André Chénier

The Poet

André Chénier was born in 1762 at Constantinople. His father was French and his mother Greek. He moved to France in 1772. Chénier was fully versed in the legends of Greece, Greek customs and the Greek directness of presentation. In 1773 he entered the Collège de Navarre in Paris, and spent several years there studying the classics. He then left school and devoted time to quiet study and travel. He joined the army, but his service lasted only a few months due to his lack of military ambitions. While in the army at Strassburg, he met the great scholar Philippe Brunck (1729 - 1803) whose Greek Anthology was the source for many of his poems . (1)

He traveled to the French Embassy in London as a secretary. He felt that he worked so little that only at the insistence of the French Ambassador did he accept his salary. During this period, he read much English Literature and came to admire Milton and Shakespeare. In one of his later poems, he imitated Ophelia's song from Hamlet. He found English society exclusive and reserved. In this foreign country he felt himself to be in exile, so in 1790 he returned to Paris.

He enthusiastically welcomed the Revolution as necessary, but quickly became disgusted with its excesses. He wrote against the Jacobin party in his Le Jeu de Paume in 1790. (2) He wrote of the dangers faced by the cause of true liberty and a young constitution. He learned that his first hopes for the Revolution were not to be soon realized.

Gradually Chénier became more open in his feelings against the Jacobin leaders. He wrote many articles in Le Moniteur attacking them by name. (3) The first of these articles was to become the cause of his downfall. The article was entitled, Hymne sur l'entrée triomphale des Suisses révoltés. A regiment had mutinied and stolen their regimental chest. Everyone involved had been sentenced to the gallows. Suddenly amnesty was granted to them and it was proposed that they should be honored with a triumphal march into Paris. His article stridently protesting this was used in the final accusation made against him.

In 1792, he assisted Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes (1721-1794) in the defence of Louis XVI. (4) when the king was tried as a traitor and condemned to death.

The other occasion on which Chénier expressed counter-revolutionary political sentiments was upon the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793). In September 1789, Marat started a newspaper called L'ami du Peuple (The Friend of the People). This was destined to become France's most influential radical journal. He openly attacked political moderates as traitors and called for violence against them. When the Monarchy fell in August of 1792, he incited the massacre of political prisoners in Paris the following month. On July 13, 1793, Marat was murdered by the young aristocrat, Charlotte Corday. She had spent her early years in a convent and was a sympathizer of the Girondists. She held Marat personally responsible for the Reign of Terror. She entered his house on the pretense of disclosing names of Girondists in the city of Caen and stabbed him to death while he was in his bathtub. She was guillotined on July 17, 1793. Chénier took this opportunity to write the famous Ode à Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday.

In 1793, the Moderate party was defeated and Chénier retired. He spent most of this year at Rouen and Versailles writing verses and studying various subjects. While at Versailles, he met Madame Le Coulteux who became the `Fanny' of his poems. Chénier would work all day on his poetry and take the verses to her at night. Her friendship and family were a source of great joy for Chénier.

On March 7, 1794, Chénier was arrested at a party held by Mme. Pastoret at Passy. The arrest was actually aimed at the absent host, but Chénier was nevertheless taken into custody and placed in the St. Lazare Prison. Prison was difficult for Chénier. Only years before in his mother's salon he had rubbed shoulders with many of the members of that brilliant society now incarcerated. Chénier spent 141 days here. He wrote poetry which he sneaked out with his laundry. It was here that he met Anne Françoise-Aimée de Franquetot de Coigny who became his muse. It was during this time that he wrote his Iambes, one of which (Iambe VIII) is given below.

Chénier's final poem, La Jeune Captive was written in St Lazare as well. On his way to the guillotine, Chénier handed it to de Coigny, who passed it along to a friend. Regardless of the feelings of Chénier for de Coigny, she neglected to even mention his name in her memoirs. The Young Captive is a heartbreaking piece, written in the voice of a naive, beautiful girl. Chénier sees her before him begging Death to spare her so that she can have a chance at Life and Love. The poem reflects the desperate yearnings of the condemned poet.

After much debate, Chénier and his brother Marie-Joseph decided to keep quiet in hopes that the Tribunal would forget about him. His father, however, called attention to his case and demanded his immediate release. Chénier was brought before the Tribunal on July 7, 1794 and executed the next day. Legend has it that on his way to the guillotine Chénier told a friend: ``I leave nothing for posterity; and yet,'' he added, touching his forehead, ``I had something there.'' Nineteen days later, the reign of terror ended with the fall of Robespierre.

During Chénier's lifetime, very little of his poetic work was published. Not until 1819 was the first edition of his works published and people began to appreciate his genius. Perhaps if he had realized his full potential, his name would stand among those whose work he had come to admire and respect so much.

Ode à Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday

French | English

Quoi! tandis que partout, ou sincères ou feintes,
Des lâches, des pervers, les larmes et les plaintes
Consacrent leur Marat parmi les immortels,
Et que, prêtre orgueilleux de cette idole vile,
Des fanges du Parnasse un impudent reptile
Vomit un hymne infâme au pied de ses autels,

La Vérité se tait! Dans sa bouche glacée,
Des liens de la peur sa langue embarrassèe
Dérobe un juste hommage aux exploits glorieux!
Vivre est-il donc si doux? De quel prix est laa vie,
Quand, sous un joug honteux la pensée asservie,
Tremblante, au fond du ceour se cache à tous les yeux?

Non, non, je ne veux point t'honorer en silence,
Toi qui crus par ta mort ressusciter la France
Et dévouas tes jours à punir des forfaits.
Le glaive amra ton bras, fille grande et sublime,
Pour faire honte aux dieux, pour réparer leur crime,
Quand d'un homme à ce monstre ils donnèrent les traits.

Le noir serpent, sorti de sa caverne impure,
A donc vu rompre enfin sous ta main ferme et sûre
Le venimeux tissu de ses jours abhorrés!
Aux entrailles du tigre, à ses dents homicides,
Tu vins redemander et les membres livides
Et le sang des humains qu'il avait dévorés!

. . . Longtemps, sous les dehors d'une allégresse aimable,
Dans ses détours profonds ton âme impénétrable
Avait tenu cachés les destins du pervers.
Ainsi, dans le secret amassant la tempête,
Rit un beau ciel d'azur, qui cependant s'apprête
A fourdroyer le monts, à soulever les mers.

Belle, jeune, brillante, aux bourreaux amenée,
Tu semblais t'avancer sur le char d'hyménée,
Ton front resta paisible et ton regard serein.
Calme sur l'échafaud, tu méprisas la rage
D'un peuple abject, servile et fécond en outrage,
Et qui se croit alors et libre et souverain.

La Vertu seule est libre. Honneur de notre histoire,
Notre immortel opprobre y vit avec ta gloire.
Seule tu fus un homme, et vengeas les humains.
Et nous, eunuques vils, troupeau lâche et sans âme,
Nous savons répéter quelque plainte de femme,
Mais le fer pèserait à nos débiles mains.

Non, tu ne pensais pas qu'aux mânes de la France
Un seul traître immolé suffît à sa vengeance,
Ou tirât du chaos ses débris dispersés.
Tu voulais, enflammant les courages timides
Réveiller les poignards sur tous ces parricides,
De rapine, de sang, d'infamie engraissés.

Un scélérat de moins rampe dans cette fange.
La Vertu t'applaudit. De sa mâle louange
Entends, belle héroïne, entends l'auguste voix.
O Vertu, le poignard, seul espoir de la terre,
Est ton arme sacrée, alors que le tonnerre
Laisse régner le crime et te vend à ses lois.

Ode to Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday

Ah, while on all sides the tears and moans, sincere or feigned, of cowardly, perverted minds consecrate their Marat among the immortals, while - arrogantly officiating before that vile idol - an impudent reptile from the slime of Parnassus (5) vomits a foul hymn at the foot of his altars,

Truth is silent! In her numbed mouth, her tongue, impeded by the trammels of fear, denies the homage justly due to [such] glorious deeds! Is it so sweet to live, then? Of what value is life when thought, enslaved beneath a shameful yoke, hides itself timorously from every eye in the depths of the heart?

No, no, I will not honor you in silence, you who thought to resurrect France by your death and gave up your life to punish evil deeds. You took the sword in your hand, great and noble girl, to shame the gods, to make good their crime, when they gave the features of a man to that monster.

So that black serpent, coming out from his foul cave, had the poisonous web of his hateful days broken at last by your true, unfaltering hand. From the tiger's bowels, from his murderous teeth, you came to claim back the livid members and the blood of the human being whom he devoured!

. . . For long, under a cheerful and pleasing surface, your inscrutable heart had kept the fate of the monster hidden in its subtle depths. So, while it gathers the storm in secret, the clear blue sky smiles, yet prepares to strike the mountains with thunder, to lash the seas.

Fair, young, resplendent, led to the executioners, you seemed to be riding in your bridal car; your brow was still untroubled and your look serene. Calm on the scaffold, you despised the rage of an abject populace, servile and rich in insults, and which yet believes that it is free and sovereign.

Only Virtue is free. Glory of our history, our eternal shame lives on there [in history] with your fame. You alone were a man and vindicated the human race. And we, vile eunuchs, a cowardly and soulless herd, we know how to repeat some womanly whimper, but the steel would weigh heavy in our feeble hands.

No, you did not intend that a single traitor sacrificed to the angry spirit of France should suffice to avenge her, or should recover her scattered remains from chaos. You meant, by firing timorous hearts, to awaken daggers over all these parricides - fattened on plunder, blood, and dishonor.

One scoundrel less crawls in this slime. Virtue applauds you. Hear the majestic sound of its virile praise, heroic maid. O Virtue, the dagger, the only hope of the world, is your holy weapon, as long as thunder [God's vengeance] allows crime to prevail and sells you into its power.

Iambes VIII

French | English
On vit; on vit infâme. Eh bien? il fallut l'être;
L'infâme aprè tout mange et dort.
Ici même, en ses parcs, où la mort nouse fait paître,
Où la hache nous tire au sort,
Beaux poulets sont écrits; maris, amants sont dupes;
Caquetage, intrigues de sots.
On y chante; on y joue; on y lève des jupes;
On y fait chansons et bons mots;
L'un pousse et fait bondir sur les toits, sur les vitres,
Un ballon tout gonflé de vent,
Comme sont les discours des sept cents plats bélîtres,
Dont Barère est le plus savant.
L'autre court; l'autre saute; et braillent, boivent, rient
Politiques et raisonneurs;
Et sur les gonds de fer soudain les portes crient.
Des juges tigres nos seigneurs
Le pourvoyeur paraît. Quelle sera la proie
Que la hache appelle aujourd'hui?
Chacun frissonne, écoute; et chacun avec joie
Voit que ce n'est pas encor lui . . .

Iambes VIII

We live, we live degraded. What of it? It had to be. Degraded, you still eat and sleep. Even here, in its pens, where death puts us to graze, where the axe draws lots for us, fine love-letters are written; husbands, lovers are duped; tittle-tattle, intrigues of fools. There is singing, gambling, skirts are lifted; songs and jokes are made up; someone sends up and bounces on the roofs, on the panes, a balloon swollen with wind, like the speeches of the seven hundred dreary imbeciles, of which the wisest is Barére. (6)

Another runs, another jumps; 'politicians' and discussers bray, drink, laugh; and on their iron hinges the doors suddenly grate. The purveyor of our masters the tiger-judges appears. Who will be the prey which the axe calls for today? Each shudders, listens, and each with joy sees that it is not yet he. . .


  1. Anthology in Greek means flower gathering.
  2. Translated: The Oath of the Tennis Court
  3. The Moniteur was one of the leading French Revolution newspapers.
  4. Malesherbes was Louis XVI's Interior Minister.
  5. Probably a certain Michel de Cubières-Palmézeaux, who had written a poem in Marat's honor.
  6. One of the seven hundred members of the Convention Nationale during the Terror. Writing this fragment in prison while in constant fear of execution, Chénier ciphered Barèrer's name and disguised his meaning in the previous line by writing:
    Comme sont les discours des heptsad (700) plats bélit.


© Stephen L. Parker, 1996

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