It has occurred to me, not unreasonably, that if I write for a blog entitled “Cahiers Péguy,” I should know what the title means. Cahiers, I already knew, is the French word for notebooks or journals. But Péguy? Except as a repeated reference in works by Luigi Giussani—like Leopardi or Guardini—I knew nothing about this name. So a few weeks back, I set out to know something. I am a slow learner and a slower reader, but I have now assembled an initial set of impressions, which I hope will be the start of a series of posts and of some interest to readers.
Charles Péguy (1873–1914) was a sort of French male version of Dorothy Day—a young socialist who came to the Church in adulthood, suffered personal heartache to remain faithful, and literally put his life on the line for his fellow man. Day was arrested for the last time near age 70, while on a picket line with Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers. Péguy’s life itself was arrested on the first day of the Battle of the Marne, September, 5, 1914, at the head of his unit and with a bullet to the head. Born in the town that St. Joan of Arc famously liberated, Orléans, Péguy wrote two of his most important works about her. That smattering of facts is enough to make me a Charles Péguy man. I often recall inspiring stories of Dorothy and Joan, and now that I have read Péguy’s long poem The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, I am eager to create a clearer image of him in my inner pantheon.
Born in Orléans in 1873 and soon fatherless, Péguy was the only child of a widowed mother who scraped by mending chairs. A brilliant student as a youth, he nonetheless had to take the French equivalent of college entrance exams three times before passing them. In 1895, the same year he became a socialist, he traveled across France to Domrémy, birthplace of St. Joan, and to Vaucouleurs, the nearby regional hub where in 1429 Joan finally convinced local powers to provide her with a military escort, thus beginning her great adventure that ended two years later at the stake. In 1897, at age 24, Péguy married Charlotte Baudouin, sister of his deceased best friend. In the same year, he published his first major work, Joan of Arc, an ambitious trilogy of plays in 24 acts.
Péguy was soon embroiled in the Dreyfus affair while opening a socialist bookstore, which converted to a publishing house the following year. In 1899, he became disenchanted with socialists’ lukewarm defense of Dreyfus, and the following year, turned off by socialist politics, he left direct involvement with the movement and began publishing his Cahiers de la Quinzaine (fortnightly journals). As an independent thinker and writer, he stood between a rock and a hard place: rejecting socialism while ridiculing Catholic eschatology.
Péguy’s faith began coming to light in the years 1907–1909, as he confided in friends including the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. In 1910, he published his second major work on St. Joan, The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc. Two more major works of religious free verse followed in the four short years before his death, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope and The Mystery of the Holy Innocents. During this period, he also made two pilgrimages to Chartres and overcame his unrequited, unconsummated passion for another woman. True to his wife, Péguy was true to La France as well, mobilized on August 2, 1914, and a martyr for his country only 34 days later. Charles and Charlotte Péguy’s last child was born after his death.
I am re-reading The Mystery of the Portal of Hope and would like to have some impressions prepared within a week. Meanwhile, however, you know a little something about Charles Péguy and perhaps have a glimmer of understanding why this blog is named for him.