Comparing artists is about as helpful as comparing beer or theologians; it often simply comes down to a matter of taste. However, just as with theologians, there are new insights to be gained from artists, even if they don’t turn out to be our favorite (I suppose the same holds with beer, as well.)
Robert Royal, in an article for the Catholic Education Resource Center, poses the question of whether or not French poet Paul Claudel might be the best modern Catholic poet ever.
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 Day 1886 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.”
Royal points out that Claudel was not a starving artist, but had a thriving diplomatic career, and frankly, didn’t write that much while he was still actively working. Claudel has a great sense of humor, especially about himself, and while his work is rooted in French culture, most Christians will find themes with which they can identify. His poem, ‘The Day of Gifts’, particularly showcases his self-deprecation and knowledge of his sinfulness before God:
But if by chance You should have need of a lazy and imbecilic bore,
If a prideful coward could prove useful to You, or perhaps a soiled ingrate,
Or the sort of man whose hard heart shows up in a hard face—
Well, anyway, You didn’t come to save the just but that other type that abounds,
And if, miraculously, You run out of them elsewhere . . . Lord, I’m still around.
As with beer and theologians, you may not find Claudel to your taste. But then again, you may find a new favorite.