1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chénier, Marie-Joseph Blaise de

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CHENIER, MARIE-JOSEPH BLAISE DE (1764–1811), French poet, dramatist and politician, younger brother of André de Chénier, was born at Constantinople on the 11th of February 1764.[1] He was brought up at Carcassonne, and educated in Paris at the Collège de Navarre. Entering the army at seventeen, he left it two years afterwards; and at nineteen he produced Azémire, a two-act drama (acted in 1786), and Edgar, ou le page supposé, a comedy (acted in 1785), which were failures. His Charles IX was kept back for nearly two years by the censor. Chénier attacked the censorship in three pamphlets, and the commotion aroused by the controversy raised keen interest in the piece. When it was at last produced on the 4th of November 1789, it achieved an immense success, due in part to its political suggestion, and in part to Talma’s magnificent impersonation of Charles IX. Camille Desmoulins said that the piece had done more for the Revolution than the days of October, and a contemporary memoir-writer, the marquis de Ferrière, says that the audience came away “ivre de vengeance et tourmenté d’une soif de sang.” The performance was the occasion of a split among the actors of the Comédie Française, and the new theatre in the Palais Royal, established by the dissidents, was inaugurated with Henri VIII (1791), generally recognized as Chénier’s masterpiece; Jean Calas, ou l’école des juges followed in the same year. In 1792 he produced his Caius Gracchus, which was even more revolutionary in tone than its predecessors. It was nevertheless proscribed in the next year at the instance of the Montagnard deputy Albitte, for an anti-anarchical hemistich (Des lois et non du sang!); Fénelon (1793) was suspended after a few representations; and in 1794 his Timoléon, set to Étienne Méhul’s music, was also proscribed. This piece was played after the fall of the Terror, but the fratricide of Timoléon became the text for insinuations to the effect that by his silence Joseph de Chénier had connived at the judicial murder of André, whom Joseph’s enemies alluded to as Abel. There is absolutely nothing to support the calumny, which has often been repeated since. In fact, after some fruitless attempts to save his brother, variously related by his biographers, Joseph became aware that André’s only chance of safety lay in being forgotten by the authorities, and that ill-advised intervention would only hasten the end. Joseph Chénier had been a member of the Convention and of the Council of Five Hundred, and had voted for the death of Louis XVI.; he had a seat in the tribunate; he belonged to the committees of public instruction, of general security, and of public safety. He was, nevertheless, suspected of moderate sentiments, and before the end of the Terror had become a marked man. His purely political career ended in 1802, when he was eliminated with others from the tribunate for his opposition to Napoleon. In 1801 he was one of the educational jury for the Seine; from 1803 to 1806 he was inspector-general of public instruction. He had allowed himself to be reconciled with Napoleon’s government, and Cyrus, represented in 1804, was written in his honour, but he was temporarily disgraced in 1806 for his Épître à Voltaire. In 1806 and 1807 he delivered a course of lectures at the Athénée on the language and literature of France from the earliest years; and in 1808 at the emperor’s request, he prepared his Tableau historique de l’état et du progrès de la littérature française depuis 1789 jusqu’à 1808, a book containing some good criticism, though marred by the violent prejudices of its author. He died on the 10th of January 1811. The list of his works includes hymns and national songs—among others, the famous Chant du départ; odes, Sur la mort de Mirabeau, Sur l’oligarchie de Robespierre, &c.; tragedies which never reached the stage, Brutus et Cassius, Philippe deux, Tibère; translations from Sophocles and Lessing, from Gray and Horace, from Tacitus and Aristotle; with elegies, dithyrambics and Ossianic rhapsodies. As a satirist he possessed great merit, though he sins from an excess of severity, and is sometimes malignant and unjust. He is the chief tragic poet of the revolutionary period, and as Camille Desmoulins expressed it, he decorated Melpomene with the tricolour cockade.

See the Œuvres complètes de Joseph Chénier (8 vols., Paris, 1823–1826), containing notices of the poet by Arnault and Daunou; Charles Labitte, Études litteraires (1846); Henri Welschinger, Le Théâtre révolutionnaire, 1789–1799 (1881); and A. Lieby, Étude sur le théâtre de Marie-Joseph Chénier (1902).

  1. This is the date given by G. de Chénier in his La Vérité sur la famille de Chénier (1844).