Le serpent

Year: 1926

Author: Paul Valéry (1871 - 1945)

Artist: Jean Marchand (1883 - 1940)

Publisher: Éditions Eos

Le serpent, cover

The year 1922 was a turning point in the life of poet and thinker Paul Valéry. In that year, his employer Édouard Lebey died, for whom he had worked as a secretary for over twenty years. His own authorship had always come second to this job. After Lebey's death, Valéry dedicated himself fully to literature for the first time, and his career took off immediately. In 1925 he became a member of the Académie Française, and in 1937 he was appointed professor of poetics at the Collège de France.

The second important event in 1922 was the publication of Valéry's new collection of poetry, Charmes. One of the poems in this collection was 'Ebauche d'un serpent'. This 'Sketch of a serpent' had previously been published in the magazine NRF. But the idea dates back even further. Valéry claimed that all the poems in the collection Charmes were derived from the poem he had published in 1917: La jeune Parque. This was certainly true for 'Ebauche d'un serpent'. In the Cahiers- Valéry's intellectual journals - he had drafted a short poem: 'Chanson d'un serpent'. This had actually been a little joke, intended for his friend, the Symbolist poet Pierre Louÿs. (Valéry had published his debut as a writer in his magazine La conque from 1891-1892.) The short poem provided Valéry with a pleasant distraction from his more serious work. It ultimately grew into such a large size, that this 'by-product', according to some, even exceeded his original masterpiece La jeune Parque. The poem appeared in 1926 as an independent publication under the title Le serpent from publisher Eos.

Experienced book illustrators

The illustrations for this edition were produced by two artists: the 15 lithographs were made by Jean Marchand, and the 24 decorations and 7 vignettes were done by the Polish artist Sonia Lewitska. Both were extraordinarily active as book illustrators: Lewitska for instance worked on Veillées des hameaux by Gogol, and La traduction de Tristan et Yseult by J. Bédier. Marchand also illustrated Valéry's Le cimétière marin, and tried his hand at work by Paul Claudel and Francis Jammes.

In the preface - written especially for this edition- Valéry expressed his thanks to the artists. Valéry considered the illustrations in two different styles (Marchand's dramatic and natural, and Lewitska’s more primitive and subtle) a good match for his poem. He also thanked publisher Eos,emphatically and quite unusually, for publishing this beautiful book. The edition was indeed exquisitely designed down to the smallest detail, and had even been provided with a cover made of (imitation) snake skin.

The symbolism of the snake is a recurring motif in the work of Valéry. In La jeune Parque, the snake showed up as the antagonist of one of the Fates. In Le serpent, the cunning reptile symbolises temptation, referencing the biblical story of Adam and Eve. But the snake (which continuously grows a new skin) also symbolises various aspects of human existence. The many meanings of the words are typical for Valéry's hermetic poetry. His poems have occasionally been described as crossword puzzles, and whoever fills out the right meaning of the word in the right spot, holds the key to the poem - and to Valéry's philosophy.

Bibliographical description

Description: Le serpent / Paul Valéry ; ill. de 15 compositions orig. en lithogr. par Jean Marchand et de 24 bandeaux et 7 culs-de-lampe dess. et grav. au canif par Sonia Lewitska. - Paris : Éditions Éos, 1926. - [66] p. : ill. ; 34 cm

Printer: Coulouma (Argenteuil) (tekst en houtsneden) E. Desjobert (Parijs) (lithografie) R. Pichon, Charpentier & Riby (Parijs) (omslag)

Edition: 230 copies

This copy: Number 168 of 169 on Dutch Van Gelder

Note: Signed by the author and the publisher, With two extra sets of prints of the illustrations

Bibliography: Bénézit 8-614 ; Bénézit 9-187 ; In liefde verzameld 165 ; Monod 10905

Shelfmark: KW Koopm A 439


  • Maurice Bémol, La parque et le serpent: essai sur les formes et les mythes. Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1955
  • Denis Bertholet, Paul Valéry 1871-1945. Paris, Plon, 1995
  • Paul van Capelleveen, Sophie Ham, Jordy Joubij, Voices and visions. The Koopman Collection and the Art of the French Book. The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands; Zwolle, Waanders, 2009
  • Paul van Capelleveen, Sophie Ham, Jordy Joubij, Voix et visions. La Collection Koopman et l'Art du Livre français. La Haye, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Bibliothèque nationale des Pays-Bas; Zwolle, Waanders, 2009
  • Georges Karaïskakis, François Chapon, Bibliographie des oeuvres de Paul Valéry. Paris, Librairie Auguste Blaizot, 1976
  • Paul Valéry... aux sources du poème: La jeune Parque- Charmes. Paris, Honoré Champion, 1992
  • S. Vestdijk, 'Valéry en het duistere vers', in: Forum, 11 (1933), p. 761-779
  • Nevile Wallis, 'The art of Jean Marchand', in: Apollo, 64 (1956), p. 120