Charles Péguy's Difficult Hope

Charles Péguy died with a bullet through the head on September 5, 1914. The First World War was but a few months old.

Péguy is impossible to really characterize. He has a way of defying summarization, and so too do his poems. There is much too much between the lines, in the meandering prose, in the life. He was French, born of peasants in Orléans in 1873, and he considered himself a child of the Republic that had lurched into existence somehow in the 19th century after a couple turns at empire and emperor. He was convinced that his generation was the last of the real republicans, whom he traced backward with an impracticable, zigzagging line from 1848 to 1830 to the first breath of the first revolution.[1]

Péguy can be understood, insists on being understood, by knowing something of the Dreyfus Affair. He bound himself to the event tightly and inexorably, and refused to relinquish it.[2] One Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the military, was convicted of treason and thrown in jail for life in 1894. Only, he had not done anything wrong. The evidence had been falsified, and the anti-Semitic animus of the act poorly concealed. France cracked in half in a bitter feud over justice and injustice. Péguy threw himself in with Dreyfus, and Péguy did not look back, not except to trace the brand of the originary moment, still hot to his fingertips.

Once his socialist friends accused him of anarchism. They were busy kicking him off the board of the socialist paper he founded. Péguy did not deny the charge.[3]

He was Catholic, had recovered his faith in adulthood after years of being away. He had always been a writer. When he became a Catholic, he would somehow become a poet too. He refused to attend Mass.

He died with a bullet through the head.

Péguy made me think of spiders. A couple of months ago, I shot up from bed in the dead of night and realized: spiders. Those “spinners” (filateurs) he had been describing, as they spun and stretched icing over towers: they were spiders. I was wrong. I had known that I was wrong, though I could not say what was right. The intellect is a delicate and strange instrument, able to know and to leap up into unknowing. Able to dizzy itself with the understanding that it does not understand, which means that the mind has known something. But not rightly. Or not the thing at hand. It seems an impossible span: the embrace of knowledge and its lack.

I did not quite know how wrong I was. Filateurs and fileuses were spinners busy spinning something. Who spins, and what? We were just admiring gazelles a couple stanzas ago. Quite lost now, I did what I could: took the nearest similar image from elsewhere and carefully duct-taped it in place. “Spinners” meant women spinning thread at wheels and in factories. I was not wrong. Péguy surfaces the image elsewhere in his work. But I was also wrong: spiders were the spinners. Péguy had taken me by the hand and all but said it. I could not understand, and I knew that I had not. The crisis and reassurance of lasting through dissonance. Now I understood. The real and right thing is a lovely image, underneath:

You have not seen all these striving dancers and spinners
Crossing and uncrossing the skein of their races,
Setting out across the golden sands in a nebula of waves
Under the seven articulated nails struck into the Big Dipper.

You’ve not seen: these crafters and these embroiderers,
Their movements supple as careful cut lace,
These beautiful surveyors striving out at measures,
Tracing, shaping glazes before citadels.

A nascent creation without memory
Turning and returning to the curves of the same sphere.

The beech and the acorn, the pome fruit and the rowan berry,
Juicier under the teeth than plum or pear.[4]

Péguy is writing to Eve. He is writing with sustained compassion to the mother who died in exile, never having witnessed the earth bloom with the rhythm of life. Péguy has a way, he always has a way, of reaching down across lineages at impossible angles, through history and against it, to touch the root. The exposed nerve. The warmth of living heat.

I am not the most gifted translator, but I am willing to try brutally hard, and to fail with the same reckless measure. Because it is hard to really know a poet without also knowing their sound. Their particular, peculiar music. And I always want to know their sounds.

G.M. Hopkins was a pianist. It shows in the rapid-light dancing of his poems, the “sprung rhythm” of his invention. So the sinking Deutschland reels with the punishment of ivory keys:

She drove in the dark to leeward,
She struck—not a reef or a rock
But the combs of a smother of sand: night drew her
Dead to the Kentish Knock[5]

Hopkins even has a way of—that dash. Or the lengthening of a sound (“O what black hoürs . . .”).[6] Like the pedals underneath a piano that stretch and shorten notes.

Péguy is a madman. He is all over the place. He can constrain himself in traditional verses, he can poise and counterpoise rhymes and rhythms with skill. Éve is a remarkable example. Péguy often chooses not to follow such an order. He never fails to be musical—he likes leaning in to the way French words can blend and blur into each other—but he is more orchestral in tone. He shifts the sounds around, changes the pattern abruptly, measures himself to a metronome he never quite shows his hapless reader. His great trilogy (The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, The Mystery of the Holy Innocents) is a play. His great trilogy is a poem. Or a monologue. Or a monologue within a dialogue within a play set to music. His trilogy is an epic poem that travels everywhere and nowhere. His hero is Jeanne d’Arc, who sometimes never appears.

This Joan, Péguy’s Joan, is at once a fearsome creature and an unassuming girl. A great many depictions of Joan have her victoriously raising the sword she had miraculously found hidden under the altar of a chapel. They present her replete in shining armor. Péguy never forgets that she was a peasant like his parents. What does it mean to have a girl like this at the head of a military? Her thin hands, her young face, her illiteracy. Péguy has her devastate the army she leads: “Jetant toute une armée aux pieds de la prière [throwing an entire army at the feet of prayer].”[7] She turns the world she moves through upside-down, because she is a daughter of les peuples, one of the poor who are ground underfoot. As she rises upward, kings are cast down. She lifts not her sword, but her prayer. As she’s dragged inexorably back to the ground, her prayer continues its flight, and it is as if the thin silver of rising smoke has the strength of iron, refusing to allow the world to right itself when she’s gone.

God’s logic, as far as Péguy is concerned, is a logic that privileges les peuples. The workers. The crushed underfoot. The fallen to the bloody ground. (As Péguy fell.) And the French Church . . . well. She had shut her doors in front of them. On les peuples.[8] To Péguy’s eyes, this is nothing less than a mystical disaster.[9] It is the birth of the modern world.[10]

Péguy is acerbic about but unfazed by disaster. He rushes full-tilt into the middle of it, will not be anywhere but where it is. In the roiling war, in accused Dreyfus, and in the abandoned poor we must ask how, or why.

There is a secret gilded along the edges of God’s creation, or flowing into its very heart, or thrumming as its heart, a secret that surprises even God. It is hope. That surprises God. Even God. “That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will go better. . . . / It’s by far the greatest marvel of our grace.”[11] Hope is small, a shuddering flame.[12] Hope animates the world.[13] Hope animates God, who sends his Son to rescue his creatures, who fears he might lose them, might lose even one of them, and hopes that he will not.[14] God, fearing for the world, hoping for the world, throws his heart into the world.

I hate that Péguy says that God can be surprised. Or, worse, that God can fear and hope. (Which is worse?) If God is surprised, did God not know? How can God not know? Does God know now? Really, though. Let’s be quite serious. If God can change in this way, in any way, then there is a “before” and an “after.” There is a time when God is one way, and a time when God is another. Even if I stretch both times to infinity, the comparison still cuts God and infinity in two. I can compare. To what can I compare my God (cf. Ps 86:8)? Whatever that measure is, it is greater than God. It is the God behind God. An intolerable imposition. The metaphysician in me angrily rebels. We cannot say—Péguy, we cannot say that God is surprised and fears and hopes.

When it comes to God, metaphysics mainly teaches us what cannot be said. As for the rest, Well . . . In the words of Thomas Aquinas, “We cannot know the essence of God.”[15] So I can indeed say that we cannot say that God changes. Still I cannot say what God is.

Péguy never seems much interested in what cannot be said of God. I cannot say what he thought, not perfectly. I have only his writing, and he is dead. And Péguy, he understands that writers die and their works live on. That works make their own writers into their first readers, that texts immediately surpass their creators, as it were.[16] So how we read becomes an essential thing, the essential literary thing, and here Péguy sharply parts ways with the ascendant professors at the École normale.[17] For “the clerks,” one must know the history of a text to know a text. For Péguy, this is exactly the wrong thing to know, because it cannot be known. History slips through our fingers. History defies erudition. It is impossible to hold all the threads together except the one, which is time, and cannot be held. To be modern is to be trying to hold on. This is the tragedy that the Church inaugurated and refuses to see. Nor can we say what history is, except to say that it is (also) a creature. A thing of time. “Everything I touch,” says history, “man, action, work, I clothe in an imperishable mantle, the mantle of temporal greatness.”[18]

And God has entered history. God has founded a city for les peuples. A temporal, eternal city.

Péguy is concerned, like his mentor Henri Bergson, with originality. Given the temporal condition of creation—the cycles of progress and the cycles of decline[19]— how does anything original happen? If it did, how could it be perceived? Can fish see the water they are in? Would they notice a change in the water, and how would they know that the change was different than any other change? Maurice Blondel, a contemporary of both men, worries similarly over the nature of action. After all, free action, if it takes place, takes place amidst and from out of non-free systems. A heartbeat, rigid and inevitable (until it is not), enables a father’s kiss to the forehead of his child.

Reading requires a pliability, a vulnerability, toward the work. Originality demands the reception of its difference. Similarly, hope, the really and always original, cracks through the monotonous concrete, asking us for reception. Hope is with us before we know it. We do not see. We think the little child does not lead her sisters on.[20] Hope blooms like sudden Spring, “But hope is not obvious. Hope does not come on its own. / To hope, my child, you would have to be quite fortunate, to have obtained, received a great grace.”[21] To hope, at least in Péguy’s sense of the word, requires being made able to hope. Made pliable enough to hope. Made like a child.

Once I taught Péguy’s “Portal of the Mystery of Hope.” The first response from my class was that hope is easy, and not hard. Every day can be new, professor. Of course it can, professor. So I, a creature who fights miserably to be pliable enough to hope, responded the way such a creature would. I wanted them to die a little. Wise enough not to say as much to my students, I thought about how to teach them. Saying that life is hard is never enough, not even for those who know that life is hard. It is not the hardness of life that makes hope hard. So I asked my students to imagine their high school selves, to call that historical person to mind, to remember who that was. What would they say to this person? It turned out that there were too many things to say. There was much, so much, that this past person did not know but needed to know. “Why is today any different?” I asked. “You’re still that person who doesn’t know what to know. You just don’t know it.” Their faces became somber and a little grey. I needed them to die a little, you see. I needed them to taste their temporality. Because that is what makes hope very difficult, and what makes it possible. Or, as Péguy would have it, hope is what makes temporality possible. (And here is precisely where, in order to have Péguy, integralists must shoot him in the head.)

Sometimes I imagine Péguy staring upward at the crucified Jesus. There Péguy is, down at Mary’s side, staring up into Christ’s wounded side. Or like Dostoyevsky, Péguy gazes upon Holbein’s “Body of the Dead Christ.” What does Péguy see? Surely there is the blood and the body. God’s own body. Surely there are “[t]he sins of the flesh, but the remissions of the flesh.”[22] Surely also there is a more radical turn, an unflinching touch to the exposed root, the open side, the Heart underneath. It is said that the lance reached all the way to the Heart. Péguy, he looked right there and he saw—a man’s blood, the light of galaxies. A man’s hope, and God’s. The communicatio of temporality and eternity.

Péguy’s maddening rhythm, the striding sentences that flow over one another into a sudden, rattling repetition. Small sentences, each reiterating the others. The gleaming cosmic panoramas that cling to details, to spiders and gazelles. In these, Péguy patterns himself according to an unusual and distorted, distended, temporality. To the real reality. A daily rush forward punctured as if from above; horizontality scythed by verticality. (The shape of a cross.) Péguy looks upon Christ’s side and sees eternity bleeding into time. Or it’s the other way around: temporality lifted on Christ’s limbs to eternity. Or both, somehow. Eternity making its way into time; time arriving to mysterious completion in eternity. A worldly eternity.[23] As in Mary, where carnality becomes the home of purity, and purity the home of carnality.[24]

A crown was made once: it was a crown of thorns.
And his face and his head were bloodied under this crown of derision.

. . . But another crown was also made, a mysterious crown.
A crown, an eternal crowning.
All made, my child, all made of supple branches without thorns.
. . . All set for today, for before, for tomorrow.[25]

The crown of hope set over the brow of the bloodied God. (“You must have confidence in God my child.”) The God who sends his Son in hope, who hopes for his lost sheep. Today, and yesterday, and tomorrow. (“You must have confidence.”) The God who surrenders, who entrusts, his eternity to our time. So that, somehow, eternity depends on us, on we poor temporal creatures. (“My child.”) The Son of God in his mother’s warm arms. A communication of idioms, eternity in time, offered in a sending, in a benediction, in the sign of the cross. Hope takes root in the mysterious Heart of God, the God who hopes for us. (“You must have hope in God.”)[26]

It depends on us now to keep eternity in time; to bleed eternity into time. To give time over to, to surrender and entrust time to, eternity. We must keep the measure, the metric. The metronome of a Heart. (“You must have hope in God.”) We must keep the Heart of God’s great hope that we will have a little hope in God. That we with our fevers, the hot blood pounding at our temples, wakeful in the dead of night—that we will surrender just once, even once, even a little, to the grace of God.[27] The most miraculous grace. The least obvious grace, the grace that requires a great grace. The grace of hope.

I remember fireflies. When night made cornstalks into shadows, and made the green, green grass go dark. Then the fireflies would bloom with light, defiant and sudden. The flare of an originary moment. One after the other, after the other. Stretching out across a field. Pinpricks of eternity in the breathless sight of night. Bergson says that what we call intensity is not “depth,” but a gathering. A magnitude from without or within by way of multiplicity (rather than the “more” of a single measure), a reaching out or involvement of many elements.[28] Péguy imagines the intensity of time this way. Or rather, time is made into an intensity by eternity. Light blooms in each moment, each moment pinpricked across time. Gathering to a luminous dark. An intensity. For Péguy, we must go on in time. His beloved France must go on. Christianity must go on. We must go on living and dying. (But not holding on.) Blessed by the sign of the cross, blessing with the sign of the cross, we go on living and dying, we go on gathering time, letting go, stretching out over all of time, surrendering to eternity in time, until the final blessing of the final day. When all of creation will give itself over on the last day. A final hope on the final day. A worldly eternity.

The modern world that Péguy is so suspicious of, that he insists—in a chronology of his own making—was founded in 1881, wants to grab hold of history.[29] It seizes an innocent man and locks him away for treason, because this is the sacrifice required for its own safety. The republic dies with the innocent man’s freedom.[30] The revolutionaries on the left that rise in Dreyfus’s defense (of which Péguy was a member) soften once they are safe, once the man is free but not the republic, turning to increase their strength and not their ideals.[31] Meanwhile, on the right, Action Française bears the banner of the Church that shut her doors on the poor.[32] Proclaims the Ancien Regime it does not resemble.[33] All of it so modern, in Péguy’s peculiar usage of the word. A modern world that makes sense of itself apart from Christianity, apart from temporal-eternal hope, quite without the Church’s awareness that it does so. The Church who, in looking to a past that is no longer, in looking past les peuples, performs her own holding-on.[34]

What would a real remembering be? How could I remember and not also hold on? For Péguy, that kind of remembering requires tracing the heat of the original brand, touching the original pinprick of light, still there in time. Péguy has the insight of Hopkins’s haecceity, of “thisness,” or “inscape,” but applied to time. The “thisness” of a moment is still accessible because time is not a simple straight line, because memory is not a long black cloth; time is instead filled with the punctured light, with the intensity, with the shining-through of the stars of eternity. Time is Mary rising clothed in the sun and crowned with stars.[35]

Remembering is a surrender as much as a search. An offering-up of hope for yesterday, and today, and tomorrow; an offering which is always a surrender. (A remembering that remembers the future.) It is Jeanne d’Arc on her knees praying for, remembering, the whole world. A hope for the whole world. For all time. God’s hope, held in the clasped hands of a peasant girl.

“Oh my God,

Since Rouen must be my home now, listen carefully to my prayer:

I beg you to accept this prayer as my true prayer for myself, because just now I am not quite sure what I will do when I am in the street . . . and in the square, and what I will say.

Forgive me, forgive us all the harm that I have done, serving you.

But I know that I did well to serve you.
We did well to serve you well.
My voices did not deceive me.

Yet, my God, try to save us all, my God.
Jesus, save us all and bring us to eternal life.”

She goes out.


Péguy died with a bullet through the head. His final day, crushed under foot. Unrecognizable. One of the people. His prayer of a final difficult breath rising upward to eternity, curtained in a white shroud.[37]

[1] Charles Péguy, “Memories of Youth,” in Temporal and Eternal, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper, 1958), 37.

[2] Ibid., 49. “We would have died for Dreyfus. Dreyfus did not die for Dreyfus. It is quite a good rule that the victim should not belong to the mystique of his own affair.”

[3] Indispensable for any Anglophone study of Péguy is Glenn H. Roe, The Passion of Charles Péguy: Literature, Modernity, and the Crisis of Historicism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[4] Charles Péguy, Éve. Translation mine. All of the French I translate is from Charles Péguy, Oeuvres poétiques de Charles Péguy (Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1957).

[5] G.M. Hopkins, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”

[6] G.M. Hopkins, “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.”

[7] Charles Péguy, “La Tapisserie de Sainte Geneviève et de Jeanne d’Arc.” Translation mine.

[8] Péguy, “Memories of Youth,” 64-65.

[9] Charles Péguy, “Clio 1,” in Temporal and Eternal, 103; cf. 101-105.

[10] Péguy shifts between laying the blame at the feet of the Church and at the feet of historical decomposition more generally. The emphasis is much more on the change, the movement to the “modern” than precisely how it happens. It is in any case quite true that for Péguy the Church does not help, even works against itself. See Péguy, “Memories of Youth,” 50-51.

[11] Charles Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, trans. D.L. Schindler (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 6.

[12] Péguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 7-8.

[13] Ibid., 12.

[14] Ibid., Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 46-48.

[15] ST I q. 2 a. 1.

[16] Cf. Roe, The Passion of Charles Péguy, esp. Chs. 2-3.

[17] The École normale supéreuire is the Paris university that Péguy attended for about three years. He never finished his degree, going on to write, edit, and publish his Cahiers.

[18] Péguy, “Clio 1,” 93.

[19] Cf. Bernard Lonergan, Collected Works, vol. 10: Topics in Education: The Cincinnati Lectures of 1959 on the Philosophy of Education (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1988), 45-50.

[20] Péguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 11-12.

[21] Ibid., 10.

[22] Ibid., 54.

[23] Ibid., 60.

[24] Ibid., 40.

[25] Ibid., 70.

[26] Ibid., 71. “You must have confidence in God my child. / You must have hope in God. / You must trust God. / You must give God a chance.”

[27] Ibid., 71-73, 81-82, 125.

[28] This is my attempt to summarize a major thesis in Bergson’s Time and Free-Will (1889).

[29] Cf. Péguy, “Memories of Youth,” 34-37.

[30] Cf. Ibid., 80-81.

[31] Ibid., 40. “The real traitor, in the full sense of the word, in the strong sense of the word, is the man who sells his faith, who sells his soul and gives himself up, loses his soul, betrays his principles, his ideal, his very being, who betrays his mystique and enters into its corresponding politique, the policy issuing from it and complacently passes over the dividing point.”

[32] Action Française was a right-wing movement in France starting around 1898 in direct response to the Dreyfus Affair and the ascendancy of the left as a result. Péguy never liked the movement. Many Catholics did, including Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac. It was eventually condemned by Pope Pius XI in December 29, 1926, a condemnation that was lifted by Pius XII in 1939. It never again enjoyed wide-spread popularity.

[33] Cf. His particularly biting words for the head of the movement, Charles Maurras, who was agnostic, in Péguy, “Memories of Youth,” 85-86. French political rhetoric of the time invoked the same French history in wildly different ways, claiming the heritage of the original revolution or the monarchy that preceded it. Péguy robs the right of their Ancien Regime by insisting they know nothing of its founding mystique.

[34] Péguy is both a child of French anti-clericalism, an inheritor of a history that more than once exiled the Catholic Church from the nation, and particular in his disdain. He, like the very different but oddly kindred Bernanos, had special ire for those Catholics who were in positions of power (often but by no means exclusively clerics).

[35] Cf. Péguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 43-46.

[36] The ending of Charles Péguy, Jeanne d’Arc: Drame en trois pièces (1897), an early version of The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc (1910). Translation mine.

[37] Cf. Péguy, Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 137.

Featured Image: Zubaran, The Holy Face, 1658; Source: Wikimedia Commons PD-Old-100.


Anne M. Carpenter

Anne M. Carpenter is the Danforth Chair in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. Her current work has focused on theologies of tradition, recovering the thought of Maurice Blondel, and other topics.

Read more by Anne M. Carpenter