The Catholic Thing
In Praise of Paul Claudel Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 09 July 2012

Who’s the greatest modern Catholic poet? In a way, an absurd question. It’s like asking, who’s the greatest: Bach or Mozart? Francis or Thérèse? Just thank God for them all. In realms of the spirit, competition is misplaced.

Still, it’s important to identify the Catholic contenders in modern poetry because poetry can be a path to transcendence. And we know many people in our day believe, despite the evidence, that Catholics “don’t do” science or art.

There’s Gerard Manley Hopkins, a very great poet indeed. Or if you stretch “Catholic,” there are the Anglo-Catholics: T.S. Eliot or W. H. Auden.

In France there’s Charles Péguy, but he’s more a prophet like Dostoyevsky. A great artist, but embroiled in political questions that can take you from poetry back to newspaper stories.

We need holidays of the spirit that provide a foretaste of a realm not confined to getting and spending, liberals and conservatives, or even great moral questions – because someday all that will be past.

I believe the greatest modern Catholic poet, and the most unknown, even to Catholics, is Paul Claudel (1868-1955). His family was modest, his father a local government official. A strong creative streak was hidden somewhere because his sister Camille was a gifted sculptor and student, then mistress, of Rodin – but that’s a story for another day. Claudel studied for a diplomatic career, but was also attracted to poetry. He succeeded spectacularly in both realms.

Some of his predecessors – Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud – were poetes maudits (“cursed poets”), who more than dabbled in sin and occultism. Yet all finished as Catholics. Rimbaud in particular – who stopped writing in his teens and is today sometime a patron saint of self-indulgent rock musicians – helped bring Claudel to belief.

Partly because of the marvelous realm beyond smug modern materialism that Claudel discovered in Rimbaud, he found himself in Notre Dame of Paris on Christmas Day1886 during Vespers: “The children in the choir were singing what I later learned was the Magnificat. In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed.”

He passed through several moral problems and it took him a while to become fully Catholic, but his faith never wavered. Nor was it humorless or conventional. Even writing about the Virgin Mary, he could joke that she doesn’t listen to him, but she listens to Christ, who is listening to him: “The Virgin of Brangues is a Virgin that functions/ I have put myself into a system that’s fully functional.” 

His literary career took off like a rocket, despite the anti-Catholic bent of French men of letters, as did his diplomatic career. His first posts were in New York and Boston, followed by stints as ambassador in China, Japan, and Brazil. When he was sent to Washington (1927-33), Time magazine put a picture of the world famous poet/ambassador on its cover. In Washington, he wrote a brief libretto exploring the spirit of Columbus.

He was one of these very rare and exotic birds who lived two lives. A conscientious diplomat, until he retired, he set aside only one hour a day for writing. But what an hour! He churned out plays, poems, opera librettos, poetic reflections on the countries he visited, all animated by a vitality impossible to ignore. (In retirement, he wrote 2000 pages of commentary on the Bible.)

Though often abroad, he was a strong presence in mainstream French culture and was elected to the French Academy. Darius Milhaud, his secretary in Brazil, and Arthur Honegger – two distinguished French composers who testified to Claudel’s keen sense of drama – set several texts to music. When his play about Joan of Arc, Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher, was performed in Paris, it starred Ingrid Bergmann.   

The work roams brilliantly over vast themes: love and its byways, Catholic historical subjects, and, in The Satin Slipper – a three-part, seven-hour epic – he traces the voyages of discovery to the new world, placing them in a complex love story linked to God’s providential ordering of the vagaries and reversals of human history.

For me, his two most striking works are The Tidings Brought to Mary and the Five Great Odes. The first resembles a mystery play, a simple drama set in a medieval French village that somehow branches into eternal realities that continually intermingle with the everyday. By the end, Violaine, a young woman of deep wisdom exiled to a leper colony, mysteriously cures a leper and brings her sister’s dead baby back to life – in ways that fascinate without putting off non-Catholics.

       Her former fiancée comes and tells her how unhappy he is. She says simply:

No one ever promised you happiness, work, that’s all that anyone asks of you.
       Inquire of the ancient earth and she will always reply to you with bread and wine.

Then there are the Five Great Odes where he doesn’t describe but makes you feel the Spirit at work in the great symphony of the world and in poetic inspiration. “The Muse who is Grace” explains the magic:   

The words that I use,

       Are everyday words, and are not the same!

      You will not find any rhymes in my verse, or any tricks. They are
your own phrases. But there’s no phrase of yours that I don’t know how to remake!

These flowers are your flowers and you say that you don’t recognize them.

     And these feet are your feet, but look how I walk on the sea and
how I tread the sea’s waters in triumph!

We often lament these days the lack of great Catholic artists, but we neglect the ones who can still speak to us. The Spirit will inspire others in due time. Meanwhile, why neglect those with the gift of linking heaven and earth, who remind us:

For things and for poems, there is but one way of being new, and that is to be true; there is only one way of being young, and that is to be eternal.

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (14)Add Comment
written by Randall, July 09, 2012
Readers of the little magazine Magnificat will be familiar with frequent selections from Claudel's "I Believe in God: A Meditation of the Apostles' Creed."

It does seem to be an odd situation currently in the arts where Catholic non-fiction literature excels (Mr Robert Royal, for example) but we don't seem to be excelling in fiction, poetry, music or film.

Some months ago, out of deep frustration over this, I prayed to God about it. I recently discovered a Polish Catholic comtemporary choir/ musical group of the first class: Deus Meus. Their music displays musicianship and singing of high quality with beautiful lyrics of praise and thanksgiving. It's worth learning a little Polish to enjoy this music.

The Holy Spirit is moving and I believe we will see another flowering of the Catholic arts.
written by Grump, July 09, 2012
Bach v. Mozart? No contest. Amadeus 1 Beethoven 1A. Throw in all the Italians ending in "i", Rachmaninoff, Chopin and you have a Top 10.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, July 09, 2012
Much as I love Claudel, Charles Péguy gets my vote, if only for « Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d'Arc »
written by Grump, July 09, 2012
Don't know if he was Catholic, but throw Francis Thompson in the mix if only for "Hound of Heaven." That poem haunts this crusty old agnostic.
written by John N., July 09, 2012
I love Claudel's works, but lately my nod would go to Genevieve Glen,OSB.
written by Art, July 09, 2012
I too love Claudel, and you have goaded me into finding my copy of L'annonce fait a Marie, and actually reading it this time. After all the Sartre, Camus and Malraux, and the other authors who made you want to slit your wrists in college, I feel that I was shortchanged in my French language major education. My Jesuit college professors studiously avoided les vrais auteurs catholiques du temps contemporain, and the profoundly important analysis of their thought. I love Chesterton's, the Donkey, which I can't declaim without choking up. The wit of Kipling's, The Betrothed is without equal. But my current favorite Catholic poet is Alice Meynell, for her "Maternity". Please everyone read it, if you don't know it. It is utterly transcendant. Thank you for an excellent article and important ideas about M. Claudel and his thought.
written by critic maudit, July 09, 2012
Unfortunately, Royal's piece is too typical in this genre of talking about Catholic literature. One is pressed to find a single literary, much less properly poetic criterion for assessing why Claudel is the greatest POET. He comes close in suggesting the way he is able to speak in divine terms of the everyday, but this is not self-evidently a poetic virtue; and if it be a characteristic of (certain) moderns, it still does not establish why Claudel is "great."
written by Ez, July 10, 2012
Khalil Gibran. A Catholic Maronite from Lebanon, who resided in NYC for much of his life, and whose "The Prophet" was on NY Times list of Top Ten Books of all time (along with The Bible).

His prose is full of wisdom and elevates it's eyes to God in it's simplicity and truth.

Or does one have to be white and from the west to be considered "great" in this article?
written by Dana, July 10, 2012
Claudel might be my favorite poet too, although I appreciated this Thompson's Hound of Heaven.
written by poetcomic1, July 10, 2012
Father Raymond Roseliep's haiku have given more pleasure and appreciation of the gift of being alive than all the aforementioned.
written by Addie, July 10, 2012
Khalil Gibran or Roy Campbell for sure. The first is simply magical, while the second is so wild and his translations are wonderful (though perhaps he’s a bit too blunt for his own good in his many satires)
written by Scott W, July 12, 2012
Khalil Gibran is basically "high church" Jonathan Livingston Seagull... Just because the author was Maronite rite doesn't mean his work is--that's why he's been a favorite of countless new age crackpots. If he wrote the faith, he never would have caught on in those circles...
written by Louise, July 20, 2012
I had to wait to get home to visit family so I could share my favorites because for me poetry will always be tied up with my experience as a child listening to my father read us poetry at night and while I remembered the cadence of his voice, I didn't remember the exact words or poets so I conferred with my elder sister. The two that i remember most were the "Hound of Heaven"by Francis Thompson (Grump!) and "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" by Charles Wolfe. If you could have just heard my father read both of them you would understand.
Fathers, read poetry to your children; they will never forget the experience! HOpe this is not too late as a post.
written by Alberto Zamora, July 17, 2014
Dear Sir, thank you for this article. I learned about Claudel as my Catholic faith guided my study of A. Rimbaud. I should be so very appreciative if you would direct me to resources to learn more about Claudel's reading of Rimbaud's life & work. God bless, ABZ

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author