Charles Peguy’s “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc”

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(Thanks for all the likes in response to the recent poems. Writing poetry was certainly never on my bucket list, and its a relief that they weren’t complete disasters.)

I mentioned in a prior post I was going to provide excerpts from some of the French poet Charles Péguy’s major works.  He was the one who inspired me to write a few. The thing about his major poems is that they are very, very long, sometimes running into hundreds of pages. You will either love them or be very bored by them. It’s ok.

The following excerpt is from his 1910 poem (though some call it a play) Le Mystére de la Charité de Jeanne D’Arc. This translates into English as The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc. It is the first part of a trilogy, the other two being The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, and The Mystery of the Holy Innocents.  All three are hard to come by in libraries, and the first and third are out of print. Péguy had planned to write as many as fifteen mysteries on various topics of faith, but he tragically died too soon at the age of 41.

It is hard to describe this one. It reminds me a lot of one of Plato’s Socratic dialogs. There are three speaking roles, Joan, her friend Hauviette, and a local nun, named Madame Gervaise. The events, which occupy the space of an afternoon, occur in Joan’s village before she begins her quest to save France. There are long stretches that are akin to poetry, and other sections of ordinary dialog.

The part I am going to quote comes at the beginning, when Joan is considering the plight of France during its war with England. It almost reminds me of a Psalm of lamentation from the Old Testament. This is all spoken by Joan:

Our father, our father who art in heaven, how far is your name from being hallowed; how far is your kingdom from coming.

Our father, who art in the kingdom of heaven, how far is your kingdom from coming to the kingdom of the earth.

Our father, who art in the kingdom of heaven, how far is your kingdom from coming to the kingdom of France.

Our father, our father who art in Heaven, how far is your will from being done; how far are we from being given our daily bread.

How far are we from forgiving those who trespass against us; and not succumbing to temptation; and being delivered from evil.

That was just the warm up. The better part, which speaks to our Christian frustration follows in a few excerpts:

O God, if we could only see the beginning of your kingdom. If we could only see the sun of your kingdom rise. But there is nothing, there is never anything. You have sent us your son whom you loved so dearly, your son came, who suffered so much, and died. And now, nothing. There is never anything. If we could only see the daybreak of your kingdom. And you have sent us your saints, you have called each one of them by his name, your other sons the saints and your daughters the saints, and your saints have come, men and women, and now nothing, there is never anything.

Years have gone by, so many years that I cannot count them; centuries of years have gone by; fourteen centuries of Christianity, alas, since the nativity, and death and preaching. And now nothing, nothing, ever. And what reigns on the face of the earth is nothing but perdition.

You have sent us your son and the other saints. And nothing flows upon the face of the earth but a stream of ingratitude and perdition. God, God, will it have to be that your son died in vain?

And not only do temptations besiege us, but temptations triumph, and temptations reign, and it is the reign of temptation, and the reign of the kingdoms of the earth have fallen into the reign of the kingdom of temptation, and the evil succumb to the temptation to do evil … but the good, who were good, succumb to a temptation infinitely worse: the temptation to believe they have been forsaken by you.

Her friend Hauviette, commenting on this, accuses Joan of trying to pick a fight with Jesus. Themes of despair, damnation and others are explored.

Peguy wrote a sequel, called The Mystery of the Vocation of Joan of Arc.  It is set some time later. It was published posthumously, and never translated into English.

P.S. There appear to be two English translations. The more recent, which has a reddish cover, only gives you about half the poem. The full version runs about 200 pages.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Poetry

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