Exegetical Works

Exegetical Works

Left for a long time in the shadows, the exegetical side of Claudel’s work is the most voluminous, however, and in many ways the most fascinating.

Claudel dates his plunge into the Bible to 1928: his dramatic work is now considered completed, and on the occasion of a commission on the Apocalypse, Claudel chooses to dedicate himself completely to his passion for “Holy Scripture” which will occupy him until his last days.

In reality, if the great Biblical commentaries are in fact composed starting in the 1930’s, one should look for their origins from the first years of the century. From 1910 on, in fact, Claudel composes for Gabriel Frizeau a first “Note sur les Anges” (“Note on the Angels”), which follows an “Abrégé de toute la doctrine chrétienne” (“Summary of the Entire Christian doctrine”), composed in 1906 and distributed to the network of friends who have recently converted or are on the point of converting (at this time Gide is among the group). In 1913, he is working on three texts—“Les trois premiers jours de la Genèse”(”The first three days of Genesis”), “Du lieu et la condition des corps ressuscités” (“Of the place and condition of resuscitated bodies”) and “La Physique de l’eucharistie” (“The Physique of the eucharist”); then, in 1917, in a notebook entitled “Les eaux dans l’Écriture sainte” (“The waters in Holy Scripture”), he undertakes a survey of all the passages in the Bible that are devoted to water.  These first texts, of which the majority remained unpublished for a long time, already give a glimpse of the principal orientations of Claudel’s great exegetical commentaries of the 1930’s and 1940’s (“exegetical”, here, should be taken in a larger sense, and people have the –unfortunate? —habit of classing under this label the entire group of Claudel’s texts having to do with religious or Biblical matters):  

            An exegetical orientation, first of all, in which Claudel’s originality manifests itself. In                                                        accord with the tradition of the Church, Claudel postulates that the Holy Spirit is the “sole author” of the Bible taken as a whole and that, as a consequence, each word, each expression is important. Using the principle of concordance, he brings together the different texts of the Bible in order to illuminate the meaning of the words, returning in this way to the principles of patristic and medieval exegesis. Far from being content with explicating the literal meaning of the texts, he explores their significance: allegorical, typological (how does the Old Testament prefigure the New?), or moral (how does the Biblical text address each believer in speaking to him about spiritual realities that concern him?). This method, which seems dated and somewhat ridiculous to a number of his contemporaries (notably the partisans of the “scientific” exegesis that was then in fashion), makes Claudel a precursor of the renewal of patristic studies in the 20th century.

            A theological aim: he seeks, in the texts from 1910 on, to interrogate the nature of the Beyond, in a type of reasoning that recalls the philosophical reflections of the Poetic Art. This vein reappears, during the 1930’s, in short texts like the “Traité de la présence de Dieu” (“Treatise on the Presence of God”), for example. This abstract and dense writing tends to disappear later on, but the theological reflection persists: how to explain evil? how to understand the scandal of the cross? how to take account of the role of Israel after the Incarnation? On numerous points, Claudel’s propositions only demonstrate in spectacular manner the theology of the Catholic Church; on others, on the other hand—for example on the theology of Israel—Claudel already announces what the Council of Vatican II will affirm some years later.

A dogmatic preoccupation: from 1910 on, Claudel very clearly seeks to define what a Catholic should believe. If the dryness of the definition tends to disappear with time, the concern for orthodoxy remains significant. Claudel does not hesitate to solicit the advice of an officially authorized theologian before publication, in 1913 as in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and he always executes, with more or less good grace, the suggested modifications, going as far as to give up publication if the advice he receives is unfavorable (this was the case for the 1913 essays, but also, in 1942, for “La théologie de l’Immaculée conception” [“The Theology of the Immaculate Conception”]). This concern cannot be disassociated from an apologetical, or pastoral, preoccupation: as a convert, Claudel gives himself the mission to convert in his turn, or at least to give back to his contemporaries a taste for the Bible and for the realities on high.  

            A poetic approach: Claudel approaches theology and exegesis explicitly as a “poet”. During the 1910’s, he voluntarily emphasizes the part played by the imagination in his theological explorations. Later, “poem” is the term that he chooses to designate certain of his commentaries. This label is justified by the place that Claudel reserves for the image in his search for meaning, but equally by the proximity that exists between the method of concordance and the functioning of metaphor: the bringing together of two apparently foreign elements brings out a higher meaning. The claim of a poetic character for his undertaking allows Claudel to present himself specifically as a “Bedouin of exegesis” compared to professional exegetes, but it would be wrong to see in this a claim of modesty: for Claudel in fact, “the Bible is a poem and a poet is more entitled than an erudite scholar to understand how it’s made” (letter to Louis Gillet, November 10, 1941).

The period that opens up in 1928 with Au milieu des vitraux de l’Apocalypse (In the Middle of the Stained-Glass Windows of the Apocalypse) and that only closes with Claudel’s death, in 1955, sees the composition of his great commentaries. A metamorphosis of writing is revealed there that little by little transforms the dissertations from an occasionally tedious reading experience into delicious “poems”.

The difference rests on a change not in method or objective, but in form and tone. The tone is found in the short “parables” that Claudel composes at the beginning of the 1930’s: in “La mort de Judas” (“The Death of Judas”) or again “Le point de vue de Ponce Pilate” (“The Point of View of Pontius Pilate”), Claudel completes the evangelical narration by giving us the “point of view of the villain”. Cynicism, flippancy, familiar expressions and irony join in a narration that does not hesitate to designate real figures (the intellectual guides of Judas and Pontius are none other than Goethe and Renan). This will be the delectable tone of Satan and of all the characters resistant to the Lord who people the later commentaries. In the “parables”, Claudel has also found a form, using rhetorical amplification, which is at work in most of the commentaries: far from being content with the simple reproduction of the Biblical text, he dramatizes situations over and over again, recreates the psychology of the different actors, does not hesitate to make the characters speak–Moses, David, Mary, but also Jesus, Satan and God himself. Thus, before the eyes of the reader, the Bible becomes a fascinating drama as well as a fantastic epic poem.

Another innovation consists in the active part that Claudel takes in his commentaries. As certain titles show: Paul Claudel interroge le Cantique des cantiques (Paul Claudel Interrogates the Song of Songs), Paul Claudel interroge l’Apocalypse, (Paul Claudel Interrogates the Apocalypse), the personal dimension of the commentary is emphasized.  Beyond the affirmation of subjectivity in the interpretation, we notice the appearance of references to the writer himself: Claudel offers memories, frequently evokes the temporal dimension of the writing, making the reader enter into his intimacy as a man and a believer (see L’homme de foi [The man of faith]).

Finally, interpretative freedom is affirmed with more and more strength. At the risk of confusing his reader, in certain pages Claudel develops a dense network of correspondences among things, events, and their significance. As an heir to Symbolism, he explores the richness of the image in order to bring to light the maximum of meaning.

Marie-Ève Benoteau-Alexandre

Bibliography of the exegetical works  


Œuvres complètes, t. XIX à XXVIII, Gallimard, 1962-1978.
Le Poëte et la Bible, éd. M. Malicet, X. Tilliette et D. Millet-Gérard, t. I et II, Gallimard, 1998 et 2004.

Critical Bibliography: 

Dominique MILLET-GÉRARD, Paul Claudel et les Pères de l’Église. Champion, 2016. Coll. Poétique et Esthétique XX°-XXI° siècles n° 30. 1 vol., 482 p.

Jacques Petit, Claudel et la Bible. Inventaire de l’œuvre exégétique, Archives des lettres modernes 196, Archives Paul Claudel 13, Minard, 1981.
La Bible de Paul Claudel, Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2000 [répertoire des citations bibliques dans les commentaires exégétiques].

Chez Minard, série Revue des lettres modernes, Paul Claudel n°13 (Paul Claudel, lecteur de la Bible, 15 (Claudel et le Cantique des Cantiques, 1989), 16 (Claudel et l’Apocalypse 1, 1994), 17 (Claudel et l’Apocalypse 2, 1998).
Bulletin de la Société Paul Claudel175, 2004, et n°185, 2007.
L’Écriture de l’exégèse dans l’œuvre de Paul Claudel, éd. D. Alexandre, Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2006.

André Espiau de La Maëstre, Paul Claudel bibliste et ses prophètes, Annales littéraires de l’Université de Besançon, 1993.

André Espiau de La Maëstre, L’Imprégnation biblique des Œuvres en prose de Paul Claudel, Presses universitaires franc-comtoises, 1999.
Claudia Julien, Paul Claudel interroge le Cantique des cantiques, Annales littéraires de l’Université de Besançon, Les Belles Lettres, 1994.
Dominique Millet-Gérard, Anima et la Sagesse. Pour une poétique comparée de l’exégèse claudélienne, Lethielleux, 1990.
Dominique Millet-Gérard, Claudel thomiste ?, Champion, 1999.
Dominique Millet-Gérard, La Prose transfigurée, Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2005.
Regards sur Claudel et la Bible, Poussière d’or, 2006.
Marie-Ève Benoteau-Alexandre, Les Psaumes selon Claudel. Champion, 2012

Architecture and thematics

Two large groups dominate the exegetical works.

The first is centered on the Apocalypse. Claudel devotes his first commentary, Au milieu des vitraux de l’Apocalypse, to it, returns to it during the 1940’s and again makes it the subject matter of “supplements” in the 1950’s. To these texts are added lectures and articles that show the irresistible attraction to this text, the most obscure of all, and, in addition, the most intriguing for the apprentice exegete.

The second group is formed by texts centered on the figure of Mary. L’Épée et le miroir (« The sword and the mirror »), the first great commentary on the subject of Mary, takes as its object the seven sorrows of the Virgin and forms a kind of diptych with Un poète regarde la Croix (“A Poet regards the Cross”), commentary on the last seven words of Christ. Claudel then begins an immense “poem” on the Assumption, Assumpta est Maria, which occupies him for ten years and which he does not manage to unify. He takes from it La Rose et le rosaire (“The Rose and the Rosary”), then Paul Claudel interroge le Cantique des cantiques (“Paul Claudel Interrogates the Song of Songs”) as well as several less important texts.

Among multiple thematic groups, Claudel’s meditation is attracted the most strongly to two objects. On one hand, there is prophecy, which he must first elucidate and then follow to realization. Claudel’s fascination for the Apocalypse combines with his taste for the Old Testament prophets, and, above all, for Isaiah to whom he devotes several commentaries (L’Évangile d’Isaïe, Introduction à Isaïe dans le mot à mot; [“The Gospel of Isaiah”]; [“Introduction to Isaiah in word-for-word”]). The close relationship between the prophet, inhabited by the Spirit, and the poet visited by inspiration easily explains the degree of identification that one sees there. The Bible is a poem, especially in its prophetic texts; who better than a poet could decipher its meaning and make it resonate?

The other thematic center is that of woman, who also dominates Claudel’s theater. Living enigma, most desirable object of all, woman is in a privileged way the Virgin Mary, whom Claudel sees represented, according to tradition, in the woman crowned with stars in the Apocalypse and in the cohort of “holy women” in the Old Testament.

Marie-Ève Benoteau-Alexandre

The major commentaries:

Au milieu des vitraux de l’Apocalypse (composed between 1928 et 1932, unpublished until  1967). First of the commentaries on the Apocalypse, composed in the form of a dialogue then of letters between « the father » and « the daughter ». The « vitraux » (stained glass windows) are those of la Ferté-Milon where Claudel stopped on his trips from Paris to Villeneuve.

Un poète regarde la Croix (1933-1935, published in 1938). Vast meditation that takes as canvas the last seven words of Christ.

L’Épée et le miroir (1935-1938, published in 1939). Meditation on the seven sorrows of the Virgin.

Du sens figuré de l’écriture  (“Of the Figurative Meaning of Scripture”) (1937, published in 1938).This capital text is not exactly a commentary. Composed to serve as introduction to a reprinting of the Livre de Ruth (“Book of Ruth”) of the abbé Tardif de Moidrey, it is considered to be a manifesto of Claudelian exegesis. In it Claudel exposes his method of interpreting the Bible and defends the principle of a figurative exegesis while claiming the legitimacy of allegorical and moral meaning.

 Paul Claudel interroge l’Apocalypse (1940-1942, published in 1952). New commentary, born from a rereading of the text of the Vitraux.

La Rose et le rosaire (1945-1946, published in 1947). Work devoted to the Virgin Mary,  composed of leaves « fallen » from a book that Claudel will never succeed in finishing, Assumpta est Maria.

Paul Claudel interroge le Cantique des cantiques (composed between 1945 and 1947, published in 1948). New fragment detached from Assumpta est Maria, this linear commentary of the Song of Songs takes Mary as its central figure.

Emmaüs (1946-1948, publié en 1949). Sort of « epic holy story » which proceeds to a typological interpretation of the Bible, from Adam to Solomon. The following text, La Deuxième Étape d’Emmaüs (« The Second Stage of Emmaüs »), remains unpublished until 1974.

L’Évangile d’Isaïe (1948-1950, published in1951). After examining the Pentateuch and the historical books, Claudel concentrates on the prophetic books, and first of all on the most “tantalizing” prophet of all, Isaiah. He devotes another text to him, unpublished during his lifetime, (Introduction à Isaïe dans le mot à mot), and also turns his attention to the other prophets (Jeremiah, but also those who are called the “minor prophets”).

 Collections of short texts :

Figures et paraboles  (« Figures and Parables ») (1936) : among other texts, this collection includes « Les quatre animaux sages », « Mort de Judas », « Le point de vue de Ponce Pilate », « Le marchand de colombes » (« The Four Wise Animals », « Death of Judas », « The Point of View of Pontius Pilate », and « The Dove Merchant »).

Les Aventures de Sophie (« The Adventures of Sophie ») (1937) : « Le Livre d’Esther », « Le Livre de Tobie », « Les Dix Commandements de Dieu », « Commentaire sur le Psaume XXVIII » et « Commentaire sur le Psaume CXLVII » (« The Book of Esther », « The Book of Tobit », « The Ten Commandments of God », « Commentary on Psalm XXVIII », and « Commentary on Psalm CXLVII »).

 Présence et prophétie (« Presence and Prophecy ») (1942) : « Sur la présence de Dieu », « La sensation du divin », « Ecce Virgo concipiet », « Moab ou le recul d’Israël », « Notes sur les anges » (« On the presence of God », « The Sensation of the Divine », « Ecce Virgo concipiet », « Moab or the retreat of Israel », « Notes on the angels »).

This list leaves aside many texts. For an exhaustive inventory, refer to the editions mentioned in the bibliographie.

 Marie-Ève Benoteau-Alexandre

Who reads the Biblical Commentaries ?

The exegetical side is much less known than the rest of the work. Claudel complained bitterly about it in his Journal, regretting that what he considered the most important part of his work found so little echo. Several factors may have played a role:

On one hand the polemical component of these texts. As partisan of a symbolic exegesis, attached by all the fibers of his being to the Latin Bible, the Vulgate, Claudel is in an uneasy position in relation to his era and he knows it. He vituperates against the adepts of the historico-critical exegesis who seek, supported by archeological proofs, to restore the literal, original, meaning of the text, forgetting its spiritual significance. He makes war against the multiple translations of the Bible from the Hebrew text that are appearing at this time (Bible de Jérusalem, Bible de Maredsous, Psalterium Pianum). His own texts, restoring an honorable place to the allegorical method of the Fathers of the Church, seem to some to be misplaced to say the least, even far-fetched.

On the other hand, Claudel himself delays publishing his commentaries. Au milieu des vitraux de l’Apocalypse remains unpublished, Paul Claudel interroge l’Apocalypse is published ten years after its completion and the mass of texts composed during the 1950’s (La Deuxième Étape d’Emmaüs, Jérémie, Introduction à Isaïe dans le mot à mot, etc.) have to wait until the 1970’s to appear, almost twenty years after Claudel’s death. It is certain that Claudel, conscious of the disconcerting character of his exegesis, hesitated to reveal to the public texts that seemed to be like aeroliths.

In reality, the silence that Claudel complained about is rather relative. From the 1910’s on, the Dominicans encouraged his work and, during the 1930’s, published numerous texts in their various journals. Later, contacts are established with the Jesuits of Fourvière who launch the collection “Christian Sources”, devoted to the patristic texts, at this time. Thus, his commentaries are in fact read, but by a limited public, composed for the most part of clerics.

The recent publication of the Correspondance de Paul Claudel avec les ecclésiastiques de son temps (« Correspondence of Paul Claudel with the Ecclesiastics of his Time”) shows the importance that they were able to have for a whole generation of young priests, anticipating thus the renewal of figurative and spiritual exegesis in the second half of the XXth century.

The publication of the Œuvres complètes (Complete Works), completed in the 1980’s, but even more the new edition of the Biblical commentaries in Le Poëte et la Bible (“The Poet and the Bible”), (2 vol., 1998 and 2004), are generating a new interest in these texts today.

Marie-Ève Benoteau-Alexandre

Bibliographie :

Correspondance de Paul Claudel avec les ecclésiastiques de son temps, 2 vol., éd. D. Millet-Gérard, Champion, 2005 et 2008.
« Lettres de Paul Claudel au père Jean Daniélou », éd. X. Tilliette, Bulletin de la société Paul Claudel 148, 1997, p. 1-19.

Dominique Millet-Gérard, Claudel thomiste ?, Champion, 1999.
Dominique Millet-Gérard, « Claudel, le père Maydieu et la Vie intellectuelle : les rayons et les ombres d’une collaboration amicale », dans La Prose transfigurée : vingt études en hommage à Paul Claudel, PUPS, 2005.

Extrait :

Y a-t-il quelqu’un avec moi pour se rappeler ces dernières années de Moïse, quand nous commencions à nous dégoûter pour de bon du désert et de la manne et que le vent du nord nous apportait l’odeur de la vigne en fleur et des baumiers d’Engaddi ? Et tous ces croquants de l’autre côté de la Ligne — la Ligne Sainte, on l’appelait — que nous regardions regarder leurs femmes qui binaient la terre sous les oliviers pour en obtenir toute espèce de choses succulentes. Nous, c’était la manne qui nous attendait, et encore la manne, pour le déjeuner et pour le dîner, et le dimanche pour changer, encore la manne ! (On dit qu’elle prenait le goût de tout ce qu’on voulait [Sg 16, 21]. À condition de vouloir !) Et ces poilus de l’autre côté de la Ligne qui léchaient des pierres pour se moquer de nous en se frottant le ventre avec béatitude ! On avait beau les mettre en joue avec nos arcs, ils savaient bien que c’était défendu, ils faisaient semblant d’avoir peur ! Le plus enrageant est qu’ils avaient fini par ne plus faire attention à nous. Il fallait les voir sous notre nez discuter les affaires de la commune autour de quelque vieux bouc à barbe blanche, pendant que nous étions là, cinquante idiots à les regarder, les mains dans les poches, si nous avions eu des poches à cette époque pour mettre les mains dedans ! Espère un coup que le jour J soit arrivé ! espère un coup que tous ces vieux ramoitis dont nous attendons le bon plaisir aient fini de nous embêter avec leurs histoires d’Égypte et de la Mer Rouge. (Ah, ce qu’on l’a assez vue, la Mer Rouge, et l’autre Mer Rouge avec, de l’autre côté de cette sacrée péninsule !) Ce n’est pas l’Égypte que nous avons envie ! c’est ce champ de concombres, tout prêt, que le Vieux nous a amenés ici pour le regarder, un champ de concombres à perte de vue, ah j’en ai l’eau à la bouche, il n’y a qu’à tendre la main pour le prendre, ce qu’on va rentrer dedans, et je sens cette épée toute vivante à mon côté ! sans parler de toutes ces femmes la même chose comme un concombre bien frais à se mettre sous la dent ! Demain ! Là-bas ! Ah que ma langue s’attache à mon palais si jamais mon cœur S’oublie de toi, Jérusalem [Ps 136, 6] ! Il faut attendre que le Vieux soit mort.

La revanche pour nous, c’était ce jour-là, chaque année, où qu’on leur lâchait le bouc émissaire [Lv 16, 8-10] ! Pas besoin de dire que l’on préparait pour cela un animal exceptionnel. Ils avaient beau prendre leurs précautions, l’endroit qu’on choisissait pour leur dépêcher notre cornipète était toujours le plus inattendu. Dès qu’on l’avait issu au milieu des invectives et des vociférations, il ne demandait pas son reste ! faut voir comme il détalait. Et alors pas une chèvre, d’ici à là-bas que l’on pût garder à sa maman ! des troupeaux entiers d’un seul coup qui se mettaient à sa poursuite ! voyez voir à les retrouver ! les citernes et les fourrés de tout le pays en étaient remplis ! Et le gaillard continuait à faire des sauts de cinquante mètres, on aurait cru qu’il avait le feu quelque part ! On m’a dit qu’on en aurait trouvé un jusqu’en Macédoine ! Voilà mon genre de prophète.

— Il faut bien attendre que le Vieux soit mort.

Emmaüs (1948), Le Poëte et la Bible II, Gallimard, 2004, p. 422-423.