The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy Themes

Geoffrey Hill

Themes and Meanings

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...

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