(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Albert Camus once wrote that René Char’s poetry was both ancient and new, subtle and simple, carrying both daytime and night: “In the brilliant landscape where Char was born, the sun . . . is something dark.” Camus thus identified one of the predominant characteristics of Char’s poetic method: the juxtaposition of opposites. According to critic Robert W. Greene, Char has rejected one of the fundamental concepts of Western thought: the Aristotelian principle that a thing cannot be anything other than what it is at one moment in time. Any poem working within different principles seems as obscure and vaporous as Eastern religions which deny the reality of the world. Char, however, deeply admires the fragments of Heraclitus—who believed in the unity of opposites—and sets up oppositions throughout his poetry. Similar concepts can be found in earlier poetry influenced by Eastern thought, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Brahma,” in which the slayer is simultaneously the one who is slain. Char’s rejection of the identity principle, however, has different implications in its twentieth century context. It reflects the linguistic, subjective philosophies developing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and though Char has a tendency toward the fragmentary aphorism (possibly influenced by the fragments of Heraclitus), he grapples with modern problems in a specific way. Thus, as Camus rightly observed, Char’s poetry is both “ancient and...

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