Little is known about the poems Claudel wrote before 1895. Many have been lost or destroyed. A handful of texts remain , most of them written in regular verses, and some in free verse, including “Le Printemps” (The Spring), which he sent to Mallarmé, and which earned him a first invitation to the rue de Rome in 1887. If we remember that the date of birth of this new (and at this time controversial) form is supposed to be 1886, we are obliged to consider that the beginner did not need long to take possession of it..
Claudel never showed much enthusiasm for these first “hums “, as he says, even if he took up some of them in Corona benignitatis anni Dei, making corrections whose importance we do not fully appreciate.
The Exile Verses are his first significant collection. First published in the journal L’Ermitage in 1905, they were written earlier, during the first stay in China, probably between 1895 and 1899, some of them probably on the boat going from Marseille to Shanghai. Very little in line with the idea of an always enthusiastic and extroverted Claudel, they evoke both the suffering of exile, the troubled boredomedom of “that other end of the world” where he has been thrust, and the anguish of a young artist who believes he is about to sacrifice his art to his God (“Take back the talent you have given me”), that of a devotee who thinks, on that date, that he will take on the habit of a Benedictine monk, but who does not envisage without “horror” the fulfilment of this vocation:
Saisi d’horreur, voici que de nouveau j’entends
L’inexorable appel de la voix merveilleuse
In horror, I hear again
The inexorable call of the wonderful voice
“What to do?” asks one of these eleven poems at the end.
Claudel express this uncertainty and suffering in a form that he later used very rarely: that of the classical alexandrin, for which he complains that he has no “real facility”: “To make verses without padding and of which each one expresses an idea and a movement is very difficult, but I feel a certain taciturn pleasure in this work”, he wrote to Maurice Pottecher in 1895. The thinness of this booklet may be due to these “difficulties”; but Claudel’s demanding approach, and the intensity of these few poems, create the value of his little book, which occupies a very singular place in the poetic work, and which many readers have considered eminent.
The East I Know (Connaissance de l’Est)
Written at the same time as the Vers d’Exil, but published earlier, in 1900, Connaissance de l’Est is a much larger book. It is a collection of prose poems almost all composed in China, and grouped into two unequal parts. The first, by far the longest, was written between 1895 and 1900; the second one, between 1900 and 1905, at a time when the author preferred other projects.
The title indicates quite clearly what the initial project was like: it was about the newcomer getting to know this Eastern country where he had just settled. Hence these texts on what we today would call « Chinese culture »: gardens, theatre, ideograms… Hence also the descriptions of exotic trees, animals, or landscapes.
But to describe is not enough. Claudel, applying to Eastern things the question that Mallarmé taught him to ask on every occasion (“What does that mean?”), considers each of the beings and landscapes that are offered to him as a sign. He therefore strives to decipher it, and, without omitting its carnal weight and concrete thickness, to discover what it “means”. Thus, the poem “October” delivers the word that the autumn landscape “means”; or the pig “teaches” not to seek the truth only by means of the glance, but with “all this without reserve that is himself”. Connaissance de l’Est can thus take the form of a book of wisdom, where religious concern remains extremely discreet, being treated most often in the manner of an allusion.
Moreover, the volume, where the very sensual evocation of very concrete nourishment and the symbols of the Invisible are mixed, brings together fairly heterogeneous texts: alongside the descriptions, we find stories of dreams (“Dreams”), poems that rewrite Chinese legends (“The bell”) or Japanese myths (“The legend of Amaterasu”), descriptions of excursions that sound like small epics, reflections of a philosophical or theological nature. As time passes, as the author gets used to this “East” in which he lives, he feels less and less the need to take it as an object of contemplation and meditation. Towards the end of the book, there are poems that no longer have any necessary connection with China, such as the “Proposal on Light”, or “On the Brain”, or “Dissolution”, the poem that closes the collection and evokes both the journey of return and the dissolution of all singular forms in the Marine Absolute.
Yet Connaissance de l’Est, despite this great diversity of motives, is not a disparate book. This is undoubtedly due to a great consistency of tone and a remarkable stylistic quality. A playwright and a poet, Claudel was also one of the first prose writers of his time, and it was by writing Connaissance de l’Est that he forged his instrument. The often complex and highly structured sentences willingly accentuate the visibility of logical connectors; they successfully combine influences that would seem incompatible (Mallarmé, Renard, Rimbaud, etc.) and very different registers: the solemn and the trivial, reasoned analysis (sometimes borrowing from scientific discourse) and lyricism. Verse, excluded from the prose poem, insidiously returns in the form of highly rhythmic formulas, sometimes isolated by a blank line. In this way, the book contributes to the debate on prose and verse, initiated by Baudelaire, continued by Rimbaud, and that the Claudelian “verse” in the theatre or in the Odes also extends in another way.