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This quiet roof, where dove-sails saunter by,
Between the pines, the tombs, throbs visibly.
Impartial noon patterns the sea in flame --
That sea forever starting and re-starting.
When thought has had its hour, oh how rewarding
Are the long vistas of celestial calm!
What grace of light, what pure toil goes to form
The manifold diamond of the elusive foam!
What peace I feel begotten at that source!
When sunlight rests upon a profound sea,
Time's air is sparkling, dream is certainty --
Pure artifice both of an eternal Cause.
Sure treasure, simple shrine to intelligence,
Palpable calm, visible reticence,
Proud-lidded water, Eye wherein there wells
Under a film of fire such depth of sleep --
O silence! . . . Mansion in my soul, you slope
Of gold, roof of a myriad golden tiles.
Temple of time, within a brief sigh bounded,
To this rare height inured I climb, surrounded
By the horizons of a sea-girt eye.
And, like my supreme offering to the gods,
That peaceful coruscation only breeds
A loftier indifference on the sky.
Even as a fruit's absorbed in the enjoying,
Even as within the mouth its body dying
Changes into delight through dissolution,
So to my melted soul the heavens declare
All bounds transfigured into a boundless air,
And I breathe now my future's emanation.
Beautiful heaven, true heaven, look how I change!
After such arrogance, after so much strange
Idleness -- strange, yet full of potency --
I am all open to these shining spaces;
Over the homes of the dead my shadow passes,
Ghosting along -- a ghost subduing me.
My soul laid bare to your midsummer fire,
O just, impartial light whom I admire,
Whose arms are merciless, you have I stayed
And give back, pure, to your original place.
Look at yourself . . . But to give light implies
No less a somber moiety of shade.
Oh, for myself alone, mine, deep within
At the heart's quick, the poem's fount, between
The void and its pure issue, I beseech
The intimations of my secret power.
O bitter, dark, and echoing reservoir
Speaking of depths always beyond my reach.
But know you -- feigning prisoner of the boughs,
Gulf which cats up their slender prison-bars,
Secret which dazzles though mine eyes are closed --
What body drags me to its lingering end,
What mind draws it to this bone-peopled ground?
A star broods there on all that I have lost.
Closed, hallowed, full of insubstantial fire,
Morsel of earth to heaven's light given o'er --
This plot, ruled by its flambeaux, pleases me --
A place all gold, stone, and dark wood, where shudders
So much marble above so many shadows:
And on my tombs, asleep, the faithful sea.
Keep off the idolaters, bright watch-dog, while --
A solitary with the shepherd's smile --
I pasture long my sheep, my mysteries,
My snow-white flock of undisturbed graves!
Drive far away from here the careful doves,
The vain daydreams, the angels' questioning eyes!
Now present here, the future takes its time.
The brittle insect scrapes at the dry loam;
All is burnt up, used up, drawn up in air
To some ineffably rarefied solution . . .
Life is enlarged, drunk with annihilation,
And bitterness is sweet, and the spirit clear.
The dead lie easy, hidden in earth where they
Are warmed and have their mysteries burnt away.
Motionless noon, noon aloft in the blue
Broods on itself -- a self-sufficient theme.
O rounded dome and perfect diadem,
I am what's changing secretly in you.
I am the only medium for your fears.
My penitence, my doubts, my baulked desires --
These are the flaw within your diamond pride . . .
But in their heavy night, cumbered with marble,
Under the roots of trees a shadow people
Has slowly now come over to your side.
To an impervious nothingness they're thinned,
For the red clay has swallowed the white kind;
Into the flowers that gift of life has passed.
Where are the dead? -- their homely turns of speech,
The personal grace, the soul informing each?
Grubs thread their way where tears were once composed.
The bird-sharp cries of girls whom love is teasing,
The eyes, the teeth, the eyelids moistly closing,
The pretty breast that gambles with the flame,
The crimson blood shining when lips are yielded,
The last gift, and the fingers that would shield it --
All go to earth, go back into the game.
And you, great soul, is there yet hope in you
To find some dream without the lying hue
That gold or wave offers to fleshly eyes?
Will you be singing still when you're thin air?
All perishes. A thing of flesh and pore
Am I. Divine impatience also dies.
Lean immortality, all crêpe and gold,
Laurelled consoler frightening to behold,
Death is a womb, a mother's breast, you feign
The fine illusion, oh the pious trick!
Who does not know them, and is not made sick
That empty skull, that everlasting grin?
Ancestors deep down there, 0 derelict heads
Whom such a weight of spaded earth o'erspreads,
Who are the earth, in whom our steps are lost,
The real flesh-eater, worm unanswerable
Is not for you that sleep under the table:
Life is his meat, and I am still his host.
'Love,' shall we call him? 'Hatred of self,' maybe?
His secret tooth is so intimate with me
That any name would suit him well enough,
Enough that he can see, will, daydream, touch --
My flesh delights him, even upon my couch
I live but as a morsel of his life.
Zeno, Zeno, cruel philosopher Zeno,
Have you then pierced me with your feathered arrow
That hums and flies, yet does not fly! The sounding
Shaft gives me life, the arrow kills. Oh, sun! --
Oh, what a tortoise-shadow to outrun
My soul, Achilles' giant stride left standing!
No, no! Arise! The future years unfold.
Shatter, O body, meditation's mould!
And, O my breast, drink in the wind's reviving!
A freshness, exhalation of the sea,
Restores my soul . . . Salt-breathing potency!
Let's run at the waves and be hurled back to living!
Yes, mighty sea with such wild frenzies gifted
(The panther skin and the rent chlamys), sifted
All over with sun-images that glisten,
Creature supreme, drunk on your own blue flesh,
Who in a tumult like the deepest hush
Bite at your sequin-glittering tail -- yes, listen!
The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!
The huge air opens and shuts my book: the wave
Dares to explode out of the rocks in reeking
Spray. Fly away, my sun-bewildered pages!
Break, waves! Break up with your rejoicing surges
This quiet roof where sails like doves were pecking.
Original French Text
Le cimetière marin
Translation by C. Day Lewis
The French text and English translation side by side
Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes;
Midi le juste y compose de feux
La mer, la mer, toujours recommencee
O récompense après une pensée
Qu'un long regard sur le calme des dieux!
Quel pur travail de fins éclairs consume
Maint diamant d'imperceptible écume,
Et quelle paix semble se concevoir!
Quand sur l'abîme un soleil se repose,
Ouvrages purs d'une éternelle cause,
Le temps scintille et le songe est savoir.
Stable trésor, temple simple à Minerve,
Masse de calme, et visible réserve,
Eau sourcilleuse, Oeil qui gardes en toi
Tant de sommeil sous une voile de flamme,
O mon silence! . . . Édifice dans l'ame,
Mais comble d'or aux mille tuiles, Toit!
Temple du Temps, qu'un seul soupir résume,
À ce point pur je monte et m'accoutume,
Tout entouré de mon regard marin;
Et comme aux dieux mon offrande suprême,
La scintillation sereine sème
Sur l'altitude un dédain souverain.
Comme le fruit se fond en jouissance,
Comme en délice il change son absence
Dans une bouche où sa forme se meurt,
Je hume ici ma future fumée,
Et le ciel chante à l'âme consumée
Le changement des rives en rumeur.
Beau ciel, vrai ciel, regarde-moi qui change!
Après tant d'orgueil, après tant d'étrange
Oisiveté, mais pleine de pouvoir,
Je m'abandonne à ce brillant espace,
Sur les maisons des morts mon ombre passe
Qui m'apprivoise à son frêle mouvoir.
L'âme exposée aux torches du solstice,
Je te soutiens, admirable justice
De la lumière aux armes sans pitié!
Je te tends pure à ta place première,
Regarde-toi! . . . Mais rendre la lumière
Suppose d'ombre une morne moitié.
O pour moi seul, à moi seul, en moi-même,
Auprès d'un coeur, aux sources du poème,
Entre le vide et l'événement pur,
J'attends l'écho de ma grandeur interne,
Amère, sombre, et sonore citerne,
Sonnant dans l'âme un creux toujours futur!
Sais-tu, fausse captive des feuillages,
Golfe mangeur de ces maigres grillages,
Sur mes yeux clos, secrets éblouissants,
Quel corps me traîne à sa fin paresseuse,
Quel front l'attire à cette terre osseuse?
Une étincelle y pense à mes absents.
Fermé, sacré, plein d'un feu sans matière,
Fragment terrestre offert à la lumière,
Ce lieu me plaît, dominé de flambeaux,
Composé d'or, de pierre et d'arbres sombres,
Où tant de marbre est tremblant sur tant d'ombres;
La mer fidèle y dort sur mes tombeaux!
Chienne splendide, écarte l'idolâtre!
Quand solitaire au sourire de pâtre,
Je pais longtemps, moutons mystérieux,
Le blanc troupeau de mes tranquilles tombes,
Éloignes-en les prudentes colombes,
Les songes vains, les anges curieux!
Ici venu, l'avenir est paresse.
L'insecte net gratte la sécheresse;
Tout est brûlé, défait, reçu dans l'air
A je ne sais quelle sévère essence . . .
La vie est vaste, étant ivre d'absence,
Et l'amertume est douce, et l'esprit clair.
Les morts cachés sont bien dans cette terre
Qui les réchauffe et sèche leur mystère.
Midi là-haut, Midi sans mouvement
En soi se pense et convient à soi-même
Tête complète et parfait diadème,
Je suis en toi le secret changement.
Tu n'as que moi pour contenir tes craintes!
Mes repentirs, mes doutes, mes contraintes
Sont le défaut de ton grand diamant! . . .
Mais dans leur nuit toute lourde de marbres,
Un peuple vague aux racines des arbres
A pris déjà ton parti lentement.
Ils ont fondu dans une absence épaisse,
L'argile rouge a bu la blanche espèce,
Le don de vivre a passé dans les fleurs!
Où sont des morts les phrases familières,
L'art personnel, les âmes singulières?
La larve file où se formaient les pleurs.
Les cris aigus des filles chatouillées,
Les yeux, les dents, les paupières mouillées,
Le sein charmant qui joue avec le feu,
Le sang qui brille aux lèvres qui se rendent,
Les derniers dons, les doigts qui les défendent,
Tout va sous terre et rentre dans le jeu!
Et vous, grande âme, espérez-vous un songe
Qui n'aura plus ces couleurs de mensonge
Qu'aux yeux de chair l'onde et l'or font ici?
Chanterez-vous quand serez vaporeuse?
Allez! Tout fuit! Ma présence est poreuse,
La sainte impatience meurt aussi!
Maigre immortalité noire et dorée,
Consolatrice affreusement laurée,
Qui de la mort fais un sein maternel,
Le beau mensonge et la pieuse ruse!
Qui ne connaît, et qui ne les refuse,
Ce crâne vide et ce rire éternel!
Pères profonds, têtes inhabitées,
Qui sous le poids de tant de pelletées,
Êtes la terre et confondez nos pas,
Le vrai rongeur, le ver irréfutable
N'est point pour vous qui dormez sous la table,
Il vit de vie, il ne me quitte pas!
Amour, peut-être, ou de moi-même haine?
Sa dent secrète est de moi si prochaine
Que tous les noms lui peuvent convenir!
Qu'importe! Il voit, il veut, il songe, il touche!
Ma chair lui plaît, et jusque sur ma couche,
À ce vivant je vis d'appartenir!
Zénon! Cruel Zénon! Zénon d'Êlée!
M'as-tu percé de cette flèche ailée
Qui vibre, vole, et qui ne vole pas!
Le son m'enfante et la flèche me tue!
Ah! le soleil . . . Quelle ombre de tortue
Pour l'âme, Achille immobile à grands pas!
Non, non! . . . Debout! Dans l'ère successive!
Brisez, mon corps, cette forme pensive!
Buvez, mon sein, la naissance du vent!
Une fraîcheur, de la mer exhalée,
Me rend mon âme . . . O puissance salée!
Courons à l'onde en rejaillir vivant.
Oui! grande mer de delires douée,
Peau de panthère et chlamyde trouée,
De mille et mille idoles du soleil,
Hydre absolue, ivre de ta chair bleue,
Qui te remords l'étincelante queue
Dans un tumulte au silence pareil
Le vent se lève! . . . il faut tenter de vivre!
L'air immense ouvre et referme mon livre,
La vague en poudre ose jaillir des rocs!
Envolez-vous, pages tout éblouies!
Rompez, vagues! Rompez d'eaux rejouies
Ce toit tranquille où picoraient des focs!
His first novel, What I'm Going to Do, I Think (1969) won acclaim, and received the William Faulkner Foundation Award for the "best first novel of 1969"; Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1975) sold over 1,000,000 copies, and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Book Critics Circle Award. He has received two awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, including the Medal of Merit, rewarded every six years, for a "distinguished contribution to the art of the short story": a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship and a Lannan Foundation Studio Award; the John Dos Passos Prize, for a distinguished body of work, and the Aga Khan Prize for short fiction, and the Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award, the highest honor a North Dakota citizen may receive, among other awards and prizes, and he has published two dozen stories in The New Yorker.
Born in Carrington, North Dakota, Woiwode attended the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) for four-and-a-half years, where he worked with John Frederick Nims and Charles Shattuck, and after serving as copywriter and voice-over and live talent for a CBS affiliate in the area he left to live in New York for five years; later he returned to New York state, after the death of John Gardner, and took Gardner's position as director of the Creative Writing Program at the State University of New York, Binghamton; he was a tenured full professor there, besides directing the Creative Writing Program. He spent several years living and working on short stories and his third novel in the Chicago area before returning to North Dakota in 1978, where he lives twelve miles outside Mott and raises registered quarterhorses.
Besides his tenure at SUNY-Binghamton, he has served as Writer in Residence at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and conducted summer sessions as a professor at Wheaton College, Chicago, and the C.S. Lewis Seminars at Cambridge; he has also conducted seminars and workshops in fourteen states of the U.S., all of the Canadian provinces but British Columbia, and in England, Lithuania, and the Scandinavias. His work has been translated into a dozen languages, and Johnathan Yardley, of the Washington Post Book Work, named Beyond the Bedroom Wall one of the 20 best novels of the 20th Century. Woiwode has published a dozen books in a variety of genres, six of which have been named notable books of the year by the New York Times Book Review. His most recent publications are two memoirs that were widely received and reviewed, What I Think I Did and A Step From Death. He is currently Writer in Residence at Jamestown College in Jamestown, North Dakota.
- Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture (essays, 2011)
- A Step from Death (memoir, 2008)
- What I Think I Did: A Season of Survival in Two Acts (memoir, 2000)
- Aristocrat of the West: The Story of Harold Schafer (nonfiction, 2000)
- Acts (a commentary on the book of Acts, 1993)
- Silent Passengers: Stories (stories, 1993)
- Indian Affairs (novel, 1992)
- Neumiller Stories(stories, 1989)
- Born Brothers (novel, 1988)
- Poppa John (novel, 1981)
- Eventide (poems, 1977)
- Beyond the Bedroom Wall (novel, 1975)
- What I'm Going to Do, I Think (novel, 1969)
Valéry was born of a Corsican father and Genoese-Istrian mother in Sète, a town on the Mediterranean coast of the Hérault, but he was raised in Montpellier, a larger urban center close by. After a traditional Roman Catholic education, he studied law at university, then resided in Paris for most of the remainder of his life, where he was, for a while, part of the circle of Stéphane Mallarmé.
Though his earliest publications date from his mid-twenties, Valéry did not become a full-time writer until 1920, when the man for whom he worked as private secretary, a former chief executive of the Havas news agency, Edouard Lebey, died of Parkinson's disease. Until then, Valéry had, briefly, earned his living at the Ministry of War before assuming the relatively flexible post as assistant to the increasingly impaired Lebey, a job he held for some twenty years.
After his election to the Académie française in 1925, Valéry became a tireless public speaker and intellectual figure in French society, touring Europe and giving lectures on cultural and social issues as well as assuming a number of official positions eagerly offered to him by an admiring French nation. He represented France on cultural matters at the League of Nations, and he served on several of its committees. The Outlook for Intelligence (1989) contains English translations of a dozen essays resulting from these activities.
In 1931, he founded the Collège International de Cannes, a private institution teaching French language and civilization. The College is still operating today, offering professional courses for native speakers (for educational certification, law and business) as well as courses for foreign students.
He gave the keynote address at the 1932 German national celebration of the 100th anniversary of the death of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This was a fitting choice, as Valéry shared Goethe's fascination with science (specifically, biology and optics).
In addition to his activities as a member of the Académie française, he was also a member of the Academy of Sciences of Lisbon, and of the Front national des Ecrivains. In 1937, he was appointed chief executive of what later became the University of Nice. He was the inaugural holder of the Chair of Poetics at the Collège de France.
During World War II, the Vichy regime stripped him of some of these jobs and distinctions because of his quiet refusal to collaborate with Vichy and the German occupation, but Valéry continued, throughout these troubled years, to publish and to be active in French cultural life, especially as a member of the Académie française.
In 1900, he married Jeannie Gobillard, a friend of Stéphane Mallarmé's family, who was also a niece of the painter, Berthe Morisot. The wedding was a double ceremony in which the bride's cousin, Morisot's daughter, Julie Manet, married the painter, Ernest Rouart. Valéry and Gobillard had three children: Claude, Agathe, and François.
Valéry served as a juror with Florence Meyer Blumenthal in awarding the Prix Blumenthal, a grant given between 1919 and 1954 to young French painters, sculptors, decorators, engravers, writers, and musicians.
Valéry died in Paris in 1945. He is buried in the cemetery of his native town, Sète, the same cemetery celebrated in his famous poem, le Cimetière marin.
The great silence
Valéry is best known as a poet, and he is sometimes considered to be the last of the French symbolists. However, he published fewer than a hundred poems, and none of them drew much attention. On the night of 4 October 1892, during a heavy storm, Paul Valéry underwent an existential crisis, an event that made a huge impact on his writing career. Eventually, around 1898, he quit writing altogether, and, for nearly twenty years, Valery did not publish a single word. This hiatus was due, in part, to the death of his mentor, Stéphane Mallarmé. When, in 1917, he finally broke his 'great silence' with the publication of La Jeune Parque; he was forty-six years of age.
La Jeune Parque
This obscure, but sublimely musical, masterpiece, of 512 alexandrine lines in rhyming couplets, had taken him four years to complete, and it immediately secured his fame. With "Le Cimetière marin" and "L'Ebauche d'un serpent," it is often considered one of the greatest French poems of the twentieth century.
The title was chosen late in the poem's gestation; it refers to the youngest of the three Parcae (the minor Roman deities also called The Fates), though for some readers the connection with that mythological figure is tenuous and problematic.
The poem is written in the first person, and is the soliloquy of a young woman contemplating life and death, engagement and withdrawal, love and estrangement, in a setting dominated by the sea, the sky, stars, rocky cliffs, and the rising sun. However, it is also possible to read the poem as an allegory on the way fate moves human affairs or as an attempt to comprehend the horrific violence in Europe at the time of the poem's composition. The poem is not about World War I, but it does try to address the relationships between destruction and beauty, and, in this sense, it resonates with ancient Greek meditations on these matters, especially in the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus. There are, therefore, evident links with le Cimetière marin, which is also a seaside meditation on comparably large themes.
Before la Jeune Parque, Valéry's only publications of note were dialogues, articles, some poems, and a study of Leonardo da Vinci. In 1920 and 1922, he published two slim collections of verses. The first, Album des vers anciens (Album of ancient verses), was a revision of early but beautifully wrought smaller poems, some of which had been published individually before 1900. The second, Charmes (from the Latin carmina, meaning "songs" and also "incantations"), further confirmed his reputation as a major French poet. The collection includes le Cimetière marin, and many smaller poems with diverse structures. 'Le Cimetière marin' is mentioned or indirectly implied or referred to in at least four of Iris Murdoch's novels, The Unicorn, The Time of the Angels, The Nice and the Good and The Sea, The Sea.
Valéry's technique is quite orthodox in its essentials. His verse rhymes and scans in conventional ways, and it has much in common with the work of Mallarmé. His poem, Palme, inspired James Merrill's celebrated 1974 poem Lost in Translation, and his cerebral lyricism also influenced the American poet, Edgar Bowers.
His far more ample prose writings, peppered with many aphorisms and bons mots, reveal a conservative and skeptical outlook on human nature, verging on the cynical. However, he never said or wrote anything giving aid or comfort to any form of totalitarianism popular during his lifetime.
all respected Valéry's thinking and became friendly correspondents. Valéry was often asked to write articles on topics not of his choosing; the resulting intellectual journalism was collected in five volumes titled Variétés.
Valéry's most striking achievement is perhaps his monumental intellectual diary, called the Cahiers (Notebooks). Early every morning of his adult life, he contributed something to the Cahiers, prompting him to write: "Having dedicated those hours to the life of the mind, I thereby earn the right to be stupid for the rest of the day."
The subjects of his Cahiers entries often were, surprisingly, reflections on science and mathematics. In fact, arcane topics in these domains appear to have commanded far more of his considered attention than his celebrated poetry. The Cahiers also contain the first drafts of many aphorisms he later included in his books. To date, the Cahiers have been published in their entirety only as photostatic reproductions, and, only since 1980, have they begun to receive scholarly scrutiny.
Valéry is currently considered a touchstone for those interested in constructivist epistemology, for instance, in Jean-Louis Le Moigne's description of constructivist history.
- Introduction à la méthode de Léonard de Vinci (1895)
- La soirée avec monsieur Teste (1896)
- La Jeune Parque (1917)
- Album des vers anciens (1920)
- Charmes (1922)
- Variétés I (1924)
- Variétés II (1930)
- Regards sur le monde actuel. (1931)
- Variétés III (1936)
- Variétes IV (1938)
- Mauvaises pensées et autres (1942)
- Tel quel (1943)
- Variétes V (1944)
- Vues (1948)
- Œuvres I (1957), édition établie et annotée par Jean Hytier, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade / nrf Gallimard
- Œuvres II (1960), édition établie et annotée par Jean Hytier, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade / nrf Gallimard
- Prose et Vers (1968)
- Cahiers I (1973), édition établie, présentée et annotée par Judith Robinson-Valéry, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade / nrf Gallimard
- Cahiers II (1974), édition établie, présentée et annotée par Judith Robinson-Valéry, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade / nrf Gallimard
- Cahiers (1894–1914) (1987), édition publiée sous la direction de Nicole Celeyrette-Pietri et Judith Robinson-Valéry avec la collaboration de Jean Celeyrette, Maria Teresa Giaveri, Paul Gifford, Jeannine Jallat, Bernard Lacorre, Huguette Laurenti, Florence de Lussy, Robert Pickering, Régine Pietra et Jürgen Schmidt-Radefeldt, tomes I-IX, Collection blanche, Gallimard
In English translation:
- 1964. Selected Writings of Paul Valery. New Directions.
- 1977. Paul Valery: An Anthology. James Lawler, ed. Bollingen (Princeton Univ. Press).
- 1989. The Outlook for Intelligence. Denise Foliot and Jackson Mathews, trans. Bollingen (Princeton Univ. Press).
- 2000- Paul Valéry's Cahiers/Notebooks. Volumes I- . Editor-in-chief: Brian Stimpson. Associate editors Paul Gifford, Robert Pickering. Translated by Paul Gifford. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
- Michel Philippon, "Paul Valéry, une Poétique en poèmes", Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 1993
- Michel Philippon, "Un Souvenir d'enfance de Paul Valéry", Éditions InterUniversitaires, 1996
- Octave Nadal, La Jeune Parque, manuscrit, présentation, étude critique, Le Club du Meilleur Livre, 1957.
He was born in the Galata district (today Karaköy neighborhood) of Constantinople. His father, Louis Chénier, a native of Languedoc, after twenty years in the Levant as a cloth-merchant, was appointed to a position equivalent to that of French consul at Constantinople. His mother, Élisabeth Santi-Lomaca, whose sister was grandmother of Adolphe Thiers, was of Greek origins. When André was three years old, his father returned to France, and from 1768 to 1775 served as consul-general of France in Morocco. The family, of which André was the third son, and Marie-Joseph (see below) the fourth, remained in France; and after a few years, during which André ran wild with an aunt in Carcassonne, he distinguished himself as a verse-translator from the classics at the Collège de Navarre in Paris.
In 1783 he enlisted in a French regiment at Strasbourg, but the novelty soon wore off. He returned to Paris before the end of the year, was well received by his family, and mixed in the cultivated circle which frequented his mother's salon, including Lebrun-Pindare, Antoine Lavoisier, Jean François Lesueur, Claude Joseph Dorat, and, a little later, the painter Jacques-Louis David.
He had already decided to become a poet, and worked in the neoclassical style of the time. He was especially inspired by a 1784 visit to Rome, Naples, and Pompeii. For nearly three years, he studied and experimented in verse without any pressure or interruption from his family. He wrote mostly idylls and bucolics, imitated to a large extent from Theocritus, Bion and the Greek anthologists. Among the poems written or at least sketched during this period were L'Oaristys, L'Aveugle, La Jeune Malode, Bacchus, Euphrosine and La Jeune Tarentine. He mixed classical mythology with a sense of individual emotion and spirit.
Apart from his idylls and his elegies, Chénier also experimented with didactic and philosophic verse, and when he commenced his Hermes in 1783 his ambition was to condense the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot into a long poem somewhat after the manner of Lucretius. Now extant only in fragments, this poem was to treat of man's place in the universe, first in an isolated state, and then in society. Another fragment called "L'Invention" sums up Chénier's thoughts on poetry: "De nouvelles pensees, faisons des vers antiques" ("From new thoughts, let us make antique verses").
Chénier remained unpublished. In November 1787 an opportunity of a fresh career presented itself. The Chevalier de la Luzerne, a friend of the Chénier family, had been appointed ambassador to Britain. When he offered to take André with him as his secretary, André knew the offer was too good to refuse, but was unhappy in England. He bitterly ridiculed "... ces Anglais. Nation toute à vendre à qui peut la payer. De contrée en contrée allant au monde entier, Offrir sa joie ignoble et son faste grossier." Although John Milton and James Thomson seem to have interested him and a few of his verses show slight inspiration from Shakespeare and Thomas Gray, it would be an exaggeration to say Chénier studied English literature.
The events of 1789 and the startling success of his younger brother, Marie-Joseph, as political playwright and pamphleteer, concentrated all his thoughts upon France. In April 1790 he could stand London no longer, and once more joined his parents at Paris in the rue de Cléry. France was on the verge of anarchy. A strong believer in constitutional monarchism, Chénier believed that the French Revolution was already complete and that all that remained to be done was the inauguration of the reign of law. Though his political viewpoint was moderate, his tactics were dangerously aggressive: he abandoned his gentle idyls to write poetical satires. His prose "Avis au peuple Français" (24 August 1790) was followed by the rhetorical "Jeu de paume", a somewhat declamatory moral ode addressed to the painter Jacques-Louis David.
In the meantime he orated at the Feuillants Club, and contributed frequently to the Journal de Paris from November 1791 to July 1792, when he wrote his scorching iambs to Jean Marie Collot d'Herbois, Sur les Suisses révoltés du regiment de Châteauvieux. The insurrection of 10 August 1792 uprooted his party, his paper and his friends, and he only escaped the September Massacres by staying with relatives in Normandy. In the month following these events his brother, Marie-Joseph, had entered the anti-monarchical National Convention. André raged against all these events, in such poems as Ode à Charlotte Corday congratulating France that "Un scélérat de moins rampe dans cette fange." At the request of Malesherbes, the defense counsel to King Louis XVI, Chénier provided some arguments to the king's defense.
After the king's execution he sought a secluded retreat on the Plateau de Satory at Versailles and only went out after nightfall. There he wrote the poems inspired by Fanny (Mme Laurent Lecoulteux), including the exquisite Ode à Versailles. His solitary life at Versailles lasted nearly a year. On 7 March 1794 he was arrested at the house of Mme Piscatory at Passy. Two obscure agents of the Committee of Public Safety (one of them named Nicolas Guénot) were in search of a marquise who had fled, but an unknown stranger was found in the house and arrested on suspicion of being the aristocrat they were searching for. This was Chénier, who had come on a visit of sympathy.
He was taken to the Luxembourg Palace and afterwards to Saint-Lazare. During the 140 days of his imprisonment he wrote a series of iambs denouncing the Convention (in alternate lines of 12 and 8 syllables), which, in the words of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, "hiss and stab like poisoned bullets", and which were smuggled to his family by a jailer. In prison he also composed his most famous poem, "Jeune captive", a poem at once of enchantment and of despair. Ten days before Chénier's death, the painter Joseph-Benoît Suvée completed the well-known portrait of him.
Chénier might have been overlooked but for the well-meant, indignant officiousness of his father. Marie-Joseph did his best to prevent his brother's execution, but he could do nothing more. Maximilien Robespierre, who was himself in dangerous straits, remembered Chénier as the author of the venomous verses in the Journal de Paris and sentenced him to death. Chénier was one of the last persons executed by Robespierre.
At sundown, Chénier was taken by cart to the guillotine at what is now the Place de la Nation. He was executed along with a Princess of Monaco, on a charge of conspiracy. Robespierre was seized and executed only three days later. Chénier, aged 31 at his execution, was interred in the Cimetière de Picpus.
The record of Chénier's last moments by Henri de Latouche is rather melodramatic and is certainly not above suspicion.
During Chénier's lifetime only his Jeu de paume (1791) and Hymne sur les Suisses (1792) had been published. For the most part, then, his reputation rests on his posthumously published work, retrieved from oblivion page by page.
The Jeune Captive appeared in the Decade philosophique, on 9 January 1795; La Jeune Tarentine in the Mercure of 22 March 1801. François-René de Chateaubriand quoted three or four passages in his Genie du Christianisme. Fayette and Lefeuvre-Deumier also gave a few fragments; but it was not until 1819 that an attempt was made by Henri de Latouche to collect the poems in a substantive volume. Many more poems and fragments were discovered after Latouche's publication, and were collected in later editions. Latouche also wrote an account of Chénier's last moments, which the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica described as "melodramatic and certainly not above suspicion."
Critical opinions of Chénier have varied wildly. In 1828, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve praised Chénier as an heroic forerunner of the Romantic movement and a precursor of Victor Hugo. Chénier, he said, had "inspired and determined" Romanticism. Many other critics also wrote about Chénier as modern and proto-Romantic. However, Anatole France contests Sainte-Beuve's theory: he claims that Chénier's poetry is one of the last expressions of 18th-century classicism. His work should not be compared to Hugo and the Parnassian poets, but to philosophes like André Morellet. Paul Morillot has argued that judged by the usual test of 1820s Romanticism (love for strange literature of the North, medievalism, novelties and experiments), Chénier would have been excluded from Romantic circles. On the other hand, the ennui and melancholy of his poetry recalls Romanticism, and he experimented in French verse to a much greater extent than other 18th-century poets.
The poet José María de Heredia held Chénier in great esteem, saying "I do not know in the French language a more exquisite fragment than the three hundred verses of the Bucoliques" and agreeing with Sainte-Beuve's judgment that Chénier was a poet ahead of his time. Chénier has been very popular in Russia, where Alexandr Pushkin wrote a poem about his last hours and Ivan Kozlov translated La Jeune Captive, La Jeune Tarentine and other famous pieces. Chénier has also found favor with English-speaking critics; for instance, his love of nature and of political freedom has been compared to Shelley, and his attraction to Greek art and myth recalls Keats.
Chénier's fate has become the subject of many plays, pictures and poems, notably in the opera Andrea Chénier by Umberto Giordano, the epilogue by Sully-Prudhomme, the Stello by Alfred 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."