A Work of Art Is Never Finished, Merely Abandoned

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

Dear Quote Investigator: A creative person who is absorbed with the task of generating an artwork hesitates to declare completion. Reworking and improving a piece are always tantalizing possibilities. 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?

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.

Continue reading A Work of Art Is Never Finished, Merely Abandoned

Notes:

  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)