A Work of Art Is Never Finished, Merely Abandoned

Paul Valéry? W. H. Auden? Anaïs Nin? Maya Deren? Jean Cocteau? Esther Kellner? Gene Fowler? Gore Vidal? Marianne Moore? George Lucas? Oscar Wilde?

Question for Quote Investigator: A creative person who is absorbed with the task of generating an artwork hesitates to declare completion. Reworking and improving a piece is always a tantalizing possibility. Here are five versions of a saying about unavoidable incompleteness:

  • A poem is never finished, only abandoned.
  • A work is never completed, but merely abandoned.
  • A work of art is never completed, only abandoned.
  • Books are never finished—they are merely abandoned.
  • Films are never completed, they are only abandoned.

The prominent poets Paul Valéry and W. H. Auden have both received credit for this adage. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In March 1933 Paul Valéry published an essay in “La Nouvelle Revue Française” (“The New French Review”) about his poem “Le Cimetière marin” (“The Cemetery by the sea”). The saying under analysis was included in this article although the exposition was lengthy. Over time Valéry’s words were streamlined and modified to yield the current set of expressions. Here is the original French followed by a rendering into English. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:1

Aux yeux de ces amateurs d’inquiétude et de perfection, un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé, – mot qui pour eux n’a aucun sens, – mais abandonné ; et cet abandon, qui le livre aux flammes ou au public (et qu’il soit l’effet de la lassitude ou de l’obligation de livrer) est une sorte d’accident, comparable à la rupture d’une réflexion, que la fatigue, le fâcheux ou quelque sensation viennent rendre nulle.

The following translation by Rosalie Maggio appeared in the valuable reference “The Quote Verifier”:2

In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed—a word that for them has no sense—but abandoned; and this abandonment, of the book to the fire or to the public, whether due to weariness or to a need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident, comparable to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Valéry’s essay caught the attention of the French journalist and literary critic Thierry Maulnier who in May 1933 wrote about it in the periodical “L’Action Française” (French Action). Maulnier reprinted the excerpt above, but he omitted the interposing phrase “mot qui pour eux n’a aucun sens”. Hence, the reprinted passage provided a solid match for the short adage:3

Un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé… mais abandonné; et cet abandon, qui le livre aux flammes ou au public (et qu’il soit l’effet de la lassitude ou de l’obligation de livrer) est une sorte d’accident, comparable à la rupture d’une réflexion, que la fatigue, le fâcheux ou quelque sensation viennent rendre nulle.

In 1936 “Les Nouvelles Littéraires” (“Literary News”) reprinted phrases from Valéry’s essay. Thus, the saying achieved further distribution:4

Or, il appartient, lui aussi, au groupe de « ces amateurs d’inquiétude et de perfection » pour lesquels « un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé, mot qui pour eux n’a aucun sens, mais abandonné ». En d’autres termes, la véritable œuvre de Valéry c’est un long effort créateur dont ses ouvrages imprimés ne représentent que des manifestations momentanées.

Here is one possible rendering of the text above into English:

But he too belongs to the group of “lovers of anxiety and perfection” for whom “a work is never completed, a word which for them is meaningless, but abandoned”. In other words, the true work of Valéry is a long creative effort of which his printed works represent only momentary manifestations.

In 1946 filmmaker Maya Deren exhibited three of her experimental films at the Provincetown Playhouse. “The New York Times” wrote about the forthcoming event and noted that the publicity materials referred to a remark from Valéry. Hence, the saying was circulating in English by 1946:5

The program is entitled “Three Abandoned Films,” after a quotation from Paul Valéry to the effect that “a work is never completed, but merely abandoned.”

The diary of author Anaïs Nin included an entry for March 1946 in which she mentioned seeing films by Deren at the Provincetown Playhouse. Nin also recorded in the same diary entry the expression credited to Valéry:6

Paul Valéry: A work is never completed, but merely abandoned.

In 1962 Alan Schneider was directing the controversial Broadway play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. When a journalist asked about the drama during a luncheon, Schneider employed the adage without attribution:7

When Mr. Schneider was pressed by a questioner, he finally admitted that this was not a perfect play but added quickly: “I don’t know of any perfect play. A work of art is never completed, only abandoned. The only perfect play is a dead play.”

In 1965 author Gore Vidal published a piece in “The New York Times Book Review”. Vidal linked the adage to French author Jean Cocteau:8

Like Jean Cocteau (in this if nothing else) he believed that a work of art was never finished, merely abandoned.

In 1967 W. H. Auden published a collection of his poetry, and within the foreword he credited Valéry with an instance of the expression applied to poetry:9

I also find that my ear will no longer tolerate rhyming a voiced S with an unvoiced. I have had to leave a few such rhymes because I cannot at the moment see a way to get rid of them, but I promise not to do it again. On revisions as a matter of principle, I agree with Valery: ‘A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.’

Also, in 1967 Auden visited Iowa and addressed a Clarke College audience during a cross-country speaking tour. He used the adage, but no attribution was specified:10

Though he said he usually revises a poem extensively before publishing it, Auden said that a poem, “is never finished, it is only abandoned.”

In 1968 celebrated poet Marianne Moore was profiled in the “Austin American-Statesman” of Austin, Texas, and the journalist referenced the saying:11

She rewrites constantly and continually, following the adage: “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

In 1970 Auden published “A Certain World: A Commonplace Book”, and he included a slightly shorter version of the adage than he used in 1967:12

A poem is never finished, only abandoned.

In 1971 author Esther Kellner received credit for an instance about books in a Richmond, Indiana newspaper:13

“A book is never finished—finally just abandoned,” she commented, “and deadlines are the most fearful part of a writer’s life.”

In 1973 journalist and screenwriter Gene Fowler was credited with an instance by H. Allen Smith who later wrote a biography Fowler:14

He never had much faith in the quality of his work. He is responsible for a line that is dear to the heart of every author who has had to face up to a deadline. “A book is never finished,” he said. “It is abandoned.”

In 1997 a journalist spoke to George Lucas who was reworking his blockbuster 1977 film “Star Wars”. Lucas mentioned an instance of the saying in the domain of cinema:15

Today, there are a couple of dozen special-effects companies. “Star Wars” has been rendered obsolete by the very technology the movie itself spawned. Hence, the remake.

“A famous filmmaker once said that films are never completed, they are only abandoned,” Lucas says. “So rather than live with my ‘abandoned’ movies, I decided to go back and complete them.”

In 2004 “Uncle John’s Colossal Collection of Quotable Quotes” implausible assigned an instance to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:16

“Books are never finished—they are merely abandoned.” —Oscar Wilde

In conclusion, Paul Valéry deserves credit for what he wrote in 1933: “un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé . . . mais abandonné”. The sayings in English were derived directly or indirectly from the words of Valéry. Auden employed a poetry oriented instance, but he credited Valéry.

Image Notes: Illustration of an incomplete puzzle from geralt at Pixabay. The image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to researcher Ralph Keyes and others who identified the key original passage by Paul Valéry.

Update History: On March 7, 2021 the 1971 and 1973 citations were added. On February 10, 2024 the bibliographical notes were reformatted.

  1. Date: Mars 1933 (March 1933), Periodical: La Nouvelle Revue Française (The New French Review), Article: Au sujet du Cimetière marin (Concerning the Cemetery by the Sea), Author: Paul Valéry, Start Page 399, Quote Page 399, Publisher: La Nouvelle Revue Française, Paris, France. (On February 23, 2019 QI accessed image showing Table of Contents via gallimard.fr; QI has verified that Table of Contents for March 1933 lists the article; also text is visible in multiple snippets within La Nouvelle Revue Française in Google Books, but QI has not yet accessed the issue directly to view the article) link ↩︎
  2. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Entry: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned”, Quote Page 167 and 317, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩︎
  3. Date: 11 Mai 1933 (May 11, 1933), Newspaper: L’Action Française (French Action), Page title: La Vie Littéraire Française (French Literary Life), Article: Critique et poésie par Thierry Maulnier (Criticism and poetry by Thierry Maulnier), Quote Page 3, Column 6, Publisher: Action Française, Paris, France. (Gallica) ↩︎
  4. Date: 07 mars 1936 (March 07, 1936), Newspaper: Les Nouvelles Littéraires (Literary News), Article: Le Livre de la Semaine: Variété III (The Book of the Week: Variety III), Quote Page 1, Column 4, Publisher: Larousse, Paris, France. (Gallica) ↩︎
  5. 1946 February 3, New York Times, The Dance: Coming Events by John Martin, Quote Page X4, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  6. 1971 Copyright, The Diary of Anaïs Nin: 1944-1947: Volume 4, by Anaïs Nin, Edited by Gunther Stuhlmann, (Diary entry dated March 1946), Start Page 134, Quote Page 137, A Harvest Book: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  7. 1962 December 12, The Christian Science Monitor, Author and Producers Dottily Genial by Melvin Maddocks, Quote Page 13, Column 1 and 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  8. 1965 November 14, New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, Speaking of Books: Making and Remaking by Gore Vidal, Quote Page BR2, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  9. 1967 (1966 Copyright), Collected Shorter Poems: 1927-1957 by W. H. Auden (Wystan Hugh Auden), Section: Foreword, Start Page 15, Quote Page 16, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  10. 1967 March 10, The Des Moines Register, Poet Auden in Iowa Likens Americans to ‘Omelets’ by James Ney (Register Staff Writer), Quote Page 15, Column 7, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  11. 1968 May 5, Austin American-Statesman, Marianne Moore: Poet’s Poet and Baseball Fan by D.E.H., Quote Page T25, Column 2 and 3, Austin, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  12. 1970, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book by W. H. Auden, Section: Writing, Start Page 418, Quote Page 423, A William Cole Book: Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  13. 1971 October 20, The Palladium-Item, Author Esther Kellner Tells Stories Behind The Stories She Has Written by Eloise Beach, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Richmond, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  14. 1973, Low Man Rides Again by H. Allen Smith, Chapter 17: The Illegitimate Son of Buffalo Bill, Quote Page 90 and 91, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  15. 1997 January 26, The Record, Start Light, Star Bright George Lucas Prepares to Unleash His Force on a New Generation by Bob Ivry (Staff Writer), Quote Page y01, Bergen County, New Jersey. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  16. 2004, Uncle John’s Colossal Collection of Quotable Quotes by the Bathroom Readers’ Institute, Section: Writers on Writing, Quote Page 226, Bathroom Readers’ Press, Ashland, Oregon. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
Exit mobile version