The French Catholic Poet of our Times

Above: French street sign in Maisons-Alfort.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, on January 7, 1873, “a unique man of letters, and unclassifiable writer” was born in Orléans, north-central France: Charles Péguy.

This is how Bernard Guyon († 1975) defines him at the conclusion of a careful study of the French poet; and he adds:

He will never be fully accepted. He will never become a ‘classic’ in the ordinary sense of the word. He will never cease to be discussed. But as long as our old people maintain themselves on a certain spiritual level, his work will make exclamations break out similar to the one issued from the lips of Roman Rolland, at the end of a long life dedicated to the meditation of geniuses: ‘Je ne puis rien lire après Péguy (I can’t read anything after Péguy).[1]

Portrait by Jean-Pierre Laurens (1908).

Belonging to a humble family, he was baptized and confirmed in the Faith. Thanks to a scholarship he studied for a few years with the philosopher Henry Bergson († 1941) the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. To break down the barriers that divided the rich from the poor, he was at first enchanted by the Socialist mirage as a false solution to modern problems. Nevertheless, his diagnosis of the problems of the modernity was correct. He fought a battle against four idols of the “modern world”: scientism (the only acceptable truth is that which can be known and verified experimentally), historicism (truth changes according to its adaptation to a given period of history which passes by itself), progress (against which the French writer has fiery words, recognizing and accepting technical development, but not to the exploitation and detriment of humanity), and money, which

for the first time in the history of the world […] is the master without limit or measure. For the first time […] stands alone opposite spirit. […] For the first time in the history of the world money stands alone opposite God.[2]

Returning to the Faith in 1908, Péguy felt the urgency to rebuild Christianity on the most genuine elements of the Gospel, rediscovering, as an ex-Socialist, the sense of solidarity and interdependence, since:

We must save ourselves together… We must not go looking for the good Lord among some people without the others. We must all come back together to our Father’s house. We must also think a little of others. We must work a little for others. What would He say to us, if we arrived, if we came back with some and without others![3]

Péguy died in first World War on September 5, 1914, fighting in the first Battle of the Marne, northern France.

On December 28, 1913, his immense poem Eve, a very long discourse addressed by Christ to the progenitor of humanity, was published in the Cahiers de la Quinzaine (Fortnightly Notebooks), the journal he founded in 1900. This grandiose final work of his represents, according to the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar,

the only great attempt – after Augustine’s Civitas Dei – to acquire poetic dominion over the three essential theological situations […] of real man: the original stage in innocent time, a sinful stage in the fallen time that runs towards death and perdition, a stage of salvation in Christ and Mary who receive the inheritance of the world and bring back to the Father’s house the harvest of death.[4]

In 1938, the French organist and composer Jehan Alain set to music the Prière pour nous autres charnels (Prayer for us mortals), taken from the lines 2969-3444 of Eve by the writer of Orléans, for tenor, bass and organ.

Like Péguy, the composer was a patriot and a Christian and died in the war on June 20, 1940. The piece, performed for the first time on November 11, 1938, was then orchestrated by the French musician Henri Dutilleux († 2013), bold heir to Claude Debussy († 1918), for a concert in November 1944, three months after the Liberation of Paris.

“That was in 1944,” said the composer in a 1996 interview,

I agreed to do it first of all out of deep respect for the memory of Jehan Alain and for the music this very young composer had left us, and also because I’m fond of Péguy. The opening lines of this Prière pour nous autres charnels are overwhelming on their own — ‘Happy are those who have died for the mortal earth, but only if it was for a just war’ — and Alain’s choice of this poem – in 1939 – strikes us as premonitory. But did this text not have a premonitory force Péguy himself?[5]

Here is the translated text of the prayer:

Blessed are those who died for carnal earth, / Provided it was in a just war. / Blessed are those who died for a plot of ground. / Blessed are those who died a solemn death. / Blessed are those who died in great battles, / Stretched out on the ground in the face of God. // Blessed are those who died on a final high place / Amid all the pomp of grandiose funerals. / Blessed are those who died for carnal cities, / For they are the body of the City of God. / Blessed are those who died for their hearth and their fire, / And the lowly honors of their father’s house. / For such is the image and such the beginning / The body and shadow of the house of God. / Blessed are those who died because they came back / In the ancient dwelling and the old house. // They went back down in the young season / Whence God raised them miserable and naked. / Blessed are those who died because they returned / In this first soil nourished by their remains / In this first vault, in peat and coal. / Happy are the great vanquished, the disillusioned kings.

Also this moving music makes us say Charles Péguy is still relevant, one hundred and fifty years after his birth, indeed a true prophet of our time.


[1] B. Guyon, Péguy, Hatier, Paris 1961, p. 281, our translation.

[2] C. Péguy, Note conjointe sur M. Descartes et la philosophie cartésienne, 1031-1032.

[3] Ibid., The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, Pantheon, New York 1950, p. 39.

[4] H. U. Von Balthasar, Stili laicali, in Gloria, vol. 3, Milan 1986, p. 444, our translation.

[5] H. Dutilleux, Mystère et mémoire des sons, Paris 1997, our translation, p. 235.

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