Convention. Ten days before the end, the painter J. B. Suvée executed the well-known portrait. He might have been overlooked but for the well-meant, indignant officiousness of his father. Marie-Joseph had done his best to prevent this, but he could do nothing more. Robespierre, who was himself on the brink of the volcano, remembered the venomous sallies in the Journal de Paris. At sundown on the 25th of July 1794, the very day of his condemnation on a bogus charge of conspiracy, André Chénier was guillotined. The record of his last moments by La Touche is rather melodramatic and is certainly not above suspicion.
Incomplete as was his career—he was not quite thirty-two—his life was cut short in a crescendo of all its nobler elements. Exquisite as was already his susceptibility to beauty and his mastership of the rarest poetic material, we cannot doubt that Chénier was preparing for still higher flights of lyric passion and poetic intensity. Nothing that he had yet done could be said to compare in promise of assured greatness with the Iambes, the Odes and the Jeune Captive. At the moment he left practically nothing to tell the world of his transcendent genius, and his reputation has had to be retrieved from oblivion page by page, and almost poem by poem. During his lifetime only his Jeu de paume (1791) and Hymne sur les Suisses (1792) had been given to the world. The Jeune Captive appeared in the Décade philosophique, Jan. 9, 1795; La Jeune Tarentine in the Mercure of March 22, 1801. Chateaubriand quoted three or four passages in his Génie du christianisme. Fayette and Lefeuvre-Deumier also gave a few fragments; but it was not until 1819 that a first imperfect attempt was made by H. de la Touche to collect the poems in a substantive volume. Since the appearance of the editio princeps of Chénier’s poems in La Touche’s volume, many additional poems and fragments have been discovered, and an edition of the complete works of the poet, collated with the MSS. bequeathed to the Bibliothèque Nationale by Mme Elisa de Chénier in 1892, has been edited by Paul Dimoff and published by Delagrave. During the same period the critical estimates of the poet have fluctuated in a truly extraordinary manner. Sainte-Beuve in his Tableau of 1828 sang the praises of Chénier as an heroic forerunner of the Romantic movement and a precursor of Victor Hugo. Chénier, he said, had “inspired and determined” Romanticism. This suggestion of modernity in Chénier was echoed by a chorus of critics who worked the idea to death; in the meantime, the standard edition of Chénier’s works was being prepared by M. Becq de Fouquières and was issued in 1862, but rearranged and greatly improved by the editor in 1872. The same patient investigator gave his New Documents on André Chénier to the world in 1875.
In the second volume of La Vie littéraire Anatole France contests the theory of Sainte-Beuve. Far from being an initiator, he maintains that Chénier’s poetry is the last expression of an expiring form of art. His matter and his form belong of right to the classic spirit of the 18th century. He is a contemporary, not of Hugo and Leconte de Lisle, but of Suard and Morellet. M. Faguet sums up on the side of M. France in his volume on the 18th century (1890). Chénier’s real disciples, according to the latest view, are Leconte de Lisle and M. de Heredia, mosaïstes who have at heart the cult of antique and pagan beauty, of “pure art” and of “objective poetry.” Heredia himself reverted to the judgment of Sainte-Beuve to the effect that Chénier was the first to make modern verses, and he adds, “I do not know in the French language a more exquisite fragment than the three hundred verses of the Bucoliques.” Chénier’s influence has been specially remarkable in Russia, where Pushkin imitated him, Kogloff translated La Jeune Captive, La jeune Tarentine and other famous pieces, while the critic Vesselovsky pronounces “Il a rétabli le lyrisme pur dans la poésie française.” The general French verdict on his work is in the main well summed by Morillot, when he says that, judged by the usual tests of the Romantic movement of the ’twenties (love for strange literatures of the North, medievalism, novelties and experiments), Chénier would inevitably have been excluded from the cénacle of 1827. On the other hand, he exhibits a decided tendency to the world-ennui and melancholy which was one of the earlier symptoms of the movement, and he has experimented in French verse in a manner which would have led to his excommunication by the typical performers of the 18th century. What is universally admitted is that Chénier was a very great artist, who like Ronsard opened up sources of poetry in France which had long seemed dried up. In England it is easier to feel his attraction than that of some far greater reputations in French poetry, for, rhetorical though he nearly always is, he yet reveals something of that quality which to the Northern mind has always been of the very essence of poetry, that quality which made Sainte-Beuve say of him that he was the first great poet “personnel et rêveur” in France since La Fontaine. His diction is still very artificial, the poetic diction of Delille transformed in the direction of Hugo, but not very much. On the other hand, his descriptive power in treating of nature shows far more art than the Trianin school ever attained. His love of the woodland and his political fervour often remind us of Shelley, and his delicate perception of Hellenic beauty, and the perfume of Greek legend, give us almost a foretaste of Keats. For these reasons, among others, Chénier, whose art is destined to so many vicissitudes of criticism in his own country, seems assured among English readers of a place among the Dii Majores of French poetry.
The Chénier literature of late years has become enormous. His fate has been commemorated in numerous plays, pictures and poems, notably in the fine epilogue of Sully Prudhomme, the Stello of A. de Vigny, the delicate statue by Puech in the Luxembourg, and the well-known portrait in the centre of the “Last Days of the Terror.” The best editions are still those of Becq de Fouquières (Paris, 1862, 1872 and 1881), though these are now supplemented by those of L. Moland (2 vols., 1889) and R. Guillard (2 vols., 1899). (T. Se.*)
CHENIER, MARIE-JOSEPH BLAISE DE (1764–1811), French poet, dramatist and politician, younger brother of André de Chénier, was born at Constantinople on the 11th of February 1764. He was brought up at Carcassonne, and educated in Paris at the Collège de Navarre. Entering the army at seventeen, he left it two years afterwards; and at nineteen he produced Azémire, a two-act drama (acted in 1786), and Edgar, ou le page supposé, a comedy (acted in 1785), which were failures. His Charles IX was kept back for nearly two years by the censor. Chénier attacked the censorship in three pamphlets, and the commotion aroused by the controversy raised keen interest in the piece. When it was at last produced on the 4th of November 1789, it achieved an immense success, due in part to its political suggestion, and in part to Talma’s magnificent impersonation of Charles IX. Camille Desmoulins said that the piece had done more for the Revolution than the days of October, and a contemporary memoir-writer, the marquis de Ferrière, says that the audience came away “ivre de vengeance et tourmenté d’une soif de sang.” The performance was the occasion of a split among the actors of the Comédie Française, and the new theatre in the Palais Royal, established by the dissidents, was inaugurated with Henri VIII (1791), generally recognized as Chénier’s masterpiece; Jean Calas, ou l’école des juges followed in the same year. In 1792 he produced his Caius Gracchus, which was even more revolutionary in tone than its predecessors. It was nevertheless proscribed in the next year at the instance of the Montagnard deputy Albitte, for an anti-anarchical hemistich (Des lois et non du sang!); Fénelon (1793) was suspended after a few representations; and in 1794 his Timoléon, set to Étienne Méhul’s music, was also proscribed. This piece was played after the fall of the Terror, but the fratricide of Timoléon became the text for insinuations to the effect that by his silence Joseph de Chénier had connived at the judicial murder of André, whom Joseph’s enemies alluded to as Abel. There is absolutely nothing to support the calumny, which has often been repeated since. In fact, after some fruitless attempts to save his brother, variously related by his biographers, Joseph became aware that André’s only chance of safety lay in being forgotten by the authorities, and that ill-advised intervention would only hasten the end. Joseph Chénier had been a member of the Convention and of
- This is the date given by G. de Chénier in his La Vérité sur la famille de Chénier (1844).