Five Great Odes

On his return to China after renouncing his monastic vocation, Claudel meets Rosalie Vetch—an event he calls a “conflagration” whose turbulent consequences haunt the poems of the period 1901-1905, the second section of Knowing the East, Five Great Odes and Poetic Art, before it comes to haunt his entire work. In the first of the odes, The Muses, the invocation to Erato, inspired by Rosalie as the Ysé of Break of Noon, interrupts the homogeneity of an ode where the description of the pagan and mythological motif of the Muses, inspired by the sculpted frieze of a sarcophagus in the Louvre, offers a symbolic representation of the poetic word. To the poet who by his words celebrates God succeeds and contrasts the lover swept out beyond the world and into destruction. It is difficult to date this ode: was it composed at Solesmes (Catholic part), then in 1901 after the meeting with Rosalie Vetch, or finished in 1904?

Married, returning to China, to Peking, “of an old empire the principal debris”, then to Tien-Tsin, Claudel composes successively four other odes: The Spirit and the Water (June-September 1906), Magnificat (December 1906-April 1907), The Muse who is Grace (April-June 1907), The Enclosed House (July 1907-January 1908). The Five Great Odes, published in 1910 (L’Occident), bring together biography, poetics, lyrical and religious ecstasy.

The penitence imposed by culpability for his love for Rose (Rosalie Vetch, in The Spirit and the Water), is followed, symbolically, in Magnificat (III), at the heart of the collection, by the image of the father celebrating the birth of his daughter Marie, placed in the “suspense of his existence”. The Muse who is Grace (IV) pushes aside the mystic temptation and sends back the “son of the earth”, the “heavy comrade” to his condition. The Enclosed House (V), which opposes to the nine pagan “interior” Muses the “Four Great Externals”, “the four cardinal virtues” of theology, Prudence, Force, Temperance, Justice, and submits the poetic word to an ethics that draws on Thomist theology, makes of Reine, the spouse, the poet’s guardian. The marriage sacrament sublimates desire into a real relationship with God.

The collection organizes an existence. The Muses (I) concludes with the conflagration of the world contemplated by the adulterous couple. In The Enclosed House (V), the poet, in a closed universe, communes in Catholic faith with all the dead and all the living. The Spirit and the Water (II), where in the ultimate vision worthy of Dante the penitent poet accedes to the vision of God’s Wisdom, is opposed to The Muse who is Grace (IV), where the poet, tempted by Grace, refuses “freedom” and “turns desperately back towards the earth”. Summit and center of the collection, Magnificat (III) celebrates God who, by the poet’s conversion, has freed him from his enemies (philosophers and aesthetes) and has given him a Catholic life, a gift that he renews in turn with his daughter Marie.

Served by the expressivity of the “verset” (Biblical verse form), and repetition, which Claudel uses as a musical principle of composition, the odes are intensely lyrical. Emotion is constant in them, before woman, in prayer, before the child, in communion. Intoxication, traditionally pagan, takes on a Catholic meaning: it is triumphal joy. The Muse becomes Grace, the Bacchanal becomes a song glorifying God. In these “symphonies”, Claudel returns to motifs present in his previous theater: love, woman recall Lâla from The City (1898) and Ysé from Break of Noon (1905); water, in The Spirit and the Water as in Knowing the East, is a universal link and a principle of dissolution. This lyrical writing is meant to serve a Catholic poetry: the poet, who has broken with the historical world, gathers together the earth to make it an offering to God. Represented by the priest, the father, the man, the poet gives back to each his due, to God, the spirit, to woman, life, to man the Catholic meaning of the world. Poetry, as is shown by the reference to Mass in The Enclosed House, is a universal communion in God. The most didactic moments should be read as acts of faith: for the ode is a song of celebration offered to God, song of the humble, henceforth submissive creature who magnifies God, Magnificat.