The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy Analysis

Geoffrey Hill

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy is an elegy in ten parts, consisting of as few as seven and as many as eighteen four-line, irregularly rhymed verses. An elegy—a poetic lament on the death of a person who may or may not be known intimately by the poet—sometimes requires special knowledge of the life of the deceased. Geoffrey Hill has a formidable reputation for being difficult to understand at the best of times, but The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy has the added density of reference to the life of this somewhat minor figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century French intellectual and political circles. Who Charles Péguy was and what he did should be known or the poem may make no sense to the reader.

Charles-Pierre Péguy, born in France in 1873, was a brilliant scholar who became a journalist, poet, political philosopher, and the founder and editor of Cahier de la Quinzaine magazine, which Péguy used to support young writers and to propound his own ideas about French politics, society, and religion. He was a leader in the fight to prove the innocence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), a French-born Jew who, in 1894, was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans, and whose guilt seemed to be confirmed by the fact that he was Jewish. The Socialists supported the fight to clear the innocent Dreyfus, but during the fight, Péguy became increasingly dissatisfied with the manner in which the Socialists had pursued the matter. He eventually broke with the Socialists in 1900, repudiating his former support of France’s Socialist leader, Jean-Joseph-Marie-Auguste Jaurès (1859-1914), and carrying on a running battle in print and in public against what he saw as a debasement of Socialist principles. In 1910, Péguy emerged as a major literary figure with the publication of his book on Joan of Arc, Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’ Arc (The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, 1950). The title of his book provides the basis for the title of Hill’s poem.

Péguy eventually returned to the religion he renounced as a young man, Catholicism, and began writing religious poems and developing philosophical ideas. Péguy claimed that he was always a Socialist, despite his return to religion and his repudiation of official French Socialism, but his rigorous refusal to compromise, his moral absolutism, and his support of French military solutions to the growing German problem made him a “man in the middle.” He was despised by former friends and colleagues in the Dreyfus and Socialist movement and taken up by and admired by conservatives. He was one of the first to enlist at the outbreak of World War I; he was one of the first to die in the Battle of the Marne.

In the first...

(The entire section is 1139 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The elegy has taken many adjustments through the centuries, but the twentieth century in particular has manipulated it with considerable enthusiasm and not much respect. It has lost much of its romantic oversimplification at the hands of twentieth century poets, and the idea that one should not speak disrespectfully of the dead is often ignored. T. S. Eliot has something to do with the technique of this poem, but W. H. Auden is equally helpful in terms of the way Hill thinks about Péguy’s life and death. Auden wrote several elegies, often about famous people, and he was not loath to reveal the weakenesses as well as the strengths of his subjects.

The elegy, as a rule, praised exclusively, although there are intimations of some reservation in how Andrew Marvell contemplates historical figures in his poems of lament. Auden, however, can be frank about flaws in great men; in contemplating the death of the poet William Butler Yeats in his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden openly admits that “You were silly like us.” It has something to do with the twentieth century zeal for frankness and suspicion of an idealized version of life; it also may have something to do with an inability to be certain about what is right or wrong, which is an aspect of the twentieth century Western sensibility.

Clearly, frankness is a strong influence on Hill’s poem, because Péguy is revealed in an antiromantic way—stubborn, narrow-minded, and sometimes bloody-minded in his attitude toward others, which manifested itself in his attack on Jaurès. So, in a sense, what the poem is, ultimately, is a peculiar mix of admiration and wry reservation that does not resolve itself one way or another, but still allows for an ultimate sadness; it is best described as a kind of antielegy in which excessive admiration is severely curtailed.

The Hill canon, in general, is often...

(The entire section is 774 words.)