The Sweet Poet

Andree Chenier

André Chénier (1762-1794) was the best poet of the age. He was born in Constantinople of a French father and a Greek mother, and he was infused from infancy with pure Hellenic genius. Much later, he began a diplomatic career and died very young, a victim of the Revolution. He mounted the scaffold two days before the fall of Robespierre. His most well-known poem is "La jeune captive" ("The Young Captive"), dedicated to Mademoiselle de Coigny, imprisoned like him at Saint-Lazare; it is a beautiful and touching elegie. His other works, generally inspired by Greek literature, reproduce their poetic beauties; one might reproach them with a lack of originality in their inspiration.

J. Badaire, Review of French Literature (D.C. Heath & Co., 1926; trans. Karen Mercedes)

André Chénier, born in Constantinople on October 30, 1762, was the third son of Louis de Chénier, an officer at the French embassy; his mother was a Greek, Santi l'Homaka ("la belle Grecque"), famous for her beauty and wit. After spending most of his childhood in southern France with an aunt, André joined his mother in Paris, where she had settled in 1773. While still in his teens, he became a fervent admirer of everything related to the language and civilization of ancient Greece. His natural fever for knowledge was stimulated even more by the brilliant artists and intellectuals he met during his mother's weekly soirées.

His Levantine background and the luxury and refinement in which he was brought up made Chénier an attractive bon viveur who thoroughly enjoyed the easy nonchalance reigning in the Parisian salons - and boudoirs. At the same time there was in him the sensitive artist gifted with a rich inner life, one that allowed him to isolate himself from the troubled world around him and to take wing into the spheres of meditation and poetic inspiration. The only true poet of his time, he rediscovered Greek classic literature and gave it renewed beauty in his own powerful verses, conciliating antiquity and modern thought most naturally and restoring long-lost lyricism to French poetry.

Predictably, Chénier detested garrison life in Strasbourg, where the regiment he joined in 1782 as a gentleman-cadet was stationed, and after six months he was back in Paris writing feverishly for a couple of years, until he realized his was no time for poetry. He became a member of the Society of '89 (the moderate wing of the revolutionary party) and subsequently started his short career as a political journalist, fighting eloquently against anarchy, injustice and tyranny. After the imprisonment of Louis XVI he sensed that the defense of the principles of the Revolution within the framework of moderation, law and order was a utopian dram and, in bitter disillusionment, decided to withdraw from public life. He fled Paris for some time, but too fascinated by political events, he couldn't refrain from returning - a fatal decision.

Eugene Atget: André Chénier's House at 97 rue de Cléry
(2e arr.), Paris (Chénier lived here in 1793)

On March 4, 1794, he was arrested by mistake while visiting friends in Passy and taken to police headquarters at the Luxembourg; officials didn't want to keep him, for there was no arrest warrant, but all the same sent him on to St. Lazare Prison, where he spent the last four and a half months of his life.

Originally a leper hospital, St. Lazare had become a prestigious correctional institution for "prodigal sons" as early as 1632. During the Revolution it became a political prison and was called "one of the guillotine's most plentiful pantries". There Chénier met, among others, the poet Jean-Antoine Roucher, who became his confidant; Louise de Laval-Montmorency, abbess of Montmartre (both mentioned in the opera Andrea Chénier); a Vergennes (possibly the son of the Count Gravier mentioned in Act III of the opera, who had died in 1787); J.B. Suvée, who painted his most famous portrait, and Aimée de Coigny, Duchess of Fleury, alias Citizeness Franquetot.

Chénier was at once attracted by this charming 23-year-old beauty, who became, after the already immortalized Lycoris and Fanny, his last muse, the one who inspired his best verses, those of "The Young Captive". This poem - which, along with all the others he wrote at St. Lazare, was concealed in a basket of soiled linen and sent beyond the prison walls to posterity - contributed immensely to the legend of Chénier and Aimée's tragic love affair, which, of course, never did occur in real life. In fact, this muse was hardly the angelic creature she appears to be in the poem, which actually may have been nothing more than an aesthetic reverie. Married at 16, Aimée had taken in the years that followed such famous lovers as the irresistible "beau" Lauzun, Lord Malmesbury and M. de Montrond. The last mentioned was imprisoned at St. Lazare with her and married her (Aimée's husband had died in exile) after they were set free - via a 100-louis bribe to the prison guard. In her memoirs there is no metnion of Chénier, and it is very likely that she didn't even know she had been immortalized in verse.

On July 24, 1794, Chénier was taken before the Revolutionary Tribunal, where he was accused of writing against freedom in favor of tyranny (!), of participating in the scandalous conspiracy of prisons (a machination of the sinister public prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville) and of being an assistant to the disgraced General Dumouriez (here he was mistaken for his brother Sauveur Chénier, who had indeed fought under Dumouriez). The jury paid little attention to the charges and was fast in passing sentence: immediate death. Chénier and 37 other prisoners were then taken to the Conciergerie, where, on the eve of his execution, he wrote these moving verses, so similar in their essence to those Illica would write in his libretto ("Come un bel dì di maggio"):

As the sun's last flashing ray,
As the last cool breeze from the shore,
Cheer the close of a dying day,
Thus I strike my lyre once more.
As now by the scaffold I wait,
Each moment of time seems the last,
For the clock, like a finger of fate,
Points onward and onward fast.
A poet until his last minute, he stepped onto the dernière charrette (also called "Sanson's cart", as in Act II of the opera) with his friend Roucher, and they both started reciting verses from Racine's Andromaque on their way to the guillotine. Chénier the political martyr was executed on July 25 on Place de la Barrière Renversée (now Place de Vincennes) and is remembered as one of the last illustrious victims of the Reign of Terror, which ended only three days later with Robespierre's own death. (The most frequently used guillotine was on Place de la Révolution - previously Place Louis XV and now Place de la Concorde - but during the last days of the Terror there were so many victims that additional scaffolds had to be built.) Chénier the poet-martyr was discovered only in 1819, when Henri de Latouche edited his complete poems. He immediately became an idol of the young Romantics, who saw in him a forerunner of their movement. His life, especially the last years, inspired numerous works, including poems by such French authors as Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset. But the most famous of them remains, of course, Giordano's opera Andrea Chénier.

Mario Hamlet-Metz

Regardless of the fate of his play [Charles IX; ou, l'Ecole des rois], no one denied that Marie-Joseph Chénier was a bon citoyen. An enthusiastic partisan of the Revolution, he had never wavered in its support. The same cannot be said of his older brother, André Chénier. After his education at the excellent Collège de Navarre, André eventually obtained a position as private secretary of the French ambassador to Great Britain, but when the Revolution broke out, he returned to Paris. There he threw himself into political journalism, joining his former schoolmates, the wealthy Trudaine brothers and François de Pange, in the moderate Feuillants party.

But there was no place for moderates in the French Revolution. Soon the Journal de Paris, where he had published articles, was suspended, and Chénier had to lead the life of a suspect. He went to Rouen for a while but returned to Paris, stayed in Versailles, and was arrested in Passy, where he had accompanied the Marquise de Pastoret, the wife of a man imprisoned as a traitor and conspirator. He was guillotined on 25 July 1794, at the age of thirty-one. The Revolution had killed the greatest poet France had produced in the 130 years that had passed since La Fontaine had written his fables.

Chénier's fame is in great part due to his lyric and bucolic works, which revived the poetic vein in France. As a "committed" poet he holds a position midway between the seventeenth century Huguenot poet Agrippa d'Aubigné (Les Tragiques, 1616), who heaped his anger on the persecutors of the reformed faith, and Victor Hugo, whose vituperations were directed against Napoleon III. Although his production is much smaller than theirs, Chénier exhibits a great variety of tone, ranging from Olympian satire and irony to lyric and tragic outbursts.

The same variety can be found in the forms he used: the hymn, the ode, and the iambic meter. It is the latter that lends itself best to lashing out at injustice. Its originator was Archilochus, who hurled his verses at his fiancée's father, who had broken his word. In Greek poetry, the iambic meter, with its couplets of a long verse followed by a shorter one, came close to sounding like prose, but Chénier adheres more closely to classical French verse, which avoids enjambment (overflow of verse into the next line). In his Iambes, too, he introduced a new note into French poetry by preserving classical forms while at the same time diminishing none of the sting of his attacks.

Not all of Chénier's political poems are in the iambic meter. His Ode to Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday is constructed on the theme of opposition. The revolutionaries are singing infamous hymns to Marat - Chénier will write an ode to the woman who killed Marat in his bath on 13 July 1793. For Marat he cannot find epithets insulting enough.

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!

(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.)

Opposition between an ideal civilization and perverted ideals. In ancient Greece, Charlotte Corday would have been honored. "Mais la France à la hache abandonne ta tête." ("But in France your head is cut off by the ax.") Opposition, finally, between the slogan of the Revolution (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) - which was a mockery at the time - and Truth, which remains silent, Justice, which is rendered by sinister judges, and Virtue, in the sense of moral and courageous qualities.

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.

(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.)

Throughout the Ode to Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday there rings a tone of bitterness and, at times, shameful resignation. By using the pronoun nous, Chénier includes himself among those who stand by, impotent and cowardly, while injustice rewards crime.

A stronger tone of accusation appears in Iambe VI, which describes the drowning of prisoners at Nantes by the infamous Carrier and his acolytes. Chénier dwells on the contrast between these atrocities and the pleasure-filled life of the barbarians who get drunk on expensive wine and satisfy their lust with cheap women. Long before Victor Hugo and the Romantic poets, André Chénier defines the role of the poet as the conscience of the people. In Iambe V, referring to the bloodthirsty tyrants, he exclaims:

Ils vivent cependant et de tant de victimes
Les cris ne montent point vers toi.
C'est un pauvre poète, ô grand Dieu des armées,
Que seul, captif, près de la mort,
Attachant à ses vers des ailes enflammées
De ton tonnerre qui s'endort,
De la vertu proscrite embrassant la défense,
Dé'nonce aux juges infernaux
Ces juges, ces jurés qui frappent l'innocence,
Hécatombe à leurs tribunaux.
Eh bien, fais-moi donc vivre, et cette horde impure
Sentira quels traits sont les miens.
Ils ne sont point cachés dans leur bassess impure;
Je le vois, j'accours, je les tiens.

(Yet they live and their victims' throttled cries
Do not rise up to your exalted heights.
It is a poor poet, oh majestic god of the armies,
Who, alone, in prison, as death he fights,
Gluing to his verses the flaming wings
Of your thunder that no longer stings,
Of virtue exiled taking the defense,
Denounces to the judges of all hells
Those judges, those juries that strike innocence,
Creating a hecatomb at their tribunals.
Just let me stay alive, and that filthy breed
Will feel the power of my pen.
They cannot hide behind their dirty deed:
I see them, I rush in, I have them.)

Chénier reveals himself as a master of irony, worthy of Voltaire, in his Hymne aux Suisses de Chateauvieux. The Swiss mercenaries in the Chateauvieux regiment had revolted in August 1790. They held their officers for ransom, looted the funds of the regiment, and engaged in combat with the National Guard. Désille, a young officer, tried to avoid bloodshed and was killed by the Swiss. The rebels were tried: twenty-three were executed and forty-one sent to forced labor on the galleys. In December 1791 the galley prisoners were granted amnesty, and in February 1792 they were set free, whereupon they marched on Paris. The Jacobins felt they could turn the Swiss rebels to political advantage and, led by Collot d'Herbois, the painter David, and Chénier's brother Marie-Joseph, they arranged for a triumphal reception of the released prisoners. On that day, 15 April 1792, André Chénier wrote his "hymn". The unsuspecting reader may be misled by the opening.

Salut, divin Triomphe! entre dans nos murailles!
      Rends-nous ces guerriers illustrés
Par le sang de Désille, et par les fun7eacute;railles
      De tant de Français massacrés.
Jamais rien de si grand n'embellit ton entrée,
      Ni quand l'ombre de Mirabeau
S'achemina jadis vers la voûte sacrée
      Où la gloire donne un tombeau,
Ni quand Voltaire mort, et sa centre bannie
      Rentrèrent aux murs de Paris.
Vainqueurs du fanatisme et de la calomnie,
      Posternés devant ses écrits.

(Hail, divine Triumph! enter into our walls!
      Welcome back those warrious honored
For the blood shed of Désille and the funerals
      Of so many Frenchmen massacred.
Never before your gates saw anything so fine.
      Not even when the shade of Mirabeau
Of yore was carried to the sacred shrine.
      A tomb that only glory can bestow.
Nor when Voltaire's ashes, refused a calm retreat,
      To Paris came back for repose.
And fanaticism and calumny in full defeat.
      Prostrate lay before his prose.)

Only the unexpected references to Désille (unknown to all but contemporaries or specialized historians) and the massacred Frenchmen (not identified in any other way) introduce a sense of ambiguity into what otherwise sounds like a traditional hymn. But soon Chénier removes all ambiguity about the real meaning of his "song of praise". he begins with another oblique slap at the sight of civic leaders who - honored by La Rapée, a restaurant where the Jacobin chiefs were suspected of indulging in orgies -

De voir des échevins, que la Rapée honore,
      Asseoir sur un char radieux
Ces héros, que jadis sur les bancs des galères
      Assit un arrêt outrageant,
Et qui n'ont égorgé que très peu de nos frères,
      Et volé que très peu d'argent.

(Place on a radiant chariot
These heroes, who previously on a galley bench
      Were put by an outrageous sentence,
And who strangled but very few of our brothers
      And stole but little gold from others.)

In his conclusion Chénier rises to new heights of irony. COmparing the freed galley prisoners to illustrious conquerors of the sea, he chants:

Que la Nuit de leurs noms embelisse se voiles,
      Et que le nocher aux abois
Invoque en leur Galère, ornement des étoiles,
      Les Suisses de Collt-d'Herbois.

(Let Night emboss their names in its veil,
      And the Pilot, when he goes amiss,
Invoke in their Galley, as the stars they trail,
      Collot-d'Herbois' glorious Swiss.)

The word Nuit here has a double meaning: Night and Oblivion. And the final irony of transforming the former galley slaves into superseamen invoked by lost pilots constitutes a parting shot, not so much at the Swiss rebels as at those who had turned them into heroic martyrs.

In prison, Chénier matures. He opens his heart to the sufferings of others. His most famous ode, La Jeune Captive, celebrates a young woman who actually was not so pure as he imagined and whose life was spared. The historical person matters less here than the sentiment.

In his last Iambes, the modern reader is struck by an existential note that anticipates by some 150 years Jean-Paul Sartre's mort sans sépulture. The horror of mass butchery pervades Iambe VII:

Quand au mouton bêlant la sombre boucherie
      Ouvre ses cavernes de mort,
Pâtres, cheins et moutons, toute la bergerie
      Ne s'informe plus son sort...

(When the somber slaughterhouse lets the bleating sheep
      Into its dark and deadly gate,
Shepherds, dogs, and sheep, all of them keep
      Their thoughts on any but their fate...)

And Iambe VIII:

      ...Quelle sera la proie
      Que la hache appelle aujourd'hui?
Chacun frissonne, écoute; et chacun avec joie
      Voit que ce n'est pas encor lui:
Ce sera toi demain, insensible imbécile.

      (...Who will be the prey
      On whom the ax will fall today?
Everybody shivers, listens, and is relieved to see
      That the one called out is not yet he.
It will be you tomorrow, unfeeling fool.)

Chénier's last Iambe [IX] sums up his themes: a tenderness toward life, the defense of virtue, justice, and truth, the poet's role as witness of his times and of history, and a last shout of defiance.

Comme un dernier rayon, comme un dernier zéphyre
      Animent la fin d'un beau jour,
Au pied de l'échaufaud j'essaye encor ma lyre.
      Peut-être est-ce bientôt mon tour.
                         . . . . .
      Ma vie importe à la vertu.
Car l'honnête homme enfin, victime de l'outrage,
      Dans les cachots, près du cercueil,
Relève plus altier son front et son langage.

(Like a last ray of light, like a last summer breeze
      Color the end of a beautiful day,
At the foot of the gallows once more my lyre I seize.
      Perhaps I'll soon be on my way.
                         . . . . .
      My life is Virtue's concern.
A decent man, whom outrage has fed,
      In prison, awaiting his turn,
Lifts higher his speech and higher his head.)

Addressing Justice and Truth, he cries out:

      Sauvez-moi. Conservez un bras
Qui lance votre foudre, un amant qui vous venge.
                         . . . . .
O ma plume! fiel, bile, horreur, Dieu de ma vie!
      Par vous seuls je respire encor:
                         . . . . .
Nul ne resterait donc pour attendrir l'histoire
      Sur tant de justes massacrés?
Pour consoler leurs fils, leurs veuves, leur mémoire,
Pour que des brigands abhorrés
Frémissent aux portraits noirs de leur ressemblance,
      Pour descendre jusqu'aux enfers
Nouer le triple fouet, le fouet de la vengeance
      Déjà levé sur ces pervers?
Pour cracher sur leurs noms, pour chanter leur supplice?
      Allons, étouffe tes clameurs;
Souffre, ô coeur gros de haine, affamé de justice.
      Toi, Vertu, pleure si je meurs.

(Save me. Preserve an arm
To hurl your thunderbolts, a lover to avenge you.
                         . . . . .
Oh my pen! poison, gall, horror, God of my life,
      Through you alone I carry on my strife.
                         . . . . .
No one would remain and move history to record
      About so many just people massacred?
To console their memory, their widows, their sons,
      So that abhorrent highway brigands
Will tremble at their black portraits in paint?
      To descend into hell, like a saint,
To tie the trifold whip, by vengeance praised,
      Already on those perverts raised?
To spit on their names, to see their sentence carved?
      Come now, stifle your cry;
Suffer, heart full of hate, for justice starved.
      And you, Virtue, weep if I die.)

André Chénier did not write a fictional account of his sufferings nor did he sublimate them poetically. Drawn into the whirl of a mad world, he had not time to gain the necessary distance that fiction requires. And so he cast anathema at injustice, atrocity, and horror. His militant poetry does not always possess the high art that pervades his lyric poems, but his genius was such that his cries of anger, of frustration, and of vengeance created a new poetry in France, one that inspired Victor Hugo's Les Châtiments and the defiant chants of the poets of the Resistance during the Second World War.

It has been said that, in its upheavals, Spain kicked its own brains out. The French Revolution went it one better: it cut off the head of its greatest poet and left an indelible stain on a record that already had been far from clean.

- Leo Weinstein, The Subversive Tradition in French Literature,
Volume I: 1721-1870
(Boston: Twayne Publishers [G.K. Hall & Co.], 1989)

This little mishap proves that in revolutionary times it is quite as dangerous to employ honest men as scoundrels; we should rely on ourselves alone. Descoings perished; but he had the glory of going to the scaffold with André Chénier. There, no doubt, grocery and poetry embraced for the first time in the flesh; although they have, and ever have had, intimate secret relations. The death of Descoings produced far more sensation than that of André Chénier. It has taken thirty years to prove to France that she lost more by the death of Chénier than by that of Descoings.

(from Honoré de Balzac, "Two Brothers")

+ | + | +
"Lucien," said David, "do you know what I have just received from Paris?" He drew a tiny volume from his pocket. "Listen!"

And David read, as a poet can read, first André de Chénier's Idyll Neerc, then Le Malade, following on with the Elegy on a Suicide, another elegy in the classic taste, and the last two Iambes.

"So that is André de Chénier!" Lucien exclaimed again and again. "It fills one with despair!" he cried for the third time, when David surrendered the book to him, unable to read further for emotion. - "A poet rediscovered by a poet!" said Lucien, reading the signature of the preface.

"After Chénier had written those poems, he thought that he had written nothing worth publishing," added David.

(from Honoré de Balzac, Lost Illusions, "The Two Poets")

André Chénier on the Web

André Chénier Home Page
Poésies choisies de André Chénier
Ouvres de André Chénier
André Chénier 1762-1794
The Prose Writings of Andre Chenier
Umberto Giordano's opera, Andrea Chénier (OperaGlass)
Andrea Chenier
Titta Ruffo singing "Nemico della patria"

Charles Muller: Call for the Last Victims of the Terror

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

...."Agreed, I tell you. It has already been put into verse. This is the ending of the elegy of the 'Jeune Malade' by André Chénier, by André Chénier whose throat was cut by the the giants of '93."

M. Gillenormand fancied that he detected a faint frown on the part of Marius, who, in truth, as we must admit, was no longer listening to him, and who was thinking far more of Cosette than of 1793.

The grandfather, trembling at having so inopportunely introduced André Chénier, resumed precipitately:

"Cut his throat is not the word. The fact is that the great revolutionary geniuses, who were not malicious, that is incontestable, who were heroes, pardi! found that André Chénier embarrassed them somewhat, and they had him guillot...that is to say, those great men on the 7th of Thermidor, besought André Chénier, in the interests of public safety, to be so good as to go..."

M. Gillenormand, clutched by the throat by his own phrase, could not proceed. Being able neither to finish it nor to retract it, while his daughter arranged the pillow behind Marius, who was overwhelmed with so many emotions, the old man rushed headlong, with as much rapidity as his age permitted, from the bed-chamber, shut the door behind him, and, purple, choking and foaming at the mouth, his eyes starting from his head, he found himself nose to nose with honest Basque, who was blacking boots in the anteroom. He seized Basque by the collar, and shouted full in his face in fury: - "By the hundred thousand Javottes of the devil, those ruffians did assassinate him!"

"Who, sir?"

"André Chénier!"

"Yes, sir," said Basque in alarm.

(from Victor Hugo, Les Misérables Book V, Chapter 3)