Next Spring sees David McCallam's new book André Chénier: Poetry and Revolution 1792-1794, due out in our Transcript series.
Born in Constantinople, and sometimes seen as a Byronic figure, sometimes more of an Encyclopaedist, Chénier wrote with the turbulence of the age. His politics — Revolutionary but not enough to suit the Mountain of the left — condemned him. He opposed regicide, he had aristo contacts, he had gone into hiding. Though he was not a famous poet — that came posthumously — he had written lines which came to Robespierre's notice. In the Prison Saint-Lazare, having been found in the house of an enemy of the state, Chénier knew that his life hung in the balance. Chénier spent the final months of the Terror writing verses which became a Solzhenitsyn-like testament, smuggled out of his prison. Faint hopes of reprieve came to nothing, though it was a close-run thing. After signing Chénier's death warrant, Robespierre outlived him by three days.
The celebrated painting on the cover of David's book was not, of course, painted from life: Charles-Louis Müller, the artist, was not even born until 1815, and this assembly of the final victims of 7 and 9 Thermidor Year II — though a faithful attempt to represent the real prisoners — could never all have met. That's Chénier in the central pose, verses in his hand, a look of profundity — Romantic? philosophical? — on his face. On the day of his death, he was just another prisoner. A generation later, though, and those verses had pushed him to centre stage.