1902 Encyclopedia > André-Marie de Chénier

André-Marie de Chénier
French poet

ANDRE-MARIE DE CHÉNIER, (1762-1794), French poet, was born at Constantinople, where his father, Louis de Chénier, author of several works on Oriental history, was consul-general. Sent in infancy to France, he lived till his ninth year at Carcassonne, under care of a paternal aunt ; and in 1773, on his father's return, he was placed at the Parisian College de Navarre. At sixteen he was rhyming from Sappho and reading the Greek authors. At twenty (1782) he obtained a sub-lieutenancy in the regiment of Angoumois, then in garrison at Strasburg. He left Paris, and reported himself at headquarters. But military life had no charm for him, and neither the neighbourhood of Brunck, whose Analecta was one of his favourite books, nor the classic tradition of the Alsatian capital, could bind him to his calling ; in six months he threw up his commission and returned to Paris. There he studied hard, and wrote idylls (Le Mendiant, L'Aveugle, Le Jeune Malade) ; he sketched out plans of great poems ; he sat and talked with Palissot, David, and Pindar-Lebrun. A serious illness was induced by excess of work ; to complete his recovery he set out, in company with the brothers Trudaine, towards the end of 1784, for Switzerland, Italy, and the Archi-pelago. In 1786 he returned to Paris, plunged into study anew, and conceived the passion for Madame de Bonneuil which inspired so many of the perfect elegiacs afterwards to win regard and imitation from Hugo himself.

He was five-and-twenty, and at heart a Greek. The Idyllists and Anthologists were his masters. From their styles did he compound his own ; and from them did he learn the exquisite purity of form, the admirable restraint, the chastened vigour of thought and diction, that render him pre-eminent among modern poets. And with the Élégies and Art d'Aimer, which are the purely subjective fruit of this part of his life, he prepared the plans for other and greater structures. In L'Invention, a completed poem, he promulgated a noble theory of aesthetics, in the Hermes, an incomparable fragment, he made himself the Lucretius of his epoch; in Suzanne, which remains a mere canevas, he purposed to deal in the style of Milton with a biblical episode. A few only of his friends were admitted to his feast of poesy ; and he continued for some time to work and wait. But his family were anxious that he should settle in life, and a secretaryship in the French Legation at London was offered him. It cost him much to accept it, as his fine idyll La Liberté remains to prove ; but in the December of 1787 he left for England.

His residence beyond sea was unhappy enough. The duties of his place occupied him scarcely at all; and among English poets he cared only for Milton, the purely intellectual quality of whose verse seems to have been pecu-liarly grateful to him. In 1790 he resigned his post, and returned to France. The Revolution was in full coil; and Chénier, who worshipped liberty and loathed anarchy, threw in his lot at once with the moderate party. Intro-duced into the brilliant " Société de '89," he drew up for it a manifesto of principles (Avis aux Français sur leurs Véritables Ennemis), which, moderate in substance and aggressive in form, gained him the honours of a translation into Polish, together with a medal from King Stanislas, and brought down upon him, through the Révolutions de France et de Brabant, the wrath of Camille Desmoulins. In 1791 he addressed to David the painter his Dithyrambe sur le Jeu de Paume—-one of the most Pindaric of modern odes ; he was defeated in his candidature for a seat in the National Assembly; and in 1792 an invective against the jacobins, published in the Journal de Paris, involved him in a quarrel with his brother, Joseph Chénier, whom he was afterwards to defend against the attacks of Burke. This dispute was followed by his Archilochian iambics, Sur les Suisses Révoltés du Régiment de Châteauvieux. The Tenth of August, in ruining the hopes of monarchy, ended his chances of political success, and he resolved to retire from the arena, and devote himself wholly to art. The trial of Louis XVI. brought him, however, once more to the front; he assisted in preparing the defence, the responsibility of which he offered to share with Malesherbes ; and he drew up an appeal to the people which was rejected in favour of the letter afterwards printed in the Moniteur. He was broken in health and spirits ; Paris was dangerous ; he went to Rouen and to Versailles. At the latter place he wrote the poems to "Fanny" and the A Versailles, so highly praised and subtly analyzed by Sainte-Beuve.

But he had never ceased to oppose and to stigmatize the action of the Jacobin section, and his mind was turned toward the inevitable end. It came at last. At Passy (6th January 1794) his opposition to the arrest of a Madame de Pastoret, with whom he was staying, led to his own seizure and to his incarceration in the Saint-Lazare. A durance of some months ensued ; he wrote for Mademoiselle de Coigny, duchess of Fleury, the beautiful elegy, La Jeune Captive, and for the Convention the furious iambics so often read and quoted. At the tribunal he appeared with forty-four others ; thirty-eight were con-demned to death. On the morrow (25th July 1794) with Boucher the poet, Trenck, and the Counts de Montalembert and de Créqui, André Chénier was taken to death. As he descended the Conciergerie steps he said to Boucher, " Je n'ai rien fait pour la postérité. Pourtant (striking his forehead)j'avais quelque chose là." According to Henri de Latouche, Boucher and Chénier, as the tumbrel rolled scaffoldwards, repeated to each other the first scene of the Andromaque ; another account represents Boucher as noisily valiant, while Chénier was mute and thoughtful. Three days afterwards, in the same place, Robespierre and his fellows were executed, and the Terror was at an end.

The poems of André Chénier, with the exception of the Dithyrambe and the Ode to Charlotte Corday, both of which saw light during his life, remained unedited for five-and-twenty years. A selection from his manuscripts was published at last, with retouches, by Henri de Latouche, the novelist and journalist. The moment was opportune young France was in revolt against the bastard classicism of the great century, and Chénier became a force in modern letters. Sainte-Beuve has compared his influence over the poets of the romantic movement of the second Renaissance—an influence that restrains and chastens—to that of Ingres over its painters. His greatest excellence now is one of form ; and this is said entirely without prejudice as to his matter. His sympathy with Milton is a striking fact in his intellectual character, and one that will help not a little to a just appreciation of his poetical qualities. To the English reader, conscious and mindful of the rolling majesty of the Miltonic harmonies, the verse of Chénier, always vigorous and declamatory, often splendid and stately, sometimes passionate and lyrical, may seem ineffectual enough. To his countrymen it is otherwise : " Une flûte de buis, un archet d'or, une lyre d'ivoire," says Sainte-Beuve, " le beau pur, en un mot, voilà André Chénier."

See Sainte-Beuve, Critiques et Portraits, tome ii. ; Tableau de la poésie française; Becq de Fouquières, Documents nouveaux sur André Chénier; Œuvres en prose d'André Chénier, Paris, 1840. An edition of the poems in one volume forms part of the Bibliothèque Charpentier ; a second, in three volumes, was published by Becq de Fouquières, 1862; a third, also in three volumes, is included in Lemerre's valuable series of reprints. (W. E. H. )

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