René Char 1907-1988
(Full name: René-Emile Char) French poet, essayist, and philosopher.
The following entry presents criticism of Char's poetry from 1948 through 2001.
In his poetry, Char emphasized hope in the face of struggle, rejected compromise, and acknowledged desire as the center of inspiration. Char offered an influential and dominant literary voice during the post-World War II era. Although he was by no means a regional poet, Char's native region of Provence provided the backdrop for many of his literary treatments of the universal conflicts of good versus injustice and resistance in the face of oppression.
Char was born in the town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on June 14, 1907. His father, a businessman and the local mayor, died when Char was only ten years old. This pivotal event is seen as an influence on his work by many critics, not as the subject of poems, but as a contributing factor to the sense of dispossession and solitude that these critics find as an underlying theme in much of Char's poetry. Although he was well-schooled, Char did not complete his secondary studies with the baccalaureat but chose instead to attend business school in 1925. He fulfilled his military obligation with an artillery unit from 1927 to 1928. During this time he published his first small collection of poems, Les Cloches sur le coeur (1928; “Bells on the Heart”). This was the only work published under his given name, René-Emile Char.
In 1929 Char published a second volume of poetry, Arsenal, and shortly thereafter, he moved to Paris to join the Surrealist literary movement. One of his significant contributions to Surrealist poetry was the volume Ralentir travaux (1930; Slow Under Construction) which was written collectively with prominent French Surrealist writers Paul Éluard and André Breton. Through the early 1930s Char remained closely affiliated with Surrealism, publishing poems in Surrealist reviews and participating in political protests. He also established ties with numerous avant-garde painters of the day, Surrealist and otherwise, establishing foundations for his later collaborations and poetic writings on art.
By 1935, Char was no longer a public participant in the political activities of the Surrealists, though he remained friends with Eluard and others. He had married in 1932, and by mid-decade he returned to his hometown to take over the business affairs of his father's former company. Serious illness caused him to resign in 1937 and he moved to the village of Céreste to recover. Some years later, during World War II, Char would return to this place to form a resistance unit in the fight against Nazism. The last major collection of Char's poetry to appear before the outbreak of World War II was Dehors la nuit est gouvernée (“Outside the Night is Governed”), which was published in May 1938. Although it was not overtly political, the work foreshadowed the darkness that was about to affect all of Europe under Hitler's influence.
Once France entered the war, Char set literary aspirations aside in favor of political and military commitment. He first served his country in a heavy artillery regiment, and later, after the occupation by Germany and the installation of the French Vichy authority, he went underground and became an active participant in the French Resistance movement. He did not publish works during the occupation but he did continue to write. One of his major works of the wartime years was Feuillets d'Hypnos (Leaves of Hypnos), a poetic journal of the war. Written between 1941 and 1944 and published in 1946, this volume established Char as an authentic resistance writer who had, to a greater extent than many of his literary peers, risked his life to stand up to Nazi and Vichy oppression.
During the post war years of 1950 to 1962, Char's reputation as an influential literary figure expanded, and he enjoyed the respect of fellow artists, musicians, and writers, which resulted in collaborative and cooperative works featuring art and music. In the 1960s, Char turned his political energy toward the issue of nuclear missile silos in France and continued to collaborate on creative works for small presses and artistic printers. In 1971 he published Le Nu perdu (“Nakedness Lost”), for which he assembled poems written since 1964. Although this was his last large compendium of works, Char continued to write and publish steadily throughout the mid-1980s, pursuing projects that fed his desire to support creativity as a form of intellectual resistance against the many inhumane and oppressive aspects of the modern age. Char's final volume of original verse was published posthumously, having been submitted to the publisher several months before his death on February 19, 1988.
Char wrote and published prolifically from 1928 until just before his death in 1988. Throughout his long career, first in association with the Surrealist movement and later as an active participant in the French Resistance, and still later as a supporter and proponent of artistic expression in the face of economic oppression, Char consistently addressed universal themes such as justice versus injustice and resistance as a moral imperative. When circumstances required, civic action took the place of literary endeavor. From his early works throughout the final volumes of new work that were published after his death, Char embraced the notion that art, literature, and music are reciprocally linked as necessary expressions of resistance—necessary to preserve the humanity of individuals and the morality of society.
Among Char's vast output, three volumes are considered particularly significant. These works raised Char's profile as a vital force in French intellectual and creative circles. The first of these is his war journal, Leaves of Hypnos, which was written during his years of active service on behalf of the French Resistance and published soon after the war's end. Even more influential to his literary career was Fureur et mystère (1948; “Furor and Mystery”), a collection of poetry that offers readers a poetic roadmap of the journey from a prewar sense of impending disaster in the 1930s through the rigors of occupation and resistance in the early 1940s, to the return of life-giving creativity after the destruction of war. Finally, Char's Les Matinaux, published in 1950 (translated to English in 1992 as The Dawn Breakers), confirmed Char's position among the elite of postwar French poets. While Fureur et mystère focuses on the contrasts between love and war and resistance and oppression, The Dawn Breakers decisively depicts the return to peace.
While Char's next large collection, La Parole en archipel (“The Word as Archipelago”), appeared in 1962, the previous years had also seen the publication of numerous smaller volumes; among them was the critically noted La Bibliothèque est en feu (1956). The works of the 1950s and 1960s display Char's use of verbal landscape and his employment of specific geographic settings, particularly his home region of France, to symbolize universal experience. In 1971, Char published Le Nu perdu which was his last major compendium of work, though it was by no means his final volume of new poetry. Even with the 1983 publication of Char's Oeuvres complètes, his writing days were not yet over. In 1985, Char's penultimate collection, Les Voisinages de Van Gogh (“In Van Gogh's Territory”), appeared. Two years later, only months before his death, he submitted another volume of new works to his publisher, but he did not live to see it in print. Although Char's posthumous collection, Eloge d'une Soupçonnée (1988), is brief—containing only thirteen poems—it is considered by critics to be one of the significant works of his career, for it offers a capstone to the poet's life and work. Throughout his life, Char preferred to maintain a separation between his personal life and his professional work, and thus did not welcome or indulge queries about his life. However, observers note that the opening poem of this final collection, “Riche de larmes,” reveals that Char saw his career as a lifelong devotion to poetry.
Char earned the respect of critics and fellow literary artists throughout his career. Following the poet's death in 1988, Mark Hutchinson wrote that “Char's vision … is at once aristocratic … democratic … and egalitarian.” He further noted that Char was “that rare thing in a country as intellectually sectarian as France, a poet whose work was universally admired.” Through three generations, Char's literary peers and friends included such luminaries as Albert Camus, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Octavio Paz, and William Carlos Williams. In 1952, French novelist Albert Camus, calling Char a “tragic optimist,” hailed him as France's “greatest living poet.” In 1968 critic Paulène Aspel noted that Char had “remained remarkably faithful to his themes” of resistance, rebirth, and reconciliation throughout what was then a forty-year career as a poet. Several years after Char's death, critic Michael Bishop praised the poet as one “who, caught between naming and unnaming, senses the profound mystery of things being in the first place.”