Sinner and Poet: The Diamond Tears of Charles Péguy

 

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Charles Peguy by Jean-Pierre Laurens

“I am a sinner, but there is no sin in my work.” – Charles Péguy

This guy. But since he was French, he might have been this “Guy.” But rather, his name is Charles Péguy.

Be careful with this guy, cause if you read him, you might actually start writing poetry. I know nothing about poetry, but after reading him, I was inspired to write some of my own. As I said, I know nothing about poetry, but some people who do think he might be the best Catholic poet of the last few hundred years. Those who like Gerard Manley Hopkins would probably disagree. Hopkins was a genius, and smart people who truly understand poetry can explain why he was. I am not a genius or a poet, so don’t ask me to explain Hopkins.

Péguy perhaps was a peasant genius. He wrote in free verse, with little to no rhyme or consistent meter. His poems were long, used simple vocabulary, and much repetition. If this were Seinfeld, he would be Charles Festivus, the “Poet for the Rest of Us”, the 99%. His work is accessible.

But he is largely unknown right now.

Why? He had too much integrity. He came from very modest beginnings, and when he grew older became a socialist and agnostic. He was a very much a defender of Dreyfus, a famous French Jew wrongly accused of treason. However, he fell out with most of his friends on the Left over time due to what he perceived as their pursuit of political advantage over the truth. “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics” is a famous quote of his.

He came to occupy a lonely place, neither trusted nor wanted by the Left or the Right. He was a patriot, and a French nationalist, and his basic politics was one of solidarity with the common man. Unfortunately for his reputation, and despite his defense of Dreyfus, the fascists of the 30s and 40s later tried to claim him as a patron for their twisted politics. And when you put God first, you eventually realize that there is no ideology or political party that can really express what you want. So you hang there, suspended between two thieves, one on the right and another on the left.

But he had integrity, and so when the Great War came, he enlisted, even though he was 41 years old, married and his wife pregnant with their fourth child. He was a little guy too. Because while he was a French nationalist and a patriot, he was not going to let some 18 and 19-year-old kids do the dying for him. And so he died for them, leading from the front, shot through the forehead in 1914.

But the politics are less interesting  than the faith. When he married he did not believe, but by 1908 he had come back to the Catholic faith of his baptism. But his wife was an atheist, and refused to allow their children to be baptized. And because he was not married in the Church, his conscience did not allow him to receive the Sacraments, ever. And out of solidarity with his family, he did not go to Mass.  But that did not stop him from making a forty mile pilgrimage on foot to the Cathedral of Chartres in thanks to Our Lady when his son recovered from an illness. Integrity.

A man in such a situation can get lonely. And you might find yourself falling in love with the young Jewish girl (and she with you) who works at your literary journal. But a man with integrity doesn’t have an affair. Instead, like Péguy , you play matchmaker and find her a husband.

All this pain and sadness generated great diamond tears of words, a series of poems and plays written during the five years before his death. Much of it is out of print, of course, because that’s the way things are right now. The real treasures of the past have to be unearthed.  I am going to copy a few excerpts of his poems in some future posts (My understanding of U.S law is that there is no copyright for the works of foreign authors who died before 1923).

Oh yes, his family … His wife converted after he died, and had their children baptized. As it will always be, a man and father will die for the sake of his people.

 

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Filed under Poetry, Spiritual Reflections

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