The corpus in Christianity
In another in our series on neglected Christian writers, Jan Szadkowski looks at the work of theFrench poet Charles Peguy, whose theme is the Incarnation. EVEN NOWADAYS LN France, lip-service is usually paid, without real understanding, to the poetry of Charles Peguv (1873-1914). He is recognised as being associated deeply with the history of his country (like Bernanos), but the nature of his talent and achievement have been constantly misunderstood. He made misjudgements about himself, of course: at times, a too-fervent patriotism, an excessive physical sense in his ideas, and a misplaced republicanism mar his work.
Despite these, however, he is one of the very greatest French poets, whose constant central theme is the Incarnation, and his belief that Christ's entry into our world Was the actual moment that History began. He regarded History as a fulfilment of God's purposes: prophesied in the Old Testament and coming to a point of living intercourse with us in Christ's body and blood.
Peguy was a student of the philosopher Henri Bergson, who believed that philosophy should explore intuition rather than reason, and Peguy's anti-rationalism was linked with the fervent Catholicism that followed his conversion in 1908. In his youth, Peguy had been an ardent socialist. A brilliant, hard-working scholar of peasant origins, of which he was always proud, he began a literary review in 1900, Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, which ran, often precariously in terms of finance, until his death at the Front in the First World War in 1914.
Outspoken in temperament and meticulous with his work, Peguy had respect only for those who were possessed by what they actually believed; he detested, above all, liberalism and a modernism based on scientific principles, especially in literature.
In 1 897, he wrote loan of Arc, a play, during his socialist period and, after his conversion, returned to the theme in The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc (1910), this time focusing on Joan's heroic attempts to encompass and aid the enormous suffering and evil she saw around her.
He dwells lovingly on her extremism and lack of compromise. In a further poem, the superb epic The Mystery of the Holy Innocents (1911), he imagines God's dilemma as He looks down on His own creation "If I support him (man) too much, he is no longer free, And if I do not support him enough, he falls" using the beautiful image of a father holding a child up in the water. A third epic "mystery" appeared in 1911, The Mystery of the Porch of the Second Virtue, the virtue being Hope.
Peguy's poetic style is often noted for its repetitiveness: a phrase will occur and recur with only slight variations, and this is often thought of as a weakness. In reality, its root lies in the Catholic Litany where constant repetition should ideally result in a greater inner transcendence, Peguy also circles obsessively around the need for us to really feel the Incarnation and Redemption of Christ, to feel His mystery and presence penetrate us in a carnally felt way, far from any merely abstract conception.
Peguy married a socialist who refused to be converted when he did, which meant he lived in agony without the Sacraments for the rest of his
Mysteriously, he seemed to prophesy his own death in his masterful epic, Eve (1914), a nearly 400-page poem written with great virtuosity and concentrating on the Redemption Christ's atonement for Eve's sin.
Peguy's awareness of his agonies a constant lack of money, arguments with former friends and a growing sense of a strange, inner emptying-out of himself led him to define Christianity as the "religion of misery", where freedom is only won at tremendous personal cost and sacrifice.
This profoundly-felt insight culminated in his own death soon afterwards, on the battlefield at Marne and, as if in mysterious fulfilment, his wife and children were finally converted to Catholicism after his death.
His example remains for us today as one who devoted his life and work to the Faith, to a struggle against materialism and abstraction of all kinds, and who constantly stressed the living power of Christ as a physically-felt force having nothing to do with disembodied platitudes.
A few of Peguy's works have been translated into English by Julian Green and are available in American editions life.