The Graveyard by the Sea

“Seek not, my soul, the life of the immortals;
but enjoy to the full the resources that are
within thy reach”

(Pindar, Pythics III)


This tranquil roof pulsates above the pines
with doves’ sails fluttering beyond the shrines;
while the indifferent noon forges the sea from fire:
the sea will always recommence
or recompense after a thought and take us thence
to the long calm gaze to which the gods aspire.

What pure and fine-spun lightning can consume
so many diamonds in the ephemeral spume,
and what apparent peace it can bestow!
When, over deeps and deeps, a sun can pause
in the pure work of its eternal cause,
time flickers and the craving is to know.

Shrine to Minerva, treasure, simple sure,
expanse of calmness, visible, secure,
rippling water. Eye that itself can hold
so much of sleep beneath a veil of flame
O silence mine! …Built in the spirit’s frame,
but packed with ore, a million tiles of gold.

I from Time’s temple of a single sigh, resume
my climb to this pure point and to myself attune
all the surrounding vistas of the sea;
and to the gods my offering outright
sows peaceful scintillation on the height
where sovereignty allows disdain to be.

As fruit, on tasting, melts into delight,
dissolving into absence as we bite,
whilst on the lips its very form is dying,
I smell my future here among the smoke
as ashen skies sing to the soul half-choked
by changes in the murmuring banks’ quiet crying.

Beautiful heavens and true, look how I change!
After such pride, after so much that’s strange,
an idleness and yet so full of power,
abandoned as I am to this such brilliant space,
over the houses of the dead my shade can trace
a path that tames me where it could devour.

The soul laid bare to all the flares of solstice,
I do uphold you, admirable justice
and all the brightness of your pitiless blade!
Pure, I return you to your premier place
Look at yourself! …But grant that light must trace
half shadows in its ever bleaker shade.

O for and to and in myself apart,
I, at the poem’s source, its very heart,
between the void and the event so pure,
await the echo of my internal fame,
echoing reservoir that, harsh with shame,
sounds hollow in the soul of the future!

Do you, false captive of this foliage, know
how these thin boughs eat up the outer glow,
how secrets dazzle though my eyes are closed.
What body drags me to a lingering end,
what to the bone-shard earth could make him bend?
One spark can make me think of what is lost.

Fire insubstantial, sacred and enclosed,
earthly fragment to the light exposed,
controlled by torches, this place pleases me,
composed of gold, of stone and shady glades,
where marble trembles over many shades;
and there, upon my tombs, the sleeping, faithful sea!

Resplendent bitch, affright the idolater! while,
solitary and with a shepherd’s smile,
I pasture long with my mysterious sheep;
the white flock of my tranquil tombs,
so that the cautious doves, the vain dream’s perfumes
and curious angels can their distance keep.

Once here the future comes as idleness.
The brittle insect scrapes the dryness;
all is burned, defeated, drawn to air
I cannot tell to what severe essence…
Life is vast, being drunk with absence,
and bitterness is sweet and the mind, clear.

The dead lie easy, hidden in earth where they
and all their mysteries are dried away.
High noon, this motionless and midday blue,
thinks of itself and of its own renown…
a mind complete and perfect crown,
I am the secret change you have in you.

You have me only to contain your fears!
My doubts and my regrets, my closest cares
are in the fault-line of your diamond heart…
But in their night with marbles heavy weighted,
a people vague and to their tree roots mated
have slowly nonetheless taken your part.

Into an absence thick they melt away,
white race drunk up by red clay,
the gift of life has passed into the flowers!
Where are the phrases that the dead control,
a people’s art, the individual soul?
Worms now gnaw where tears once had their hour.

Sharp squeals of girls tickled anew,
the eyes and teeth, the eyelids’ moistening dew,
the charming breast playing within the flame,
the blood that shines on lips so keen to yield,
those final gifts, that fingers aim to shield,
all below ground and back into the game!

And you, great soul, do you expect to dream
of lying colours that no longer seem
like waves or gold made here for fleshy eyes?
When you are merely vapours will you sing?
Go to! All flees! Presence here passes on a wing!
Holy impatience also dies!

Lean immortality, so black and gold,
a laurelled comforter, so ghastly to behold,
that out of death can, from a mother’s breast,
make beautiful untruth and pious ruse!
who nothing knows and nothing can refuse,
that empty skull and that eternal jest!

Heads uninhabited, fathers profound,
under the weight of so much shovelled ground
are now but earth and can our steps deceive.
The real, the gnawing, wriggling worm of doom,
is not for you who sleep beneath the tomb;
and yet devours my life which he will never leave!

Love perhaps, love, yes and self-hatred too?
His secret tooth is near enough and true
that any name I take could suit his whim!
Come now! He sees, he wants, he thinks, can touch
my flesh that pleases him. Even on my couch,
I live my life just to belong to him!

Zeno of Elea, Zeno! Cruel Zeno!
Have you pierced me with that winged arrow
that hums and flies, yet does not fly!
The sound brings forth, the arrow kills!
Ah! sun… What tortoise shadow fills
the soul; Achilles motionless as he strides by!

No, no!… Arise! Into the following age!
My pensive body, pierce this thinking cage!
My breast, drink up the wind’s new drive!
A coolness of the sea exhaled,
returns my soul…with salt regaled!
let’s run the waves and spring from them alive.

Yes! frenzied sea of such delirious spin,
of chlamyde rent and panther skin,
with thousand thousands idols of the sun,
absolute Hydra drunk with your own blue flesh might
coil upon your sparkling tail and bite,
in such an uproar out of silence spun.

The wind awakes!…to try and live is next!
A breath immense opens and shuts my text,
powdery foam springs daring from the rocks!
Fly, fly away my sun bedazzled pages!
Break waves, break, break rejoicing surges
over this tranquil roof where doves’ sails peck in flocks.


Paul Valéry

Paul Valéry was born in 1871 in the Mediterranean town of Séte where the Marine Graveyard is situated. He left school early to join the salon of Stephane Mallarmé and write poetry. He was first published in the avant-garde press.

In 1892, at the age of 21, during a thunderstorm, he underwent a existential transformation as a result of which he determined to free himself "at no matter what cost, from those falsehoods: literature and sentiment." To this end he stopped writing for some twenty years to concentrate on studying the sciences, philosophy, and language. His thoughts, which he put down in a series of journals, were published in twenty-nine volumes in 1945.

In 1917, Valéry broke his "great silence" with La Jeune Parque (The Young Fate), a dramatic monologue of 512 alexandrine lines, and in 1920 he published Album de Vers Anciens (Album of Old Verses). Charmes (Charms) which includes Le Cimitière Marin, appeared in 1922. Despite tremendous critical and popular acclaim, Valéry again put aside writing poetry. In 1925, he was elected to the Académe Francaise. He spent his last 20 years on lecture tours in France and abroad, and on writing essays. He died in Paris in 1945 and was given a state funeral.

Paul Valéry remains an enigma. Although he is often referred to as the last of the French symbolists, he was known in his day for almost anything other than actually writing poems, of which he produced fewer than a hundred. He remains hugely famous on the slimmest of evidence, proving that quality sometimes counts.

David Pollard

David Pollard has been furniture salesman, accountant, teacher, and university lecturer. He got his three degrees from the University of Sussex and has since taught at the universities of Sussex and Essex, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he was a Lady Davis Scholar. His doctoral thesis was published as: The Poetry of Keats: Language and Experience. He has also published A KWIC Concordance to the Harvard Edition of Keats’ Letters, a novel, Nietzsche’s Footfalls, and five volumes of poetry, patricides, Risk of Skin, and Self-Portraits (all from Waterloo Press), bedbound (from Perdika Press), and Finis-terre (from Agenda Editions). He has translated from Gallego, French, and German. He has also been published in other volumes and in learned journals and poetry magazines. He divides his time between Brighton on the South coast of England and a village on the Rias of Galicia. More information can be found at

English translation copyright (c) David Pollard, 2017.