André Marie Chénier was a French poet, associated with the events of the French Revolution of which he was a victim. His sensual, emotive poetry marks him as one of the precursors of the Romantic movement. His career was brought to an abrupt end when he was guillotined for alleged "crimes against the state", just three days before the end of the Reign of Terror. Chénier's life has been the subject of Umberto Giordano's opera Andrea Chénier and other works of art.
He was born in the Galata district (today Karaköy neighborhood) of Constantinople. His father, Louis Chénier, a native of Languedoc, after twenty years in the Levant as a cloth-merchant, was appointed to a position equivalent to that of French consul at Constantinople. His mother, Élisabeth Santi-Lomaca, whose sister was grandmother of Adolphe Thiers, was of Greek origins. When André was three years old, his father returned to France, and from 1768 to 1775 served as consul-general of France in Morocco. The family, of which André was the third son, and Marie-Joseph the fourth, remained in France; and after a few years, during which André ran wild with an aunt in Carcassonne, he distinguished himself as a verse-translator from the classics at the Collège de Navarre in Paris.
In 1783 he enlisted in a French regiment at Strasbourg, but the novelty soon wore off. He returned to Paris before the end of the year, was well received by his family, and mixed in the cultivated circle which frequented his mother's salon, including Lebrun-Pindare, Antoine Lavoisier, Jean François Lesueur, Claude Joseph Dorat, and, a little later, the painter Jacques-Louis David.
He had already decided to become a poet, and worked in the neoclassical style of the time. He was especially inspired by a 1784 visit to Rome, Naples, and Pompeii. For nearly three years, he studied and experimented in verse without any pressure or interruption from his family. He wrote mostly idylls and bucolics, imitated to a large extent from Theocritus, Bion and the Greek anthologists. Among the poems written or at least sketched during this period were L'Oaristys, L'Aveugle, La Jeune Malode, Bacchus, Euphrosine and La Jeune Tarentine. He mixed classical mythology with a sense of individual emotion and spirit.
Apart from his idylls and his elegies, Chénier also experimented with didactic and philosophic verse, and when he commenced his Hermes in 1783 his ambition was to condense the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot into a long poem somewhat after the manner of Lucretius. Now extant only in fragments, this poem was to treat of man's place in the universe, first in an isolated state, and then in society. Another fragment called "L'Invention" sums up Chénier's thoughts on poetry: "De nouvelles pensees, faisons des vers antiques" ("From new thoughts, let us make antique verses").
Chénier remained unpublished. In November 1787 an opportunity of a fresh career presented itself. The Chevalier de la Luzerne, a friend of the Chénier family, had been appointed ambassador to Britain. When he offered to take André with him as his secretary, André knew the offer was too good to refuse, but was unhappy in England. He bitterly ridiculed "... ces Anglais. Nation toute à vendre à qui peut la payer. De contrée en contrée allant au monde entier, Offrir sa joie ignoble et son faste grossier." Although John Milton and James Thomson seem to have interested him and a few of his verses show slight inspiration from Shakespeare and Thomas Gray, it would be an exaggeration to say Chénier studied English literature.
The events of 1789 and the startling success of his younger brother, Marie-Joseph, as political playwright and pamphleteer, concentrated all his thoughts upon France. In April 1790 he could stand London no longer, and once more joined his parents at Paris in the rue de Cléry. France was on the verge of anarchy. A strong believer in constitutional monarchism, Chénier believed that the French Revolution was already complete and that all that remained to be done was the inauguration of the reign of law. Though his political viewpoint was moderate, his tactics were dangerously aggressive: he abandoned his gentle idyls to write poetical satires. His prose "Avis au peuple Français" (24 August 1790) was followed by the rhetorical "Jeu de paume", a somewhat declamatory moral ode addressed to the painter Jacques-Louis David.
In the meantime he orated at the Feuillants Club, and contributed frequently to the Journal de Paris from November 1791 to July 1792, when he wrote his scorching iambs to Jean Marie Collot d'Herbois, Sur les Suisses révoltés du regiment de Châteauvieux. The insurrection of 10 August 1792 uprooted his party, his paper and his friends, and he only escaped the September Massacres by staying with relatives in Normandy. In the month following these events his brother, Marie-Joseph, had entered the anti-monarchical National Convention. André raged against all these events, in such poems as Ode à Charlotte Corday congratulating France that "Un scélérat de moins rampe dans cette fange." At the request of Malesherbes, the defense counsel to King Louis XVI, Chénier provided some arguments to the king's defense.
After the king's execution he sought a secluded retreat on the Plateau de Satory at Versailles and only went out after nightfall. There he wrote the poems inspired by Fanny (Mme Laurent Lecoulteux), including the exquisite Ode à Versailles. His solitary life at Versailles lasted nearly a year. On 7 March 1794 he was arrested at the house of Mme Piscatory at Passy. Two obscure agents of the Committee of Public Safety (one of them named Nicolas Guénot) were in search of a marquise who had fled, but an unknown stranger was found in the house and arrested on suspicion of being the aristocrat they were searching for. This was Chénier, who had come on a visit of sympathy.
He was taken to the Luxembourg Palace and afterwards to Saint-Lazare. During the 140 days of his imprisonment he wrote a series of iambs denouncing the Convention (in alternate lines of 12 and 8 syllables), which, in the words of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, "hiss and stab like poisoned bullets", and which were smuggled to his family by a jailer. In prison he also composed his most famous poem, "Jeune captive", a poem at once of enchantment and of despair. Ten days before Chénier's death, the painter Joseph-Benoît Suvée completed the well-known portrait of him.
Chénier might have been overlooked but for the well-meant, indignant officiousness of his father. Marie-Joseph did his best to prevent his brother's execution, but he could do nothing more. Maximilien Robespierre, who was himself in dangerous straits, remembered Chénier as the author of the venomous verses in the Journal de Paris and sentenced him to death. Chénier was one of the last persons executed by Robespierre.
At sundown, Chénier was taken by cart to the guillotine at what is now the Place de la Nation. He was executed along with a Princess of Monaco, on a charge of conspiracy. Robespierre was seized and executed only three days later. Chénier, aged 31 at his execution, was interred in the Cimetière de Picpus.
The record of Chénier's last moments by Henri de Latouche is rather melodramatic and is certainly not above suspicion.
During Chénier's lifetime only his Jeu de paume (1791) and Hymne sur les Suisses (1792) had been published. For the most part, then, his reputation rests on his posthumously published work, retrieved from oblivion page by page.
The Jeune Captive appeared in the Decade philosophique, on 9 January 1795; La Jeune Tarentine in the Mercure of 22 March 1801. François-René de Chateaubriand quoted three or four passages in his Genie du Christianisme. Fayette and Lefeuvre-Deumier also gave a few fragments; but it was not until 1819 that an attempt was made by Henri de Latouche to collect the poems in a substantive volume. Many more poems and fragments were discovered after Latouche's publication, and were collected in later editions. Latouche also wrote an account of Chénier's last moments, which the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica described as "melodramatic and certainly not above suspicion."
Critical opinions of Chénier have varied wildly. In 1828, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve praised Chénier as an heroic forerunner of the Romantic movement and a precursor of Victor Hugo. Chénier, he said, had "inspired and determined" Romanticism. Many other critics also wrote about Chénier as modern and proto-Romantic. However, Anatole France contests Sainte-Beuve's theory: he claims that Chénier's poetry is one of the last expressions of 18th-century classicism. His work should not be compared to Hugo and the Parnassian poets, but to philosophes like André Morellet. Paul Morillot has argued that judged by the usual test of 1820s Romanticism (love for strange literature of the North, medievalism, novelties and experiments), Chénier would have been excluded from Romantic circles. On the other hand, the ennui and melancholy of his poetry recalls Romanticism, and he experimented in French verse to a much greater extent than other 18th-century poets.
Le noir serpent, sorti de sa caverne impure,
A donc vu rompre enfin sous ta main ferme et sûre
le venimeux tissu de ses jours abhorrés!
Aux entrailles du tigre, à ses dents homicides,
Fille de Pandion, ô jeune Athénienne,
La cigale est ta proie, hirondelle inhumaine,
Et nourrit tes petits qui, débiles encor,
Comme un dernier rayon, comme un dernier zéphyre
Animent la fin d'un beau jour,
Au pied de l'échafaud j'essaye encor ma lyre.
O Versaille, ô bois, ô portiques,
Marbres vivants, berceaux antiques,
Par les dieux et les rois Élysée embelli,
A ton aspect, dans ma pensée,