André Chénier and the victims of the guillotine in the Cimetière de Picpus
The French Revolution that started idealistically on July 14, 1789 descended into brutal violence from 1793 to 1794. Thousands fell that year to the gash of the guillotine’s blade. Executed in the finals days of the Reign of Terror by the gluttonous “national razor” was the poet André Chénier. The young writer was arrested by mistake on March 4, 1794 and spent the last months of his life imprisoned in Saint-Lazare, a former leper hospital turned political prison. There he composed poems that were smuggled out in laundry baskets.
Brought to the Revolutionary Tribunal on July 24, 1794 on flimsy conspiracy charges, he and 37 other prisoners were sentenced to immediate death. On the night before his execution while corralled with the other prisoners at the Conciergerie, he wrote one last poem: his celebrated “La Jeune Captive” that compares the waiting prisoners to sheep in a slaughterhouse. On July 25, he rode the tumbrel to the guillotine with Jean-Antoine Roucher, the two poets reciting Racine together on the way to the scaffold.
If it his trial had been even slightly delayed, he may have escaped death. Chénier was executed just three days before Robespierre, the leader of the Reign of Terror, whose death ended of the most gruesome period of the French Revolution. While Chénier was only 31 when he died, the little work he left behind preserved his sensitive verses inspired by Greek literature and the publishing of the first collection of his work in 1819 had an immense impact on the Romanticism of the 19th century.
Chénier was tossed into a mass grave in a convent garden with over 1,300 other headless victims of the Reign of Terror, only a portion of the thousands killed in that bloody year. The garden, now the Cimetière de Picpus in the 12th arrondissement, was conveniently located five minutes from the Place du Trône-Renversé, site of one of the Paris guillotines. Bodies were buried anonymously, poets with politicians with priests. While his bones rest mixed with the others, a plaque on the wall memorializes Chénier who “servit les muses, aima la sagesse, mourut pour la vérité” (served the muses, loved wisdom, and died for the truth).
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