History of Literature








French literature



 


André de Chénier



 

born Oct. 30, 1762, Istanbul
died July 25, 1794, Paris

poet and political journalist, generally considered the greatest French poet of the 18th century. His work was scarcely published until 25 years after his death. When the first collected edition of Chénier’s poetry appeared in 1819, it had an immediate success and was acclaimed not only by the poets of the Romantic movement but also by the anti-Romantic liberal press. Not only was Chénier’s influence felt on poetic trends throughout the 19th century but the legend of his political struggle and heroic death—celebrated in Chateaubriand’s work Le Génie du christianisme (1802), Sainte-Beuve’s Joseph Delorme (1829), Vigny’s Stello (1832), and Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier (1896)—also made him a European symbol of the poet-hero.

His mother was Greek, and he always had a deep affection for Classical literature, in particular for elegiac poetry. He was educated in the progressive Collège de Navarre and, after an unsuccessful attempt at a military career in 1782–83, devoted himself for five years to study. In 1787 he reluctantly accepted a post in the French embassy in London. He was obsessed at that time by epic themes, notably a project for a poem on the New World, but he was psychologically inhibited from completing these works. His years in London were unhappy: he suffered from frustrated ambition and from self-doubt.

The Revolutionary upheavals in France in 1789 offered an opportunity to escape from this frustration. He returned to Paris and began to take an active part in political journalism, attacking the extremes both of monarchist reaction and of Revolutionary terror. Chénier was not a political innocent and realized the dangers of his position. At times he exposed himself unnecessarily, from the sense of moral integrity that is a fundamental theme of his work and perhaps also from an obscure hunger for self-destruction. In March 1794 he was arrested, imprisoned at Saint-Lazare, and, four months later, guillotined, a few days before the fall of the Revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre, an event that would have saved him.

Chénier’s achievement was to have demonstrated how the qualities of the Greek lyrics could revitalize French poetry. In his works of the Revolutionary period, including poems that he smuggled out of prison in a laundry basket, he makes a passionate defense of ideals of liberty and justice: the Iambes, the last of which dates from very shortly before his execution, are a moving testimonial to the human spirit in the face of persecution.



Charles-Louis Müller: "The Call for the Last Victims of the Terror, 7-9 Thermidor, Year"
(The figure seated at the centre is Chenier.)


 

Ode to Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday


Le noir serpent, sorti de sa caverne impure,
A donc vu rompre enfin sous ta main ferme et sûre
le venimeux tissu de ses jours abhorrés!
Aux entrailles du tigre, à ses dents homicides,
Tu vins demander et les membres livides
Et le sang des humains qu'il avait dévorés!

La vertu seule est libre. Honneur de notre histoire,
Notre immortel opprobre y vit avec ta gloire.
Seule tu fus un homme, et vengea les humains.
Et nous, eunuques vils, troupeau lâche et sans âme,
Nous savons répéter quelques plaintes de femme,
Mais le fer pèserait à nos débiles mains.
. . . . .
Un scélérat de moins rampe dans cette fange.
La Vertu t'applaudit. De sa mâle louange
Entends, bell héroïne, entends l'auguste voix.
O Vertu, le poignard, seul espoir de la terre,
Est ton arme sacrée, alors que le tonnerre
Laisse régner le crime, et te vend à ses lois.

(The black serpent, leaving his filthy cave,
Has finally suffered by your hand so sure and brave
The end of its venomous existence so despised!
From the tiger's guts, from his homicidal teeth
You came and drew what he'd devoured from beneath:
The blood and livid members of his victims sacrificed.)

(Virtue alone is free. Honor of our history,
Our immortal shame we live beside your glory.
Only you were a man, your knife did vengeance wreak;
And we, vile eunuchs, cowardly and soul-less cattle.
We can at best complain like women prattle,
But to wield a sword our hands would be too weak
. . . . .
In that mud crawls one scoundrel less.
Hear, lovely heroine, hear Virtue bless,
Hear the august voice of its virile praise.
Oh virtue, the dagger that hope will raise,
Is your sacred arm, when Heaven holds its thunder
And lets crime rule, while laws are cut asunder.)

Andre Marie de Chenier

 

 
 
 
 
 

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