The Preparation of These Beauties

Jackson Matthews, “A Note on Valéry,” Monsieur Teste by Paul Valéry, 1947, VI-VII

Mallarmé’s work had given Valéry a peculiar formative shock. These marvelous little “crystal systems,” as he called Mallarmé’s poems, struck the terror of perfection into him. Reading them, he could feel nothing but despair (“beauty is that which makes us despair”). He was himself already writing some very good poems indeed, but now his mind was driven past poems themselves to wonder how these “crystal systems” were constructed; the one thing superior to a perfect poem, he thought, would be a full knowledge of how it was made. He was soon to give up writing poems himself and turn his intense powers to the study of “the preparation of these beauties,” the generation of poems in the poet’s mind. Valéry was already coming into possession of his own and proper subject: the mind behind the work.