On July 14th I was in the Conciergerie, a former Parisian prison that is now part of the palace of justice. During the reign of terror, it was the holding facility for those accused by the revolutionary tribunal. Trial followed accusation, conviction followed trial, and death by guillotine followed conviction, very quickly. I learned a lot about the famous and not-as-famous victims of the tribunal, including poet Andre Chenier (his name is an anagram for “re: chain ender”). He was born in Constantinople, son of a diplomat, in 1762, and died at the guillotine on the 25th of July, 1794–220 years ago this week.
It’s not clear whether Chenier would be remembered as a poet had he not died as a poet. He was unpublished for much of his lifetime, was a son of privilege, and worked for a few years as a diplomat’s secretary in London. He imitated Greek bucolic poetry, tried some philosophical verse (as was the fashion at the time), but, like many, was swept up into the tumult of the revolution almost in spite of himself. His younger brother had gained some renown as a playwright, and had joined an anti-monarchial group. Politically speaking, Andre was much more middle-of-the-road. Of course that was not good enough for the revolutionary tribunal, who eventually turned to sacrificing their own radicals when sacrificing loyalists no longer satisfied their paranoia.
What sealed Chenier’s place in history was that he continued writing poetry while imprisoned, turning more and more impassioned, and more sympathetic to his fellow prisoners. He and a friend went to their deaths reciting poetry by Racine. He smuggled some pieces out by greasing the guards, and other prisoners collected some of his papers after his execution… and they eventually reached publication, sometimes in fragments. Here’s a piece whose title really says it all, followed by a quite literal translation by your editor, who tried only to make it end rhyme. This was published in a volume called “Elegies” in 1819. -ed.
TOUT HOMME A SES DOULEURS
Tout homme a ses douleurs. Mais aux yeux de ses frères
Chacun d’un front serein déguise ses misères.
Chacun ne plaint que soi. Chacun dans son ennui
Envie un autre humain qui se plaint comme lui.
Nul des autres mortels ne mesure les peines
Qu’ils savent tous cacher comme il cache les siennes;
Et chacun, l’œil en pleurs, en son cœur douloureux
Se dit: “Excepté moi, tout le monde est heureux.”
Ils sont tous malheureux. Leur prière importune
Crie et demande au ciel de changer leur fortune.
Ils changent; et bientôt, versant de nouveaux pleurs
Ils trouvent qu’ils n’ont fait que changer de malheurs.
EVERY MAN TO HIS SORROWS
Every man to his sorrows. But in the eyes of his brothers,
Each, with a calm brow, hides his pain from others.
Each one pities himself. Each one, in his ennui,
Envies those who likewise moan, “Oh, woe is me.”
No man living but measures the pain
That others disguise, to look the same.
And each one, eyes wet with tears, heart heavy,
Thinks, “They are all happy, except me.”
They are all unhappy. Their prayer importunes,
Cries, and begs heaven to change their misfortunes.
They change; and soon, wet with fresh tears,
Find they haven’t shaken their dark fears.