Updated: Jul 15, 2022
About Rene Char
During his lifetime René Char (1907–1988) was regarded by critics and public as France’s greatest living poet. Like so many of his colleagues, he was also a warrior in World war II, serving as a member of the French Resistance under the name of Captain Alexandre. He was in charge of seven departements or sectors, from the Drome to the Alpes Maritimes, overseeing a huge stock of weapons and explosives.
His early work, from the 1920’s to the late 1930’s, was primarily surrealist, in company with such friends and colleagues as Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Andre Breton, and Rene Crevel. His work often appeared with artwork by such figures as Kandinsky, Picasso, Braque, Miro, Matisse, and Viera da Silva.
He refused to publish during the Occupation, but wrote the “Feuillets d’Hypnos” in 1943–1944, prose poems dealing with resistance that were published to acclaim in 1946. His full poetic maturity came in the 1950s and 1960s. He wrote twenty books of poetry during his lifetime. He died of a heart attack in 1988 in Paris. He often quoted Neitzsche: “I have always put in my writings my whole life and my whole person. I don’t know what purely intellectual problems might be.”
He was a friend of Albert Camus, and was to have been a passenger in the car accident that killed both Camus and Michel Gallimard, but fortunately for him, there was not enough room in the car for all of them, and he returned instead that day by train to Paris.
The poems here are from his great work, Fureur et mystère (1948), Fury and Mystery, which demonstrate the sense of loss and discontinuity which are so much a part of Char’s work. The poem “The Swift” is from the last section of Fury and Mystery, titled The Narrative Fountain; “House of the Eldest” is from the first section of the book, They Remain Alone; “The Window” is from a later collection, The Hammer With No Master; and “The Secret Lover” is from another later writing, The Morning Ones.
Char’s works has been translated by many poets, including William Carlos Williams, Samuel Becket, Richard Wilbur, James Wright, John Ashberry, W.S. Merwin, and Paul Aster.
The swift with its too wide wings turns and shouts joy around the house. Such is the heart.
He parches the thunder. He sows in the quiet sky. He breaks if he touches the ground.
His other is the swallow. He hates her familiarity. What worth is that lace from the tower?
He pauses in the darkest hollow. No one is more contained than him.
In the long light of summer he slips into shadow through midnight shutters.
No eyes can hold him. His presence is all in his cries. The smallest rifle shoots him down. Such is the heart.
House of the Eldest
Between the curfew of the year and the tree’s thrill at the window. You have interrupted your giving. The grass water-flower surrounds a face. At the threshold of night the forest welcomes the persistence of your illusions.
Pure rains, expected women,
The face you wipe,
This glass bound to torment,
Is the face of revolt;
The other, the happy glass,
Shivers before the wood fire.
I love you twin mysteries,
I touch each of you;
I am in pain and I am light.
The Secret Lover
She has set the table perfectly so that her lover seated opposite will soon speak low, watching her. This food similar to the reed of an oboe.
Beneath the table, her bare ankles caress the loved one’s heat, while unheard voices compliment her. The light of the lamp entangles, weaving a sensual distraction.
She knows that there is a bed far away that is patient and trembling in an exile of fragrant sheets, like a mountain lake that will never be abandoned.