Paul Valery Biography

(French Poet, Essayist and Philosopher)

Birthday: October 30, 1871 (Scorpio)

Born In: Sète, France

Paul Valery was a French poet, essayist, and critic, known especially for his poems like La Jeune Parque and Le Cimetière marin. Born in the latter half of the nineteenth century, he began writing poems while in his teens, publishing many of them in the magazines of the Symbolist movements. But around the age of twenty-one, he suddenly renounced all kinds of emotional preoccupations, including poetry-writing, and decided to devote himself to acquiring knowledge, publishing a few pieces of prose before stopping altogether. Ultimately around the age of forty-one, he once more took up his pen at the urging of his friend André Gide. Paul Valery intended to touch up a few of his old poems to make them ready for publication and in the process wrote La Jeune Parque, which made him instantly famous. Although known primarily as a poet, he had shown great interest in science and mathematics and produced numerous essays on them as well as occasional papers on literally topics.

Quick Facts

French Celebrities Born In October

Also Known As: Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry

Died At Age: 73


Spouse/Ex-: Jeannie Gobillard

father: Barthélémy Valéry

mother: Fanny Grassi

children: Agathe, Claude, François

Born Country: France

Poets Essayists

Height: 5'4" (163 cm), 5'4" Males

Died on: July 20, 1945

place of death: Paris, France

Notable Alumni: Lycée Condorcet

Founder/Co-Founder: Collège International de Cannes

More Facts

education: Lycée Condorcet

Childhood & Early Life

Paul Valéry was born on October 30, 1871, in the small Mediterranean port of Sète, located in the coast of Hérault, France. His father, Barthelmy Valéry, was of Corsican descent and served as a customs officer at the port.

His mother, Marie Françoise Alexandrine Grassi, came from a Venetian noble family of Genoese-Istrian origin. Born younger of his parents two children, he had an elder sister named Jules.

In 1878, Paul Valery began his schooling at the local grammar school before moving to the lycée in Montpellier, a larger urban center close to Sète. He was a very mediocre student and although mathematics fascinated him, he was quite weak in the subject too.

Life at the small village-port was not very interesting for young Paul. He occasionally complained of his boredom to his friends, saying that only the sea and a few books kept him alive. Bicycling was a favorite means of relaxation for him.

Looking out over the sea, he also dreamed of becoming a ship captain. But when he failed to get a place at the Naval Academy because of his weakness in mathematics, he decided to pursue law at the University of Montpellier.

While studying law, he cultivated an interest in poetry and architecture and began to write poems from 1888. Soon, he became more interested in literature than in jurisprudence.

A shy young man, he had few acquaintances. However, among his friends were the writers Pierre Louÿs and André Gide, whom he met in 1890 and Gustave Fourment, who later became a professor of philosophy. In 1891, he was introduced to Stéphane Mallarmé.

From 1888 to 1891, he wrote many poems, a few of which were published in avant-garde magazines and favorably reviewed. But soon he stopped writing poems. His infatuation for a Spanish girl, whom he only saw in Montpellier, but never met, could have been the reason behind this change.

In 1892, he graduated from law school. On 4 October 1892, while on a visit to relatives in Genoa he was a caught in a violent storm, which resulted in a personal transformation, convincing him that he must dedicate himself to knowledge, free "from those falsehoods: literature and sentiment."

Continue Reading Below
In Paris

In 1892, on earning his degree in jurisprudence, Paul Valéry moved to Paris, where he lived in a bare hotel room, studying mathematics and psychology. Although he did not write a line of verse, he continued to associate himself with poets, frequenting Stéphane Mallarmé’s artistic circle every Tuesday.

During this period, he also began writing prose, eventually publishing Introduction De La Methode De Leonard Da Vinci, in 1894.  Also in the same year, he stared working on The Evening with Monsieur Teste, publishing the work in 1896. It was the first of the numerous pieces of the Teste cycle.

In 1896, he began his career with the British South Africa Company in London, where he worked for around a year before joining the artillery ammunition bureau of the French Army, remaining with it for three years. During this period, he led a very humdrum life.

In 1900, he gave up his position at the War Department to join the Havas newspaper agency as the private secretary to its director, Edouard Lebey. The job required him to read out the chief events from the newspapers and the Paris Stock Exchange to the director.

His job at Havas had many advantages. While it paid enough to run his household, it required him to work only for three or four hours each day, thus leaving him enough time to pursue his own interests. It also enabled him to become a well-informed commentator on current affairs.

Emerging Poet

In 1912, Paul Valéry started going through his old poems at the urging of his friend André Gide, intending to publish some of them. However, he found that most of them needed touching up and while doing so, started composing poems as well.

So engrossed was he in the task at hand that he took five years to complete his first work, eventually publishing La Jeune Parque (The Young Fate) in 1917. Composed in 500 lines, this long symbolic poem about Clotho, the youngest of the three Fates, brought him instant fame.

In 1920, he published a collection of his early poems, Album des vers anciens, 1890-1920, (Album of Old Verses). Also in the same year, he published a long poem, Le cimetière marin (The Graveyard by the Sea). It would later be included in his 1922 collection, Charmes ou Poèmes.

In 1920, his employer Edouard Lebey passed away and with that his source of income dried up.  To support himself, he now began publishing his works, contributing regularly to periodicals and magazines.

Continue Reading Below

By then an established poet, he also gave lectures, wrote prefaces to ancient and modern works. May be because of his other preoccupations, he wrote few poems after 1922. Instead, he produced numerous essays on poetry, painting, dance, and architecture.

In 1925, he was elected to the Académie française and with that his popularity increased manifold. Considered a distinguished public speaker, he soon embarked on European tours, tirelessly giving lectures on varied topics. During this period, his affairs were managed by Julien-Pierre Monod, grandfather of the famed French director Jean-Luc Godard.

By late 1920s, he had acquired several official positions, representing France on cultural matters at the League of Nations. In 1933, he was made administrative head of the Centre Universitaire Méditerranéen at Nice, and became professor of poetry, a chair created especially for him, at the Collège de France in 1937.

In spite of his busy schedules, he continued to write, publishing around fourteen major works from 1923 till 1944. While Eupalinos ou l’Architecte, punished in 1923 is the first work of this lot, Variétes V (1944) was the last work published in his lifetime.

During the Second World War, he was stripped off from many of his distinctions and positions for refusing to collaborate with the Vichy regime as well as the German occupation. Undeterred, he remained active in French cultural life and continued to write and publish.

All along he also continued to fill up his notebooks, beginning his days by jotting down his thoughts in them. Although they primarily contain his reflections on science and mathematics, the first drafts of many aphorisms he later included in his books have also been found there.

Called the Cahiers, his notebooks were published posthumously, not only in its original French, but were later translated into English and published in five volumes. However, these works began to attract scholarly scrutiny only since 1980s.

Major Works

Paul Valéry is probably best remembered for his 1917 long poem, La Jeune Parque. Noted for its beauty, the works presents the musing of Clotho, the youngest of three Fates, who is uncertain if she should remain a serene immortal or embrace the pain and joy of human life.

Le Cimetière marin (The Graveyard by the Sea) is another of his well-known works. Set in the cemetery at Sète, he begins by observing the calm sea, accepting the inevitability of death. But as the blowing wind begins to form waves, he changes his views about life and death.

Awards & Achievements

In 1925, Paul Valéry was elected to the Académie française. Later, he also became a member of the Academy of Sciences of Lisbon, and the Front national des Ecrivains.

Personal Life & Legacy

On 31 May, 1900, Paul Valéry married Jeannine Gobillard. Daughter of a tax collector, she was also a family friend of poet Stéphane Mallarmé. The couple had three children: Claude, Agathe and François.

Paul Valéry died in Paris on 20 July 1945. Later, his mortal remains were brought back to his hometown, Sète, where he was buried in the same cemetery he had made immortal through his famous poem Le Cimetière marin.

See the events in life of Paul Valery in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- Paul Valery Biography
- Editors,

People Also Viewed

Oscar Milosz Biography
Oscar Milosz
Alfred de Vigny Biography
Alfred de Vigny
Jean Genet Biography
Jean Genet
Jules Verne Biography
Jules Verne
Anatole France Biography
Anatole France
Arthur Rimbaud Biography
Arthur Rimbaud