The lecture was in French - elegant Parisian French - and in the middle of it Pual Claudel's daughter read two of her father's poems. And something rather special happened.
The speaker, Renee Nantet, read in the sensuous style that French poetry often commands, relishing the soft sonorous rhymes, but it was her approach to the works that struck one most: a kind of reverence. A devoted daughter even 22 years after her famous father's death, she has defended and promoted his memory to the point where, today, Claudel is making a comeback in France as a playwright.
Her lecture at Catholic University launched a symposium through March 30 on "Claudel: Our Contemporary," featuring documentary films, a concert of songs by Milhaud and Honegger to which he wrote texts, several talks and a performance of Claudel's "Partage de Midi (Break of Noon)," perhaps this best-known work.
Who was Paul Claudel?
Not an easy question. As a dkiplomat, he served in America, China, Japan, Brazil, Brussels, Prague and Frankfurt. As a poet-drmatist, he could evoke such a curious statement as this, by Joseph Chiari: "Claudel is the most extraordinary genius of our time, yet I have the feeling that Valery, Eliot or yeats may be greater poets . . " and this, by Richard Griffiths: "Either one is for Paul Claudel, or else one is wholeheartedly against him."
First and last a Catholic poet, connected to such genteel English Catholic intellectuals as Coventry Patmore, he also claimed influence by 19th-century French vagabond poet Arthur Rimbaud. Assumed by many to be somewhat polite to fit the modern concept of an artist, Claudel actually has much in common with Victor Hugo, and his poems, notoriously untranslatable, echo the thunder of an Old Testament Jehovah.
"Catholics today don't understand him," his daughter said. "He appeals more, really, to non-Catholics and especially Jewish writers. He was born in a time when scientific precision was accepted without question, but he questioned this idea."
His view of a universal godly order was an exuberant and free from scientific limitations as Shakespeare's, and in fact the March 30 lecture in the symposium will be "Shakespeare and Claudel" by Prof Jacques Brunel of the University of Paris.
As a father, Nantet said, he proved as familial and comfortable a figure as one might expect from a rural middle-class background. "We never thought of him as a poet," she said, and she told her stories about life as a diplomat's youngest and favorite child in great cities around the world.
Her return to Washington after 40 years touched her greatly, she added, for she was driven past the old French embassy on 16th Street where she used to roller-skate around the porch, and the place on Meridian Hill where as a girl she rode her bicycle.
"I'm veyr excited to be here again," she said.