14 NOVEMBER 1931, Page 21

Claudel's Masterpiece

Tim work of Paul Claudel, most certainly the greatest of living Christian poets, has never yet been fully appreciated in this country. This, no doubt, is partly because of the intricate subtlety of his writing, the depth of those con- ceptions which it is designed to express or suggest. He is difficult, indeed forbidding to those who come to him unpre- pared ; and the difficulty is increased for those who must read him in a tongue which is not their own. Therefore this remarkable translation of his greatest and deepest work —a translation in which the poet has himself collaborated— is to be welcomed by all lovers of great literature ; even though by many it will be used mainly as a " crib " with which to explore and savour the beauties of the original.

The Satin Slipper is a vast poetic play, set in four " Days " and countless scenes ; having apparently nearly twenty years for its time-span and the greater part of the globe as its stage. The external unities therefore go by the board ; and spiritual unities take their place. For here we see a drama of redemption in and through certain souls, played out against the background of the universe. The time is the close of the sixteenth century, the epoch of the great evan- gelizing conquests of Spain in the New World and in Africa ; and political interests are constantly in the forefront of the action. The amazing complexity of the emotional and spiritual plot is set within the mesh of great voyages, adven- tures and conflicts : indeed, it is said with justice that " the sea is the chief actor in the whole drama," and it is seldom absent from the stage. But throughout, the one care of the invisible influences that control events and sometimes emerge among them, is the destiny of individual souls. There is, even in the moments of extreme dramatic violence, an ever-present sense of the hidden issues of life and death. The natural and supernatural interlace ; and grace gains its unspeakable victories through the passions and sufferings of the flesh. Thus Prouheze, in the grip of her passion for Rodrigo, is taught by her guardian angel :

" What makes you so beautiful cannot die, what makes him love You cannot die . . .

" For some, the understanding is enough. 'Tis the spirit that SPeaks purely to the spirit. "But for others, the flesh also must be gradually evangelized and converted. And what flesh can speak to man more powerfully than that of woman ? "

The Play opens in the mid-Atlantic ; where an abandoned ship drifts, all its company killed by pirates, save a dying Jesuit Father, who is bound to the broken mast as to a cross. And this man's prayer, offered with the willing acceptance of his martyrdom, and thus moving the secret springs of the world of spirit, determines the whole action

of the plot. For he asks that his beloved brother Rodrigo. who has turned from the religious life to the world, and is consumed by his desire for Prouheze, may find his way back to God ; even though by crooked paths :

" Lord, it is not so easy to escape You, and if he goes not to You by what he has of light, let him go to You by what he has of dark- ness ; and if not by what he has of straight, may ho go to You by what he has of indirection. . . .

"Clog him by the weight of this other lovely being, which lacks him and is calling him across the space between."

The beautiful figure of Dona Prouheze, one of Claudel's characteristic creations, is thus indicated as the path through which the redeeming power shall find Rodrigo at last. We see her first married to the stern, almost ascetic Pelagio ; who yet proves his profound and selfless understanding of her nature, and his own nobility of soul, by devoting her at his own cost, to a great task and a great risk as the appointed path of her salvation. Prouheze goes alone to the fortress of Mogador in her country's service—Rodrigo on a State mission to America. The lovers, given over to the great movements of the world, shall meet once by orders of the King of Spain before their parting ; that Rodrigo may be tested as by fire. But Prouheze, at the opening of the drama, standing before the Virgin's shrine, has placed one satin slipper in the hands of the image that " when I try to rush on evil, may it be with limping foot ! " ---and here is the second spiritual action which determines the course of events. The lovers relinquish one another in the interests of duty and honour. And now begins in Prouheze —at first with many halts and struggles—that " soundless growing of the everlasting light" which makes of her an instrument of the redeeming energy. This creates of her second marriage, to the brutal Don Camillo, a saving martyr- dom ; and lifts her long passion for Rodrigo to the heights of sacrificial love :

" What have I willed but to give thee joy ! To keep nothing back, to be entirely that sweet balm ! To cease to be myself that thou inightest have all !

" There where joy is most, how believe that I am far away There where joy is most, that is where Prouheze is most " I will to be with thee in the beginning, I will to espouse thy cause! I will to learn with God to keep nothing back, to be that thing of goodness and of giving that holds nothing back and from whom all is taken !

"Take, Rodrigo, take my heart, take my love, take this Cod Who fills me !

" The strength by which I love thee is none other than that by which thou art in being.

" I am made one forever with that thing which gives thee life eternal ! "

Prouheze dies, leaving her young daughter in Rodrigo's care : and the last " Day " of the action develops through grandiose and fantastic episodes his final transformation, by way of earthly humiliation and ruin. Vast historic events, the Armada and expected conquest of England, now take their part in the appointed action. In and by them, Rodrigo, wholly stripped of unreality and savouring the last bitterness of his situation, comes through darkness to freedom. Fallen from royal favour, a prisoner in chains, we see him handed over by his guards to a couple of Carmelite Sisters ; that he may end his life at the convent gate as a poor servant of St. Teresa, and " wipe her sandals, all covered with the dust of Heaven."

So ends a play which will surely be counted among the great creative works of our time ; in which we are made to realize the solemn issues of human life as played out in the presence of the whole universe, witnessing in its intricate splendour to poetic and to Christian truth.