Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Rewriting Hellenism: André Chénier (1762-1794) and Hellenistic Poetry

The project focuses on an intriguing aspect of André Chénier’s poetry, which has not received much attention in scholarship: Chénier’s indebtedness – in the form of translation, adaptation, borrowing, reference – to Hellenistic poetry; it interprets the role of this indebtedness in his poetical and political views; and it assesses the way the 19th-century poets considered, and eventually, adopted Chénier’s antiquarianism.

2014 - 2018

The French poet André Chénier (1762-1794) was the most intriguing poet of his time. He was a supporter of the French Revolution , but fierce critic of Robespierre, and thus ended under the guillotine. Apart from political satire he wrote poetry, inspired by the Hellenistic poets (4th - 1st century B.C.), for whom poetic beauty was more important than social engagement. After his death Chénier became an international cult figure, admired by Victor Hugo and Pushkin. What was the role of the Hellenistic poetry in the life and work of Chénier? How important this poetry was for the 19th-century reception and interpretation of Chénier?

This project proposes an in-depth evaluation of the Hellenistic poetry of André Chénier (1762-1794), the most paradoxical French poet of his time. More conservative than the poets of French 17th- and 18th-century Classicism and Neo-classicism, Chénier was admired and followed by 19th-century Romantic writers (Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, Sainte-Beuve). His life and death made him a cult figure: A supporter of the French Revolution, but a critic of Robespierre, Chénier was executed at the guillotine by Robespierre three days before Robespierre himself was executed. While Chénier was known as a political satirist, in private he wrote lyric poetry in the Hellenistic tradition, which rejects any political engagement. This Hellenistic poetry typically favours a strong intellectualism with a preference for wordplay, literary allusions, metapoetical self-reflexivity, stylistic density and brevitas. By reworking these poetical ideas into his own poetry and poetics, Chénier acted as a conduit for later poets, notably the 19th-century champions of l'art pour l'art (Gautier) and the Parnasse contemporain (Heredia, Sully Prud'homme), not only in France but also throughout Europe up to Russia (Pushkin, Lermontov).

Research on Chénier is complex, because his lyric poetry was not published during his lifetime, and all editions of his work, even the most recent, are more or less defective. This is due to the nature of Chénier’s manuscripts, which combine finished poems with drafts in various stages of completion and ideas for larger poetry projects. To get to grips with Chénier’s work, in this research project we will examine the manuscripts sur place (Paris, Carcassonne) on the basis of the recent method and theory of the critique génétique ( génétique textuelle). In order to investigate how Chénier incorporated Hellenistic poetry into his own poetry and poetics, we will make use of the concept of imitation inventrice, as defined in Chénier’s metapoetical poem L’invention. Next, we will adapt this concept to provide a tool to investigate the reception of Chénier’s Hellenism by the poets of French Romanticism and the Parnasse. The dissertation consists of three parts: 1) theoretical discussion of the impact of Hellenism on Chénier’s poetry and poetics, and the notions of imitation inventrice and génétique textuelle; 2) case studies of Chénier’s Hellenistic poetry; 3) evaluation of the reception of Chénier’s Hellenism in France.

This project is informed by, and will contribute to the current interest in the individual in a violent society, and in cult formation and figures of transition: Chénier offers a spectacular example, in whom Ancien Régime, Revolution and Post Revolution, classicism, romanticism and l'art pour l'art meet.  

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