BORN: 1907, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Vaucluse, France
DIED: 1988, Paris, France
GENRE: Poetry, prose-poetry
Furor and Mystery (1948)
Search for the Base and the Summit (1955)
During his lifetime René Char was regarded by many as France's greatest living poet. Although his early association with the surrealists liberated his imagination and colored his imagery, Char's poetry also reflects the rusticity of life in the countryside of his native Provence. His experiences during World War II profoundly affected his poetry and led him to reflect on enduring human values. In addition to “anecdotal,” Char's poetry has been labeled “hermetic,” for it often suggests the poet as prophet and poetry as a kind of religion. His work has been illustrated by such notable contemporaries as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso and set to music by Pierre Boulez. Albert Camus once called Char “a poet of all time who speaks for our time in particular.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Childhood in the Hill Country of France René-ÉmileChar was born in the French town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, in the department (province) of the Vaucluse, on June 14, 1907. His poetry does celebrate sites outside his native region—such as Autun, Lascaux, and Alsace—and occasionally these become major symbols of creativity, love, or war, but the hill country of southeast-
ern France dominates his poetic topography. Char is by no means a regionalist poet, however: he generally uses his native locale to stage epic struggles of justice versus injustice, in which the individual resists a repressive, conformist society. One of his major symbols, Mont Ventoux, is linked directly to Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch, and his portrayals of the southern countryside seek always the universal within the particular.
Char was the youngest of four children born to Joseph-ÉmileChar, businessman and town mayor, and his second wife, Marie-Thérèse Rouget Char.Émile Char's first marriage had been to Marie-Thérèse's older sister Julia, who died of tuberculosis after barely a year of marriage. Char plays on this endogamy in poems such as “Jacquemard et Julia,” in the collection Fureur et mystère (Furor and Mystery, 1948), where the first marriage stands in idyllic counterpoint to the poet's own tense relationship with his mother. During Char's childhood, his family lived in the Névons, a large house surrounded by a park.
A Fatherless Soldier Char's father died on January 15, 1918. This event had a profound effect on the boy, who was not yet eleven, and many poems—such as “Jouvence des
Névons” (“Youth at the Névons”), from Les Matinaux (1950; translated as The Dawn Breakers, 1992)—bear witness to Char's subsequent sense of dispossession and existential solitude. Such feelings characterize a significant portion of his poetry, though they temper rather than overwhelm his basic optimism. As the critic Christine Dupouy notes in her 1987 monograph on Char, the family house and the extensive park surrounding it galvanized Char's poetic and psychological energies: the property symbolized the beauty of nature in his father's former realm and by contrast underscored the poet's rebellion against maternal authority. Shortly after his father's death, Char became a student at the lycée of Avignon but never completed the baccalauréat, a prestigious diploma that crowns secondary studies in France. Instead, in 1925 he enrolled in a business school at Marseilles and in 1926 took a job in Cavaillon, a few kilometers south of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. From 1927 to 1928 he did his military service in an artillery unit at Nîmes and published his first book of verse, Les Cloches sur le coeur (Bells on the Heart, 1928), most copies of which he later destroyed. This work is the only book published under his given name of René-ÉmileChar.
Char fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and organized a resistance unit against the Nazi-controlled Vichy regime in France at Céreste during World War II. Although he continued writing, he did not publish during the German and Italian occupation of France, being fully engaged with the resistance movement—with duties ranging from organizing Allied parachute drops in the Alps to helping organize the Allied invasion of Provence from Algeria. After the war, he was lionized by a France eager to forget its complicity in Nazi atrocities, and he alternated between living in Paris and Provence. He continued writing poetry until his death of heart failure in 1988.
Works in Literary Context
Polarity and Wisdom Char's philosophical master was the philosopher Heraclitus, whom he described as a “vision of a solar eagle” who embraced opposites. Char believed that “the poem is always married to someone,” and the technique of his poetry can be expressed in the Heraclitean saying, “The Lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither expresses nor conceals, but indicates.” “I am torn,” Char explained, “by all the fragments there are.” Yet his mind could “polarize the most neutral objects,” writes Gabriel Bounoure. And Camus noted Char's right to “lay claim to the tragic optimism of pre-Socratic Greece. From Empedocles to Nietzsche, a secret had been passed on from summit to summit, an austere and rare tradition which Char has revived after prolonged eclipse…. What he has called ‘Wisdom, her eyes filled with tears,’ is brought to life again, on the very heights of our disasters.”
Poetry as Warfare Seuls demeurent and Feuillets d'Hypnos reflect his wartime experiences of violence, killing, and fear. For instance, the poem “L'Extravagant” was inspired by an order, which Char had given as a guerrilla commander in Spain, to have two young men executed. The war years influenced his later poetry by tempering his attitude toward humanity with compassion and brotherhood, and by reinforcing his conception of poetry as a mode of guerrilla warfare and resistance.
Works in Critical Context
Char's poetry is widely read and highly regarded both in his native France and in other countries. Some critics have detected a tension between “separateness” and “communal presence” throughout his canon. Nancy Kline Piore notes that although Char was a “deeply private man,” he “participated actively in two of the most important communal efforts of the century, Surrealism and the Resistance, and both have marked his work.” There is some critical debate, however, as to how much the surrealist movement influenced his writing. Some critics believe that Char's broken syntax, striking imagery, unusual vocabulary, and deliberate defiance of the rules of logical coherence conspire to make his poetry unnecessarily difficult.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Char's famous contemporaries include:
Leon Trotsky (1879–1940): A Ukrainian-born Marxist, Trotsky was one of the leaders of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia and developed a school of Marxist thought deeply opposed to the totalitarian corruption of communism espoused and practiced by Stalin in the Soviet Union.
Salvador Dalí (1904–1989): The surrealist painter par excellence, the Spanish-born Dalí was fond of highlighting his Arab lineage, claiming to be descended from the Moors who had occupied southern Spain for close to eight hundred years.
André Breton (1896–1966): A French poet who defined surrealism as “pure psychic automism” in the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, he collaborated with Char and others on significant early works.
Richard Nixon (1913–1994): The thirty-seventh president of the United States, Nixon was the only American president to voluntarily step down from office; he resigned in disgrace and amid scandal in August 1974.
Blinding Light and Unbearable Darkness In 1952, France's most prominent novelist, Albert Camus, wrote, “I consider René Char to be our greatest living poet, and Fureur et Mystère to be the most astonishing
product of French poetry since Les Illuminations and Alcools.” Gabriel Bounoure likewise responded strongly to Char's work: “I remember when I first read Char's poetry I was drawn by its evident greatness…. Char's universe is the kingdom of the open air.”
Many of Char's poems are aphoristic—short, stabbing distillations of language for maximum meaning. Emile Snyder writes: “A poem by René Char is an act of violence within which serenity awaits the end of violence.” The concentrated lucidity he attains is, in Char's own words “the wound closest to the sun.” Camus remarked that this poetry “carries daytime and night on the same impulse….”
Responses to Literature
- List and discuss two or three themes from Char's Furor and Mystery. How do “furor” and “mystery” pervade Char's treatment of these themes?
- Compare the poetic vision of Char with those of Paul Éluard, André Breton, and one more surrealist poet of your choice. Using one or two poems by each (all from the same period), consider the ways in which Char both was and was not a good representative of the surrealist movement.
- Char was one of a number of poets and fiction writers to participate in the Spanish Civil War, which was perhaps the most popular war of all time among intellectuals and artists—many of whom fought or served in the ambulance corps for the Republicans, the troops opposing the authoritarian dictator-to-be General Franco. Research the Spanish Civil War and consider what it was that drew Char and others to participate in this conflict. Discuss, in a thesis-driven essay, the significance of this war for the development of Char's poetic sensibilities and those of his generation of artists.
- Consider two to three of Char's later poems alongside two to three of his earlier poems. What similarities and differences do you see in his treatment of conflict and opposition? Do you see his later approach to this theme as more of a continuation of his earlier approach, or more of a break from it? Support your thesis with careful analysis of specific poetic devices and themes.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Char's work is perhaps most strongly characterized by a sense of struggle—an awareness that all life is unresolved opposition that brings both uncertainty and delight. Here are some other works that celebrate conflict, not for the sake of conflict, but for the sake of life:
The Subtle Knife (1997), a novel by Philip Pullman. This fantasy tale draws on Keats's idea of negative capability in chronicling the interworld adventures of Lyra Silvertongue.
The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), a novel by Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon, one of the United States’ premier postmodern fiction writers, provokes and confounds interpretation in this short novel, insisting that the unresolvable conflict of perspectives makes it more or less impossible for meaning to “truly” determine actions or ideas.
“Song of Myself” (1860), a poem by Walt Whitman. The American poet captures the idea of unresolved conflict in this epic poem, a part of Leaves of Grass, his life's work. He writes, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Poetics (c. 335 bce), a nonfiction work by Aristotle. Classical Greek philosophy, exemplified in Aristotle, saw the Universe as an endless pattern of conflict, or agon, in which opposing forces struggled for dominance.
Caws, Mary Ann. The Presence of René Char. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.
Hines, Thomas Jensen. Collaborative Form: Studies in the Relations of the Arts. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991.
Kedward, H.R. In Search of the Maquis: Rural Resistance in Southern France, 1942–1944. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976.
Noland, Carrie. “Messages personnels: Radio, Cryptology, and the Resistance Poetry of René Char.” In Poetry at Stake: Lyric Aesthetics and the Challenge of Technology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Caws, Mary Ann. “Provence as a Personal Poetry.” Journal of the Twentieth Century/Contemporary French Studies 1, no. 2 (Autumn 1997): 589–97.
Schürmann, Reiner. “Situating René Char: Hölderlin, Heidegger, Char, and the ‘There Is. ’” Boundary 24, no. 2 (Winter 1976): 513–34.
Williams, William Carlos. “Review of Hypnos Waking.” New Republic, Autumn 1956: 18.