Charles Péguy, a poet as well as an essayist and by turns an ardent socialist and Christian, was never less than an idealist. Of peasant stock from Orléans, although not so working-class as he pretended, Péguy won a series of scholarships and finally gained admission on his third attempt in 1894 to the exclusive École Normale Supérieure in Paris. His study was nicknamed “Utopia” by his fellow students and, influenced by the socialist leader Jean Jaurès, Péguy’s later essays were all to be devoted, if not exclusively to planning an ideal society, at least to denouncing the injustices and errors of that in which he lived. Péguy was not academically successful, failed his final agrégation, which would have given him a job for life, and experienced serious economic deprivation.
When Émile Zola published his celebrated newspaper article J’accuse on 13 January 1898, attacking the army’s cover-up by falsifying the evidence against the Jewish Alfred Dreyfus, who had been accused of betraying French military secrets to Germany, Péguy met with Zola and summoned other French socialists to support him. In 1898, he opened a commercially disastrous bookshop which became the Dreyfusard headquarters, and began his series of essays on the Dreyfus affair which were published in the Revue
Blanche (White review).
While remaining a non-Marxist socialist, but after breaking with the socialist hierarchy who wished to control his activities, Péguy founded in 1900 the famous Cahiers de la Quinzaine (Fortnightly notebooks), a review which was itself to become a movement of political and moral reform, although never a financial success throughout its 15 series and 229 numbers. He boasted that, as a movement, the Cahiers were “a perfectly free association of people who all believe in something,” but subscriptions rarely rose above
1000. Péguy published a glittering list of political essayists, and the Cahiers remain an important source for materials not available elsewhere in their full texts. Publication ceased only with the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914.
Although his emphasis was to change as Péguy moved toward a Christian synthesis combining social justice, civilized values, and the anti-materialism of Henri Bergson, there is a sense in which he never strayed far from an initial series of preoccupations. His whole life was spent exploring ever more deeply—chiefly in his Cahiers essays—the major themes of education, history, the implications of the Dreyfus affair, French national pride, Bergson’s philosophy, and Christianity. The movement is from antirationalism and antipositivism, expressed in Péguy’s hostility to Hippolyte Taine and a host of prominent French academics who adopted Taine’s “method” and anti-clericalism, toward a growing patriotism and national pride. The mysterious, the religious, and the poetic seemed to Péguy to be beyond the reach of the idol erected in the name of science.
As the anti-clerical elements gathered strength within the French administration around the turn of the century, laicizing the educational system and exiling religious orders, even democracy—linking itself with declericalization and scientism—became suspect to Peguy. By 1908 he had moved closer to Catholicism—in company, it should be said, with a whole group of other important French writers, although at that date in France socialism was considered to be virtually incompatible with Catholicism on account of the materialism and the determinism associated with it.
By 1908 too, Péguy clearly foresaw the approaching European conflict. He was alarmed by the danger of mystiques and ideals being transformed into political stances and ideologies. Péguy never discontinued his essays, but more of his energy during the immediate prewar years went into his poetic production, investigating the Christian mysteries of suffering, sacrifice, and salvation, and defining as the best quality in French culture its developed sense of the heroic. His own death, leading his company at Villeroy
in September 1914, was the result of taking a risk so perverse that it resembled the acting out of an heroic fantasy.
The attitudes to be found in Péguy’s essays are based on an artisan background, a love of rural French life, with its deeply ingrained Catholicism, the poverty and ordinariness of his experience, and his undisciplined search for spiritual answers which made him vulnerable to idealistic mystiques. Stylistically, his essays are unpolished, often rambling, invariably overextended, and weakened by his tendency to pursue topics with only a tangential bearing to his main theme. His treatment of major themes may be much enriched in the process, but it is often difficult to follow, as Péguy rarely relates the side issues to the main themes with adequate explicitness.
He was nonetheless a great writer, made so by an originality deriving from the honesty, integrity, and idealism which refused to follow intellectual fashion, or to link attitudes which had no intrinsic connection. A stalwart Dreyfusard, he nevertheless believed in the mystic force of the nationalistic French tradition, an attitude normally associated with the military.
Charles Pierre Péguy. Born 7 January 1873 in Orléans. Studied at the lycée in Orléans, 1885–91, baccalauréat, 1891; Lycée Lakanal, Sceaux, 1891–91; military service, 1891– 93; Collège de SainteBarbe, Paris, 1893–94, licence in philosophy, 1894; École Normale Supérieure, Paris, 1894–95, 1896–97. Contributor to the Revue Socialiste, from 1896, and the Revue Blanche, 1899. Married Charlotte-Françoise Baudouin, 1897: three sons (one born after Péguy’s death) and one daughter. Owner of a socialist bookshop in the Latin Quarter, 1898, turning it into a cooperative to avoid bankruptcy, 1899; founder and editor, Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, 1900–14. Served in the army during World War I.
Killed in the Battle of the Marne, near Villeroy, 5 September 1914.
Essays and Related Prose
Cahiers de la Quinzaine, 15 vols., 1900–14
Basic Verities: Prose and Poetry, translated by Ann and Julien Green, 1943
Men and Saints: Prose and Poetry, translated by Ann and Julien Green, 1947
Temporal and Eternal, translated by Alexander Dru, 1958
OEuvres en prose (Pléiade Edition), edited by Marcel Péguy, 2 vols., 1957–59
OEuvres en prose complètes (Pléiade Edition), edited by Robert Burac, 3 vols., 1987–92
Other writings: a play and a long poem about Joan of Arc, two mysteries (religious plays), and other poetry.
Collected works editions: OEuvres complètes, 20 vols., 1916–55; OEuvres complètes, edited by Jean Bastaire, 10 vols., 1974.
Vergine, Pia, Studi su Péguy: Bibliografia critica ed analitica (1893–1978), Lecce: Milella, 1981
Bastaire, Jean, Péguy I’inchrétien, Paris: Desclée, 1991
Burac, Robert, Charles Péguy, la révolution et la graâce, Paris: Laffont, 1994
Charles Péguy et la Critique Litteraire, Australian Journal of French Studies 1 (1973)
Delaporte, Jean, Connaissance de Péguy, Paris: Plon, revised edition, 2 vols., 1959
Dru, Alexander, Péguy, London: Harvill Press, 1956; New York: Harper, 1957
Finkielkraut, Alain, Le Mécontemporain: Péguy, lecteur du monde moderne, Paris: Gallimard, 1991
Guyon, Bernard, Péguy, Paris: Hatier, 1960
Halévy, Daniel, Péguy and “Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine”, London: Dobson, 1946; New York: Longman Green, 1947 (original French edition, 1919)
Jussem-Wilson, N., Charles Péguy, London: Bowes and Bowes, 1965
Laichter, František, Péguy et ses Cahiers de la Quinzaine, Paris: Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1985
Porché, François, Charles PéZguy et ses Cahiers, Paris: Bloch, 1914
Rolland, Romain, Peguy, Paris: Albin Michel, 2 vols., 1944
St. Aubyn, F.C., Charles Péguy, Boston: Twayne, 1977
Schmitt, Hans A., Charles Peguy: The Decline of an Idealist, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967
Servais, Yvonne, Charles Péguy: The Pursuit of Salvation, Cork: Cork University Press, and Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1953
Tardieu, Marc, Charles Péguy, biographie, Paris: Bourin, 1993
Villiers, Marjorie, Charles Péguy: A Study in Integrity, New York: Harper, 1965
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