René Char Analysis

Other Literary Forms

Like many French poets, René Char has written a great number of prose poems and is considered one of the finest practitioners in this genre since Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, by whom he was heavily influenced. These works are scattered throughout Char’s poetry collections, suggesting that he does not distinguish the prose poem as a separate form. Char has published several volumes of essays, including Recherche de la base et du sommet (1955; inquiry into the base and the summit) and Sur la poésie (1958; on poetry). He has also contributed a number of prefaces, introductions, and catalogs for art shows, such as the 1973 Picasso exhibit in Avignon. Char’s lifelong interest in painting is reflected in essays on Georges Braque, Joan Miró, and other contemporary artists; he has also been active in other arts, writing the scenario for the ballet L’Abominable Homme des neiges (1956; the abominable snowman), for example, and the play Le Soleil des eaux (1949). Char’s work has been set to music by composer Pierre Boulez.


Early in his poetic career, René Char was deeply involved in Surrealism, coauthoring several works with Paul Éluard and André Breton and gaining some recognition for his work. Under that influence, he was encouraged in his taste for the fragment—the incomplete line and “broken” metaphor, which he called le poème pulvérisé. These Surrealist techniques led to his being identified with the movement but did not lead to serious individual recognition.

After World War II, Char dedicated his Leaves of Hypnos to Albert Camus, a fellow Resistance fighter, who called Char France’s greatest living poet, praising his shift from the self-absorption of Surrealism to a more universal view. Char thereby became associated with the rising tide of existentialism and achieved recognition as a major poet. Char also is credited with achieving a new validation for the prose poem, which, though it had a long tradition in France, was still regarded as a stepchild of “real” poetry.

Surrealist Period

Char’s early association with Surrealism might be regarded as an influence in that direction, or it may be seen as a reflection of what Char already was reaching for in his work. As Camus wrote, “No doubt he did take part in Surrealism, but rather as an ally than as an adherent, and just long enough to discover that he could walk alone with more conviction.” This is the general critical appraisal. Anna Balakian, however, asserts that Char carries on the tradition of Surrealism better than anyone else. As Char describes in Le Poème pulvérisé, he faces—like Breton and the others—“this rebellious and solitary world of contradictions” and cannot live without the image of the unknown before him. In this vast unknown, this world finally impossible to understand (hence the Surrealist’s despair), one can only be an explorer, and poetry is the medium of exploration: words and meaning in conflict. Irrationality is crucial in setting aside the world of illusion and seeing beyond, to the more legitimate world of dreams. The Nuptial Countenance has been cited as exhibiting this trait in its mixing of objects that defy classification; it has many resemblances to the works of Breton and Éluard.

Critic Mechthild Cranston argues that Char took two important insights with him when he broke with Surrealism: He saw that the existing world order was in need of reexamination, along with the canons of art, and that violence and destruction would not solve the problems of his generation. The first idea has remained with him throughout his career, in his commitment to the Resistance and in his generally leftist politics. The second, however, has undergone modification. In Char’s Surrealist period, he speaks of the need for violence, catastrophes, and crimes to help create a new concept of art. “Les Soleils chanteurs” mentions specific kinds of violence which will revitalize poetry. Char’s poetry of this period is filled with images of chemicals, metals, and machinery, like the works of the Futurists, and has a similar purpose: to destroy the florid, false language of late Romanticism. Char’s experience of the real—not metaphorical—violence of World War II changed his orientation. In his poetry published since the war, he has abandoned the rhetoric of the Surrealists, achieving a new humility and seeking the simplicity of a child’s vision.

Later Poetry

Char’s later poetry is also distinguished by its moral intensity, particularly its commitment to freedom. In Char’s view, anything that inhibits human freedom is immoral. The poet’s duty is to do battle continually against anything that would restrict humankind’s ability to seek meaning. This includes any preconceived ideas, even the idea of liberty itself. One might see in this stance a combination of the didactic nature of Surrealism and the call to action and freedom in existentialism. Like the existentialists, Char attempts to recreate ethics for modern man, yet in doing so he invokes the mystery so important to Surrealist art. Thus, for Char, poetry is an existential stance, a becoming, an invitation to return to natural insights and to reject mechanical materialism.


Caws, Mary Ann. The Presence of René Char. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. Critical interpretation of selected works by Char. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Caws, Mary Ann. René Char. Boston: Twayne, 1977. An introductory biography and critical interpretation of selected works by Char. Includes an index and bibliography.

Eichbauer, Mary E. Poetry’s Self-Portrait: The Visual Arts as Mirror and Muse in René Char and John Ashbery. New York: P. Lang, 1992. An analysis of the relationship to visual art of the poetry of Char and Ashbery. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Lawler, James R. René Char: The Myth and the Poem. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. A critical analysis of Char’s poetry. Includes bibliographic references.

Minahen, Charles D., ed. Figuring Things: Char, Ponge, and Poetry in the Twentieth Century. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1994. A critical study and comparison of the works of René Char and Francis Ponge. Includes bibliographic references.

Piore, Nancy Kline. Lightning: The Poetry of René Char. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981. A short critical study of selected poems. Includes an index and bibliography.