The Mass There

This text of about thirty pages occupies p. 491-520 of the Poetic Works. “The Mass there”, a long poem, was composed by Claudel in Brazil, where the Third Republic sent the diplomat and poet with the rank of Minister Plenipotentiary in 1917. What meaning should be given to the title, in particular to the phrase “there” that ends it ? It would be simplifying  to read in it the nostalgia for the homeland felt by the representative of France, posted by his country  to distant climates. The first words of the poem deal with anything other than regret or a look at Europe. On the contrary, the poet seems to welcome a break with the past, a disappearance of the transient that allows him to start afresh, or more precisely to live in the spiritual. The opening lines tell us of a place that cannot be defined in geographical terms – in particular the “soul” of the poet, an essential initial site from which everything began. It is “there” that everything begins with a return to self: the composition had to begin with an internalization, given the religious subject that inspires the author.

Not that the outside world is being suppressed. Rio de Janeiro, the capital where Claudel, a civil servant, resides ex officio, appears in the text with its  grandiose landscapes1; it will be followed by a succession of the most varied localities, sometimes a parish located in the best  neighborhoods  of Paris (Offertory I) and sometimes Charleville (Consecration), without forgetting the list of countries provided in Lectures. In other words, the Mass there reflects both the spiritual universe of the writer and the rich earthly reality in which he lives and acts. As a matter of fact it should be recalled that Claudel, a sworn enemy of literary esotericism, remains the most concrete of the Symbolists.

Included in the liturgy2 is the text of the Office, which begins with the Introït and ends with In Principio, the first and last prayers of the Tridentine Mass, which may seem systematic; but since no system is likely to capture the approach of a sovereign poet such as Claudel, we must proceed in a way that is closer to his way; that is, to become aware of the author’s aspirations, and to examine the perspectives in which the work is situated: in other words, it is a question of focusing.

Whoever looks at it, is quickly led to recognize the lived, deeply felt character of The Mass. If elements of satire emerge in Offertory I, they concern the regular practice of “Sunday Christians”, in other words, indifferent people who are not even touched by the thought of living the sacred mystery or participating in it through their hearts. But personal commitment — this is what matters to the fervent Catholic who holds the pen. Without preaching or lecturing the reader, this is the truth that emerges from the writing. Truth not unrelated to his choice of such parts of the Mass: will be selected what relates to his experience or particularly stirred him up. Although Claudel’s attitude opens the door to autobiography, it is not subjectivity; the effect achieved will be that dramatic tension that galvanizes texts where liturgy and existential merge, such as “Communion” or “Consecration”. If the first of these poems relives Claudel’s great love (cf. Break of Noon ), the second, the longest of La Messe, follows Rimbaud’s life from one end to the other.

Rimbaud: The presence of a blasphemous teenager in the text can be surprising. But let us understand that the principle set out above is illustrated here: the young poet who freed Claudel from the “materialist prison “3 could not have done so if he had not dedicated his existence, without reserving anything, to the passionate search for “truth in a soul and a body”4. It is then significant that the author passes without transition from “Consecration” to “Pater Noster”. There awaits us the portrait of an (anonymous) household of the people who accept without discussion the departure of the father of the family to the war, from whom he will not come back alive. The duty accomplished till the end, in disregard of personal happiness: this theme, introduced as soon as “Introït “5, marks the text with a number of allusions to the 1914-18 war. A reminder of current events as well as a way of pointing out the close connection between people as disparate as those just mentioned: they have in common that they listen to this voice “which speaks louder than greed and pleasure” (p.58), understood first and foremost by “the soldiers of France” (p.60). But the poet, as far away as he is from the site where we fight, does not turn a deaf ear to him:

“The only thing necessary… is not to be happy.”

he wrote to a friend6 in 1917, from Rio, where he lived in safety. It seems more than likely that the wish to be associated with the suffering of his war-torn country will be read here. Since the Mass is a sacrifice that the poet refuses to confine to a stone or brick building; since the true nature of the Church in his eyes (as well as those of God (!) can be summed up in the formula “a solidified state of mind “7, nothing prevents the wandering  diplomat from participating in this “state” at sea. At least this is what “Offertory III” communicates to us, a text that repeats in the speaker’s name the verb “to offer” and assumes “dereliction” and “absence”: the exercise of his profession may be sufficient to place the believer in a liturgy thus conceived. That it can be understood in this way probably explains the fact that only six or seven poems out of thirteen take place in a church in the sense of a building, a place of worship.

In addition to these considerations on the meaning of the religious poem, there must be some clarification as to the parts of the book where it appears. It should be noted that the text of the 1967 Pléiade edition is reproduced in its entirety. Notes follow, followed by a detailed literary reading of the thirteen constituent poems of The Mass there, and a study of the Manuscript, published separately for the first time in its own right, concludes the work.

Marie-Josephine WHITAKER

1. However, Claudel would sometimes express his “total disregard for the local colour”. V. Suppl. II O.C., p. 309, 1942 text.

2. Liturgy as reproduced by the so-called Tridentine Mass, followed by Claudel in the Roman Missal of 1900-1920, then reissued many times.

3. See “My Conversion” Pr. p.1009.

4. Last words of a Season in Hell, (1873) by Rimbaud, who says goodbye to poetry. See OC, Pléiade 1972, p. 117.

5. From the Introduction, p. 47, it was a question of the fascination that “this great Cooperative, the war”, which destroys “anything other than God”, exerts on the minds.

6. Letter to Gabriel Frizeau Correspondence Jammes-Frizeau, Gallimard 1952, p.292.

7. In a 1953 text (Pr., p. 254) the author notes the part of relativity that inevitably attaches itself to the material edifice “confession of an era and a country”. Claudel’s formula, church or “solidified state of mind”, which he attributes to God, obviously solves the problem.