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A Man Talking: The Prayer and Poetry of Charles Peguy

Murray, Paul, 1947-

Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Volume 9, Number 4, Fall 2006, pp. 55-81 (Article) Published by Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture DOI: 10.1353/log.2006.0039

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Paul Murray, OP

A Man Talking: The Prayer and Poetry of Charles Pguy

God, I love ever and always the human voice, The voice of leave-taking and the voice of sorrow, The voice whose prayer has often seemed vain, But which still goes forward down the painful road. charles pguy, jeanne darc1

Several years ago, among the unpublished manuscripts of T. S. Eliot in Kings College Library, Cambridge, I had the good fortune to come upon a short essay by Eliot titled Types of English Religious Verse. Composed in or around the year 1939 by way of preparation for a British Council Tour in Italy, the talk was never delivered due most probably to the situation in Europe at the time. Toward the end of the paper, Eliot attempted to indicate the probable direction of religious poetry in those years. The tendency, he wrote, is towards something more impersonal than that of the last romantics. . . . It will be much more interested in the dogma and the doctrine; in religious thought, rather than purely religious feeling.2 Eliot then goes on to note that the precursor of this attitude was T. E. Hulme killed in 1917; he was not a religious poet, but his critical ideas took this direction.3 l o g o s 9 : 4 fa l l 20 0 6

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy Eliot is writing exclusively here about poetry composed in England and about the development of critical thought in the English-speaking world. But, outside the shores of England, the great precursor of the attitude to which Eliot is referring, is a mana soldierwho also, as it happens, was killed like T. E. Hulme in the rst quarter of the twentieth century. But this man was not only a considerable critic, he was also a remarkable poet. I am referring, of course, to the French Catholic poet and essayist, Charles Pguy.


Pguy among the Poets

In 1916, just two years after Pquys death, Eliot included Pguy in the syllabus for his course in a series of University Extension Lectures at Oxford.4 And, in the autumn of that same year, in a short review of a book about Pguy, Eliot remarked, There may be passages in his verse which are pure poetry; there are certainly passages in his prose which are of the best prose.5 And again, There have been ner poets, more subtle thinkers, than Pguy. But there was no one who had just what Pguy had. Emphatically, he was not fumiste. There is not a trace of affectation about him. And in Paris . . . which was surfeited with criticism, Paris given up to radical and reactionary movements which were largely movements for the sake of moving, Pguy represented something which was real and solid. He stood for a real re-creation, a return to the sources.6 More than twenty years later, in a 1940 article, Eliot spoke, in passing, of the man whom I consider the greatest journalist, in the best sense of the term, of my time: Charles Pguy.7 The enthusiasm is clear. But what Eliot would seem to be suggesting is that Pguy is primarily important as a kind of presence to his generation, a necessary social and religious journalist, a prose writer of sharp and prophetic insight. With regard, however, to Pguys status as a poet, Eliot, writing in 1916, is far more circumspect: There is not a great deal, certainly, he notes, of the nest verse.8 Whether or not Eliot changed his mind later concerning the poetry of Pguy is difcult


logos to say. But it may well be signicant that there are traces of Pguys work in Eliots mature verse. In a letter composed in the autumn of 1956, Eliot openly acknowledged the probable inuence of Pguy on one of the most mysterious phrases in Four Quartets: The line, Garlic and sapphires in the mud, he wrote, is an echo of a line of a sonnet by Mallarm (Tonnerre et rubis aux moyeux) with probable recollection also of Charles Pguys description of the Battle of Waterloo (de la boue jusquaux essieux).9 Perhaps the most immediate difculty we confront when we begin to read Pguy is in determining just what kind of poetry he was attempting to write. If, in assessing his work, we insist on placing him in the company of modern poets such as Paul Valry or Jules Laforgue (or even the young Eliot himself) and judge him exclusively by their distinctive aims and aesthetic standards, then Pguy will certainly appear as a very poor cousin indeed. But what, I think, has to be understood is that Pguys project as a poet, at least in the context of modern literature, was something altogether unique. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that what the rst readers of Pguy discovered when confronted by his work still holds true, to some extent, today. For then, as now, Pguythe man, the poetappears somehow to resist precise denition. His work simply refuses to be contained by most of our literary and religious categories. And this fact alone should help explain why Pguys work has been largely ignored in the English-speaking world. A recent essay by an American poet, William Logan, sums up the situation: Pguy, a French poet never much regarded in English, is a gure ridiculous in his propriety: a peasant with a pince-nez, a bookshop owner whose unsold books were used by his friends as tables and chairs, a squanderer of his in-laws money.10 Among English poets, the rst notable exception to the tendency to dismiss or ignore the work of the French author appeared in print in 1984. It was a long poem by Geoffrey Hill titled The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Pguy. Footslogger of genius, Hill called him, skirmisher with grace / and ill-luck.11 In an intro-

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy duction to the poem, Hill spoke of the tragic-comic battered lan of Pguys life.12 In fact, Hills poem is nothing less than a homage to the triumph of what he calls Pguys defeat.13 Pguy, stubborn rancours and mishaps and all, Hill wrote, is one of the great souls, one of the great prophetic intelligences of our century.14


Pguy and the Theologians

It is very important not to rig me out as a Father of the Church. It is already quite a lot to be a son!15 This comment was made by Pguy almost a hundred years ago. But if Pguy were alive today and could read some of the enthusiastic responses to his work from theologians, I suspect he would make exactly the same comment again. Speaking for myself, however, I nd it hard to fault the theologians for their enthusiasm. After all, no other poet in modern times has written at such length and with such love and such intensity about the mysteries of the faith. In page after page of his work, Pguy shows himself passionately interested in what Eliot has called religious thought rather than purely religious feeling, in the dogma and the doctrine.16 And there is something else as well. With a surprising candor and simplicity, Pguy always seems to speak out of the very core of the mystery he is describing. He is able, according to Hans Urs von Balthasar, somehow to penetrate more deeply than any other Christian poet into the secrets of the tenderness of Gods heart.17 Balthasar even goes so far as to claim that Charles Pguy has been given the privilege of uttering words, beyond all the uency of theology to date.18 Again and again in his mature work, Pguy does not simply meditate on some of the great dogmatic truths and mysteries of the faith. Instead, he assumes, as it were, the role of a prophet of the New Testament. And, in line after line of plain but rhythmic prose, he allows the Father of Jesusthe living God revealed to us by the Sonto speak out for himself.


I am their father, God says . . . My Son told them often enough that I am their father . . . Our Father who art in Heaven, those three or four words . . . Happy is the man who goes to sleep under the protection of the vanguard of those three or four words. Those words which go before every prayer as the hands of a supplicant before his face. As the two hands of a supplicant advance, joined together before his face and the tears on his face. Those three or four words which conquer meme, the unconquerable. Words which are sent forward in front of their distress, like two invincible hands joined together . . . And every prayer rises towards me concealed behind those three or four words . . . Not, however, as a text only, in so far as the prayer has become a text. But, in its very invention, and in its source, and its breaking forth. When it was itself a birth of prayer, an incarnation, and a birth of prayer. A hope. A birth of hope. A word coming to birth. A branch and a germ and a bud and a leaf and a ower and a fruit of speech. A seed, a birth of prayer. A word among all words. That rst time it came forth in the esh, in Time, from the human lips of my Son.19

Prayer, the practice of prayer, is not so much a theme in Pguys work as the very lifeblood of his verse. It is signicant that on the contents page of his Oeuvres potiques compltes we nd titles that refer directly to the subject of prayer: Les cinq prires dans la Cathdral de Chartres, for example, and Prsentation de la Beauce Notre Dame de Chartres. These titles might, at rst, suggest that Pguys work belongs to what is now considered a faded and dusty world of nineteenth-century piety. But nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that, by instinct, both as a man and as a

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy poet, Pguy is a ghter. He is a soldier on the march, a miles Christi. And his work, both his prose and his verse, far from inhabiting a dull, sacristy realm or a narrow mental enclosure or a physical cloister always seems to breathe an atmosphere that is fresh and robust and open air.


Pguy: the Style, the Man

In the matter of style, Pguy hardly seems to belong to the literature of the early twentieth century. He appeared then, and still appears today, as a poet out of his time. And yet there is one factor in his work that immediately connects him with the work of his contemporaries, his use of free verse. To his friend Joseph Lotte, Pguy remarked in 1910, All the attempts in free verse of the last twenty years have put into my hands an excellent instrument.20 One writer Pguy may have had in mind here is the American poet Walt Whitman. Some years earlier, in 1901, Pguys great friend, Halvy, had written an enthusiastic article on Whitman in the Pages Libres. And it is something of a surprise at times to nd how certain lines in Pguys work are reminiscent of Whitmans incantatory phrases.The suggested link, however, does not necessarily add up to a direct inuence. For whatever about Whitmans verse-style, it is impossible to imagine Pguy approving of any aspect of Whitmans American vision. In 1903 he wrote, It will never be known how many stupid things the Catholic Church has done in her effort to modernize herself, even to Americanize herself. In this she forgets, she belittles all her power and all her greatness.21 Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that a contemporary of Pguy, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, was familiar with at least some of Whitmans verse. On one occasion, he wrote of Whitmans marked and original manner and of the striking rhythm of his verse. And, in the same letter, he remarked, I always knew in my heart Walt Whitmans mind to be more like my own than any other mans living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleas-


logos ant confession. And this also makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not.22 Over the years critics of Pguys work have found it difcult to ascertain the important inuences on his style as a poet. Pguy never wrote poetry as such until 1908, just six years before his death. And so plain and simple is his language, and so close to prose at times, it seems hardly to be a literary style at all. Indeed, if it is to be thought of as a style, it is perhaps one that answers only to a kind of Wordsworthian idea or idealthat is, a language free of all ornament; a discourse of give-and-take; a style similar to that of an ordinary, easeful conversationthe language of a man talking to men. 23 But the model Pguy had in mind for his work as a poetthe principal modelwas not Wordsworth nor indeed any other poet or author within the great literary tradition. The model to which he looked and the example from which he drew his greatest and his most immediate inspiration was the language of Christ the Word the inspired, colloquial language of the Gospel. The genius of Pguy, his gift as a poet, his content and his style, are all under the Word. And so it is by no means an accident that when he sets out to describe the way Jesus speaks to us in the Gospel, Pguy might almost be describing the language of his own verse and the distinctive cadence of his own speech.
He came to tell us what he had to tell us. Didnt he. Calmly. Simply, honestly. Directly. Right from the start. Ordinarily. Like one honest man speaks to another honest man. Man to man . . . He spoke to us without digressions or complications. He didnt put on airs, embellish things. He spoke uniformly, like a simple man, crudely like a man from town.

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy

A man from the village. Like a man in the street who doesnt search for his words and doesnt make a fuss When he chats.24


Literature and Truth

I am no longer capable of reading anything after Pguy. All the rest is just literature.25 This comment was made by the writer Romain Rolland in his private journal in 1912. Given that Rollands views differed greatly from those of his friend Pguy, and that he found exasperating faults even in the poets best work, the remark is astonishing.26 But what exactly does the comment mean? When is writing something more than just literature? In one of his own poems, Pguy actually characterizes la littrature as something under the thrall of evil, something in the embrace of Satan: Les armes de Satan cest la littrature!27 I suspect that Pguy on this occasion is deliberately laying down a stumbling block at the entrance to his work. He is trying to scandalize that part of us or that part of modern sensibility that would insist that all art and poetryla posie purebe kept utterly separate from moral and religious considerations. But if Pguy is determined to make us stumble in this way, why should we bother to read him? On the question of the relationship of literature to life, and to truth, one of the most interesting and unexpected testimonies in modern times was an observation Katherine Manseld made in the last months of her life. Manseld herself had, of course, been part of a condent modern movement in literature. But, toward the end, she remarked to her friend, A. R. Orage, There is something wanting in literary art even at its highest. Literature is not enough.28 And she went on:
The greatest literature is still only mere literature if it has not a purpose commensurate with its art. Presence or absence of


purpose distinguishes literature from mere literature, and the elevation of the purpose distinguishes literature within literature. That is merely literature that has no other object than to please. Minor literature has a didactic object. But the greatest literature of allthe literature that scarcely existshas not merely an aesthetic object, nor merely a didactic object, but, in addition, a creative object: that of subjecting its readers to a real and at the same time illuminating experience. Major literature, in short, is an initiation into truth.29

Charles Pguy wrote little or nothing in the nature of an ars poetica. But Katherine Manselds statement would surely have won his enthusiastic assent. Again and again in his work as a poet, Pguy sought to attain a level of writing far above and beyond what Manseld calls mere literature. The risk, of course, was of producing verse that was merely didactic. But, in the end, the poets task, the constant struggle with words and meaningsthe art of writing itselfwas somehow served. For, ironically, by whistling modern poetics and literary correctness down the wind, Pguy brought a new vigor, a new intensity, and freshness to the literature of his day. Andr Gide, in a review of Le Mystre de la Charit de Jean dArc, wrote, Never has [our language] been less latin, less concise; never has it been freer or at the same time more disciplined; never has it responded more quickly to the slightest breath of the spirit. Here one nds it as it was in Rabelaisquite young, in process of formation.30 One surprising aspect of Pguys workan aspect that is not often noted by readers and criticsis that almost all his verse takes the form either of a dialogue or of lengthy exchanges of monologues. The rst two verse-dramas on the life of Jeanne dArc, for example, consist largely of a conversation between Jeanne and the nun, Madame Gervaise. And in the last major poem he wrote, he allows Eve, the rst woman, to be addressed at length by Christ, the Son of God. Pguys use of the dialogue form links his work to some of the medieval mystery plays, and also to a number of mystical texts

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy from the medieval period (to The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, for example, a work in which the saint is addressed throughout by God the Father). In a number of Eastern and Western philosophical and religious texts, the dialogue that takes place is a conversation between, on the one hand, a tentative questioning voice and, on the other, the voice of a profound and serene wisdom. In the East, the most celebrated text of this kind is that section in the Bhavagad Gita in which the young warrior Arjuna is addressed by Lord Krishna. In the West, the most immediate example that comes to mind is the extended dialogue in the Divina Commedia between the poet Dante and his master Virgil. In a conversation with Joseph Lotte in 1913, Pguy remarked that he had just read the Paradiso of Dante. But he was at pains to note that he had been in no way intimidated or overwhelmed by the experience. Dantes gift, he said, is to invent, mine is to discover.31 The statement is interesting as an example of Pguys Gallic pride and for other reasons as well. But I would suggest it ignores what is the most important difference or divide between the two poets. Dante, as a medieval Christian believer, had inherited not only the dogmatic and religious faith of his generation but also a marvelous structure of vision to support ita vision that was both understood and believed in by his readers. Pguy, in contrast, living in an age of unbelief, had to face the dilemma that has confronted all poets and writers of dogmatic vision since the sixteenth centurya dilemma tellingly illustrated by a comment made by the great seventeenth-century poet John Donne. Writing to a friend sometime after his own religious conversion, Donne remarked, You know my uttermost when it was best, and even then I did best when I had least truth for my subjects. In this present case there is so much truth as it defeats all Poetry.32 At one point during the composition of Four Quartets, Eliot felt the need to alter a passage on which he was working. The theme of the passage in question was Incarnation, and this was a theme that was to remain dominant in the nal version of the poem. How-



logos ever, when he read over the rst draft of the passage (it was part ve of The Dry Salvages) Eliot felt that it was far too heavily loaded theologically.33 His concern, we may presume, was with the integrity of the passage as a work of literature. The work at hand was a poem, and so the vision being expressed, although of the highest importance, had somehow to yield to the shaping curve and contours of a literary artifact. But this kind of yielding was not something to which Charles Pguy gave great importance. He was a writer, certainly; and on occasion, a writer and poet of unusual genius. But, by vocation, and indeed by a sort of inspired, dogged conviction, Pguy was at least as much a prophet as a poet. He was a man not much inclined, therefore, to entertain literary scruples.34 Pguy, the poet-theologian, remained always surprisingly buoyant as an author. If he was conscious of the dilemma mentioned above by John Donne, he said little or nothing about it. But it affected him all the same. For Pguy, as much as Dante Alighieri, was a man of passionate belief. And, although he was obviously a poet of a lesser order than Dante, he possessed a talent that was not inconsiderable. Given the circumstances of the age in which he lived, however, and his impatience with la littrature, no talent in his armor as a poet, however impressive and original, could hope to match the passion and intensity of his own deep religious conviction.

The Temporal and the Eternal

Pguys project, his great ambition as a writer, was nothing less (as T. S. Eliot observed) than a real re-creation, a return to the sources.35 And, for Pguy, this meant one thing and one thing only: a return to what he called the mystical life, the Christian operation [lopration mystique, lopration chrtienne].36 The phrase lopration mystique, or the mystical life, in the spiritual literature of the period generally referred to a special state or stage in the life of prayer, a grace of interior illumination, an ecstasy of thought and vision,

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy which in this life, only a small number of contemplatives could hope to attain. The ideal proposed to serious Christians, therefore, was to pursue a path of radical detachment from the things of this world and even to abandon the world completely and embrace a life of strict enclosure. But, for Pguy, this concept of mysticism amounted almost to a heresy. With a sharp insistence he noted again and again in his writings the mystical operation, the Christian operation, was one which moved towards the world and not an operation which turned away from it. The world was incontestably its object.37 An authentic mystical life, thereforeas, for example, the life manifest in Christwas the most engaged life imaginable. It was a life that strove not to separate but to link the eternal and the temporal. It was, in Pguys words, an inexhaustible, vivifying spring, nourishing the world, overowing onto the age, penetrating, inundating the world; a mystical spring temporally in the world, owing and overowing towards it.38 What was achieved in the Incarnation, was an incredible interlocking, an insertion, once and for all, of the temporal in the eternal, and of the eternal in the temporal.39 But if that interlocking is denied or negated, we will fall inevitably, Pguy reminds us, into all kinds of seductive mystiques and vague spiritualitiesidealisms, immaterialisms, religiosities, pantheisms, philosophisims, and so forth.40 Pguy, it should be noted, always seemed to reserve his most trenchant satire for those apparently spiritual people who disdained the temporal, that is, the carnal, the natural, and the historical, and who sought to identify themselves only with the eternal. He wrote,
Because they have not the strength and the grace to be one with nature, they think they are one with grace. Because they have not got temporal courage, they believe themselves to have entered upon a penetration of the eternal. Because they lack the courage to be of the world, they believe they are of God.



Because they lack the courage to belong to one of the parties of men, they believe themselves to be of the party of God. . . . Because they love no one, they believe they love God.41

In Pguys eyes, such people are betrayers of the true mystical secret of Christianity. They may appear very spiritual, but they are dangerous because they regard the world as a sort of blank, as if it were created by God not only badly but pointlessly, emptily.42 And, as a result, Pguy asserts, there is a worm of dishonesty at the heart, in the hollow of their prayer.43 For what they have renounced, under the rubric of the eternal, is nothing less than an integral part of the Christianity they would serve, not the essential, but an almost more than essential part . . . the source of fermentation, the part which is not only the salt of the earth, but the salt of heaven, the yeast, the ferment of the heavenly bread.44

Amazement into Song:The Poetry of Incarnation

In 1897, at the age of twenty-four, Pguy published his rst literary work, a dramatic trilogy called Jeanne dArc. Although Pguy was a committed socialist at the time and not a Catholic, some of the statements made in the play about Christ and about the imitation of Christ could well have come from the pen of one of Pguys contemporaries such as Blessed Columba Marmion (18581923) or St. Thrse of Lisieux (187397). In the play, Pguy makes three statements about Christ, and he repeats them, word for word, thirteen years later, in a verse drama called Le Mystre de la Charit de Jeanne dArc:
Jesus preached; Jesus prayed; Jesus suffered. We must imitate him just as far as our strength allows. Oh, we are unable to preach divinely; we are unable to pray divinely; and we will never have innite suffering. But we must try with all our human might to speak as best we can the divine word; we must

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy

try with all our might to pray as best we can according to the divine word; we must try as best we can . . . [to undergo] all we can of human suffering.45


Madame Gervaise, to whom this speech is given, explains to Jeanne that if we want to help or save others, we must not only imitate Christ, we must also listen to him as well.46 This advice Pguy seems to have taken very much to heart himself. For, in the later play, written not long after his conversion,47 Pguy expresses an excitement about the mystery of the Word Incarnate which, in the context of modern literature, is almost, I would say, without parallel. Moved by the thought of Christs presence among the people of his time and stunned by the image of the Incarnate Word walking like an ordinary man down the lanes, and along the thoroughfares of Palestine, Pguy wrote,
To think, Lord, to think that you were there, that all that was needed was to come near you, awe-inspiring mystery. Really to think that it happened once.That it was once seen on earth. That everyone could touch you, visible shepherd, the womenfolk, the children, the beggars on the highways. And that you spoke like a simple man who speaks.48

Here, as in almost all Pguys work, the quiet repetition of a few simple words and the dogged, easeful incantation of a few phrases draw the reader, in calm and purposeful meditation, into the very heart of the vision that is being expressed. Possessed by that vision, Pguy wrote with deep faith and awe of the experience of the Last Supper, and in particular of the experience of those who were privileged at that nal meal, on that unique day, to be in such direct, physical contact with Jesus.
Blessed were those who ate, one day, one unique day, one day among all days, blessed with a unique happiness, blessed were those who ate one day, one unique day, that holy Thurs-


day, blessed were those who ate the bread of your body; you yourself consecrated by yourself; in a unique consecration; one day that will never come again; when you yourself said the rst mass; on your own body; when you celebrated the rst mass; when you consecrated yourself; when of that bread . . . you made your body; and when of that wine you made your blood . . . 49

One day that will never come againthat short telling phrase points to what is, I am convinced, Pguys deepest concern in the Mystre. Yes, Christ has come; yes, his coming marked a moment of grace unparalleled in human history. But what if, in all the years that have passed since that unique moment, what if we can see no signs on earth of the kingdom that was promised? What if, in practice, even now, people are not being saved?

A Poets Hope, a Mans Despair

There are few passages in Pguys work more poignant than the long prayer that is said by Jeanne dArc at the opening of Mystre:
O God, if only the beginning of your kingdom would come. If only the sunrise of your kingdom would come. But there is nothing, nothing to see, ever. You sent us your Son whom you loved so much, your Son came, who suffered so much, and He died, and there is nothing, nothing ever. If only we could see the dawn of your kingdom begin to break . . . fourteen centuries of Christendom, alas! since the birth, and the death, and the preaching. And nothing, nothing, nothing ever. And what reigns on the face of the earth is nothing, nothing, nothing but perdition. . . . God, God, can it be that your Son died in vain? That He came, and it was all for nothing.50

There is no simple answer given in the Mystre to this sharp question. But, at a certain moment in the play, there occurs an explo-

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy sion of insight when the nun, Madame Gervaise, realizes, all of a sudden, the signicancethe eternal and saving signicanceof the cry of Jesus from the cross; a cry, Gervaise explains, louder than the two thieves hanging beside him; / And who howled at death like famished dogs.51 But his cry was different. It was as if God himself had sinned like us; / As if God himself had despaired.52 The cry that rose from the two thieves was a cry of human deaththat only. But Christ, the Just one, he alone uttered the everlasting cry.
Cry still ringing in all humanity; Cry that made the Church militant totter; In which the suffering Church too recognized its own fear; Through which the Church triumphant experienced its triumph; Cry ringing at the heart of all humanity; Cry ringing at the heart of all Christendom; O culminating cry . . . 53


In The Portal of the Mystery of Hopethe second Mystre composed by Pguy, and arguably his greatest workthe virtue of hope is represented as a small child:
What surprises me, says God, is hope. And I cant get over it. This little hope who seems like nothing at all. This little girl hope. Immortal.54

At a rst reading, one might imagine that the emphasis on childlike simplicity and trust, and indeed the insistence on this gospel attitude in the poem, sprang from a distinctly serene and uncomplicated mind and heart. But Pguys devotional and theological visionhis profound faith awarenesswas, from the beginning, tested and puried in the crucible of certain very painful and unusual circumstances. To his friend Lotte, Pguy made the following


logos stark confession: My second Mystery was an anticipation; when I wrote it, I did not believe in hope.55 It could be said that much of Pguys prose emerges out of a struggle with society. But his best verse springs from what Yeats, the Irish poet, would call a struggle within himself. I have spoken earlier of Pguy as a dogmatic poet in an age of unbelief. But not far beneath the surface of his best work we can hear again and again the cadence of an intensely personal, questioning voice. In the second Mystre, for example, a number of the statements voiced for God, the Father, are statements that, at one level at least, Pguy is addressing to his own heart and addressing, perhaps, at a time of almost unbearable anguish:
I tell you Put off till tomorrow Those concerns and those worries that are eating at you today And that might devour you today. Put off till tomorrow those sobs that choke you When you see todays misery. Those sobs which rise in you and strangle you. Put off till tomorrow those tears that ll your eyes and cover your face. That ood you. That fall down your cheeks . . . 56

Pguys vision of hope is always distinctly childlike, but never sentimental. In The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, it is understood as a force that rises like new blood, or like sap in the month of May, a grace that somehow breaks through The thick skin of our hearts, / Through the skin of anger, through the skin of despair, / Through the thick skin of sin.57 In the same work, Pguy speaks of carnal pride, our human pride, and distinguishes it from the pride of the fallen angels. Their pride, he insists, was a poor pride of ideas. / A pale pride, a vain pride all in the head. Human pride, in contrast, is
a thick and heavy pride nourished by fat and blood. Brimming with health. The skin glowing.. . . pride of the blood, pride of the esh.

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Which swells and buzzes throughout the body like a buzzing storm. And which throbs at the temples like the beating of a drum.58


This pride of the esh was not redeemed by spirit alone but by Incarnation, by the esh and blood of Christ. And the parables of Christ form part of the grace of that redemption. They speak directly to the heart of the sinner. And, of all the parables, the parable of greatest hope, in Pguys opinion, is the story of the prodigal son. This one has awakened the deepest echo. / The most ancient echo . . . The only one that the sinner has never been able to silence in his heart.59 The word of hope, then, is the one word that the sinner, even as he turns away from God and buries himself in lost countries and tries to put everything that is sacred out of his mind, will never be able to forget.
Once this word of hope has bitten into his heart Into his believing or unbelieving heart, No pleasure will ever more be able to erase Its teeth-marks. Such is this word. Shes a word that stays with you. She follows like a dog That remains even though you beat it.60

The image is as unexpected as the reality it describes. Hope, for Pguy, is a mystery of Gods love. It is the signature of Gods purpose, the grace and surprise of a loving, relentless pursuit, the one pressure of grace that the sinner will never nally be able to elude or escape: Because shes a mystery that follows, shes a word that follows / Into the most extreme / Estrangements.61

Life and Liturgy

One of the extreme estrangements endured by Pguy as an adult believer was his lifelong estrangement from the sacraments of the Church, and in particular his estrangement from the presence of


logos Christ in the Eucharist.62 In spite, however, of nding himself living at the outer circumference, as it were, of ecclesial life, Pguy was utterly convinced that his work as a poet sprang from the innermost core of Catholic piety and practice. In an anonymous review of one of his own poems, published toward the end of his life, Pguy went so far as to claim that as a poet he had, in the matter of faith, descended to the depths where liturgy and theology, that is to say, the spiritual life and the spiritual proposition are as yet undifferentiated.63 The reference to liturgy is worth noting. For, paradoxically, it was the very sacramental life of the Church from which, as a man, Pguy had found himself excludedor had in some way perhaps excluded himselfthat, as a poet, he was able so powerfully to evoke and celebrate. A work written years later by Pguys fellow countryman, the Jesuit priest and poet-theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, comes to mind here. Titled The Mass on the World, the worka long prose-poem in the form of a prayerwas composed by Teilhard de Chardin when, on one occasion during the course of a scientic expedition, he found himself in a remote part of the Ordos desert where it was impossible to celebrate Mass in the ordinary way. Accordingly, he attempted to create for himself a kind of alternative Mass, a work or a celebration composed not from ritual signs and actions but instead from a simple pattern of words and images.64 I draw attention to this work here because it occurs to me that Pguys own best work as poet is itself a kind of alternative liturgy, a form almost of initiation into the mysteries of the faith, a series of prose-poems and lyrics in which many of the great truths of the Gospel are named and celebrated. The adjective alternative should not be taken to suggest that the new liturgy of words and images created by Pguy was in any way eccentric or esoteric with regard to faith-tradition. If Pguy was able to descend to the foundations of the Catholic mystery, this was due rst and last to his own great dedication to prayer. To his friend Joseph Lotte he conded, Since priests administer

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy the sacraments, they like it to be thought that there is nothing but the sacraments. They forget to say that there is prayer as well, and that prayer is at least half. Sacraments and prayer are two separate things. The priests control the rst, but the second is at our disposal.65 The prayers favored by Pguy were certain simple prayers repeated over and over again. I am one of those Catholics, he remarked, who would give the whole of St. Thomas Aquinas for the Stabat, the Magnicat, the Ave Maria.66 Clearly, much that was potentially willful or eccentric in Pguys vision was chastened and puried over the years by his incessant, devoted prayer, and also by his experience of suffering. Everything is going along as it should, he remarked to his friend, incredible suffering in the private sphere; immense graces for my production.67 And again to Lotte, You cannot imagine the abundance of graces. I see very simple things. That abbergasts priests; the liturgy is full of such things, but they have never seen them. And so they are distrustful. When I am dead they will begin to have condence in me.68


Poet at the Frontier

At two o clock on the afternoon of September 5, 1914, Pguy, who was the leader of a small company of soldiers in the French army, was killed ghting to defend the city of Paris. It was a brave death, and in fact the kind of death that Pguy himself had described once in a poem, and with such vividness and authority that today the words read almost like a prophecy:
Happy are they who die for a temporal land When a just war calls, and they obey and go forth, Happy are they who die for a handful of earth . . . Happy are they who die in their countrys defense Lying outstretched before God with upturned faces Happy are they who die in the last high places.69


logos Pguy, when he received the mobilization order on Saturday, August 1, 1914, immediately put down his pen, interrupting the work on which he was engaged in midsentence. It was a work concerned with what Pguy regarded as the very core of the Catholic mystery. And, concerning that core, he wrote in one of the nal paragraphs, We are entering . . . an unknown domain, a strange realm, the domain of joy. A hundred times less known, a hundred times more strange than the kingdom of sorrow.70 A deep anguish clearly marked the life of Charles Pguy. But as soon as we open the book of his Collected Poems and begin to read the work, the realm we enter into is, to our great surprise, not so much a kingdom of sorrow but rather a domain of joy. The sorrow is there, of course, an anguish often evident between the lines, and even on occasion in the lines themselves. Nevertheless, far from being maudlin in any way, Pguys verse is distinguished throughout by a hard amelike spirit and a virile joy and also by a surprising nonchalance at times in the writingby a relaxed, colloquial form of discourse like that of an ordinary conversation. The stated aim of the most famous French poet in those years, Stephane Mallarm, was to purge poetry of all prosaic contamination. And he very nearly succeeded. But Pguys verse, in contrast, retained much of the vigor and strength of prose. Whereas for years Mallarm had sought to assimilate poetry to music, Pguys verse aimed at being a sort of springboard toward active involvement in society, a preparation even for heroic action. It is signicant, therefore, that many of the qualities Pguy identies with heroic action are the very qualities that distinguish his own best work as a poet. In a 1907 essay he wrote,
Heroic action is essentially an operation of health, of good humour, of joy, even of gaiety, almost of banter, an act, an operation of ease, of bounty, of readiness, of dexterity, of fecundity; of well-being, of mastery and self-possession; almost of habit, so to speak, and as it were, of usage, of good usage. Of inner fecundity, of strength . . . an over-ow of sap and

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy

of blood. Without any tension, without any rigidity. Without drudgery. Without sweat.71


The seeming nonchalance with which Pguy was capable of making a declaration such as To set off and to ght at the frontiers is ne is typical of the man, and typical also of Pguy the soldier.72 When a free people is threatened with military invasion, he had written two years earlier, . . . the free people needs only to perfectly prepare its national military mobilization [and] . . . continue in the greatest peace and ease . . . its life of culture and liberty.73 An external invasion was obviously a profound threat to a free people. But, for Pguy, there was something innitely more dangerous than an external invasion, and that was what he called, in a signicant phrase, the invasion which crosses the threshold of inner life [linvasion qui entre en dedans, linvasion de la vie intriere].74 The seemingly endless pages of Pguys prose and verse can be considered as nothing less than a passionate defense of that life, and also an articulation of it. And that is the reason why, in almost all his verse, prayer occupies such an important place.

In the end, it is impossible to separate Pguy the poet from Pguy the prophet or indeed from Pguy the soldier. His true greatness simply cannot be perceived within the context of literature alone or appreciated only within the pages of his Oeuves potiques compltes, isolated from the witness of his extraordinary life. When, on one occasion, Pguy looked back on his involvement in the Dreyfus conict, he remarkedand the statement is one that could be used as an epigraph to introduce his entire biographyWe achieved an existence full of care and preoccupation, full of mortal anguish and anxiety for the eternal salvation of our race. Deep down within us we were men of eternal salvation, and our adversaries were men of temporal salvation.75


logos The cost, of course, must have been enormous to Pguy, rst as a mana married man and a fatherbut then also as a writer. I have no doubt it was, however, a price that he was more than willing to pay, regarding it as both a privileged and a necessary defense of the inner life. He wrote, All of us stand in the breach today. We are all stationed at the frontier. The frontier is everywhere.76 According to Henri Bergson, the celebrated philosopher, Pguy possessed the marvelous gift of somehow penetrating to the very core of a persons mind: he knew my most secret thought, such as I had never expressed it.77 I think something of that penetrating gaze still survives today in Pguys prose and poetry. One may well decide, at a certain moment, to take up Pguys verse and scrutinize it at some length, as in a paper such as this. But soon one begins to realize, and even in the act of scrutiny itself, that while we as readers are casting a critical eye at the work, and at the man, Pguy himself the stubborn celebrant of hope, the defeated, undefeated guardian and prophet of the inner life, the man of enormous sorrow and of enormous joyis scrutinizing us and piercing us with his gaze.

1. Charles Pguy, Jeanne DArc, Charles Pguy: uvres potiques compltes (Paris: Gallimard, 1957), 48. 2. T. S. Eliot, Types of English Religious Verse, in Miscellaneous Essays and Reviews, The Hayward Collection, Kings College Library, Cambridge, H.I.C., 20. I am grateful to Mrs. T. S. Eliot for permission to quote from this unpublished paper. 3. Ibid. 4. See a reproduction of the entire syllabus in A. D. Moody, Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 4149. 5. T. S. Eliot, review of Charles Pquy, de la Lorraine la Marne (aot-septembre, 1914) by Victor Boudon, The New Statesman (October 7, 1916): 20. 6. Ibid. 7. T. S. Eliot, Views and Reviews: Journalists of Yesterday and Today, The New English Weekly (February 8, 1940): 237. In the same year, on August 28, writing as guest editor of the Christian News-Letter, Eliot remarked, We must not forget, either, those great Catholic writers, such as Charles Pguy and Lon Bloy, who have united a fervent devotion to a passion for social justice. See The Diversity

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy

of French Opinion, in The Idea of a Christian Society and Other Writings (London: Faber and Faber, 1982), 135. Ibid. T. S. Eliot, letter to Philip Mairet, October 31, 1956. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Austin. See T. S. Eliot: Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 19091917, ed. C. Ricks (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), xxv. William Logan, Reputations of the Tongue: On Poets and Poetry (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999), 189. Geoffrey Hill, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Pguy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985). Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. Great praise is also accorded to Pguy in an impressive essay by George Steiner: Drumming on the DoorsPguy, No Passion Spent: Essays 19781996 (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 16070. Charles Pguy, letter to Lotte, May 1, 1912. See Lettres et entretiens, ed. M. Pguy (Paris: Editions de Paris, 1954), 87. T. S. Eliot, Types of English Religious Verse, 20. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Pguy, in The Glory of the Lord, Volume III: Studies in Theological Style: Lay Styles (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 415. Ibid. Le Mystre des Saints Innocents, uvres potiques compltes, 69396. The translation is based in large part on P. Pakenhams translation in The Mystery of the Holy Innocents and Other Poems (New York: Harper, 1956), 8689. Charles Pguy, conversation with Lotte, April 1, 1910, Lettres et entretiens, 138. Reprise politique parlementaire, (1903), in uvres en prose de Charles Pguy: 1898 1908 (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), 611. Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Robert Bridges, October 18, 1882. See A Hopkins Reader, ed. J. Pick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), 17273. Although, in my opinion the best of Pguys work is in vers libre, a number of his more formal lyrics are also impressive. I am thinking in particular of the justly famous homage to the Virgin, Prsentation de la Beauce Notre Dame de Chartres. Le Porche de la deuxime vertu, Oeuvres potiques compltes, 59798. See The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, trans. D. L. Schindler (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 6869. See Une amiti franaise, correspondence Pguy-R. Rolland, ed. A. Saffrey (Paris: French and European Publications, 1955), 155. Writing many years later, Rolland did not hesitate to endorse his original statement. He wrote, After Pguy I can read nothing else. All the rest is ne writing. Compared with him how hollow todays great gures seem . . . I am not in sympathy with his outlook, but I admire him. Cited in Margorie Villiers, Charles Pguy: A Study in Integrity (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 281.


8. 9.

10. 11. 12. 13. 14.

15. 16. 17. 18. 19.

20. 21. 22. 23.


25. 26.


27. La Tapisserie de Sainte Genevive, Oeuvres potiques compltes, 864. 28. Talks with Katherine Manseld, in A. R. Orage, Selected and CriticalWritings (London, Ayers Press, 1935), 126. 29. Ibid. 30. Review in La Nouvelle Revue Franaise, cited in Villiers, A Study in Integrity, 248. 31. Charles Pguy, conversation with Lotte, September 27, 1913, Lettres et entretiens,170. In the same exchange, Pguy even went so far as to suggest that his most recent work vethe least satisfactory, in my opinion, of all Pguys longer poemswould be stronger than Dantes Paradiso! 32. Letter to Sir Robert Carr, cited in John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. H. Gardner (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentiss-Hall, 1962), 135. 33. T. S. Eliot, letter to John Hayward, February 12, 1941. See Helen Gardner, The Composition of Four Quartets (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), 147. 34. Je nai aucun souci de ma rputation litteraire, Pguy remarked in 1906. See Cahiers de la Quinzaine (January 25, 1906), Cahier de la Septime Srie, in uvres en prose de Charles Pguy, 18981908 (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), 950. 35. T. S. Eliot, Types of English Verse, 20. 36. Clio: Dialogue de lhistoire et de lme paienne, uvres en prose de Charles Pguy, 19091914 (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), 35859. See Clio I in Temporal and Eternal, trans. A. Dru (New York: Harper, 1958),105. 37. Clio, 370, Clio I, 104. 38. Clio, 384, Clio I, 113. 39. Clio, 387, Clio I, 116. 40. Ibid. 41. Note conjointe sur M. Descartes et la philosophie cartsienne, in Charles Pguy: uvres en Prose 19091914, 1444. 42. Clio, 35859, Clio I, 97. 43. Ibid. 44. Clio, 35960, Clio I, 98. 45. Jeanne dArc, 38; Le Mystre de la Charit de Jeanne dArc, Charles Pguy: Oeuvres potiques compltes, 517. 46. Ibid. 47. Pguy never allowed that he was a convert as such. He liked to think his return to Catholicism simply represented a deepening of mind and spirit. 48. Le Mystre de la Charit de Jeanne dArc, 4078. See The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, trans. J. Green (New York, Pantheon, 1950) 6263. 49. Le Mystre de la Charit de Jeanne dArc, 407; Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, 62. 50. Le Mystre de la Charit de Jeanne dArc, 36869. See Daniel Halvy, Pguy and Les Cahiers De La Quinzaine (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947) 99. 51. Le Mystre de la Charit de Jeanne dArc, 437; Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, 101.

the prayer and poetry of charles pguy

52. Ibid. 53. Ibid. 54. Le Porche de la Deuxime Vertu, Oeuvres potiques compltes, 533. See Schindler translation, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 7. 55. See Halvy, Pguy and Les Cahiers De La Quinzaine, 278. 56. Le Porche de la Deuxime Vertu, 657; Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 127. 57. Le Porche de la Deuxime Vertu, 583; Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 55. 58. Le Porche de la Deuxime Vertu, 584; Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 56. 59. Le Porche de la Deuxime Vertu, 624; Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 94. 60. Le Porche de la Deuxime Vertu, 624; Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 9495. 61. Le Porche de la Deuxime Vertu, 625; Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 95. 62. For a reection on how Pguys marriage outside the Church affected his life as a Catholic, see Pguy by Hans Urs von Balthasar, 41315. 63. Lve de Pguy, in Notes et variantes, Oeuvres potiques compltes, 1519. 64. See The Mass on the World (1923), in Hymn of the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 1737. 65. See Halvy, Pguy and Les Cahiers De La Quinzaine, 240. 66. Charles Pguy, conversation with Lotte, April 3, 1912, Lettres et entretiens, 15152. 67. Ibid., September 27, 1913, 168. 68. Ibid. 69. Lve de Pguy, 1026. 70. Note conjointe sur M. Descartes et la philosophie cartsienne, Charles Pguy: uvres en Prose 19091914, 1551. 71. De la situation faite au parti intellectuel dans le monde moderne devant les accidents de la gloire temporelle (1907), in uvres en prose de Charles Pguy:18981908, 1198. See Charles Pguy: Men and Saints, Prose and Poetry, trans. J. Green (New York: Pantheon Books, 1944), 33. 72. Cited in Halvy, Pguy and Les Cahiers De La Quinzaine, 211. 73. Louis de Gonzaque (1905), in uvres en prose de Charles Pguy:18981908, 944 45. See Green, Men and Saints, 29. 74. Louis de Gonzaque, 945; Green, Men and Saints, 2829. 75. Notre jeunesse (1910), in Charles Pguy: uvres en prose compltes, vol. 3 (Paris: Gallimard, 1992),152. 76. Un nouveau thologien, M. Fernand Laudet (1911), in Charles Pguy: uvres en prose compltes, 464. 77. Cited in Servais, 294.