered with clarity and firmness: “It is, on the contrary, the unbeliever who lives in a shrivelled and diminished world and who has nothing above him but the smoke-blackened ceiling of his study.”
Claudel abandoned his faith as a teenager and then, on a whim and looking for aesthetic inspiration, he decided, aged 18, to attend Midnight Mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. He was “seized with the reality of the presence of God”. The place where he stood now has an inscription.
It took four more years for him to absorb this “revelation” within his poetic consciousness. Choosing to enter the diplomatic corps and serving largely in the Far East, he became known as the “poet-diplomat”, influenced by Chinese culture as well as Japanese calligraphy and haiku. He particularly admired the Japanese “attitude of pious reverence for, and feeling of communion with, the totality of creation in a spirit of tender benevolence.”
Donley emphasises the links between Claudel’s awareness of the “sacredness of creation and the cosmic dimension of the Incarnation” – another connection between the poet and a renewed understanding of ecology today.
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