The great French Catholic poet, journalist and polemicist Charles Péguy died at the first battle of the Marne at the very outset of the First World War. Ever since then his fame and influence upon French literature, thought and politics has grown. Yet knowledge of him in Britain remains sporadic, even amongst Catholics. With a growing number of translations available, most recently of his long poem “The Portal of the Mystery of Hope”, and shortly of his crucial two final essays on Bergson, that situation could soon alter.
The lack of engagement with Péguy in Anglo-Saxon countries is in one sense unsurprising; his concerns were often obsessively French, and his patriotic death was just what he would have welcomed in imitation of the central figure of his devotion, Joan of Arc.
On the other hand, there is much about him that naturally appeals to English-language tradition: his concern with innocence, childhood, the creative imagination, the magical and romantic dimensions of theatre, and the centrality of forgiveness and reconciliation. The essential childlikeness of his personality, in a positive sense of honesty, freshness and lack of guile, parallels that of the notably Francophile GK Chesterton.
For these reasons alone one can recommend him to the British reader. But in addition, he always expressed himself simply and directly, albeit in a rambling and digressive style with its unique incantatory repetitions. Both his poetry and prose are easy to read and have the advantage of conveying extremely deep and far-reaching thoughts with an apparent clarity (however deceptive). Péguy the journalist deliberately welcomes everyone into the range of the deepest wisdom.
But much more specifically, he already addressed the post-Christian world in which Catholics now find themselves. He was surely able to do so because of the ambiguities of his own life: a committed socialist, he returned to his childhood Catholicism but never practised it – out of respect, he said with typical idiosyncrasy, for his wife’s unwillingness to have their children baptised. His churchgoing was confined to the pilgrim route to Chartres, which he trod in order to pray for his very sick son.
Despite his tragic alienation, Péguy’s vision of our modern predicament was singularly unified. In the wake of the philosopher Henri Bergson, he thought that humans always have a tendency to fail to live in the open-ended present and in the time from dawn to dusk, as the Gospels recommend. Instead, we treat the present as if it were the past and entirely predetermined and predictable.
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