André Chénier: Poetry on the Guillotine | Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold | Scene4 Magazine-November 2015

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

Across a large, blood-scrawled banner inscribed with the infamous words of Robespierre: Même Platon a banni des poètes de sa République! (Even Plato banished poets from his republic) hung over the stage of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden for the new Sir David McVicar production of the opera, Andrea Chénier, which opened in January 2015, shortly after the tragedy in Paris at Charlie Hebdo, where terrorists massacred twelve members of the publication’s staff for airing their views in print. Suddenly, Giordano’s verismo opera seemed to take on a frighteningly contemporary relevance, with its hero, the 18th century French poet, André Chénier, condemned as much for his writings as his supposed politics, a powerful symbol for freedom of speech and a hymn to poetry as the voice of truth and beauty. 

While the opera is revived with some regularity (when there are tenors up to its considerable vocal-dramatic demands), fewer people are aware of the artist who inspired the composer and whose verses can be counted among the most eloquent in French literature. Indeed, while Chénier’s output is significant and brilliant, given his short life, he is perhaps best remembered for only a handful of immortal poems, among them two written in the shadow of the guillotine. La Jeune Captive and “Comme un dernier rayon” (from Iambes) are among the most wrenching cri de coeurs ever penned, and these alone would be sufficient to secure Chénier’s place in the pantheon of French literature.


André Chénier, the son of a merchant, was born in Constantinople in 1762, and throughout his life, he identified strongly with his Greek origins, inheriting an aesthetic and cultural affinity for all things Hellenic. His early travels took him to Marseilles and eventually to Paris in 1781, where his mother had emigrated and had established a salon. At his father’s urging, he served briefly as a solider in a regiment near Strassbourg, but soon took up the more congenial occupations of secretary and journalist, at one point serving the French ambassador to England.  Like Goethe and so many of the later Romantics, he traveled to Italy to imbibe the classical culture there, and immersed himself in the intellectual and artistic life of late 18th century Paris. He found himself in England at the outbreak of the French Revolution, and believing the cause to be a just and virtuous one, returned to Paris to lend his pen to the revolutionary rhetoric. But after a few months, Chénier grew disenchanted with the accelerating chaos, bloodshed, and cruelty around him. He tried to distance himself by withdrawing from Paris, ceasing his journalism, and it was in Rouen that he found himself when the Reign of Terror was declared.


Increasingly, Chénier’s writings became suspect in Robespierre’s eyes, as did his associations with the ancien régime in his ambassadorship. His defense of the king – Chénier believed in a constitutional monarchy – became all but heresy, and his brief romance with the aristocrat Mme. Le Coulteux all combined to doom the poet. Following his beloved to Paris when she returned to attempt to free her arrested husband, Chénier, himself, was soon afterwards arrested and accused of treason. Among the charges, the most serious was that as a poet he was “a subverter of minds and men.” Refusing to give up the names of his friends, he was imprisoned in St. Lazare, transferred to la Conciergerie, tried and condemned to death and, with his friend Jean Roucher at his side, mounted the scaffold of the guillotine on July 25, 1794.


The poet, whose name is now honored for his, passionate, idealistic, and elegantly crafted works, remained unpublished (but for two poems) in his lifetime.  If, as one critic wrote, “André, dying as he did on the guillotine, believed only that a great poet was perishing,” that judgment would have been news to his contemporaries. It was left to the subsequent generation of Romantics – both British and Continental – to discover the poet, whose writing, for all its classical roots, spoke in very similar Romantic strains. The first volume of his collected works appeared in 1819; his manuscripts entered the Bibliothėque nationale in 1892, but it was not until 1940 that La Pléiade, the definitive collection of French classics, issued his complete prose and poetry.

Chénier’s sense of vocation illuminated his brief life and gave him the courage to face death. In so many ways, he was a child of that transitional era between Neo-classicism and Romanticism, between Goethe and Shelley, Keats, and Byron, and his embrace of the ideals of beauty and the redeeming power of poetry were governing principles in his life and work. His poetry is deeply rooted in Greek ideals, and he consciously employs the forms of ancient classical poetry in his own verse, adapting the odes and iambes to French diction with an exquisite mastery. But to this formalism, he adds spontaneity of emotion that prefigures the great Romantics, and it is the freshness of that voice which endears Chénier to the modern ear.


As a journalist, Chénier’s writing was erudite and well reasoned, his rhetoric moderate in an inflammatory time. He was aware of the hackles both his poetry and his prose often raised, but he was proudly determined to speak the truth as he saw it, and he abhorred senseless violence. Defending Louis XVI, he descried the inhuman treatment of the royal family: “Dear God! It is on account of the men, magistrates, dignitaries of this immense city that the fall, the tears, the abandonment of a father, his wife, a sister, young children, who are taken from a palace and thrown into prison, isolated from each other so that they may not even share their sufferings…..[that they are treated with] both indifference and insult!” In addition to political journalism, he wrote about aesthetics, and as his life drew to a close became more and more concerned for the immortality of his poetry. His last letter from Versailles in October 1793 to his father entrusts a packet of his manuscripts for safekeeping. Exactly how his last verses written in prison survived is unclear, but miraculously La Jeune Captive and Les Iambes remain as immortal voices soaring above the bloody hand of fate.

Chénier experimented with various classical verse forms, writing bucoliques and idylles (mythic pastorals inspired by Virgil), as well as elegies, odes (a form Keats would later perfect), and iambes. One of his most frequently anthologized poems, the elegaic idyll La Jeune Tarentine, is a melancholy evocation of a young woman whom he idealizes with mythic grace, who is drowned at sea enroute to her wedding, mourned by the nymphs, and installed among a pantheon of demi-gods. In his supremely musical handling of the verse, Chénier creates a work almost perfect in both form and sentiment. Pleurez, doux alcyons,
o vous, oiseaux sacrés,/ Oiseaux chers à Thétis, doux alcyons, pleurez,
(“Weep, sweet winds and you sacred brids, birds dear to Thetis, sweet winds, weep!”), Chénier writes in verse that prefigures Shelley’s Adonais. He incarnates the sensuous beauty of nature in both death and life, and he manages to endow the myth with a level of human emotion that elevates it from sheer symbolic narrative and raises the depth of its grief to the heights of sublimity.

One of the most exquisite of his elegies O, Versailles, was written in the last months of 1793. It is a lament for the lost grandeur of art and for the fallen monarchy, as well as a paean to the sad and somber aspect of the edifice, which somehow retains its dignity despite the ravages of the Terror. Writing of the memory laden gardens, the beauty of nature and the remembrance of the elegance of art contrasted with the injustice and destruction of the Revolution, Chénier gives to the poem a sense of urgency. In the poet’s self-imposed retreat, the image of his beloved alone inspires joy and spiritual liberty. The stately edifice, a symbol, of a faded past, is endowed with a new life by virtue of his pen and by the spirit of love and hope that fills his heart.  Chénier succeeds in depicting the duality of his sentiments, as well as the complexity of living in this era. He describes with great sensitivity the transition between two worlds, the cataclysmic passing of an age and the search, through art, of establishing a new virtue and beauty. He is not without despair, but he clings to hope, though it be a torture, and yet he is ultimately fatalistic, closing the elegy with the prophetic lines: Tout a coup á mes yeux s’enveloppent de deuil,/J’y vois errer l’ombre livide/D’un people d’innocents, qu’un tribunal perfide/Précipite dans le cerceuil. (“Suddenly grief envelops my eyes, I see the livid shadow of innocent people whom a perfidious tribunal plunges into the grave.”)

The sense of impending doom has lost the hypothetical; it has become a reality by the time Chénier pens the heartrending last poems, La Jeune Captive and Iambes. La Jeune Captive was written during the poet’s imprisonment at St. Lazare, where he met Mlle. De Coigny, who shared his captivity for four months before finally escaping the guillotine. In the poem Chénier immortalizes the laments of the young woman facing death, and she becomes, in fact, his alter ego, his own expression of sorrow and farewell to the beauty of life and art. Striking the haunting chords of the girl’s innocent voice, Chénier makes her words, at once feeble and strong, an eloquent articulation of the poetic
ideal. Each of the nine verses begins with a lament addressed to either life or death, while the musicality of the  rhythms carries the speaker and reader forward in waves of emotion on a sea that is suspended somewhere between both worlds. Then suddenly, in the last two stanzas, the poet drops the mask of narrator and speaks in his own voice, letting his lyre which has reproduced the voice of the captive now become an echo. Abandoning the comforting purity and lovely harmony of the girl’s song, he speaks directly, acknowledging the somber destiny which looms. Chénier’s uncanny ability to divide his own soul in two, to share his own identity with that of the young captive, allows him to express the ephemerality of his soul – the innocence, purity, love, hope which the captive represents – as well as the bitter reality of his temporal existence. Yet, for all its pathos, La Jeune Captive is a hymn to the poetic spirit; the young woman becomes Chénier’s Muse and the verses she “dictates” contain the unquenchable yearnings and ideals of his heart. Je veux achiever ma journée…Je ne veux point mourir encore (“I want to live my full life…I do not want to die yet!”), the captive mourns, and in her voice we hear the poet’s aching pain.

Similarly, in the last of the ten Iambes, “Comme un dernier
rayon,” Chénier’s final testament, the poet takes his impassioned leave of life: Au pied de l’échafaud, j’essaye encore my lyre (“at the foot of the scaffold, I still sound my lyre.”) Writing to fill his last days, but also to leave behind a legacy that is as much his poetic credo as anything he has written, Chénier seeks the courage to confront approaching death and to find some meaning and transcendence. That purpose is his belief in the transforming power of poetry and in the eternity of his own body of work. But he does not arrive at that affirmation of faith without taking a painful journey through doubt and even fear. Ma vie importe á la vertu? (“Has my life contributed to virtue?”), he asks midway through the verses, before he becomes his own judge, reviewing his life and accomplishments, his poetic quest, his search for justice, and then embracing this final journey. There is a quasi-religious fervor to his prayer, sauvez-moi (“save me”) as he asks to be delivered from this world of violence, bloodshed, and barbarity (Vienne la mort – “Come, death”) and there is an
ever-ascending ecstasy as he places his faith in his poetic mission. Je souffre, mais je vis (“I am suffering, but I live”), he writes affirming the reality of his imprisonment but also the prophecy of the immortality of his verse, asserting O ma plume! fiel, bile, horreur, Dieux de ma vie!/ Par vous seuls je respire encore (“O my pen,  hatred, bile, horror, Gods of my life! By you alone do I yet live”) as he invokes his pen as his sword, his last defiant voice against tyranny, and builds to his climactic invocation of liberty and justice.


The flamboyance of the poet’s voice and the tragic circumstances of his premature death, naturally, made him a hero for subsequent generations, and his life was immortalized in numerous dramatic incarnations, among them a novel (Stello) by Alfred de Vigny and the opera by Umberto Giordano. While Giordano’s opera tends to simplify  and focus on Chénier’s romantic attachment to Maddalena di Coigny (a mélange of Mme. Le Coulteux and Mlle de Coigny, his young captive), the passionately intense verismo score does capture the revolutionary essence of the poet’s character, as well as his quest for idealized beauty in art and love. Notable Chéniers have included Franco Corelli and Placido Domingo, but perhaps no tenor has captured the complex substance of the poet’s character better than Jonas Kaufmann in the recent Covent Garden production. Whether by conscious research or felicitous intuition (or a combination of both), gifted singing-actor that he is, Kaufmann manages to create a Chénier who is not a cardboard hero - all dash and macho defiance - but rather a sensitive human being, sometimes dreamy, a bit of a loner, inspired by his own ideals and quests, who is drawn unwillingly into the political chaos swirling about him. His Chénier is vulnerable, proud, idealistic, yet realistically aware of the ironies of fate. By the time he sings Come un bel di di maggio, the final aria based on Comme un dernier rayon, he has transformed, by virtue of his sublime singing of Giordano’s moving score, death into something eternal, into the poetic apotheosis of a life devoted to art and beauty and the independence of thought.  Viva la morte insieme, (“Hail to death together!”) the operatic Chénier and his Maddalena sing before mounting the tumbril.


If the historical André Chénier was not accompanied to the guillotine by a beloved woman, he did, nonetheless, die in the company of his loyal friend Roucher, but even more importantly, he died embracing his belief in the immortality of his art, in the oneness of the poet with his poetry, and in the ability of that creation to serve as a beacon of moral force, of love, beauty, and the eternity of the spirit.

Toi, Vertu, pleure si je meurs (“You, o virtue, weep should I die”) were the poet’s final words.

Jonas Kaufmann, Royal Opera House, 2015




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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold |

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold's new book is Bookends (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. Read her Blog.
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