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.)