La beauté du débris

André Chénier

André Chénier, par Gabriel-Antoine Barlangue (1950), d’après Joseph Benoît Suvée (1795) – Image WikiTimbres.

L’inscription des poésies d’André Chénier au programme de l’Agrégation de Lettres modernes relève du roman.

En 2006, avait été choisi le tome premier récemment paru (2005) d’une édition nouvelle des Œuvres poétiques entreprise par Édouard Guitton et Georges Buisson pour la maison orléanaise Paradigme. N’était jusque là disponible que la vieille édition Becq de Fouquières (1872) que les éditions Gallimard avaient choisi, en 1994, de reproduire dans leur collection « Poésie / Gallimard », volonté assumée – Chénier manquait à l’appel – mais choix par défaut, pour pallier précisément l’absence de projets aboutis d’édition moderne.

Ce choix du travail (par ailleurs considérable) d’Édouard Guitton et Georges Buisson s’était révélé fort problématique. Leur édition de Chénier affichait l’ambition d’être « scientifique » et définitive mais était étouffée par l’érudition (identification des papiers, spéculations sans fin sur les dates de composition de chaque pièce). Elle entendait revenir au texte premier mais se révélait assez interventionniste (ajout de titres fantaisistes pour L’Art d’aimer, modifications de la ponctuation avec mention du désaccord entre les deux éditeurs…). Sur le plan de l’interprétation, l’orientation était à la fois biographique et hagiographique, insistait sur le destin glorieux et tragique d’un poète sacrifié par l’Histoire. Enfin, le premier tome de 2005 regroupait pour l’essentiel les premiers essais de Chénier, ses « Préludes poétiques » et ne comprenait aucune de ses pièces reconnues par la tradition comme « majeures ».

Quand la rumeur a circulé que les poésies d’André Chénier revenaient l’année prochaine au programme de l’Agrégation – quand d’autres choix de poésies auraient pu être faits, mais c’est une autre question –, le premier réflexe fut de penser que serait inscrit le tome II des Œuvres poétiques paru en 2010 et comprenant, entre autres, les Bucoliques et L’Invention. Certes, l’opus second aurait réservé son lot de surprises, à commencer par le choix d’Édouard Guitton de « cess[er] de participer à cette édition, à l’occasion d’un différend sur la manière de rendre la ponctuation à la fois méticuleuse et anomale d’A. Chénier »…

Aurait réservé, car le choix des responsables du Ministère s’est porté pour ce « retour » de Chénier à l’Agrégation… sur la vieille édition Becq de Fouquières de la collection « Poésie / Gallimard ».

Inscription en hommage à André Chénier

Inscription en hommage à André Chénier sur la tombe de son frère Marie Joseph au Père Lachaise.

Plutôt que de s’interroger sur et commenter plus avant les raisons d’un tel choix, on préférera rattacher ce « feuilleton » éditorial et institutionnel à l’histoire tragi-comique du corps poétique d’André Chénier qui fut, dès « l’origine », l’objet de toutes les attentions et de toutes les violences.

En 1872, Becq de Fouquières avait dénoncé la manière dont Henri de Latouche, maître d’œuvre de l’édition des Œuvres complètes d’André de Chénier de 1819, était intervenu sur le texte : pièces « altérées », « ïambes composés à Saint-Lazare […] disloqués, coupés, hachés ». La violence du propos était nourrie du sentiment que nombre de ces blessures étaient à jamais définitives : deux ans plus tôt en effet, en 1870, la maison de Latouche au Val d’Aulnay avait été pillée par les troupes allemandes et détruit l’ensemble des manuscrits de Chénier qui étaient en sa possession…

En 2006, après avoir déroulé l’histoire des atteintes ultérieures faites au corps poétique de Chénier (le classement par niveau d’achèvement par Paul Dimoff en 1908-1919 ; la distinction entre pièces finies et pièces ébauchées par Gérard Walter en 1940), Édouard Guitton et Georges Buisson proclamaient être parvenus à reconstituer le corps perdu, à réparer les dommages opérés par les précédents éditeurs : leur édition « réintègr[ait] résolument dans la trame d’une vie, afin de leur rendre mieux qu’un semblant d’unité, les œuvres du poète si souvent dépecées ou réduites à quelques pièces d’anthologie. » Quand on ne proposait de l’Art d’aimer jusqu’à eux que quelques « résidus épars que les éditeurs ont disloqué à qui mieux mieux », aveugles aux ruses du signifiant typographique, ils proclamaient : « Agissant à l’opposé, nous avons tenté de reconstituer l’A.A. d’A.C. ». Et de présenter plus loin un « remembrement ainsi substitué aux morcellements antérieurs », et une « réorganisation du corpus élégiaque. »

Gravure anonyme

Gravure anonyme (probablement XIXème siècle) illustrant Caïus Gracchus, de Marie Joseph Chénier.

Sous ce qu’il faut bien appeler des fantasmes, dorment de nombreux mythes et une histoire familiale, dont je n’évoquerai pour finir qu’un fragment, littéraire. Deux ans avant la mort d’André dont il porterait sa vie durant le lourd poids, son frère Marie-Joseph avait fait jouer Caïus Gracchus (1792). Cette tragédie antique met en scène un héros romain, dont l’une des premières actions vise à récupérer le corps mort de son frère, égorgé sur ordre du sénat (« Je vis, je rassemblai ses membres dispersés / Ma bouche s’imprima sur ces membres glacés ») et de l’apporter à leur mère qui se remémorera douloureusement le moment « Où je vis à mes pieds le second de mes fils / De mon fils égorgé m’apportant les débris ». Plus avant dans la pièce, Caïus Gracchus ne ménagera pas ses efforts, dans une double résilience, politique et poétique, pour fédérer le peuple romain et retrouver le pouvoir : « Romains, ralliez-vous, rassemblez vos débris »…

– Jean-Christophe Abramovici
Université Paris-Sorbonne

Poetry in the digital age: the Digital Miscellanies Index and eighteenth-century culture

For most of us, reading for pleasure usually means getting stuck into some fiction or non-fiction. Poetry is a less common diversion, but we still have an appetite for poems to dip into, to find solace in, to memorise and share. And we can choose from an array of collections that promote poetry as an everyday companion, a form of therapy, and a tradition of national interest. For readers looking for peace of mind, The Emergency Poet: An Anti-Stress Poetry Anthology offers comfort, while the popular twin collections of Poems That Make Grown Men (or Women) Cry present a cult of sensibility for the modern age.

It was in the eighteenth century that poetry collections like these became a staple of literary publishing in Britain. The tradition of printed collections of English poetry stretches back to the sixteenth century, with Songes and Sonettes (1557), an edition of short lyric poems compiled by the publisher Richard Tottel, generally regarded as the foundation of English Renaissance poetry and the most important early printed collection of English verse. But it was not until the eighteenth century that collections of poems by several hands, with prose as a secondary feature, became one of the most common forms in which British readers encountered poetry. Like their modern counterparts, eighteenth-century editors and publishers sought to gain a foothold in a crowded market by targeting specific audiences and promoting the benefits of reading poetry. Some produced didactic collections for young people (Poems for Young Ladies); others pitched their collections to lovers in need of poetic inspiration (The Lover’s Manual); and many more set their sights on a local audience (The Oxford Sausage).

Poems for Young Ladies

Poems for Young Ladies (1767), edited by the poet Oliver Goldsmith.

Collections like these shaped the ways in which poetry was written and read throughout the eighteenth century. Yet until recently relatively little was known about their contents. Thanks to the Digital Miscellanies Index (DMI), this is no longer the case. The DMI provides a searchable record of the contents of over 1,600 collections of poems by several hands published over the course of the eighteenth century. These books are sometimes referred to as anthologies, as most poetry collections are today. But the word anthology, derived from the Greek for ‘a gathering of flowers’, has connotations that sit uneasily with many eighteenth-century poetry collections. Few collections produced in this period claimed to present the best of English poetry, a rationale often seen as characteristic of anthologies (collections that cull the flowers of the poetic tradition). As a result, several scholars, myself included, prefer the term miscellany. Derived from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a ‘hotchpotch’ of foodstuffs, it captures the dominant characteristic of most eighteenth-century collections: variety. A typical miscellany offers a varied feast of poems to entertain readers with varied tastes and personalities.

The DMI was launched in 2013, following three years of development and data collection carried out by a team based at the University of Oxford. Led by Abigail Williams and Jennifer Batt, the project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. In 2014, another Leverhulme grant set in motion the second phase of the project. One of the aims of this phase, to be completed in 2017, is to harness the data now accessible via the DMI to shed new light on how miscellanies evolved, how they packaged and popularised poetry, and on the habits of their readers. At the same time, we are working with the Bodleian’s Digital Libraries team to develop the DMI into a more flexible and wide-ranging resource, and last month we celebrated a milestone on this road. The thirty-strong audience at Lines of Connection, a conference I co-organised as part of the project, were among the first to see the DMI’s new search interface, which replaces the beta site created in 2013.

The Book of Fun

The Book of Fun (1759), a miscellany dominated by seventeenth-century verse.

The new search platform is much more than a digital facelift for the DMI. It provides access to a database undergoing expansion: the latest version includes new records for miscellanies published between 1680 and 1699, and future updates will extend the DMI ’s coverage further back to Tottel’s foundational Songes and Sonettes. The redeveloped interface also enables users to explore the data in new ways. Keyword and phrase searching is quicker and more extensive with the new basic search function. There is also the option to filter the records using a number of facets, which display and rank the data in ways that suggest key trends and lines of enquiry. For instance, clicking on ‘Poem’ under ‘Content Type’, then selecting the ‘Related People’ facet, reveals a list of almost one hundred of the most prominent authors in the database, ranked according to the number of poems attributed to them. At the top of the list is John Dryden, with around 1,500 poems; the highest ranked French author is Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, with over 120 poems in English translation (the DMI does not record appearances of poems in foreign languages). Although these figures should not be seen as straightforward indications of popularity, they remind us that many of the most widely read poets of the eighteenth century were those who had been active in the late seventeenth century. In his imitation of Horace’s epistle to Augustus (written 1737), Alexander Pope observed that the verse of his seventeenth-century predecessors was scattered ‘Like twinkling stars the Miscellanies o’er’. The DMI has made it possible to see these stars, and the sky around them, more clearly.

– Carly Watson

Subscription – An idea whose time has come again?

We recently had the pleasure of welcoming publisher John Mitchinson to the Voltaire Foundation for a particularly enlightening and enjoyable talk. Like Voltaire at Ferney, Mr Mitchinson is a keen amateur beekeeper, and like him he also keeps livestock, and the similarities do not end there.

Henriade title page.

La Henriade, 1728: title page.

John Mitchinson’s latest venture in the fast- and ever-changing world of publishing is a company based on the principle of crowd-funding, which goes by the name of Unbound. By means of short videos hosted on the company’s website, prospective authors introduce themselves and pitch their respective projects, and members of the public are invited to pledge money for the direct funding of the projects that they would like to see come to fruition. This is a very creative and efficient way of bringing authors and readers together and of cutting out unwieldy, expensive and sometimes downright parasitic chains of intermediaries.

Henriade list of subscribers.

La Henriade: first page (out of 10) of the list of subscribers.

In the four years that Unbound has been in existence, Mr Mitchinson and his team have scored some real successes, most recently with the publication of Letters of Note (by Shaun Usher) and The Wake (by Paul Kingsnorth).

Unbound may use state-of-the-art IT to drive its business but in its own way it has renewed a tradition that was well established in the 18th century, that of publishing books by raising money by subscription (Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson come to mind). This is where the third similarity between our recent visitor and Voltaire lies.

Henriade dedication.

La Henriade: last page of the dedication to Queen Caroline.

For Voltaire himself famously used this method to get his epic poem La Henriade published in England in 1728, using the contacts that he had made among the great and the good during the very busy two years he spent in the country. The edition boasted a long and impressive list of subscribers (among whom were George Berkeley and William Congreve) and it was dedicated to Queen Caroline. Of course, with the advent of the Internet, the pool of would-be subscribers need not be as exclusive as it was in Voltaire’s time: anyone with five pounds to spare can decide to back a project on the Unbound website, even cobblers and servants! [1]

In a publishing world where abundance is not always synonymous with diversity or originality, it is reassuring to see forgotten avenues being explored anew so authors and readers can be empowered to communicate, collaborate and venture off the beaten track together.

– Georges Pilard

[1] ‘On n’a jamais prétendu éclairer les cordonniers et les servantes’ (‘It was never our intention to enlighten cobblers or servants’), Voltaire once wrote to D’Alembert (15 June 1768).

How to solve a problem like papa

Sometimes the Voltaire Foundation’s infamous ‘yellow folders’ throw up complete mysteries! The job of the researcher thus resembles that of the detective. And just as detectives now use technology, the advances of digital humanities allow researchers to investigate cold cases by previously unavailable means.

Housed in the bowels of the VF, the yellow folder is the gathering of potentially useful information compiled over the years in advance of the preparation of a volume of the Complete Works of Voltaire. Volume 83’s folder contained a photocopy of the following verse, a manuscript in the hand of Voltaire:

Pour vous, Papa, j’ai tenté l’impossible

Ma voix est fausse & n’a pu vous chanter

Mes vers sont durs, mais mon cœur est sensible,

Seul avec vous il pourra m’acquitter

The editors of this volume – which is entirely devoted to Voltaire’s undated verse – were thus given to believe these four lines should be considered for inclusion in Voltaire’s undated poetry. Yet the incipit does not exist in any bibliographical source.

A simple Google search for ‘Pour vous, Papa, j’ai tenté l’impossible’ offers no clues. Search engines are of no use for combinations of the other verse either. Until, that is, one accommodates for the imperfections of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) that Google uses to search un-encoded text. As readers of gothic script know, ‘f’ and ‘s’ are often confused – OCR makes this same confusion. So a revised search term of ‘mes vers font durs’ was entered into Google (other search engines are available!) Result!

The verse appeared in the Courier du Bas-Rhin on Wednesday 27 October 1767 (no. 35, p. 278). Here, it is stated that the verse is by M. Dupuis, who ‘présenta ensuite ces vers à M. de Voltaire’ on the evening of the 3rd October 1767, the eve of ‘saint François’, Voltaire’s saint’s day fête (François-Marie).

The verse is thus by Dupuis, who is described in the footnotes of the Courier du Bas-Rhin as a former Cornet of Dragoons. This is Pierre-Jacques Dupuits de Maconnex, later Pierre-Jacques-Claude Dupuits de La Chaux (1739[?]-1805[?]). This Dupuis (also Dupuits, Dupuit) married Corneille’s ‘niece’ – Voltaire’s ‘adopted daughter’ – Marie-Françoise Corneille on 9 February 1763. Voltaire refers to Dupuis as his ‘gendre’ (son-in-law) in the Correspondence (D10956). Thus the ‘Papa’ in the poem is Voltaire, and not Voltaire’s own father.

The only remaining mystery, then, is how this came to be with a collection of autograph poems of Voltaire. The manuscript has an inscription which reads MA635. An expert at the VF identified this as a Pierpont Morgan shelfmark. The extremely helpful staff at the Pierpont Morgan Library (New York) confirmed that this poem was held in a collection with other autograph poems by Voltaire which were recited that evening (and are now published in OCV, vol.63b, p.591). One can only hypothesise that Voltaire was touched enough by the verse his ‘son-in-law’ had composed for him that he thought it worthy of being recorded for posterity, or indeed a report to the Courrier du Bas-Rhin, or other intermediate journal, such as the Correspondance littéraire, where other poems from the fête of 4 October 1767, but not Pour vous, papa, appeared in the edition of 15 October 1767.

And thus the case is closed!

–Nick Treuherz