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.