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Charles Péguy (1873-1914)  Pseudonyms: Charles Pierre Baudouin, Pierre Deloire

 

French poet, essayist and philosopher, who first turned to socialism and abandoned Roman Catholicism, then "found faith again," becoming an advocate of anti-materialistic and nationalistic values. Péguy's last important work was the seven thousand six hundred forty-four lines long poem Ève (1913), a prayer-like vision of Christian history. Driven by patriotic fervour and a sense of heroic duty, Péguy joined the French Army at the outbreak of World War I, and fell in the Battle of Marne in 1914.

"Étoile de la mer voici lourde nappe
Et la profonde houle et l'océan des blés
Et la mouvante écume et nos greniers comblés
Voici votre regard sur sette immense chape"

(from 'Présentation de la Beauce à Notre-Dame de Chartres',
in La Tapisserie de Notre-Dame, 1913)

Charles Péguy was born in Orléans into a family of peasant craftsmen. His father, Désiré Péguy, was a cabinet maker, who died in 1874 as a result of wounds received during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. Cécile, Péguy's mother, returned to her work as chairseart-maker, to support her family. Basically Péguy's mother and grandmother, who lived with them, were both illiterate.

A brilliant student from a modest background, Péguy won a series of sholarships. After passing his baccalauréat in 1891, he entered the Lycée Lakanal, Sceaux, and then did his military service in 1892-93. Péguy continued his studies in Paris at the Collège de Sainte-Barbe. In 1894 he was admitted to the exclusive Ecole Normale Supérieure on his third attempt. The next year he returned to Orleans to learn typography and to work on his first play, Jeanne d'Arc. Péguy failed in 1898 his final agrégation and gave up his plans for a teaching career.

In 1895 Péguy joined the Socialist Party. From 1896 he was a contributor to the Revue Socialiste, where he published two utopian essays, and from 1899 the Revue Blanche. Marcel, premier dialogue de la Cité harmonieuse (1898), Péguy's first prose work, was  inspired by his school friend Marcel Baudouin, who had died in 1896. The next year he married Marcel's sister, Charlotte-Françoise Baudoin; they had one daughter and three sons, one of whom was born after Péguy's death.

Following the publication of Emile Zola's pamphlet 'J'Accuse!' (1898), Péguy summoned other socialists to support Zola during the Dreyfus affaire. Pégyu argued that, so long as Dreyfus remained condemned unjustly, France was "living in a state of mortal sin." From 1903 onwards, Péguy started to distance himself from the dreyfusards, partly because he believed that the campaign had become a conspiracy against the Church. "Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics," he once said.

In 1898 Péguy invested his wife's dowry and other funds into founding a socialist bookshop in the Latin Quartier. After a year it was turned into a cooperative to avoid bankruptcy. Péguy broke with the cooperative, now named Société Nouvelle de librairie et d'édition, when he learned, that it would not print his writings without any interference.

After turning his back to the Société, Péguy founded in 1900 the bimonthly review Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, in which he could exercise his freedom of speech. Nearly all of his writings, except certain poems, first appeared in the review. Basically it served as Péguy's tool for social and moral reform, but also introduced a number of important new authors. The contributors included such prominent writers, journalists, and politicians like Anatole France, Romain Rolland, the social philosopher Georges Sorel, and the socialist leader Jean Juarès. Miraculously, the Cahiers survived for 229 issues without advertising, although it rarely had more than 1000 subscribers. After he printed De la situation faite à l'Histoire dans le monde moderne in the Cahiers in the summer of 1907, Péguy wrote almost nothing for roughly two years. As a poet Péguy started late in life, six years before his death.

Never a full-blooded Marxist, Péguy was an socialist idealist, who believed that extreme collectivism or "anarchistic communism" will eventually lead to the freedom of the human spirit. Henri Bergson (1859-1941), whose lectures he attended with Jacques Maritain, and defended him later against Maritain in Note sur M. Bergson et la philosophie bergsonienne (1914), was for Péguy the most important philosopher. Especially Bergson's concepts of memory and time influenced his thought. For his disappointment, Bergson did not write the introduction to his Œuvres choisies 1900-1910, which came out in 1911.

Throughout his career, the figure of Joan of Arc provided Péguy a constant spiritual and patriotic guide. Madame Gervaise, a Franciscan Nun who  teachers the young Joan of Arc, was the only protagonist in Le Porche du Mystère de la deuxième vertu (1911, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope). He created the character in his initial version of Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d'Arc (1910, The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc).  

Péguy's first book on the peasant-soldier-saint was Jeanne d'Arc (1897), dedicated to "those who have lived ... and who have died for the coming of the Universal Socialist Republic." The three-part play was some 800 pages long. Only one or two copies were sold. After conversion he found poetry, and adopting it as a way to express his faith, Péguy reworked the play into The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, a mixture prose and free verse. About that time Pégyu fell in love with a young Jewish woman, Blanche Raphael. He remained faithful to his wife, but in his emotional agony, he even contemplated suicide. The pain of his love for Blanche he expressed in Ballade de la peine, the first part of La Ballade du coeur, which was not published until 1941; a complete version came out in 1975.

Péguy, who was not a practicing Catholic, did not have his children baptized, which Charlotte-Françoise, an atheist, fully accepted. However, when his son Pierre Marcel became seriously ill, Péguy made in June 1912 his first pilgrimage to the cathedral of Chartres. Alain Fournier (1886-1914), the writer of the lyrical novel Le Grand Meaulnes, followed him part of the way. By this action, the custom of making a journey on foot to Chartres was revived once again. His second pilgrimage Péguy made in July 1913.

Péguy's mystic nationalism and religious conversion (the "leap of faith" into the unknown, as Kierkegaard would have said) alienated many of his socialist friends, Sorel included. Among his new acquaintances was the son of a former president of France, Claude Casimir-Périer, and his wife Simone.

In Un noveau théologien M. Fernand Laudet (1911) Péguy declared that Jesus "is essentially the God of the poor, of the suffering, of the workers, and therefore of those who no longer have a public life." But instead of basing his revolutionary hopes on the urban proletariat, Péguy idealized the values of the peasants. "Faith is a great tree, an oak tree rooted deep in the heart of France," Péguy wrote in Le mystère des Saints Innocents (1912, The Mystery of the Holy Innocents). Adopting the role of a prophet, Péguy's advocated spiritual and cultural values of the old France, which he believed were threatened by materialism, positivism, and right-thinking Catholics. His poems took on a slow, repetitive rhythm of a holy procession or gently waving cornfields, affirming the author's belief in the sacred unity between faith, blood, and soil. "The arms of Jesus are the Cross of Lorraine / Both the blood in the artery and the blood in the vein, / Both the source of grace and the clear fountain" (from La Tapisserie de Sainte Geneviève, 1912). Noteworthy, during World War II the Cross of Lorraine was used as the symbol of the forces of Free France. Both the Resistance and the Vichy government cited Péguy's patriotic writings.

Starting from Notre patrie (1905), Péguy spoke of the coming of the European conflict, but especially he warned France of the German military menace. In Ève he wrote: "Happy are those who die for the carnal earth / but only if it be for a just war." After the outbreak of WW I, he bid farewell to his friends, and went into war as if attending a holy rite. Péguy was killed in the first battle of the Marne on September 5, 1914, near Villeroy, when leading his company as a lieutenant. He got shot right through his head. According to some sources, his last words were, "For God’s sake, push ahead!"

Péguy was a creation of his time in many respects. As the author of one-liners, he is still often quoted. ("Tyranny is always better organized than freedom.") In the English-speaking world, his name is still relatively unknown, although there are translations and studies of his work. In 1943-44 Ann and Julien Green published first time in English collected fragments of Péguy's writings, and in 1984 the British poet Geoffrey Hill devoted to him the poem The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. A polemic social thinker and independent religious writer, Péguy's legacy has been ideologically contradictory. It has been even suggested, that Péguy -- an active opponent of anti-Semitism - can be counted among the "fathers" of French literary fascism. Péguy's French critics have concluded, that he "is a unique man of letters, and unclassifiable writer," and that his genius is "to force admiration in his very faults."

For further reading: Charles Péguy et ses Cahiers by François Porché (1914); Péguy: soldat de la vérité by R. Secretain (1944); Péguy by Romain Rolland (1944); Charles Péguy: The Pursuit of Salvation by Yvonne Servais (1953); Connaissance de Péguy by Jean Delaporte (1955); Péguy by Alexander Dru (1957); Péguy, l'homme et l'œuvre by B. Guyon (1960); Charles Péguy: A Study in Integrity by Marjorie Villiers (1965); Charles Péguy: The Decline of an Idealist by Hans A. Schmitt (1967); La Ballade du cœur by J. Sabiani (1973); Péguy l'inchrétien by Jean Bastaire (1991); Charles Péguy, biographie by Marc Tardieu (1993); Charles Péguy, la révolution et la grâce by Robert Burac (1994). - Suomennoksia: 'Viatomien lasten mysteerio,' suom. Saima  Harmaja, teoksessa Ranskan kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja, toim. Anna-Maria Tallgren (1934); Chartres'n tie, suomentanut Anna-Maija Raittila, toimittanut Osmo Pekonen (2003).

Selected works:

  • Jeanne d'Arc, 1897
  • De la cité socialiste, 1897
  • Marcel, premier dialogue de la Cité harmonieuse, 1898
  • L'Argent, 1901
  • De Jean Coste, 1902
  • Zangwill, 1904
  • Notre Patrie, 1905
  • Situation, 1906-07
  • Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d'Arc, 1910
    - The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc (translators: Julian Green, 1950; Jeffrey Wainwright, 1986)
  • Notre Jeunesse, 1910 (Memories of Youth)
  • Le Porche du Mystère de la deuxième vertu, 1911
    - The Portal of the Mystery of Hope (translated by David Louis Schindler, Jr., 1996)
  • Un Nouveau théologien M. Fernand Laudet, 1911
  • Victor-Marie, comte Hugo, 1911
  • Œuvres choisies 1900-1910, 1911
  • Le Mystère des saints Innocents, 1912
    - The Mystery of the Holy Innocents, and Other Poems (translated by Pansy Pakenham, with an introd. by Alexander Dru, 1956)
  • La Tapisserie de Sainte Geneviève et de Jeanne d'Arc, 1912
  • La Tapisserie de Notre-Dame, 1913
  • L'argent suite, 1913
  • Ève, 1913
  • Note sur M. Bergson et la philosophie bergsonienne, 1914
  • Note conjointe sur M. Bergson et M. Descartes, 1914
  • Cahiers de la Quinzaine, 1900-1914 (15 vols.)
  • Œuvres complètes de Charles Pe´guy, 1873-1914, 1916
  • Clio, dialogue de l'histoire et de l'âme païenne, 1917
  • Lettres et entretiens, 1927
  • Morceaux choisis, poésie, avec un portrait de l’auteur par Pierre Laurens, 1927
  • Ébauche d'une étude sur Alfred de Vigny, suivi de L'épreuve, 1931
  • Prières, 1934
  • Note sur m. Bergson et la philosophie bergsonienne, 1935
  • Trois fragments: Notre jeunesse; Victor Marie, comte Hugo; Le mystère des saints innocents, 1940
  • Œuvres poétiques complètes, 1941
  • Charles Péguy dans ses plus beaux textes, 1942
  • Pensées, 1942 (introduction by Cardinal Verdier)
  • Basic Verities: Prose and Poetry, 1943 (translated by Ann and Julien Green)
  • Textes Politiques, 1940-44
  • God Speaks; Religious Poetry, 1945 (translated by Julien Green)
  • La route de Charles, 1946
  • La république, 1946
  • Du rôle de la volonté dans la croyance, 1947
  • Men and Saints: Prose and Poetry, 1947 (translated by Ann and Julien Green)
  • Lettres à André Bourgeois, 1950
  • Œuvres completès, 1916-1955 (20 vols.)
  • Véronique: Dialogue de l'histoire et de l'âme charnelle, 1955
    - Clio I (in Temporal and Eternal, translated by Alexander Dru, 1958)
  • Deuxième élégie XXX, 1955
    - Temporal and Eternal (translated by Alexander Dru, foreward by Pierre Manent, 2001)
  • Notes politiques et sociales, 1957
  • Œuvres en prose, 1909-1914, 1957
  • Œuvres en prose, 1957-59 (2 vols., ed. by Marcel Péguy)
  • Temporal and Eternal, 1958 (translated by Alexander Dru)
  • Correspondance [de] Charles Péguy [et] André Sunarès, 1961 (edited by Alfred Saffrey)
  • Péguy et Émile Moselly, 1966 (introduction by Alfred Saffrey)
  • Œuvres poétiques complètes, 1967 (introduction by Franc¸ois Porché)
  • Alain-Fournier, Charles Péguy, Correspondence 1910-1914, 1973
  • Pour l'Honneur de l'esprit, 1973
  • Œuvres complètes, 1974 (10 vols., ed. by Jean Bastaire)
  • La Ballade du cœur: poème inédit, 1975
  • Correspondance: 1905-1914 / Pierre Marcel, Charles Péguy, 1980 (edited by Julie Sabiani)
  • Œuvres en prose complètes, 1987-92 (3 vols., ed. by Robert Burac)
  • Correspondance: paysages d’une amitié / Charles Péguy, Alain Fournier, 1990 (edited by Yves Rey-Herme)  
  • De Jean Coste: essai, 1993 (edited by Benoît Denis)

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