Study Guide

René Char

René Char Essay - Char, René

Char, René

Introduction

René Char 1907-1988

(Full name: René-Emile Char) French poet, essayist, and philosopher.

The following entry presents criticism of Char's poetry from 1948 through 2001.

In his poetry, Char emphasized hope in the face of struggle, rejected compromise, and acknowledged desire as the center of inspiration. Char offered an influential and dominant literary voice during the post-World War II era. Although he was by no means a regional poet, Char's native region of Provence provided the backdrop for many of his literary treatments of the universal conflicts of good versus injustice and resistance in the face of oppression.

Biographical Information

Char was born in the town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on June 14, 1907. His father, a businessman and the local mayor, died when Char was only ten years old. This pivotal event is seen as an influence on his work by many critics, not as the subject of poems, but as a contributing factor to the sense of dispossession and solitude that these critics find as an underlying theme in much of Char's poetry. Although he was well-schooled, Char did not complete his secondary studies with the baccalaureat but chose instead to attend business school in 1925. He fulfilled his military obligation with an artillery unit from 1927 to 1928. During this time he published his first small collection of poems, Les Cloches sur le coeur (1928; “Bells on the Heart”). This was the only work published under his given name, René-Emile Char.

In 1929 Char published a second volume of poetry, Arsenal, and shortly thereafter, he moved to Paris to join the Surrealist literary movement. One of his significant contributions to Surrealist poetry was the volume Ralentir travaux (1930; Slow Under Construction) which was written collectively with prominent French Surrealist writers Paul Éluard and André Breton. Through the early 1930s Char remained closely affiliated with Surrealism, publishing poems in Surrealist reviews and participating in political protests. He also established ties with numerous avant-garde painters of the day, Surrealist and otherwise, establishing foundations for his later collaborations and poetic writings on art.

By 1935, Char was no longer a public participant in the political activities of the Surrealists, though he remained friends with Eluard and others. He had married in 1932, and by mid-decade he returned to his hometown to take over the business affairs of his father's former company. Serious illness caused him to resign in 1937 and he moved to the village of Céreste to recover. Some years later, during World War II, Char would return to this place to form a resistance unit in the fight against Nazism. The last major collection of Char's poetry to appear before the outbreak of World War II was Dehors la nuit est gouvernée (“Outside the Night is Governed”), which was published in May 1938. Although it was not overtly political, the work foreshadowed the darkness that was about to affect all of Europe under Hitler's influence.

Once France entered the war, Char set literary aspirations aside in favor of political and military commitment. He first served his country in a heavy artillery regiment, and later, after the occupation by Germany and the installation of the French Vichy authority, he went underground and became an active participant in the French Resistance movement. He did not publish works during the occupation but he did continue to write. One of his major works of the wartime years was Feuillets d'Hypnos (Leaves of Hypnos), a poetic journal of the war. Written between 1941 and 1944 and published in 1946, this volume established Char as an authentic resistance writer who had, to a greater extent than many of his literary peers, risked his life to stand up to Nazi and Vichy oppression.

During the post war years of 1950 to 1962, Char's reputation as an influential literary figure expanded, and he enjoyed the respect of fellow artists, musicians, and writers, which resulted in collaborative and cooperative works featuring art and music. In the 1960s, Char turned his political energy toward the issue of nuclear missile silos in France and continued to collaborate on creative works for small presses and artistic printers. In 1971 he published Le Nu perdu (“Nakedness Lost”), for which he assembled poems written since 1964. Although this was his last large compendium of works, Char continued to write and publish steadily throughout the mid-1980s, pursuing projects that fed his desire to support creativity as a form of intellectual resistance against the many inhumane and oppressive aspects of the modern age. Char's final volume of original verse was published posthumously, having been submitted to the publisher several months before his death on February 19, 1988.

Major Works

Char wrote and published prolifically from 1928 until just before his death in 1988. Throughout his long career, first in association with the Surrealist movement and later as an active participant in the French Resistance, and still later as a supporter and proponent of artistic expression in the face of economic oppression, Char consistently addressed universal themes such as justice versus injustice and resistance as a moral imperative. When circumstances required, civic action took the place of literary endeavor. From his early works throughout the final volumes of new work that were published after his death, Char embraced the notion that art, literature, and music are reciprocally linked as necessary expressions of resistance—necessary to preserve the humanity of individuals and the morality of society.

Among Char's vast output, three volumes are considered particularly significant. These works raised Char's profile as a vital force in French intellectual and creative circles. The first of these is his war journal, Leaves of Hypnos, which was written during his years of active service on behalf of the French Resistance and published soon after the war's end. Even more influential to his literary career was Fureur et mystère (1948; “Furor and Mystery”), a collection of poetry that offers readers a poetic roadmap of the journey from a prewar sense of impending disaster in the 1930s through the rigors of occupation and resistance in the early 1940s, to the return of life-giving creativity after the destruction of war. Finally, Char's Les Matinaux, published in 1950 (translated to English in 1992 as The Dawn Breakers), confirmed Char's position among the elite of postwar French poets. While Fureur et mystère focuses on the contrasts between love and war and resistance and oppression, The Dawn Breakers decisively depicts the return to peace.

While Char's next large collection, La Parole en archipel (“The Word as Archipelago”), appeared in 1962, the previous years had also seen the publication of numerous smaller volumes; among them was the critically noted La Bibliothèque est en feu (1956). The works of the 1950s and 1960s display Char's use of verbal landscape and his employment of specific geographic settings, particularly his home region of France, to symbolize universal experience. In 1971, Char published Le Nu perdu which was his last major compendium of work, though it was by no means his final volume of new poetry. Even with the 1983 publication of Char's Oeuvres complètes, his writing days were not yet over. In 1985, Char's penultimate collection, Les Voisinages de Van Gogh (“In Van Gogh's Territory”), appeared. Two years later, only months before his death, he submitted another volume of new works to his publisher, but he did not live to see it in print. Although Char's posthumous collection, Eloge d'une Soupçonnée (1988), is brief—containing only thirteen poems—it is considered by critics to be one of the significant works of his career, for it offers a capstone to the poet's life and work. Throughout his life, Char preferred to maintain a separation between his personal life and his professional work, and thus did not welcome or indulge queries about his life. However, observers note that the opening poem of this final collection, “Riche de larmes,” reveals that Char saw his career as a lifelong devotion to poetry.

Critical Reception

Char earned the respect of critics and fellow literary artists throughout his career. Following the poet's death in 1988, Mark Hutchinson wrote that “Char's vision … is at once aristocratic … democratic … and egalitarian.” He further noted that Char was “that rare thing in a country as intellectually sectarian as France, a poet whose work was universally admired.” Through three generations, Char's literary peers and friends included such luminaries as Albert Camus, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Octavio Paz, and William Carlos Williams. In 1952, French novelist Albert Camus, calling Char a “tragic optimist,” hailed him as France's “greatest living poet.” In 1968 critic Paulène Aspel noted that Char had “remained remarkably faithful to his themes” of resistance, rebirth, and reconciliation throughout what was then a forty-year career as a poet. Several years after Char's death, critic Michael Bishop praised the poet as one “who, caught between naming and unnaming, senses the profound mystery of things being in the first place.”

Principal Works

Les Cloches sur le coeur 1928

Arsenal 1929

Artine 1930

Ralentir Travaux [Slow Under Construction] (with André Breton and Paul Éluard) 1930

Le Tombeau des secrets 1930

Poèmes militants 1932

Le Marteau sans maître 1934; revised 1945

Moulin premier 1936

Placard pour un chemin des écoliers 1937

Dehors la nuit est gouvernée 1938; revised 1949

Le Visage nuptial 1938

Seuls demeurent 1945

Feuillets d'Hypnos [Leaves of Hypnos] 1946

Premières alluvions

Le Poème pulvérisé 1947

Fureur et mystère 1948; revised 1962

Le Soleil des eaux 1949; revised 1951

Les Matinaux [The Dawn Breakers: Les Matinaux] 1950; revised 1964

À une sérénité crispée [To a Tense Serenity] 1951

A la santé du serpent 1954

Poèmes des deux années 1955

Recherche de la Base et du Sommet 1955; revised 1971

La Bibliothèque est en feu 1956

Hypnos Waking (poetry and prose) 1956

En trente-trois morceaux 1956

Jeanne qu'on brula verte 1956

Les Compagnons dans le jardin 1957

Poèmes et prose choisis 1957

Sur la poésie 1958; revised 1974

La Montée de la nuit 1961

La Parole en archipel 1962

Commune présence 1964

L'Age cassant 1965

Retour amont 1966

Les Transparents 1967

Dans la pluie giboyeuse 1968

Le Nu perdu 1971

La Nuit talismanique 1972

Aromates chasseurs 1975

Poems of René Char 1976

Chants de la Balandrane: Poèmes 1977

Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit 1979

Oeuvres complètes 1983

Les Voisinages de Van Gogh 1985

Eloge d'une Soupçonnée 1988

Selected Poems of René Char 1992

This Smoke that Carried Us: Selected Poems of René Char 2004

Correspondance 1935-1970 (with Jean Ballard) (letters) 1993

Criticism

Kenneth Douglas (essay date fall-winter 1948)

SOURCE: Douglas, Kenneth. “René Char.” Yale French Studies 1, no. 2 (fall-winter 1948): 79-84.

[In the following essay, Douglas assesses the evolution of Char's reputation in post-World War II France.]

It is time to speak of Char. He has been writing since 1927, and since the Liberation has aroused a fervent interest within France. His novitiate served in the seminaries of Surrealism, and having published jointly with Breton and Eluard, from that dogmatic chaos he emerged gradually (and without apostasy) to affirm his own poetic truth.

For truth is his concern. Not the mirage of yet another imaginary world, not the dexterous patterning of words...

(The entire section is 1923 words.)

Wallace Fowlie (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Fowlie, Wallace. “Rene Char and the Poet's Vocation.” Yale French Studies, no. 21 (1958): 83-9.

[In the following essay, Fowlie discusses Char's treatment in his poetry of the work and calling of the poet, an endeavor that comes with a disparaging price—“the daily assumption of peril.”]

M. Char has never written in any of the usual ways about his understanding of the poet's vocation. But it becomes more and more clear, as his work continues to grow, and as the significance of this work continues to deepen, that the particular calling of the poet is his major theme. The poet's life unfolds within the limitations of man's mortal nature. Mortality and...

(The entire section is 2998 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 21 October 1965)

SOURCE: “Back to the Novice He Once Was.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3,321 (21 October 1965): 941.

[In the following review, Char's Commune présence is considered and praised for the way Char “regroups the poems in a coherent whole so that we can see their underlying unity.”]

All but a few of the poems in this selection have appeared before, but even for those already familiar with the poetry of René Char it will look like a new book. He has chosen them mainly from eight volumes published since 1934, though he has also included the final text of one complete poem (“Lettera Amorosa”, first printed in 1953) and a sprinkling of poems from a new...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)

Paulène Aspel (essay date spring 1968)

SOURCE: Aspel, Paulène. “The Poetry of Rene Char, or Man Reconciled [1968].” World Literature Today 63, no. 2 (spring 1989): 205-08.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1968, Aspel comments on Char's career as a poet, observing how the poet uses certain symbols to portray the “opposite, ambiguous human behaviors.”]

At the age of sixty, with twenty volumes of poetry published, René Char is considered by more and more critics in France as the greatest living French poet. Albert Camus had made such a claim for him as early as 1951, in L'homme révolté, when he greeted him as “poète de notre renaissance,” and in the preface he...

(The entire section is 2956 words.)

Virginia A. LaCharité (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: LaCharité, Virginia A. “Conclusion: 1962-1966: A Poetics of Renewal.” In The Poetics and the Poetry of René Char, pp. 195-206. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, LaCharité develops an interpretation of Char's poetic philosophy and the poet's works from 1962 to 1966.]

René Char's poetics and poetry form an integral whole which reflects the development of his discovery of the cosmic totality which characterizes all existence. His work from Les Cloches sur le coeur to La Parole en archipel elucidates this fusion of opposites through the examination of man, nature, and the role of the...

(The entire section is 4318 words.)

Virginia A. LaCharité (essay date spring 1976)

SOURCE: LaCharité, Virginia A. “Beyond the Poem: René Char's La Nuit talismanique.Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures 30, no. 1 (spring 1976): 14-26.

[In the following essay, LaCharité focuses attention on Char's La Nuit talismanique while exploring the relationship between Char-as-poet and Char-as-painter.]

Any examination of the whole body of Char's work reveals a variety of written modes: regular verse poems (sonnet, ballade), free verse texts, prose poems,1 aphorisms, diary notations, prefaces, essays, introductions to art catalogues, radio scenarios, theater, and ballet. One aspect which these multiple...

(The entire section is 6137 words.)

Mary Ann Caws (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Caws, Mary Ann. “Poetics and Morality.” In René Char, pp. 13-34. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

[In the following essay, Caws discusses expressions of morality in Char's poetry.]

I LIFE AND EARLY TEXT

In his preface to La Nuit talismanique (Talismanic Night) Char describes the psychological atmosphere of his childhood, presenting an unforgettable picture of his parents: “My father had courteous, shining eyes, good and never possessive. … My mother seemed to touch everything and to reach nothing, at once busy, indolent, and sure of herself. The strong lines of their contrasting natures clashed with each...

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Mary Ann Caws (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Caws, Mary Ann. “From Fury to Recollection.” In René Char, pp. 35-57. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

[In the following essay, Caws traces relationships between life experience and literary expression in the works of Char.]

I MATINAL LIGHT

Throughout the course of Char's work, the poet's personal involvements find their texts, grave or joyous, quiet in tone or more ringing, as reflections of his own moral commitment: they mirror the changing perception of the work undertaken, are determined or depressed, according to the mood of the speaker. Of his Resistance poems—“resistance” taken in all its senses—Char says:...

(The entire section is 9783 words.)

Paulène Aspel (review date spring 1980)

SOURCE: Aspel, Paulène. Review of Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit. World Literature Today 54, no. 2 (spring 1980): 250-51.

[In the following review, Aspel provides an overview of Fenêtres dormantes et porte sur le toit.]

“Le Temps” (“Time”) bears a capital T six times. From his early poems on, René Char (see WLT [World Literature Today] 51:3, pp. 349-403) has often capitalized the first letter of key words for the purpose of conjuring or praising. The uppercase T in “Dormant Windows and Door onto the Roof” must and will exorcise time, for the latter is “bloody”; it only holds power and secure position. The...

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James R. Lawler (review date spring 1984)

SOURCE: Lawler, James R. “‘Not to Renounce’: René Char's Oeuvres complètes.World Literature Today 58, no. 2 (spring 1984): 222-24.

[In the following review, Lawler lauds the publication of René Char's Oeuvres complètes, explaining how the poet’s work “is not of easy access and demands the reader's active participation. The poem is this enigma that does not narrate or confide.”]

The Pléiade René Char [Oeuvres complètes] is without any doubt a major literary event.1 The edition, elegant in form and composition, shows the guiding hand of the poet himself. It brings together the fruit of his many collections...

(The entire section is 2340 words.)

John Porter Houston (essay date September 1985)

SOURCE: Houston, John Porter. “Modes of Symbolism in René Char's Poetry.” French Forum 10, no. 3 (September 1985): 339-54.

[In the following essay, Houston examines themes, images, and symbols in selected works of René Char.]

The three most helpful books on Char's work are concerned with tracing the evolution of his poetics, themes, and images.1 I intend to focus here on poetic structures, how symbols inform them, and the attendant problems in reading. The poems discussed all date from Fureur et mystère (1948) on and are mostly prose poems. I have left aside the aphorisms and do not attempt to fit the poems into any historical pattern, although...

(The entire section is 8229 words.)

Virginia A. LaCharité (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: LaCharité, Virginia A. “The Conflicts of Art: René Char's Placard pour un chemin des écoliers.” In Rewriting the Good Fight: Critical Essays on the Literature of the Spanish Civil War, edited by Frieda S. Brown, Malcolm Alan Compitello, Victor M. Howard, Robert A. Martin, pp. 185-97. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, LaCharité discusses the effects of war on the evolution of Char's early poetic development.]

Poetry … goes forward in order to indicate the movable road.(1)

The Spanish Civil War is the artistic and historical event that definitively marks the end of René Char's...

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Charles D. Minahen (essay date fall-winter 1989)

SOURCE: Minahen, Charles D. “Disclosures of Being in René Char's ‘Riche de larmes.’” Dalhouse French Studies: De Duras et Robbe-Grillet à Cixous et Deguy 17 (fall-winter 1989): 55-61.

[In the following essay, Minahen examines the opening poem of Char's Eloge d'une soupçonnée,.]

Char's description of Vincent as “sans abord réel1—the phrase is underscored by a change of type in the title-poem of Les Voisinages de Van Gogh2—echoes unmistakably (and no doubt intentionally) the difficulty of access encountered in any attempt to apprehend the phenomenon of being. Vincent's tableaux, like Char's poems,...

(The entire section is 2761 words.)

Michael Worton (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Worton, Michael. Introduction to The Dawn Breakers Les Matinaux, pp. 11-45. Newcastle Upon Tyne, England: Bloodaxe Books, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Worton offers a thematic commentary and introduction to his translation of Char's Les Matinaux.]

René Char (1907-88) is often described as a poet of nostalgia who is essentially concerned with his own childhood in Provence and with the pre-industrial and pre-nuclear world. His poems have also often been described as hermetic, as “difficult” or “intellectual”. Internationally recognised as one of the most important French poets since the Surrealists, perhaps even since Paul Valéry, he is respected as...

(The entire section is 11201 words.)

Jean Starobinski (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Starobinski, Jean. “René Char and the Definition of the Poem.” In Figuring Things: Char, Ponge, and Poetry in the Twentieth Century, edited and translated by Charles D. Minahen, pp. 113-27. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, Starobinski discusses the poetics and aesthetics of Char's writings.]

There is no poem, no line of René Char that does not give us a feeling of opening. An increased space appears before us, lights up within us. This space offers itself to our open eyes. It does not have the facile qualities of the dream: it is the harsh and expanding volume of our earthly sojourn, the instant of our present...

(The entire section is 6019 words.)

Michael Bishop (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Bishop, Michael. “Char's Mysticism.” In Figuring Things: Char, Ponge, and Poetry in the Twentieth Century, edited and translated by Charles D. Minahen, pp. 175-89. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, Bishop offers a thematic analysis of mysticism in Char's work.]

Laissons l'énergie et retournons à l'énergie.

(ES [Eloge d'une Soupçonnée] 7)1

DIFFICULTY, REBELLION, AND INNOCENCE

In a poet whose work has to such a compelling degree stressed actuality and engagement, the difficulties and divisions of history, and the need for ethical, even...

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Van Kelly (essay date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Kelly, Van. “The Elegiac Temptation in Char's Poetry.” L'Esprit Créateur 35, no. 4 (winter 1995): 59-70.

[In the following essay, Kelly addresses the tension in some of Char's poems between past and future in perspective and focus.]

Laissons l'énergie et retournons à l'énergie. La mesure du Temps? L'étincelle sous les traits de laquelle nous apparaissons et redisparaissons dans la fable.

—René Char, “Riche de larmes”

Life and death vie fiercely in Fureur et mystère (1948), especially in the section subtitled Le poème pulvérisé, which contains a number of...

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Van Kelly (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Kelly, Van. “Suffering and Expenditure: Baudelaire and Nietsche in Char's Poetic Territory.” In Baudelaire and the Poetics of Modernity, edited by Patricia A. Ward, pp. 172-86. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Kelly analyzes Char's poem, “Baudelaire mécontente Nietzsche.”]

René Char's poem “Baudelaire mécontente Nietzsche” (“Baudelaire Irritates Nietzsche”), which appeared in the 1972 collection La Nuit talismanique, begins with a contrast:

C'est Baudelaire qui postdate et voit juste de sa barque de souffrance, lorsqu'il nous désigne tels que nous...

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