1794: Andre Chenier, poet

On this date in 1794, proto-Romantic poet Andre Chenier went to the guillotine the unfortunate victim of his father’s love.

In the operatic version of this Istanbul-born poet‘s life story, Chenier is accused by a rival in love, convicted, and guillotined the next day together with his beloved Maddalena, who effects a Sydney Carton-like swap into the lot of the condemned in order to share his fate.

Chenier’s real end was both more mundane, and far more tragic.

A revolutionary of the constitutional monarchist variety and an open opponent of the Jacobins bold enough to compose an ode to Marat’s murderess, Chenier had spent a year staying out of sight when the police picked him up almost accidentally.

Prisoners suffocating in the Paris jails were suspended horribly between life and death, but the anonymity of this living tomb offered — as with Tom Paine — a measure of occasional safety.

When Chenier’s father blunderingly appealing to the authorities for his son, he accidentally stripped away that anonymity. Chenier had been under lock and key for three-plus months — writing, the whole time, in minuscule letters on scraps of paper he arranged to have smuggled out to his father — but once reminded of the writer’s existence, the authorities promptly had it snuffed out. (A friend and fellow poet, Jean-Antoine Roucher, shared his tumbril.)

Chenier’s prison verses are among the most affecting of his 32 years — like the acidic Iambes blistering his persecutors, and the heartbreaking “La Jeune Captive”, in which he gives voice to the young fellow-prisoner who has smitten him, excerpted here:

Mon beau voyage encore est si loin de sa fin!
Je pars, et des ormeaux qui bordent le chemin
J’ai passé les premiers à peine.
Au banquet de la vie à peine commencé,
Un instant seulement mes lèvres ont pressé
La coupe en mes mains encor pleine.

Je ne suis qu’au printemps, je veux voir la moisson;
Et comme le soleil, de saison en saison,
Je veux achever mon année.
Brillante sur ma tige et l’honneur du jardin,
Je n’ai vu luire encor que les feux du matin:
Je veux achever ma journée.

Chenier was not broadly published or extremely well-known in his own lifetime; many critics think he was pinched out while still maturing. The poet himself told a friend in parting, “I leave nothing for posterity; and yet, (touching his forehead) I had something there.” In the backstory to one of the tales in Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine, a grocer who annoys one of Robespierre‘s associates is also among this day’s batch and arouses more notice than the man of letters:

Though Descoings died, he had the honour, at any rate, of going to the scaffold with Andre de Chenier. There, no doubt, grocery and poetry embraced for the first time in the flesh; for they have always had, and will always have, their private relations. Descoings’ execution made a far greater sensation than Andre de Chenier’s. Thirty years elapsed before it was recognised that France had lost more by Chenier’s death than by that of Descoings.

Robespierre’s sentence had this good result — until 1830 grocers were still afraid of meddling in politics.

The salutary effect upon grocers has long faded, but Chenier’s reputation has steadily ripened like wine since his demise. And the title part of the late-19th century opera Andrea Chenier — however scant its resemblance to the man who inspired it — is one of the most gorgeous tenor roles in opera.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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5 thoughts on “1794: Andre Chenier, poet

  1. Identify the singers!! Placido Domingo and Anna Tomowa-Sintow.

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