Char, René (Vol. 9)
Char, René 1907–
Considered by Camus to be France's greatest living poet, Char celebrates life, while acknowledging its pain and chaos. Involvement with World War II shaped his major themes, and his early association with the surrealists freed his imagination and colored his imagery. His work has been illustrated by such notable contemporaries as Braque and Picasso, and set to music by Pierre Boulez. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 13-16, rev. ed.)
René Char has moved away from the esoteric place assigned to the poet by Mallarmé in order to stand today in the humanistic center of his close friend Albert Camus….
Does this mean that M. Char's poetry is an example of the new "engaged" literature advocated by Sartre? Not, certainly, in any literal sense. Poetry, according to Char, does not seem to be committed to any cause unless one calls life itself a cause and a reason for commitment….
The verses of Char, the aphorisms which abound in his work, and the brief condensed tales which appear in company with the aphorisms, all speak of the nature of poetry. It is that which is lived, for Char, experienced with the penetrating realization of submitting to human destiny. It is a comparatively easy matter to describe a literary work which is about life. But such a definition would not apply to the poetry of Char. This poet looks upon his art as an assault on life and an embracing, an animation of life. He answers, in the writing of his poem, not some outside command, but the uprising surge of his nature and his feelings. (p. 83)
The word "risk" … applies to Char's conception of life as well as to his conception of poetry. The outside world in which he lives, almost as a poacher lives invading someone else's forest, is the natural world of constant change, a flowering river of things such as his favorite philosopher Heraclitus had described. But this is the site of risks and provocations. The things he sees there are not poems, but they discover their reality in poems. The poetic act is a finding of a form for things which otherwise would never emerge from their abyss or their silence or their possibility. It is difficult for Char to elaborate on the principles of poetry because for him poetics and poetry are hardly separable. It is unusual for a French poet not to bequeath texts on poetics and technique. Char's answer is his entire existence as poet. The poet, he would say, has no other place to be except within poetry. The risk of poetry is precisely this responsibility of the poet in the action of drawing poetry from the poet's sleep and from his subconscious.
The risk of poetic creation is admirably transcribed in the striking antitheses of so many of M. Char's poems. The new poems,… entitled Poemes des deux années 1953–1954, contain examples of the contrast which Char establishes between solidity and fragility, between a sense of security and a premonition of the evanescence of things. The state of the world is so often established in these terms of contrast by Char that the poems themselves are seen finally to be constructed in a similar tension between strength and weakness. In "Le Bois de l'Epte," for example, the poet is seen following on foot a valley stream. He comes upon two wild rose bushes bending into the water. The brilliance of a single rose in the water awakens in the poet an awareness of the earth and he sees the wood of Epte beginning just ahead. (p. 84)
Multiple are the bonds this poet discovers existing between himself and nature, but the lesson is harsh to assimilate because it is inevitably a picture of a threatened and perishable nature he perceives.
The purity and the conciseness of Char's language make it appear more primitively faithful to his reactions, to his first responses. He has sustained in his style which is devoid of the usual poetic rhetoric, something of the secret meaning of his reactions. One remembers easily that his first adherence was to surrealism. And yet in this will to record and explain his reaction to the world and to human experience, he places himself quite centrally within the tradition of French moralists. With his ever-increasing understanding of life, Char the poet and Char the moralist both denounce the vanity of life. Poetry is both a critique of poetics and a critique of illusions. The new poems, like aphorisms, are brief and elliptical. The white spaces around them—like the silences which precede and follow speech—have their own message and their own suggestiveness.
The poet's vocation is felt in its very special insistency, in the need it creates in the poet to write. If what he writes has both fury in it and tragedy, the poet is struck by the silence of the ink on the page. The oxymoron is there at the start: in the silence of the hieroglyphic characters and in the rage of the sentiments expressed…. He could not exist if it were not in accord with some mysterious law of apprehension. There is a price to pay for feeling deeply and for writing as a poet. That price is the daily assumption of peril. The ordinary man is able to fix the source of evil in the world: he traces it back to some event or to some cause. But the poet knows that evil comes from farther back than he can remember, from farther back than he can ever believe. The horrors he encounters in the world he is unable to simplify. That is the function and the activity, again, of the non-poet. But the horrors have simplified the poet. They have made him into a man unable to be anything save the poet.
The strong stylistic and moralist claims made by this new poet designate him as the heir both of symbolism and surrealism. He is surrealist in the way in which he feels an event. He is symbolist in the distance he knows exists between the occurence of the event and its narration. He actually speaks of the enigmas of poetry as often as Mallarmé did, but he defines the actions of the poet as the results of these enigmas. (pp. 85-6)
In the tributes written to his friends, René Crevel and Paul Eluard, Char exalts human life in its relativity, in all the attacks man has waged against injustice and deception, in man's love of the sun, and simply in the power he feels in accomplishing an action. He will forego any pleasure to be derived from vengeance or from persecuting others even if this means the resumption of uncertainty in life. Some of the humanistic definitions of man, found in … Les Compagnons dans le jardin, complete earlier definitions. He sees man's place as a coalition. He is a flower held down by the earth, cursed by the stars because he is unable to rise to them and solicited by death which is his constant fate…. Here again is stated, in fresh terms, the prevailing paradox of Char's work: man seen as tenderness in the surge of his spirit and as an Apocalyptic figure in his end. The pessimism of Heraclitus was not difficult to discover in the early work, Feuillets d'Hypnos. The myth of tragedy is man's principal heritage, but it may accompany a lifetime of revolt against this fate. This revolt is the subject matter of some of the greatest prose writers of modern France: Malraux, Saint-Exupéry, Camus. It is not only the subject matter of Char's poetry, it is the poetry itself. The poetry is his life lived as a maquis fighter and as a disciple of the philosopher of Ephesus. Char can no more cut himself off from the action of men, from cohabitation with men, than he can cease meditating on the tragedy of man's fate in a world of change and flux.
Char's vision of the world in which he lives, of the world where all men live, is one of his most fertile themes, but this vision is often cast into the abstract terms of a poet-philosopher. He calls it, in one passage, that which is inconceivable. But it is also that which has luminous points of reference, dazzling signs…. The walker, the man who is bound to the earth and who walks on its surface, is granted some knowledge of the secret existence of things, secrets of the wind, of trees, of water. At moments in history when total destruction seems inevitable, man is unable to believe that the world, which has always been redeemed in the past, is facing its death in the very presence of man. In the future, Char may be looked upon as the apocalyptic poet of our day, as the poet the most persistently oppressed by the Apocalypse aspect of the mid-century.
The thought of Heraclitus has undoubtedly encouraged Char's philosophy to state that no matter how inherently noble truth is, the picture we have of this truth is tragedy. But there is a relationship between the nobility of truth and the noble character of tragedy. This is the source of what we have been calling the antithesis or the oxymoron in Char's poetry. Man's ever increasing awareness of his fate is equivalent to what Char calls the continuous presence of risk felt by the poet. This risk maintains the poet in a lofty position of attentiveness, of freedom of attitude and action. The risk represented by each poem is best understood by comparing it with the risk each day of living, with the threat involved in each decision of each hour in every man's life.
During the richest years of the surrealist movement in France, 1930–1934, René Char was initiated to poetry and to a search for what the surrealists called "enigmes." Char, who has never disavowed his debt to surrealism, has undergone since that time many changes. The quest for enigmas, for example, would no longer be applicable to his present discoveries. But there are images in his newer writing which bear strong reminiscences of surrealism. (pp. 86-8)
As Char's writing has become more and more visibly affected by the events of his time, he has made the effort in his poetical work more and more consciously to transform what he sees and feels. But his age seen in an image is both transformation and interpretation. It is the understanding of the essence of things, an abstraction which, when successful, is the container of opposites. His poet's journal, Feuillets d'Hypnos, clearly states that he is opposed to the static, that if the alternative is the absurd, he will choose that, because thereby he will move closer to the pathos of the world…. (p. 88)
Despite the fact that René Char is a difficult poet in almost every sense, he has today reached an eminent degree of fame. The danger is now that he will be enshrined and not understood. To read Char, a new mechanism of sensibility is necessary. A mere knowledge of Char's commitments and an awareness of his literary affiliations will never reveal his poetic excellence.
The best way to approach Char is a study of those moments in his writings when he is aware of the poet's vocation. They are the moments of natural perception when he greets the world. This poet is essentially an analogist. The experience he relates in his books is not beyond the understanding of anyone who has looked intently and lovingly at the world.
Char initiates his readers first to his vigorous, sensuous life in nature. But from nature he moves quickly to the moral and the intellectual order…. There is really no poet, in Char's system, there is only poetry. He is consciously bent on bringing back into poetry the strength of living men.
The vigor of this poet's mind puts him into a separate poetic world. We are moved by the vitality of his thought, but especially by the vitality of his concreteness. The truths of the world as he sees them are constantly demanding his allegiance. (This trait in Char would be more easily understood in a frankly religious poet.) He is a poet characterized by the habit of seeing things charged with meaning—an ordered meaning regarding the relationships between nature and men. (pp. 88-9)
Wallace Fowlie, "René Char and the Poet's Vocation," in Yale French Studies (copyright © Yale French Studies 1958), No. 21, 1958, pp. 83-9.
René Char … calls the poet … "magician of insecurity"—a name suggesting a good deal about the activity of the artist at the present time. The entire statement runs like this: "The poet, a magician of insecurity, can have only adopted satisfactions. A cinder never quite burned out." "Insécurité": the French word and the English are nearly identical; and both have their usually unpleasant connotations of instability and vulnerability and lack of equilibrium translated into positive values by association with the poet's task. And that labor, in Char's aphorism, becomes hieratic and magical: the poet is a special being who turns our modern condition of insecurity—of human isolation and unbelief—into something else, his art. Still, we are warned that the poet will find no permanent refuge for himself in the realm of his poetry; his "satisfactions" are simply momentary releases from the "normal" state of shifting balances. This notion comes closer to Keats's "negative capability" than to any other well-known conception of the poet's role in England or America, but it is not the same because, for Char at this point in the twentieth century, the idea of the poem has altered almost completely. The metaphor of the cinder, though highly elliptical, seems to support a certain belief in inspiration through the wind or breath of the spirit which habitually restores life to the dying fire of imagination…. [Poems] appear to be the result of impersonal forces at work in the depths of the poet's unconscious or operating upon his immediate circumstance. (pp. 40-1)
Char, a native of Provence, led a group of the maquis there during the war and was a friend of the novelist Albert Camus. His poems and aphorisms show, in their emphasis on will, responsibility, and independence, a genuine affinity with the view of life expressed in La Peste, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, and L'Homme Revolté. (p. 41)
From the Surrealists to the recent group of new novelists, including Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Samuel Beckett, and others, there has been a strong and conscious tendency to focus on subjective states of mind and to depart from the accepted forms and traditions of literature. The doctrines of the Surrealists, if not always their practice, aimed at a literature and painting of revolutionary intention which exalted the impulsive, the illogical, and the chance; they deliberately rejected the influence of the artist's choice or will, the interference of his control…. The goal of Surrealism was to uncover the sources of thought by admitting the subconscious contents of the mind into the world of consciousness, reason, and practical affairs. Though the beliefs and techniques of these artists are remote from those of Valéry, we see again that art is drawn by centripetal force towards the self; its main concern seems once more to be a research into the spirit or psyche…. The novel and the poem withdraw to the opposite extremes of the single consciousness and the confession or to the quasi-journalistic account; they no longer support the arbitrary invention of elaborate fictional worlds and characters. The French veneration of the books of Henry Miller, all of them portions of an endless autobiography, is one of the signs of this anti-literary feeling. Like so much recent painting—Abstract Expressionism, Tachisme, and the like—which completely abandons the world of human faces and recognizable objects, replacing it with the painter's instinctive gesture, spiritual and physiological, unmediated by referential signs and images, this literature has assumed its own informality, an independence of the laws and expectations set up for poetry, fiction, and drama.
In the variety and unconventionality of his style, and in the momentary combinations of thought and emotion he wishes to discover through language, Char belongs—but in his own individual fashion—to this direction of modern writing. The poetry of Char is of several kinds, but these overlap; and such classification must not be taken as absolute. There are roughly three dominant classes: poems about poetry; poems dealing with the rural life and love he knows so well; poems treating man in extreme situations, especially those of war and death. The majority of his poems are prose poems or aphorisms, but even in these he experiments carefully with sounds and internal rhymes:
Homme de la pluie et enfant du beau temps,
vos mains de défaite et de progrès me sont
Man of rain and child of fine weather, I need
your hands of defeat and hands of pros-
A persistent element of the irrational can be found in Char's imagery. Some of his associations are so far-reaching and curious that a poem may assume the magical properties of a dream. "Le Visage Nuptial" exemplifies this strain in his work, one which shares characteristics of the Surrealist verse of Breton or Eluard: a startling juxtaposition of objects and qualities that defies the order of logical thinking; a mixture of visceral, sexual, and assorted psychological imagery; the sense of being witness to the fluid motions of the mind working loosely on an obsessive theme…. (pp. 43-4)
The basic tendency of Char's poetry leads just the other way from the exfoliation of unconscious images; that is, toward a tight, elliptical statement, an oracular utterance with its meanings compressed or suggested. I have already mentioned the aphorism with regard to Char, for so much of his prose takes that form. These aphorisms are both lyrical and dramatic in their intensity; and in spite of the riddling philosophical tone of many of them, they are fundamentally poems. Constituted of thoughts or emotions that appear to be struck off at the instant they occur, the aphorisms gain a terrible force and beauty through their spontaneity. As Char says, "Lucidity is the wound closest to the sun"; the poet needs to achieve a painful and shocking clarity, a lightning-stroke of vision. Whatever the subject matter of Char's works, and however densely metaphorical they might be, they always bear on man's position in the world. While he is without religious convictions of any sort, this poet possesses a humane and deeply moral imagination. His life in Provence has taught him a reverence for the things of earth: flowers, grass, bushes, streams, the various movements of wind and water, the routine of peasant and farmer. The order and simplicity of existence in these country regions provide the feeling of an ancient human pattern which serves as a framework for the values Char upholds. His sequence of little poems about legendary country vagabonds, "Les Transparents," fills the reader at once with an understanding of the pastoral background against which Char has created his poetic universe. A brief and lovely poem about a lark, "L'Alouette," renders his belief in freedom and the miraculous beauty that is natural only to life:
Extreme ember of the sky and first glow of day,
She stands, a jewel mounted in dawn, singing the shaken earth,
A chime that is master of its breath and free to choose its way.
To kill this enchantress, strike her with wonder.
The world, and the acts of the spirit within it, complete the province of human experience. Beyond that, there is annihilation and nothingness in Char's understanding. What happens here and now, within the physical and spiritual cosmos of man's mortal condition, counts for everything: "Eternity is not much longer than life."
Death, then, assumes the role of a hated antagonist for Char, and is a constant sinister presence in his poetry. The journal he kept while fighting with the maquis in 1943–44, Feuillets d'Hypnos, one of the most remarkable war documents of our time, revelas this presence at the margin of daily life. The book follows the same plan of aphorism and prose poem we find in Partage Formel and Le Poème Pulverisé. Here are jottings on events of the day; notes about the poet's companions; indications of peril and risk at every moment; severe self-examinations; incidents of heart-breaking tragedy; and a pervasive belief in the nobility of human life and freedom—with the poetic enterprise an essential part of that dignity. Poetry answers death because it arises from the details of living; it seizes in speech the mercurial transformations of experience and names them. In the face of annihilation, it gives substance to man's passing thought and emotion…. To Char's manner of thinking, literature erupts from the nature of things as they are, is an act bound by moral implication and human concern, though not in Sartre's more restricted sense of commitment…. The theme of fraternity runs like a current through all of Char's writings, nor just the war journals, and extends the feeling of community and companionship into the love poems, where the poet gains a more profound relationship with creation through his adoration of a woman. (pp. 45-7)
Though he has the skill of an accomplished craftsman, Char stands outside the institutional and professional areas of the literary life; no one would ever mistake him for a grand man of letters. His poetry itself, as I have already suggested, makes its appearance at the edge of any living situation, on the very fringe of human actions as they occur. Char might say that poetry is the whole manner of being, physical, moral, and imaginative, of a person immersed in a multifarious existence: poems are hieroglyphics or notations expressive of that life. As an admirer of the early Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, Char tries to obtain something of both the precision and the paradox of his fragmentary writings. The juxtaposition of apparently incongruous elements in Char's work reveals a mystery at its heart, and human experience is suddenly illumined by a light breaking from previously unseen affinities and tensions. Such truths do not allow paraphrase, which accounts for the difficulty of doing more for this poetry than indicating constant themes, subjects, attitudes; these poems, unlike Rilke's or Eliot's, do not lend themselves to exegesis. The poetic act projects its author into the future by realizing his desire. But the contradictory nature of this risk lies in the dangerous freedom which the poet enjoys, for he has become the man who invents and tests possibility, the one who refuses to call upon any external reserves of belief or creed or dogma…. The poet of Char's aphorisms is, of course, primarily himself: he follows his own dicta, his own paradoxes by setting them on paper. In a world "faced with the destroyed god," as he believes, the solitary figure of the poet is transformed into the last priest, the final proprietor of value. Char's art does not partake of the fullness of a culture because that is fast dissolving all about him in mechanical utopias and international aggression; but the poems he writes, while they are the most personal statements, are still universal. They invest with significance, with love and care the objects or the moments of life, preserve and place them in a numinous circumference about man.
Char's true line of descent comes directly from Rimbaud, though he never enters that completely other spiritual dimension which was the adolescent poet's habitation. His poems do not fashion a whole universe suggesting the "true life" which in our ordinary lives is "absent." Instead, Char's poems are fragments, snatches of the difficult complex of existence at any moment, words in which such bursts of thought, feeling, and instinct receive a transfiguring power; they are—to use a French word appropriate to them—témoinages, testimonials to the perseverance and beauty and potentiality of the human estate. Char does not differ much from the Camus who so admired him: each supports the worth of life before the threat of death as absolute, yet each is also endowed with the same religious impulse, which has to seek its outlet within the limitations of the physical world and the meagre span of an individual existence. As Georges Mounin says in his excellent book [Avez-vous lu Char?], Char opposes his common materialist notion of death with the supreme moment of life: a sunlit Grecian noon from whose heights death can be surveyed with "an objective serenity." In the prefatory comments to Feuillets d'Hypnos, Char speaks of the anonymity and impersonality of these notebooks: "A fire of dry grass might well have published them…. This notebook might well have belonged to no one, the meaning of a man's life being so subjacent to his wanderings…." Though he is most assuredly the author, in a more subtle way he is the mediator, for poetry comes into being through him, in a secret collaboration to which he reamins just one party. Char's poems are the "elementary poetry," to use Mounin's phrase, of a time, a place, a web of ideas and emotions as these come to focus in language through the writer's presence and craft. The last entry in these diary "leaves" brings together in two brief sentences the entire spirit of his work—a fundamental wish to have his writings give voice to the happenings of life and the things surrounding us, extract their utmost possibility and make them ours:
Within our darkness, there is not one place for Beauty. The whole place is for Beauty.
Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1961 by Chicago Review), Vol. 15, No. 2, 1961.
At a time when the presence of woman held a niggard place in French literature, surrealism revived the theme of love in poetry; Char himself, initially associated with the movement, contributed much to it. To him we owe ten or fifteen of the most gravely moving of modern poems, unabashedly proclaiming the tender beauty of that age-old force.
Some of Char's contemporaries, Breton himself among them, indulged in hyperbolic eulogies, cast in sumptuous poetic prose, of woman as the frail and weak companion who can rescue man from temptation and despair. Nadja and the nebulous feminine figure rapturously lauded in Arcane 17 are perhaps the intercessors between man and the mysteries of the earth and the unconscious, but they are seldom companions sharing, in lucid sanity, the higher concerns of the author. Enumerations of the woman's beauties or virtues, litanies in praise of her, repeated avowals of man's desperate need of her impart some monotony to the love poetry of Breton, Desnos and even Éluard. Clearly, the neck of eloquence had not been completely wrenched by the earlier generation of symbolists, and the new poets' erotic imagery seemed at times too facile. It was only with René Char that sobriety acquired poetic vigor and muted suggestiveness.
Char's originality as a severe and restrained poet is striking. His goal is serenity, but serenity is a stilled force with him, a composed tension and not a soft lull in which feelings are dormant. It lies beyond struggle and the tumultuous roarings of life, which are at last silenced. In À une sérénité crispée (To a Tensed Serenity; 1951) he stated that the greatness of a poet emerges from the number of insignificant pages he leaves unwritten. Interestingly, however, two of the longest of Char's poems remain among his finest, "Visage nuptial" … and Lettera amorosa, showing that not all eloquence is harmful to poetry and that not all amplification of expression of desire and tenderness deserves to be condemned. The verses that exalt love spurn at the same time all soft and melodious tones, resorting instead to jarring and abrupt rhythms. "O ma martelée" is Char's appeal to the loved one, evoking the incisive and obsessive hammering of a recurring presence and desire. Throbbing, pounding on the mind and the senses, love is a "masterless hammer" pulsating of its own force, dislocating and scattering fragments like twigs (brindilles); the poet is himself a stone-breaking Prometheus whose energy cuts up reality ("Pour un Prométhée saxifrage" …) and hurls luminous sparks into the distance.
Woman, always present even when she remains absent in Char's poetry, is nameless, undefined in age and features, a captivating force that is never provoking or coquettish. The contrast with more sensuous poets who indulged in erotic variations on the female body, reviving the blason du corps of the Renaissance poets, is sharp and total…. If, as Valéry once put it, eroticism consists in stressing selected parts of the woman's body rather than the whole, Char is in no way an erotic poet. His allusions to the female presence do not transfigure her into an ethereal, Pre-Raphaelite vision, but what emerges is more the energy that her love inspires than the shape of her beauty. Char remains close to the very earth he evokes, and his settings are composed of bushes, birds and beasts. His affection for the concrete, reduced to its simplest elements, permeates his verse. But both woman and nature emerge from his poetry blended and transfigured into enigmatic and abstract images. Avoiding the vague and spiritual adjectives often found in Baudelaire, such as "mystical," "sublime," "infinite," his verses are more like the fiery reflection of a consuming yearning: "Oh vaulted effusion upon the crown of her belly" …; or, in Lettera amorosa: "Tu es plaisir, corail de spasmes" (You are pleasure, coral of spasms). Even where a more specific allusion to female sexuality might be read, as in "L'amande croyable au lendemain neuf" (The credible almond with a new tomorrow), Char remains enigmatic and lofty. In one of his most rapturous and musical love poems he sees himself waking next to the loved woman, filled with a new energy and eagerly "picking the grapes of the fresh sky"; the allusion to woman's breast is remote and almost chaste here, only cautiously reminiscent of Baudelaire's and Valéry's "les grappes de ma vigne" (respectively in "Les bijoux" and "Anne"). Then, in two restrained verses throbbing with emotion, he pursues: "Lying beside you, I move your liberty. I am a clod of earth claiming its flower./Is there a finely worked throat more radiant than yours? To ask is to die!"… There are a few equally discreet mentions of kisses in Char; they are very remote from the erotic and complacently prolonged kisses of the Renaissance and Baroque lyrics, or even from the Baudelairean ones. In one of his later, very slim volumes, Le chien de coeur (1969), Char includes a five-line poem that remains among his most musical and in which the word lenteur is repeated with increasing force until it surges in a kind of climax. The title is "Le baiser".
Massive lenteur, lenteur martelée,
Humaine lenteur, lenteur débattue,
Déserte lenteur, reviens sur tes feux;
Sublime lenteur, monte de l'amour:
La chouette est de retour
(Massive slowness, hammered slowness,
Human slowness, contested slowness,
Deserted slowness, return on thy fiery lights;
Sublime slowness, ascend from love:
The owl is back.)
Love is a palpitating force that slowly reaches ecstasy here before the nature of birds and sounds can reassert its presence. A long embrace and total surrender live within the repeated sound of the word lenteur.
Nudity itself, far from being a theme for esthetic or erotic contemplation, appears grave, figurative, a spiritual presence, in Char's poems. In "Biens égaux" (Equal Goods), originally published in À une sérénité crispée, the poet expresses himself in the first person singular. He sketches the setting in which he grew up, his father's garden, his solitude, then the oncoming of mutual love. (pp. 366-67)
Much love poetry with and since the surrealists has portrayed the excitement of desire, a feeling akin to and yet different from the purely physical urge and from the calculated act of waiting meant to inflame the imagination in the delay of fulfillment. Such had been the case with Gide in his Fruits of the Earth and of the "attente infinite" in Valéry's La jeune Parque. The word occasionally occurs in Char's poems, always in a deeply sober mood and transfigured into images divested of sensuality. In a poem in Fureur et mystère the poet associates desire with the adjective grave and symbolizes it by a wheel which brings its periodic recurrence: "La grande roue errante si grave du désir" (The great wandering and grave wheel of desire). One of the nine aphorisms which make up "Afin qu'il n'y soit rien changé" …, a series of invocations to the woman, almost in the Petrarchan manner, beautifully declares, "Notre désir retirait à la mer sa robe chaude avant de nager sur son coeur" (Our desire withdrew its warm gown from the sea before swimming on her heart). The lover's desire is communicated to his partner through the old pressing formulas of invocation, "J'aime," "Je t'aime," "Je t'aimais" (in "Visage nuptial"), and through the repetition of the woman's name: Char's traditional reserve is abandoned for once in the evocation of Madeleine, the stylized and pure beauty that emerges from Georges de la Tour's seventeenth-century paintings.
The poet's use of terms of endearment is never childish or light, but always impregnated with nobleness. His use of "bien aimée" is an effective appeal, to which the less usual term "O Dévouée" ("Afin qu'il n'y soit rien changé") or "la Continuelle" (Lettera amorosa) is often preferred. In the beautiful prose poem "La Minutieuse" ("Thoroughgo" …), in which lives the unreality of a dream, the poet walks, against the background of nature, with his loved one, "between You and that Other who also was You."… The "two" women are the double image of his love, twice held in waking and in dream. His hands press on her bare breasts as he walks amidst fields and peasants. The visions of a child-woman and a woman-child blend into the image of a memory called love. What is "her eternal and beloved name" that his soul has forgotten? he asks. The answer is, "Je suis la Minutieuse." No term in English can convey all that is suggested by that word, implying solicitude, meticulous attention to details, effectiveness in humbly fulfilling a task. (p. 367)
If there is here little of the conventional, exasperated sensuousness found in much of the love poetry of Char's contemporaries, there is even less of the banal and declamatory sentimentality of some of the romantics and even of the symbolists…. [Tears] are scarce in the poetry of Char, perhaps the most restrained and virile poet in modern French literature. If sensibility is always held in check by the intellect, however, it vibrates in the great love hymns such as Lettera amorosa. The adoring quality of his feelings is expressed in concrete terms, in a love that is rendered visible by its own inner force…. (pp. 367-68)
The long and meandering poem, replete with mysterious or unpredictable but illuminating images, emerges as a canticle of praise and gratitude to the woman. It does not eschew sensual desire, or the hunger for ardent lips, the exultation of man being the equal of sun and night when standing at the very summit of pleasure. But the prevailing note is one of tenderness, of a pervasive blend of feelings and sensuousness or, as Nietzsche called it, "a rest from passion." Reciprocal confidence reigns between the two partners. The proud male who "stands upright while woman breathes," as in the striking final line of "Visage nuptial," consents to bow down, humbling pride in his love. "Ne te courbe que pour aimer" (Bow only to love) the poet wrote elsewhere, bestowing upon love alone the spark of divinity.
The joy that comes from the nearness of the loved one still lives in the presence of memory. As in the poetry of Shakespeare and Donne, absence enhances the lover's ardor. "You are gone but you remain in the inflection of circumstances" (Lettera amorosa)….
If in Char's poetry there is only scant insight into woman's mind and spirit, there is also a total absence of the complacent selfishness and the swollen self-importance that other poets at times display in their love praises. Char never consents to humble the loved one or to utilize her as a handmaid to his inspiration. Woman is to him the enticement away from despair, and it is as such that she appears in "La compagne du vannier" (The Basket-Weaver's Companion …), a poem that is itself a jewel reflecting the lights of a precious love. "Je t'aimais," utters the humble artisan. "I loved you … I brought back from despair a basket so tiny, my love, that it could be woven in wicker work." It is rare to discover in other poets the lovers' determination to draw energy from each other's tenderness and to face the future together, without there appearing at the same time moments of rapturous ecstasy or the complacency of mutual love almost uxorially displayed. Unhappiness and complaints have traditionally offered more fertile sources of inspiration than has the placid contentment of fully reciprocated feelings. Yet there is courage in the effort to hold happiness as an homage to the cherished one and to proffer it as a gift. Char has not recoiled from this. In Lettera amorosa he bluntly declares to the woman who has ascended with him the highest pinnacle of joy, "Je ris merveilleusement avec toi. Voilà la chance unique" (I laugh marvelously with you. Therein lies the unique chance), and he shifts from the lyricist's tone to that of the moralist: "I can only be and only want to live within the space and the freedom of my love. We are not together the product of a capitulation or the motive for an even more depressing servitude. Thus do we wage mischievously one against the other a guerrilla war without blame."
Yet love never dwells long in mutual contentment. Life is replete with other forces, and the world of men outside is not excluded. For a time, in the opening lines of "Visage nuptial," the poet's escort is dismissed and the lovers wish to relish their bliss in a solitude peopled by them alone. Elsewhere, even in Lettera amorosa, Char, who is a singer of friendship as he is of love, remains aware of the need that the two lovers have of others: "If there were only we two on this earth, my love, we should be without accomplices and without allies." The spontaenous direction of his love poetry is invariably away from regret and the past; it is an impetus that reaches for the moment to come. The inveterate moralist that, in a lofty sense, Char is, opposes or juxtaposes "resistance to fatality" ("Le bulletin des baux" …). For a poet who is bent toward the future, love is not an oasis of mutual contemplation or the ephemeral effort to arrest time. For this singer of spiritual energy, to love is to reach forward: "Nous sommes irrésistiblement jetés en avant," he states in "Dans la marche."… (p. 368)
In that sense, the one-time ally of the surrealists has remained true to André Breton's admonition to lovers: the lost paradises are not the most enchanting ones; paradises loom incessantly in front of us to be stormed. "How can we live without the unknown in front of us?" asks Char. The woman is no mere ornamental adjunct to his life, no pleasant pretext for strings of baroque or "precious" metaphors. Even when transfigured by her lover's desire, she remains concrete, endowed with the power to mediate between him and the pollen of flowers, the crickets in the fields, the springs and the majestic oaks ("Hommage et famine" …). Only rarely has French poetry been as stripped of all adornment, as grave and as fervent as the three brief stanzas which open one of the very few long poems by Char, the evocation of the three Parcae entitled "Les trois soeurs" (The Three Sisters …)…. Love is not merely a source of poetic inspiration for Char, nor is it the well from which generations of poets before him drew passionate lyrics. Rather, it is the image of a dynamic union in which both man and woman partake of a joy that is a rebirth and a symbol of life. His poems are more an homage to that feeling of total fulfillment than they are the expression of one's limited experience….
As the dean of French poets reaches in 1977 his seventieth year, surrounded in his solitude with the admiration of lovers of poetry in many countires, the restrained force of his verse has added new domains to the expression of passion, tenderness and desire. With grave nobleness he has remained steadily true to the definition of poetry which he once offered: "Le poème est l'amour réalisé du désir demeuré désir." (p. 369)
Henri Peyre, "René Char's Love Poetry," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 366-69.
In taking leave of coterie surrealism, René Char, half a generation younger than André Breton, interestingly moved in a direction parallel to that of Breton the poet, if not of Breton the surrealist activist. Both continued in the visionary path of Rimbaud, who had taken a new look at nature and at its dynamics; when he bid the Deluges return so that the sorcerer's knowledge of convulsive natural forces might become the substance of the poet's verbal alchemy, he opened a new chapter in the poet's relation with the cosmos.
Calling upon those forces, Breton and Char … developed a new kind of nature poetry which, without assuming any particular classification or new label, is an essential segment of modern poetics—one that is not yet sufficiently recognized. From Le marteau sans maître (including poems written from 1927 to 1937) to Le poème pulvérisé (1947) we follow Char's movement away from playful mating of objects and images to the mastery of a type of vision … which becomes thereafter a fundamental and deeply moving mark of his poetry.
Avowedly, nature could no longer be viewed anthropocentrically, and the complicity suggested by a system of anagogic correspondences was to be replaced by a vision consistent with scientific data. Henceforth the poet had to take the initiative in establishing links between his sensibilities and nature if indeed any rapport was to be preserved. The poetics of Breton, Char, Jehan Mayoux, of the Mexican Octavio Paz, the Argentine Aldo Pellegrini, the Chilean Gómez-Correa and the African Léopold Senghor are based on a naturism which duplicates in language the convulsive character of natural forces. Philosophically, it is based on the concept of a golden age, not sponsored by exterior divinities but based on our perception of divine manifestations in nature, forgotten and suppressed; for the development of a rational mentality has produced dichotomies that have gradually separated us from the context of the natural world.
In his prose poem "Jacquemard et Julia" Char expresses the occurrence of this rupture nostalgically. It is a poem that can be read two ways, one with an eye for the contradictions, such as light and darkness, land and sky, water and aridity. But one can also see that the contradictions which are of the present are set against a past when grass "knew a thousand devices which did not contradict each other" … and which in their conciliation embraced man as well. So, from the angle of the past all the roads are in concordance, animals in enchantment, time annihilated, errors sheltered, human tears wiped away; the bowed grain finds a direct path to the mouth of the bird. Grass was unkind only to those who were not willing to wander and lose their way. Then an abrupt break occurs in the poem, warning us of the passing of the idyllic golden age; the break is manifest in the very contradiction in language: "L'inextinguible sècheresse s'écoule." "Inextinguishable" suggests burning, which proceeds to the next word, "dryness" or absence of water, which is contradicted by the next word, s'écoule, i.e., water running. But when the figurative meaning is substituted, the protest of the poet, injected into the language, emerges. The dryness of man's life continues, runs on; for man has made himself "a stranger to the dawn."… (p. 380)
However, the poet ends on a note of hope rather than of dejection, for there are still those who recognize the tremors of the grass: "Cependant à la poursuite de la vie qui ne peut être encore imaginée, il y a des volontés qui frémissent, des murmures qui vont s'affronter et des enfants sains et saufs qui découvrent" (In the pursuit of life that cannot yet be imagined, there are free wills that tremble, murmurings that will be assertive, and children safe and sound who will discover). We are back to the faith expressed in Breton's First Manifesto: that the eidetic power which was taken away from us will someday be restored. The poetry of Char is full of that tenderness of childhood which must be guarded to rediscover the missing links to the circuit of nature where resides a state of grace.
Breton's theory of convulsive beauty was intricately connected with his concept of a cosmography of nature, of the delirium of interpretation which guides man in a "forest of indices," as he explained in L'amour fou. So it was that he linked the flesh of the woman he loved with "the snows on the summits in the rising sun." And in L'air de l'eau, love poems of the same period—which also marks Char's brilliant poetic genesis—Breton had traced the rainbow of his erotic embrace: "Ta chair arrosée de l'envol de mille oiseaux de paradis/Est une haute flamme couchée dans la neige." If we let the sense of these two poetic statements invade us with their full impact, we have at the same time the groundwork on which Char was to build the most resplendent levels of his poetic edifice through verbal resources particularly suited to universal coordinations.
The first of Breton's images fuses the human carnal substance with the element of water, combined with the quality of white/purity, and earth in its highest manifestation of summit, together with fire in terms of sun. The feminine elements of earth and water are invaded by the masculine one of fire, creating fusion and consummation on two levels: human love and cosmic concordance. In the second image again the human flesh is the starting point, and again it crosses barriers of nature's kingdoms: birds drenched in water, and flame in snow. The passage from human love to the cosmos is so smooth, like the flight of birds, that the contradictions of hot and cold, of solid and fluid, of visible and invisible are overcome in the conciliation which represents the fusion of the human embrace. (pp. 380-81)
The collaborative work of Breton, Éluard and Char called Ralentir Travaux (1930) attests to the conjecture that this interweaving of the human with the cosmic must have been reached in consortium by the three poets, who henceforth relinquished overtly or subtly (as in the case of Breton) the more urbane, gratuitous poetry of wordplay and image substitution representative of the earlier surrealist mode…. (p. 381)
In a 1931 poem Char declares the love process as the basic poetic process—attraction, gravitation, accolade: "Dans le domaine irréconciliable de la surréalité l'homme privilégié ne pouvant être que la proie gracieuse de sa dévorante raison de vivre: l'amour"…. Further in the collection of Le marteau sans maître we find a poem called "L'amour":
Tu ouvres les yeux sur la carrière d'ocre inexploitable
Tu bois dans un épieu l'eau souterraine
Tu es pour la feuille hypnotisée dans l'espace
À l'approche de l'invisible serpent
O ma diaphane digitale!
Man's search, expressed in the metonymy of the hunter's stick, is linked with ochre (earth), subterranean water, leaf in sky (vegetal and air), invisible serpent (fauna) and digital flower (flora); in fact, the flower classified as "digital" resembles the human finger and thus has a built-in linguistic duplication of the connection between the botanical and the human. The love upon which the poet opens his eye in this intricate design of nature, recipient of the human imprint, turns the notion of the juxtaposition of distant realities into the coordination of realities which lose their distance from each other under the spell that the poet casts upon them. And the adjectives hypnotisée and diaphane qualify the unimaginable union with an ecstatic purity best defined by the title of the poem, "Love."
René Char's poetry coordinates the universe in emanations and gravitations that synchronize the human heartbeat with the mysterious tremors which pulsate in the natural world. Since so much of the poet's work is the product of unconscious forces, the distance between art and nature is minimized, making way for interweaving and amalgamation. What Mallarmé called the "fiction" of the poet is in the poetry of René Char not the rival of the natural world but very close to nature's own fantasies. Poetry is perceived, then, in Char in "the fusing angle of an encounter."… Chance meetings create an image of fusion such as this: "La lune du lac prend pied sur la plage où le doux feu végétal de l'été descend à la vague qui l'entraîne vers un lit de profondes cendres" ("Donnerbach Mühle" …). Here we see light (lune), water (lac), earth (plage) and fire (feu) swept into a bed of cinders. In terms of the alchemical process of reducing to essence, we see, then, the interplay of the sidereal (lune), the vegetal (feu végétal) and the liquid (vague), a concert of forces creating movement, luminosity and darkness as if it were a contemplation in a hot moonlit summer night just before it gives way to the darkness of sleep and oblivion ("un lit de profondes cendres"): we have grasped man's brief moment of illumination before it turns to darkness. In fact, in the throes of such visions the poet becomes "lord of the impossible" ("A Pain I Dwell In" …).
Had not Rimbaud asserted that if flight is impossible, the poet's sole exit is through the alchemy of the word? René Char is of Rimbaud's heirs, and in Le poème pulvérisé he dared describe what does not exist and give presence to the indescribable, calling on all earthly forces to nourish his poetic spirit. The terra firma is a source of the light of diamond and of snow; it brushes his being, kindles his flesh. As the invisible becomes visible, so the visible becomes invisible to intensify perception: "La nuit et la chaleur, le ciel et la verdure se rendent invisibles pour être mieux sentis" ("Le bulletin des baux" …). He arranges tiers of poetic values, oriented toward the core of a pristine natural force:
Disposer en terrasses successives des valeurs poétiques tenables en rapports prémédités avec la pyramide du chant à l'instant de se révéler, pour obtenir cet absolu inextinguible, ce rameau du premier soleil; le feu non-vu, indécomposable. ("Partage formel" …)
From solid stance he proceeds to fluid passage, whose movements are associated with the dance of butterflies. Thus he gives the reader a sense of passing from one level of motion (water) to another (air). The poet learns to read the microcosm of nature: the storm and garden of its passage are self-contained in the trajectory of the swallow: "Dans la boucle de l'hirondelle un orage s'informe, un jardin se construit." He also knows how to project the microcosm into the macrocosm:
Les eaux parlaient à l'oreille du ciel.
Cerfs, vous avez franchi l'espace millénaire,
Des ténèbres du roc aux caresses de l'air.
(The waters spoke on into the sky's ear.
Stag, you and you and you have crossed millennia, the space
From rock darkness to the air's caresses.)
The Black Stag" …)
His fusion of beings and things sometimes reaches gratuitous proportions: "L'encre du tisonnier et la rougeur du nuage ne font qu'un" ("À la santé du serpent" …).
If such images were simple practices in the juxtaposition of distant realities, we might be tempted to accept them as a game process like those of Raymond Roussel; and indeed even as such, the versatility might be considered poetic virtuosity and a renewal of the system of analogies. However, in Char's poetry that type of expertise is not the seat of greatness in itself. Poetry is lodged in language, but since the poetic revolution of the nineteenth century it is also the substance of a philosophy and the basis of an epistemology. Of this Char is very much aware. Poet and lover are constantly identified: "Tu es dans ton essence constamment poète, constamment au zénith de ton amour."… Poetry is the power of the visionary, giving man new qualifications as a human being: "Poésie, la vie future à l'intérieur de l'homme requalifié."… Poetry becomes the touchstone of the requalification of the human.
In truth, for René Char poetry is an existential stance. It is a becoming, a movement into high gear; it is man's only remaining contact with his revised definition of the eternal: "Si nous habitons un éclair, il est le coeur de l'éternel."… It is an invitation to return to the natural insights with which other creatures are endowed, to reenter the universal order: "Pouvoir marcher sans tromper l'oiseau, du coeur de l'arbre à l'extase du fruit."… Finally, it is a rejection of the mechanical materialism that places man in a system without conscious design, despairingly automatic: "Néglige ceux aux yeux de qui l'homme passe pour n'être qu'une étape de la couleur sur le dos tourmenté de la terre."… Char's vast fresco of the natural world is not unlike Paul Claudel's, but without the promises of religious transcendence to the ultimate recognition of meaning. For Char, as for Breton and for a number of other nonreligious mystics, man's creativity has to meet nature's halfway; it is not a question of recognition but of invention of associations, such that each man's universe becomes as complex as his power of cognition, as the elasticity of his sensory tentacles.
Rimbaud, in his poem "Les voyelles," epitomized the spiritual by the color violet, radiant in eyes whose possessor remained ambiguous in the semantic hermeticism of his possessive adjective: "rayon violet de Ses Yeux." Char was to appropriate the color and identify it as the supreme degree of man's manifest divinity. In a very hermetic poem of Le poème pulvérisé entitled "Suzerain" he gives us the spiritual autobiography of his childhood: arising to awareness in a crepuscular light, effecting a kind of symbiosis with river, butterfly, weed; and then the death of that world, leaving only a mute Friend. The word "friend" as a luminous phantom plays the role of Génie in Rimbaud and Engel in Rilke. He teaches the adolescent how "to fly over the night of words" ("Il m'apprit à voler au-dessus de la nuit des mots"), to be free of stationary things like "ships at anchor." At the end he knows that he must leave his hometown to find love and to reach the next stage of his becoming. And strangely, when he attains the next abode, that of L'HOMME VIOLET (capitalized by the poet), he is disappointed by what he finds; he observes the same kind of corruption as in "Jacquemard et Julia." He finds a prisoner instead of a fugitive…. (pp. 381-83)
But what did the poet want to escape in the guise of the violet man? And where did he want to escape? Certainly not from his corporal existence into an eventual soul-existence! "Tu feras de l'âme qui n'existe pas un homme meilleur qu'elle" ("À la santé du serpent" …). Better than the soul-man is the earth-man whom the poet identifies throughout his work. His escape is from a blind assumption of the human space, and it is a penetration of the subjective and objective worlds simultaneously. The poet comes to grips with the non-anthropocentric universe without damning himself as hapless, for he has learned to become part of the network. And thus he is relieved of his solitude and of any sense of drifting. His is neither the ship at anchor nor the shipwreck of Mallarmé's Coup de dés. The vision that links man to bird, plant, stone, sun, moon and to the bowels of the earth also turns his eventual demise into a metamorphosis. Fire and water, in their power of transformation and absorption respectively, promote a kind of serenity in the poet rather than a noble but self-consuming despair such as Pascal's….
Let us not forget that René Char is a poet of the 40s and 50s, of that time when existentialism was highlighting Dasein as an act of human salvation; but the existentialist notion of involvement related to political action as the sure solace, whereas the poet's existential stance is of a quite different nature of involvement: it is a cosmic embrace…. It is deemed a privileged destiny to be able to absorb unto oneself the sun and the wind and to contemplate the kind of eternity Char accords to Antonin Artaud in his memorial to the erstwhile companion of his surrealist days:
Puis renaît plus tard dans la douceur du champignon …
Il suffit. Rentre au volcan.
Que nous pleurions, assumions ta relève ou demandions: "Qui est Artaud?" à cet épi de dynamite dont aucun grain ne se détache….
("Un adieu, un salut" …)
All of this explains if not logically, at least poetically, the contradiction of Char's self-assigned epigraph: "vivre, limite immense."… Recognizing the limits of the living process, by unfurling the infinite possibilities of the associations of man with his contiguities, Char has illustrated in his poetry what another companion of his youth, Louis Aragon, had stated in Le paysan de Paris: the only inconceivable notion is that of limit…. Indeed, the unconditional possibilities of passage into the variations of nature in the work òf Char illustrate the notion that limit is unthinkable. In the vertiginous layers of existence are gateways to insights, what Char calls "la connaissance aux cent passages."…
The naturalism of modern poets like Char is not linked to the romantics' love of nature nor to the sensual courtship of physical realities that are manifest in the poetry of Walt Whitman and in his wake in so many modern American poets…. [There] was on the part of nature a guardianship of man, sometimes effective and protective, other times resulting in a failed relationship. (p. 383)
In the case of poets of the category I have called "naturist"—of which René Char is perhaps the most versatile and resourceful living example—nature is a coordinator between the forces in the poet and the forces outside of the poet; whether within or without, they are forces of which the poet is not fully the master. The mystery of those latent powers in him—similar to the blinking of an animal's eye or the burning of a tree or the boiling of a worm in the wood ("Robust Meteors" …)—creates the sense of wonder in him, prepares the dialogue between himself and the mute universe. The reciprocity he has known in love is his sole index to the meaning of the universal reciprocity which he considers to be the primal purpose of existence. In repairing the separateness of man, source of alienation and despair, he is releasing the violet man from his prison house to resume his freedom. When the barriers are let down and the contact becomes communication, it is no longer a question of taking from nature or asking nature's protection; it is exchange, it is emergence from the labyrinth, it is that existence which Breton called "elsewhere" in the last sentence of the First Manifesto…. Char challenges his fellow beings to take stock of the riches within them left inert and in chains…. (pp. 383-84)
Char's "elsewhere" is immediate, a series of moments that constantly replenish each other, creating ubiquity out of immobility. It absolves the "I" from the particular to enter into the universal. Rarely does Char have to use the personal pronoun, for his sensibility is the radiance with which he endows the world around him. (p. 384)
Anna Balakian, "René Char in Search of the Violet Man," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 380-84.
René Char is today the undisputed giant among contemporary French poets. To read Char is to experience the best that modern poetry offers and at the same time to get a glimpse of the directions which poetry may take in the future. Yet to read Char is to face the challenge of entering a dense, elliptical, and fragmented universe. Char is a sketcher of traces, which demand reader activity and creativity…. [There] is no given approach to Char's poetic passage—the poem is there, just as a shooting star bursts into a showery pattern and quickly disappears. (pp. 784-85)
Virginia A. La Charite, "An Archipelago of Poetry," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1977, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 53, No. 4 (Autumn, 1977), pp. 784-86.