The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy

by Geoffrey Hill
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

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The intention of an elegy is to praise the deceased, provide a kind of solemn listing of the accomplishments of the dead. This poem, given its source in Auden’s antielegies and the desire of Hill not simply to idealize Péguy, opens to a wider consideration of Péguy’s successes and his failures. In a way, the poem suggests, Péguy’s life was a failure, but that does not, ultimately, preclude the poet from admiring his subject. The poem takes a further turn past the antielegy to pick up aspects of the “dramatic monologue” in which a problem is solved, in a sense, in the very act of being discussed poetically. Hill fuses the elegy to the dramatic monologue in which the problem is not the subject’s (as it usually is in that form), but the poet’s. How is he to praise a man with whose conduct he does not entirely feel easy, particularly if that man’s work is so clearly a public failure and that man may have been responsible, even inadvertently, for the death of another man of political and moral importance. How does one praise a person of such mixed accomplishments?

The original Times Literary Supplement publication of the poem was preceded by a quotation from Péguy, which has not been reprinted in Hill’s Collected Poems, but which gives some idea of why Hill admires him. In French, the quotation roughly translates as follows: “We are the last, almost beyond the last. Besides, after us, begins another age, quite a different world, the world of those who don’t know anything.” In the notes following the poem in Collected Poems, Hill has a short biographical note on Péguy that ends, “Péguy’s stubborn rancours and mishaps and all, is one of the great souls, one of the great prophetic intelligences, of our century. I offer The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy as my homage to the triumph of his ‘defeat.’”

The poem is also an indictment of those people, such as the Socialists, who would compromise their principles, even if such compromise was made to further the process of social and political improvement. Even more to the point, the poem is a swinging attack upon the unprincipled, “the lords of limit and of contumely,” even if, as is stated in section 4, “This world is different, belongs to them—.” The poem does not suggest that the time servers and the incumbents of compromise are defeated, nor that Péguy was always right, but it attempts to bring the spectrum of human endeavor at its worst and at its best into some kind of humane perspective, much in the way that Yeats attempted to deal with the Irish political problem in his poems. Hill concedes in that second-to-last verse of the poem that “Low tragedy, high farce, fight for command,” but it still remains that there is room for praise and for mourning (“éloge and elegy”) in considering the life of Péguy, a man of such principle that he, in a sense, became a victim of his own character.