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  • Translation

Excerpts from “Le Cimetière Marin” (“The Graveyard by the Sea”)

From Charmes ou poèmes (1922)

by Paul Valéry

loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Do not, O my soul, aspire to immortal life, but exhaust what is possible.

—Pindar, Pythian Ode 3


This tranquil ceiling, where white doves are sailing,

stands propped between tall pines and foundational tombs,

as the noonday sun composes, with its flames,

sea-waves forever forming and reforming ...

O, what a boon, when some lapsed thought expires,

to reflect on the placid face of Eternity!


As a pear dissolves in the act of being eaten,

transformed, through sudden absence, to delight

relinquishing its shape within our mouths,

even so, I breathe in vapors I’ll become,

as the sea rejoices and its shores enlarge,

fed by lost souls devoured; more are rumored.


Beautiful sky, my true-blue sky, ’tis I

who alters! Pride and indolence possessed me,

yet, somehow, I possessed real potency ...

But now I yield to your ephemeral vapors

as my shadow steals through stations of the dead;

its delicate silhouette crook-fingering, “Forward!”


... My soul still awaits reports of its nothingness ...


... What corpse compels me forward, to no end?

What empty skull commends these strange bone-heaps?

A star broods over everything I lost ...


... Here where so much antique marble

shudders over so many shadows,

the faithful sea slumbers ...


... Watchful dog ...

Keep far from these peaceful tombs

the prudent doves, all impossible dreams,

the angels’ curious eyes ...


... The brittle insect scratches out existence ...

... Life is enlarged by its lust for absence ...

... The bitterness of death is sweet and the mind clarified.


... The dead do well here, secured here in this earth ...

... I am what mutates secretly in you ...


I alone can express your apprehensions!

My penitence, my doubts, my limitations,

are fatal flaws in your exquisite diamond ...

But here in their marble-encumbered infinite night

a formless people sleeping at the roots of trees

have slowly adopted your cause ...


... Where, now, are the kindly words of the loving dead? ...

... Now grubs consume, where tears were once composed ...


... Everything dies, returns to earth, gets recycled ...


And what of you, great Soul, do you still dream

there’s something truer than these deceitful colors:

each flash of golden surf on eyes of flesh?

Will you still sing, when you’re as light as air?

Everything perishes and has no presence!

I am not immune; Divine Impatience dies!


Emaciate consolation, Immortality,

grotesquely clothed in your black and gold habit,

transfiguring death into some Madonna’s breast,

your pious ruse and cultivated lie:

who does not know and who does not reject

your empty skull and pandemonic laughter?


The wind is rising! ... We must yet strive to live!

The immense sky opens and closes my book!

Waves surge through shell-shocked rocks, reeking spray!

O, fly, fly away, my sun-bedazzled pages!

Break, breakers! Break joyfully as you threaten to shatter

this tranquil ceiling where white doves are sailing!

Michael R. Burch is the editor of The HyperTexts, on-line at, where he has published hundreds of poets over the past three decades. Burch is one of the world’s most-published poets, with over 9,000 publications including poems that have gone viral but not self-published poems. His poetry has been published by hundreds of literary journals, taught in high schools and colleges, translated into 19 languages, incorporated into three plays and four operas, and set to music, from swamp blues to classical, by 31 composers.




This is yet another exquisite translation, Mike! I like how you translated the parts that resonate with you the most. An abridged translation probably makes the poem more accessible.

Valery’s poem is deeply profound. The lines that personally resonate with me the most are the following:

... What corpse compels me forward, to no end?

What empty skull commends these strange bone-heaps?

A star broods over everything I lost ...

... Here where so much antique marble

shudders over so many shadows,

the faithful sea slumbers ...

- Shannon



Michael has really done justice to some of Paul Valery's musings on life and death and the inexorable passage of time - with the sea, perhaps, representing what is spiritual and enduring. So, firstly, there is a timeless quality about this poem.

Secondly, I'm intrigued by Michael's decision to translate 'Excerpts', rather than translating the whole poem stanza by stanza, as other notable translators, such as C. Day Lewis, have done before him.

Is it that he has simply chosen the most striking passages in order to create the most memorable and heightened overall effect? If so, I would say that he has succeeded admirably in doing this!


You have your own inner Sappho. She is now 'the tenth muse' and part of the creative spirit of the universe. You just need to invoke her and she will come to you, as indeed she has on many occasions, in my opinion.

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