Charles-Pierre Péguy Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Like that of his contemporary, Paul Claudel, Charles-Pierre Péguy’s style recalls the Psalms, yet Péguy has none of Claudel’s triumphant exuberance. Péguy’s verse has been called a “piétinement”: It is plodding, a step-by-step advancement, like a pilgrimage to Chartres or a Corpus Christi procession. Péguy says that it is not important to arrive but simply to go. His verse is repetitive, yet the reiterations serve to emphasize, to clarify, and to articulate his thought.

Péguy’s three tapisseries (tapestries) are written in four-line rhymed stanzas in the traditional Alexandrine, while the Quatrains and La Chanson du roi Dagobert are ballads with a very folkloristic air. All the rest of Péguy’s major poems are written in free verse. Péguy’s free verse is idiosyncratic, ranging from brief lines consisting of only a word or two to proselike paragraphs; some stanzas are only a line long, while others continue for pages. In his first work, the dramatic poem Jeanne d’Arc, Péguy baffled the printers by leaving entire pages blank, without any explanation.

Péguy is known for his use of contrasts and paradoxes. The most important of these in his poetry are the polarities spiritual and physical, aging and newness, and temporal and eternal. The theme of aging and newness, which is not peculiar to his poetry, is also basic to his later prose, especially Clio. Clio, the Greek Muse of history, is a symbol of aging, as are Ève, deadwood, and paper. Péguy sees newness in the Virgin Mary, the medieval world, Joan of Arc, and hope, the second theological virtue. These elements are characterized by powerlessness and abandonment and are symbolized also by the dawn, the first bud of April, the first day of creation, or fresh springs of water, all suggesting originality, spontaneity, and a freshness of vision. Péguy infinitely prefers this attitude to one of conformity and habit, symbolically connected with aging and decay.

In contrasting the spiritual and the physical, Péguy does not use the word charnel (physical) in its usual sexual connotation, but simply to insist that a human being is composed of both body and soul. He imagines the soul and the body as a horse hitched to a plow, with the soul pulling the body but the two closely united. The temporal and the eternal are also contrasted throughout Péguy’s work. Among his favorite symbols for the temporal is Ève, while the Virgin Mary represents the eternal, yet here again he prefers to integrate them into a single concept, the human condition. He also refuses to dichotomize the secular and the sacred. These ideas echo the Bergsonian philosophy of time and duration that was very popular in Péguy’s day—a philosophy which Péguy learned from Bergson himself.

Péguy’s first poetic works were dramatic, and much of his verse maintains a dramatic orientation. The mystères are essentially dialogues; in them, God speaks in a very human tone. Throughout his verse, Péguy assumes an intimacy with God, Christ, and the saints. Péguy recounts biblical events with a sense of immediacy and personal involvement, and he frequently addresses the Virgin Mary in a tone that recalls medieval courtly love poems or the confidence of a small child in his mother.

Péguy’s poetic universe is peopled largely by women, a point which has attracted the attention of many critics. Only in the Quatrains is there any indication of romantic love. These women do not represent the typical feminine image in literature, nor are they the “eternal feminine” of wisdom and beauty; they are, rather, symbols of Péguy’s ideals.

Open to all nations and races, and particularly sympathetic to the oppressed, Péguy nevertheless insisted on the importance of the “race” (his conception of race was essentially nationalistic) embodied in France. Its fundamental unit, Péguy believed, was the parish, and his choice of images suggests the rural France of a bygone—indeed, a mythical—era in which the Church and the French nation were mystically united. In Péguy’s imagery, France is a garden and the French people are God’s gardeners. “La Beauce” is the “océan des blés” (ocean of wheat) over which shines the Star of the Sea, the Virgin of Chartres. Nothing is as great as plowing the fields, says Péguy, as he mentions each tool by name. The rhythm of the seasons and the centuries suggests the presence of the eternal in the temporal and the temporal in the eternal. Thus, Péguy’s poetry, disconcerting and sometimes tedious, moves into a cosmic dimension, making him truly a poet of the twentieth century.

Jeanne d’Arc and The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc

Of all Péguy’s poetic subjects, Joan of Arc seems to have fascinated him the most. Two works are completely devoted to her: Jeanne d’Arc, a “drama in three plays,” and The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, and she plays a considerable role in seven others. For Péguy, the ardent Socialist, she was in 1897 the heroine of the new Socialist city, but his bulky Jeanne d’Arc was unbelievable, unsalable, and unstageable. This first verse play has three parts: “Domrémy,” “Les Batailles” (the battles), and “Rouen.” The first part, “Domrémy,” was the source for The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc in 1910.

The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc is dedicated to all who wish to remedy evil in the world, a major preoccupation of Péguy, especially after 1908, when he transferred Socialist problems to a spiritual level. The work contains three characters: Madame Gervaise, Hauviette, and Jeannette. Madame Gervaise is a twenty-five-year-old Franciscan nun who has evolved from the stereotyped religious figure of the Jeanne d’Arc of 1897, in which she had retired to a convent for her individual salvation. Here, she is a mature woman who recognizes the involvement of everyone in the problem of evil and who frequently represents the traditional Catholic viewpoint. Her dialogues with Jeannette are almost monologues, for Jeannette prefers to pray rather than to engage in dialogue.

In her dialogue with Hauviette, Jeannette’s extraordinary...

(The entire section is 2576 words.)