Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/André Chénier

2715295Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VI — André Chénier
1861-1862Alphonse Esquiros

Page:Once a Week Dec 1861 to June 1862.pdf/49 Page:Once a Week Dec 1861 to June 1862.pdf/50 Page:Once a Week Dec 1861 to June 1862.pdf/51 Restoration came: and at the moment when Béranger, Casimir Delavigne, Victor Hugo, and Lamartine were seeking in different ways and by different means to regenerate the poetic inspiration, a most unexpected combatant appeared in the arena, where so many ambitious youths were rushing to the fight.

“Whence comest thou?”

“From the tomb.”

“Who consecrated thee a poet?”

“The scaffold.”

“Thy name?”

“André Chenier.”

It was really he, whose MSS. emerged one by one from the coffin in which the poet and his thoughts lay buried. The first of these MSS. was discovered and published by M. Delatouche, author of “Fragoletta.” It was soon followed by several others, and the effect of such a posthumous publication was prodigious. From these exhumed pages an odour of balsam and antiquity was exhaled, as from the rolls of papyrus discovered in a sarcophagus and opened by skilful hands. The poets of the empire, Abbé Delille at their head, had translated the Greek and Latin poets; but there is a great difference between translating the ancients, and possessing a true taste for the beauties of the classics. André Chénier found once again the sources of Hippocrene: his verse, liberated from the servitude and monotony which the cæsura had imposed on French poetry since the seventeenth century, had successfully reassumed that lightness and freedom which is noticeable in some of the lines written by old Marot. His idylls, poems, and epistles had a freshness of style unknown for a lengthened period; but what most charmed connoisseurs was his elegies, in which a modern thought, a true and personal feeling, and a gentle melancholy, springing from the times in which we live, were allied to the pagan grace of the ancients. In all this there was something more than a poet: it was for France the dawn of a new literature.

The authenticity of André Chénier’s MSS. has never been seriously contested, and could not be so. I must quote on this head, however, Béranger’s opinion—not that I for a moment believe it sustainable, but because coming from such a man it interests the world of letters. Owing to reasons doubtless resulting from his character and the nature of his genius—for I will not believe in a feeling of envy—Béranger did not share the general enthusiasm for the recovered poetry of André Chénier. He even went much further, for for he actually doubted whether it were really written by the man to whom it was attributed. One day that I spoke with him on this subject, he said to me, “When Delatouche is dead, you may see a thing that will greatly surprise you.” Delatouche has died since then, and I have seen nothing that surprised me: Béranger’s meaning, however, was very clear: he supposed that the literary world was the dupe of a clever mystification, and that the proof of the fact would be found some day in the papers of the mystifier. I was acquainted with M. Delatouche: he was himself a poet and man of talent, but as he had the misfortune to publish his own verses after those of André Chénier, it is only too easy to draw the distinction between them. Delatouche was, moreover, a misanthrope, the hermit of the Vallée aux Loups: he might be accused of being of a critical and bitter temperament, but he was incapable of a fraud. When he was laughingly asked whether he were not the author of André Chénier’s poetry, he repulsed, for the sake of his own character, the honour which such a supposition might do to his talent. The original MSS., besides, have been inspected by more than one trustworthy expert.

Alphonse Esquiros.