The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy

by Geoffrey Hill
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1139

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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 section of “The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy,” the question of Péguy’s responsibility for the untimely death of Socialist leader Jaurès is put in two contexts: the death itself and the more general question of the role of thinkers in moments of history in action. This rhetorical musing leads to an examination of Péguy’s character in the second section and his role as a defender of truth in the face of political and social compromise. Unlike his adversary, he is like a child, unaffected by triviality. Near the end of section 2, the place of his death is shown, and it is suggested that in his death his character was confirmed, even if he has become simply one of the innumerable statues in Paris.

In the third section, Péguy is remembered after death in a kind of piling up of the idealities of his life. He had, for example, made two pilgrimages to the cathedral at Chartres on behalf of his children. The other places have either direct or indirect connections with his life or hide allusions to his dreams for France: For example, Domrémy is the birthplace of Joan of Arc, and the Colombey-les-deux-Eglises may be a reference to General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), who is buried there and who also had a fearsome reputation for defending France. Saint Cyr is the home of the French military academy.

In the fourth section, the real world of compromise, self-interest, and class interest is examined, and Péguy’s failure to win over those forces is expressed in terms of his work as a publisher in his little shop in Paris. In the end of the section, the death of Jaurès is rationalized, seen as inevitable, and juxtaposed against Péguy’s own death. That death is explored in section 5 in concert with his love of the land and his connection with the simple people of the land; there is a rightness in the death taking place on the land, in a field of beetroot, where flesh quite properly is absorbed and courage is played out with dignity, as the recondite reference to “English Gordon” implies. (General Charles Gordon, beseiged at Khartoum, Africa, by a Moslem force, was reputed to have walked sedately down a staircase to his death without attempting to avoid the thrust of the spears.)

In section 6, the question of French justice comes up. It is considered in the light of the stripping of Dreyfus of his military trappings, which leads to a suggestion of wider martrydom, including that of Christ at the hands of societies that have become morally debased and where all are, at the least, time servers or cowards. The seventh section continues listing those betrayed and those who have served and sacrificed themselves for the native lands. Section 8 examines, with a graphic vigor, the soldiers pushing themselves on in thuggish battle to their deaths. There is little suggestion of glamour or glory in this passage, but there is an aura of admiration for the courage and determination of those poilus, ready to give their lives in defense of their native soil.

Section 9 presents an idealized French landscape for which Péguy, in a sense, was always fighting in letters, in politics, and in war, but it ends with somber anticipations of the battle that must be fought and that will be won by men such as Péguy. Section 10 begins on the battlefield, as the dead bodies are collected. The question arises, as in the second verse of the first section, of how humankind is to take such actions—are they tragedy or farce? Whatever the case, there is no question that it is a time both for praise and lament.

The poem is a somewhat rambling, maundering contemplation of Péguy’s life, character, and historical importance. As a result, Hill shuffles ideas in and out of the various sections in repetitive waves.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 774

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 source of critical quarrel because he can be difficult to understand. Often, his lines cannot be turned into prose, a common practice of most poetry readers, although there is a kind of aesthetic “rightness” about them that is unexplainable rationally. This is not a failure on Hill’s part, unless it is presumed that poetry must always make intellectual sense. Hill, in fact, is deliberately ambiguous. His debt to Eliot intensifies this problem because he tends to pile up images as Eliot did, without providing the linkages that one expects of ordinary metaphors and similes. Hill’s images merely appear, often out of a loose association of ideas.

The last verse in the first section is an example of how this occurs. The problem posed earlier of how to take history, either as tragedy or farce, is now put into the specific context of the troops marching off to battle in World War I. It is seen in the context of early newsreel films, put succinctly in the second-to-last verse as “juddery bombardment of a silent film.” What Hill has in mind is the way in which those early films jumped about, made a clanking noise as the film ran through the projector, giving even the military procession a kind of comic inconsequentiality that is reinforced further by his punning on the word “reeling.”

This practice of slapping one image on top of another, one thing leading to another without the help of such linking phrases as “as if” or “it was like,” can best be understood not as a linguistic device but as a visual one in which one image is often, as in motion pictures, laid on top of another or in which one image melts into another. If the reader thinks of the lines as linguistic attempts to affect visual (or musical) fusions of continual changing images, much of the problem will be solved, as it will be if Eliot or Auden is read in a similar manner.

This inclination to sophisticated imagistic trickery, however, should not be seen as Hill’s only strength. He often can be densely lyrical, as in his evocations of the French countryside in sections 5 and 9, and he is much admired for the thick, bruising descriptions of battle that are in many of his poems. For all of his basic tonal seriousness, however, there is a playfulness about his use of blatant clichés, which he often refreshes or, as one critic put it, “rinses and restores.” Perhaps the most daring is at the end of section 4, where he joins two clichés to describe the death of Péguy: “So, you have risen/ above all that and fallen flat on your face.”