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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
André Chénier (1762–1794)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Katharine Hillard (1839/40–1915)
 
THERE are some reputations which seem to depend upon their environment. Certain names are surrounded by a halo of romance, through which all outlines are enlarged and heightened in effect until it becomes difficult to discern their true proportions through the golden mist. When we think of André Chénier we see a youthful figure among a crowd of fellow-prisoners, the light of genius in his eyes, the dark shadow of impending death already enveloping him and climbing slowly upwards, as the mist of the Highland second-sight rises higher as death draws near. The pathetic character of his fate touches the heart, and disposes us to judge the poems he wrote with that bias of personal interest which is so apt to warp the verdict of the critical mind. Had André Chénier died comfortably in his bed at a good old age, would Sainte-Beuve have been so apt to call him “our greatest classic poet since Racine and Boileau”? unless indeed he had vainly racked his memory to think of any other.  1
  André-Marie de Chénier—as he was called until 1790 swept away all ornamental particles—was born amid picturesque surroundings at Constantinople, October 30th, 1762, where his father then held the office of Consul-General. He had married a young Greek girl, a Mademoiselle Santi-l’Homaka, whose family came originally from the island of Cyprus. A Languedocian father, a Cyprian mother, an Oriental birthplace,—it was no wonder that the passionate fire of his blood flamed somewhat too hotly through his verse. André was the third of four sons, and four daughters were also born to M. de Chénier. In 1765, when he was but three years old, his father returned to France; but two years afterwards left his native country again to fill a diplomatic position in Morocco, while his wife remained in Paris with their children.  2
  André seems to have always looked back with pleasure to his Eastern birthplace, and long cherished the hope of revisiting it, but he never got farther on the way than Italy. Madame de Chénier, who was a refined and cultivated woman with much taste for art and literature, gave him his first lessons; but he was soon sent with his brothers to the College of Navarre. There he made many friendships that lasted to the end of his short life, and his schoolfellows, some of whom belonged to noble and wealthy families, often took him to spend his holidays at their country-houses.  3
  At the age of sixteen he carried off a first prize in rhetoric; and from that time began his apprenticeship to the trade of the Muses, as Ronsard would say, by writing translations of Greek and Latin verse. He does not seem to have been particularly precocious as a poet, and his imitations of Sappho were even then considered rather feeble. His mother’s salon was thronged with artists, poets, writers, and men of the world, among whom André might have found many indulgent listeners, were it not that his reserve and fastidious taste made him rather chary of exhibiting his youthful efforts. His mind was already full of ambitious projects for future epics, and his leisure was spent very much as his classic models had spent theirs, in light and facile pleasures and loves.  4
  M. de Chénier, who watched over his family from afar, was ambitious for the future of his sons; Constantine, the eldest, was already in the diplomatic service; the other three were destined for the army. André joined his regiment when he was twenty, and went to Strasbourg to learn his new duties; but the life of a soldier was not congenial to him, and although he made one or two dear friends in the garrison, the six months that he spent there seemed interminable, and he returned to Paris to resume his life of elegant dissipation among his rich and titled acquaintances. But his health began to give way, and the hope of relief from a change of climate induced him to join his old friends, the brothers Louis and Charles Trudaine, in a journey they projected through Switzerland and Italy to Constantinople. The three friends started together in the summer of 1784, passed through Switzerland, and spent the autumn and winter in Italy; but although they remained away a year, they never got any further.  5
  This journey and its experiences did much to educate and enrich the mind of André, and he continued to devote much time to study and poetic composition to the elaboration of vast schemes for dramas and epics, and to the imitation of the Greek and Latin poets he loved and copied so well. He wished to enlarge the province of the idyl, and to give to it more variety than even Theocritus had succeeded in doing; to make it more dramatic, less rustic, and in short if we may judge from the assertions of his countrymen, a more perfect picture of that elegant and aristocratic world in which he moved. The idyls of André Chénier are to poetry very much what the pictures of Watteau and Boucher are to painting. The variety he wished so much to impart to them is after all confined to the grouping of the figures, and their greatest beauty is the classic elegance of their style; as one of his French biographers says, “The style of these poems makes up for what the sentiment lacks of ideality, and lends a sort of purity to details which from any other pen would have run great risk of coarseness.” Sainte-Beuve speaks of “his boxwood flute, his ivory lute”; but all this beauty of diction, this smoothness and grace of verse, can hardly blind the unprejudiced critic to the fact that “a sort of purity” will hardly make up for his too frequent choice of subjects that appeal only to the grossest tastes. His highest ideals, like those of most poets, were never reached. He had lofty visions of writing a poem called ‘Hermes,’ which should be an exposition of natural and social laws, principles, and progress; a system of philosophy in heroic couplets, beginning with the birth of humanity and its first questioning of natural phenomena, its first efforts to solve the problems of the universe, and coming down to the latest discoveries of physical and political science. He never succeeded in completing the preliminary studies necessary to the carrying out of this vast conception, and the ‘Hermes’ remains a mass of incoherent fragments.  6
  André de Chénier had not the robust common-sense that underlay all the poetic eccentricities of the poet whom in many ways he so much resembled,—Alfred de Musset. The latter knew and recognized his limitations. “My glass is not large, but I drink from my own glass,” he said, and what he did attempt was well within his possibilities and was exquisitely done. Not so with Chénier. With a genius like that of de Musset, pre-eminently lyrical, but with infinitely less variety and richness, he laboriously accumulated vast piles of materials for dramas and for epics that if ever completed must have but added another page to the list of literary soporifics. He made a colossal sketch of another poem, to be called ‘America,’—a sort of geographical and historical encyclopædia, M. Joubert calls it, whose enormous mass of detail could scarcely be floated by any one current of interest, but whose principal motive seemed meant to be the conquest of Peru.  7
  In the midst of these enterprises he suddenly conceived what one of his biographers calls “the amiable intention” of writing a poem on the story of ‘Susannah and the Elders,’ but only completed a prose sketch with two or three short passages in verse. He also began one or two tragedies which were to be after Æschylus, a comedy called ‘The Charlatans,’ poems on the literary life, and many other subjects; and at the same time he was keeping up his relations with many of his distinguished contemporaries;—the Polish poet Niemcewicz; Mrs. Cosway, the charming young wife of the well-known English painter, and an artist herself; the Italian poet Alfieri; and the Countess of Albany.  8
  In 1787 his father, who had returned to Paris, was anxious that André should begin his diplomatic career; and he was appointed attaché to M. de la Luzerne, just sent as ambassador to England. The poet went to London in December,—a most unpropitious season,—and naturally nothing pleased him there; he found the climate detestable, the manners of the English rude and cold, their literature of a barbaric richness, and in fact he approved of nothing in England but its Constitution, which he thought not only good but worthy of imitation.  9
  He had been in London about sixteen months when the first rumors of the French Revolution reached him and turned all his thoughts towards the great political questions of the moment. The project of a rule of liberty and justice for France appealed to the noblest side of his nature; and while passionately opposed to all excess and violence, he was eager to assist any movement that promised to help the people.  10
  With his friends the brothers Trudaine, he joined the Society of ’89, when it was a center for varying shades of opinion, reconciled by a common love of liberty and hatred of anarchy. He returned to Paris definitely in the summer of 1790, and wrote independent and impassioned articles in the Journal of the Society of 1789, warning the people against their real enemies, the fomenters of anarchy, while he expressed much the same ideas in one of the most celebrated of his poems, the ode to David’s picture called ‘Le Jeu de Paume,’ representing the deputies taking their famous oath in the Hall of the Jeu de Paume at Versailles. Lacretelle, in his reminiscences published half a century later, spoke of André Chénier as a fellow-member of the club called Friends of the Constitution, as a man of great talent and great force of character:—“The most decided and the most eloquently expressed opinions always came from him. His strongly marked features, his athletic though not lofty stature, his dark complexion, his glowing eyes, enforced and illuminated his words. Demosthenes as well as Pindar had been the object of his study.”  11
  But moderate opinions and a horror of the excesses of the Revolution were very unsafe things to hold. Although André took refuge in 1793 in a quiet little house at Versailles, he could not stay there altogether, but made frequent visits to Paris; and an unfortunate chance caused his arrest at the house of M. Pastoret at Passy, where he was accused of having gone to warn his friend of his own danger. Chénier was first taken to the prison of the Luxembourg, which was too full to receive him, and then to St. Lazare, where he was registered on the 8th of March, 1794.  12
  Apart from the suspicion which caused his arrest, he could hardly have escaped much longer; his fellow editor of the Journal de Paris had already been in St. Lazare for several months, and his friends the Trudaines joined him there before long. M. de Chénier exerted all his influence to procure his son’s liberation, but was put off with promises and polite evasions; and not long after, his second son, Sauveur, was imprisoned in the Conciergerie.  13
  By this time there were nearly eight thousand persons in the prisons of Paris; about eight hundred in St. Lazare, where Chénier found many of his friends, and among the ladies there the beautiful and charming young Duchess of Fleury. It was she who inspired the poet with the idea of his poem called ‘The Young Captive,’ perhaps the most beautiful, as it is the most touching, of all his poems.  14
  Shortly before Chénier was arrested he had formed a close friendship with Madame Pourrat of Luciennes and her two daughters, the Countess Hocquart and Madame Laurent Lecoulteux. To the latter, under the name of Fanny, he addressed many charming verses; one ode in particular, that seems to have been intended to accompany the gift of a necklace, is almost worthy of Ronsard, although like many of Chénier’s poems it was never finished.  15
  His last poems were written in a very fine hand on some narrow strips of paper that had escaped the vigilance of his jailers, and were smuggled out of prison with the linen that went to the wash.  16
  On the flimsy pretext of a conspiracy among the prisoners, André Chénier, then only thirty-one, was condemned with twenty-five others as “an enemy of the people, and for having shared in all the crimes perpetrated by the tyrant, his wife, and his family; of writing against liberty and in favor of tyranny; of corresponding with enemies of the republic abroad and at home; and finally of conspiring, in the prison of St. Lazare, to murder the members of the committees of general safety, etc., and to re-establish royalty in France.”  17
  The twenty-five victims went through the mockery of their trial in the morning of the 25th of July, 1794, and at six the same evening were executed at the Barrière de Vincennes. Three days afterward, Robespierre and many of his accomplices perished upon the scaffold, and the Reign of Terror was at an end.  18
  Very little of André Chénier’s poetry was left in a state fit for publication; he began so many vast enterprises of which he left but the merest fragments, and he wrote so much that his literary executors feared would shock the public taste. His brother published ‘The Young Captive’ and one or two other poems some seven years after his death, which were quoted by Chateaubriand in 1802 and warmly admired by him. The first complete edition of his poems did not appear till 1819, a year before Lamartine’s ‘Meditations’ came out, and three years before Victor Hugo’s first collection was printed. He was not considered a great poet by his first readers, and he would be almost a forgotten one now, were it not for the romance of his short life and his early death. He was the precursor of Byron and de Musset, having the ardent love of liberty of the former and the sensuous grace of the latter; but he lacked the strength for a sustained flight, and he did not know the measure of his powers. He had saturated himself too completely with the honey of Greek verse, and was prisoned in its cloying sweetness. When he would soar into the empyrean, his wings were clogged, and he soon fell back again among the flowers. But he will always be a notable figure in French literature, although we may not consider him, with his French admirers, as one of the masters among the poets of our own time.  19
 
 
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