Charles Peguy’s life, thought, and poetry are inextricably mixed. He was born in total poverty. His intelligence and energy, with the help of scholarships, got him through excellent schools, but he always remained a man of the people both in his life, religion, and poetry. In school he was deeply influenced by the thought of Henri Bergson, and he adopted a philosophy of motion and change rather than the traditional philosophies of static values.
In his youth Peguy became deeply involved in the Dreyfus affair, but when the cause was exploited by selfish politicians, he became a Marxist. Yet he remained an almost mystically patriotic Frenchman, so that, when his socialist colleagues turned to pacifism and internationalism, Peguy (while maintaining his socialist ethic) turned away. He was convinced that war between Germany and France was inevitable, and he wanted to defend France. Also, in 1908, just before he began writing the largest body of his poetry, he returned to the Catholic faith, a strange and, as always with Peguy, very personal brand of Catholicism. He rejected the dogma of damnation, but in the most literal way he accepted the doctrine of salvation and the cult of the saints, especially the Virgin and Joan of Arc. In Joan, who was an important subject of his poetry, Peguy could simultaneously adore God and France. In one way or another these two things were always the poet’s themes.
Peguy, who is almost the object of worship by a large cult of admirers in France, has never been well received in the United States. His style is simple, incantory, and free. His most obvious characteristic is quantity; some of his poems are hundreds of pages long. He achieves his effects mostly through repetition and expansion of themes, sometimes to the point of diffuseness. His diction is invariably colloquial and purposely naive. Yet he is undeniably a powerful, major poet. Except in his last poems, his verse is entirely free and unlike anything else in French. With one exception, all of the poet’s major work was written in an incredible four-year burst of energy that ended only with his death in battle, leading an attack, in 1914.
JOAN OF ARC, an immense three-hundred-page drama, was Peguy’s first real attempt at poetry, or, rather, lyricism: the texture of the piece is an intermixture of freely rhymed verse, rhythmical and normal prose, and versets inspired by the rhetoric of the Bible, or, perhaps, the choral movement of ancient tragedy. The text, moreover, is given poetic unity by a structure of symbolism that tends to heighten Peguy’s poetic prose still more. The drama, almost impossible to stage, if only because of its great length, is based on the familiar story of Joan of Arc and is divided into three sections: “At the Village of Domremy,” “The Battles,” and “Orleans.” The first section is divided into three parts and ten acts; the second part is divided into three parts and eight acts; and the last section falls into two parts and six acts. The tone is, as was to become usual in Peguy’s poetry, one of solemn simplicity.! The play, written before the au thor’s return to Catholicism, is revealingly dedicated to “all men and women who will have lived, to all men and women who will have died attempting to cure the universal sickness,” and it is further dedicated to “the establishment of the universal Socialist republic.” In the play the mysticism of Joan and the humanitarianism of Peguy are interpenetrating.
After his return to belief in 1908, Peguy once more set himself to writing poetry. In 1910 he published his MYSTERY OF THE CHARITY OF JOAN OF ARC. This was followed in 1911 by THE PORTAL OF THE MYSTERY OF THE SECOND VIRTUE, and in 1912 by THE MYSTERY OF THE HOLY INNOCENTS. Once more he used the verset and lyrical prose as...
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