He was born at Constantinople. His father, Louis Chénier, a native of Languedoc, after twenty years in the Levant as a cloth-merchant, was appointed to a position equivalent to that of French consul at Constantinople. His mother, Elisabeth Santi-Lomaca, whose sister was grandmother of Adolphe Thiers, was a Greek. When the poet was three years old, his father returned to France, and from 1768 to 1775 served as consul-general of France in Morocco. The family, of which André was the third son, and Marie-Joseph (see below) the fourth, remained in France; and after a few years, during which André ran wild with an aunt in Carcassonne, he distinguished himself as a verse-translator from the classics at the Collège de Navarre (the school in former days of John Gerson and Bossuet) in Paris.
In 1783 he obtained a cadetship in a French regiment at Strasbourg, but the novelty soon wore off. He returned to Paris before the end of the year, was well received by his family, and mixed in the cultivated circle which frequented the salon of his mother, among them Lebrun-Pindare, Lavoisier, Lesueur, Dorat, Parmy, and a little later the painter Jacques Louis David.
He had already chosen his vocation as a poet, and was steeped in the classical archaism of the time, when, in 1784, his taste for the antique was confirmed by a visit to Rome in the company of two school friends, the brothers Trudaine. From Naples, after visiting Pompeii, he returned to Paris, his mind fermenting with poetical images and projects, few of which he was destined to realize. For nearly three years, however, he was enabled to study and to experiment in verse without any active pressure or interruption from his family— three precious years in which the first phase of his art as a writer of idylls and bucolics, imitated to a large extent from Theocritus, Bion and the Greek anthologists, was elaborated.
Among the poems written or at least sketched during this period were L'Oaristys, L'Aveugle, La Jeune Malode, Bacchus, Euphrosine and La Jeune Tarentine, the last a synthesis of his purest manner, mosaic though it is of reminiscences of at least a dozen classical poets. As in glyptic so in poetic art, the Hellenism of the time was decadent and Alexandrine rather than Attic of the best period. But Chénier is always far more than animitator. La Jeune Tarentine is a work of personal emotion and inspiration. The colouring is that of classic mythology, but the spiritual element is as individual as that of any classical poem by Milton, Gray, Keats or Tennyson.
Apart from his idylls and his elegies, Chénier also experimented from early youth in didactic and philosophic verse, and when he commenced his Hermes in 1783 his ambition was to condense the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot into a poem somewhat after the manner of Lucretius. This poem was to treat of man's position in the Universe, first in an isolated state, and then in society. It remains fragmentary, and though some of the fragments are fine, its attempt at scientific exposition approximates too closely to the manner of Erasmus Darwin to suit a modern ear. Another fragment called L'Invention sums Chénier's Ars Poetica in the verse "Sur des pensers nouveaux, faisons des vers antiques." Suzanne represents the torso of a Biblical poem on a very large scale, in six cantos.
In the meantime, André had published nothing, and some of these last pieces were in fact not yet written, when in November 1787 an opportunity of a fresh career presented itself. The new ambassador at the court of St James's, M. de la Luzerne, was connected in some way with the Chénier family, and he offered to take André with him as his secretary. The offer was too good to be refused, but the poet hated himself on the banks of the fière Tamise, and wrote in bitter ridicule of "Ces Anglais. Nation toute à vendre à qui peut la payer. De contrée en contrée allant au monde entier, Offrir sa joie ignoble et son faste grossier." He seems to have been interested in the poetic diction of Milton and Thomson, and a few of his verses are remotely inspired by Shakespeare and Gray. To say, however, that he studied English literature would be an exaggeration.
The events of 1789 and the startling success of his younger brother, Marie-Joseph,as political playwright and pamphleteer, concentrated all his thoughts upon France. In April 1790 he could stand London no longer, and once more joined his parents at Paris in the rue de Cléry. The France that he plunged into with such impetuosity was upon the verge of anarchy. A strong constitutionalist, Chénier took the view that the Revolution was already complete and that all that remained to be done was the inauguration of the reign of law. Moderate as were his views and disinterested as were his motives, his tactics were passionately and dangerously aggressive. From an idyllist and elegist we find him suddenly transformed into an unsparing master of poetical satire. His prose Avis au peuple Iran Qais (August 24, 1790) was followed by the rhetorical Jeu de paume, a somewhat declamatory moral ode addressed to the painter David.
In the meantime he orated at the Feuillants Club, and contributed frequently to the Journal de Paris from November 1791 to July 1792, when he wrote his scorching iambes to Collot d'Herbois, Sur les Suisses révoltés du regiment de Châteauvieux. The 10th of August uprooted his party, his paper and his friends, and the management of relatives who kept him out of the way in Normandy alone saved him from the massacre of September. In the month following these events his democratic brother, Marie-Joseph, had entered the Convention. André's sombre rage against the course of events found vent in the line on the Maenads who mutilated the king's Swiss Guard, and in the Ode a Charlotte Corday congratulating France that "Un scélérat de moms rampe dans cette fange." At the express request of Malesherbes he provided some arguments to the materials collected for the defence of the king.
After the king's execution he sought a secluded retreat on the Plateau de Satory at Versailles and only went out after nightfall. There he wrote the poems inspired by Fanny (Mme Laurent Lecoulteux), including the exquisite Ode à Versailles, one of his freshest, noblest and most varied poems. His solitary life at Versailles lasted nearly a year. On March 7 1794 he was arrested at the house of Mme Piscatory at Passy. Two obscure agents of the Committee of Public Safety were in search of a marquise who had flown, but an unknown stranger was found in the house and arrested on suspicion. This was André, who had come on a visit of sympathy. He was taken to the Luxembourg and afterwards to Saint-Lazare. During the 140 days of his imprisonment there he wrote the marvellous lambes (in alternate lines of 12 and 8 syllables), which hiss and stab like poisoned bullets, and which were transmitted to his family by a venal gaoler. There he wrote the best known of all his verses, the pathetic Jeune captive, a poem at once of enchantment and of despair. Suffocating in an atmosphere of cruelty and baseness, Chénier's agony found expression almost to the last in these murderous lambes which he launched against the Convention. Ten days before the end, the painter Joseph-Benoît Suvée completed the well-known portrait. He might have been overlooked but for the well-meant, indignant officiousness of his father. Marie-Joseph had done his best to prevent this, but he could do nothing more. Robespierre, who was himself on the brink of the volcano, remembered the venomous sallies in the Journal de Paris. At sundown on the very day of his condemnation on a bogus charge of conspiracy, André Chénier was guillotined. The record of his last moments by La Touche is rather melodramatic and is certainly not above suspicion.
Incomplete as was his career— he was not quite thirty-two— his life was cut short in a crescendo of all its nobler elements. Exquisite as was already his susceptibility to beauty and his mastership of the rarest poetic material, we cannot doubt that Chénier was preparing for still higher flights of lyric passion and poetic intensity. Nothing that he had yet done could be said to compare in promise of assured greatness with the lambes, the Odes and the Jeune Captive. At the moment he left practically nothing to tell the world of his transcendent genius, and his reputation has had to be retrieved from oblivion page by page, and almost poem by poem. During his lifetime only his Jeu de paume (1791) and Hymne sur les Suisses (1792) had been given to the world. The Jeune Captive appeared in the Decade philosophique, Jan. 9, 1795; La Jeune Tarentine in the Mercure of March 22, 1801. Chateaubriand quoted three or four passages in his Genie du christianisme. Fayette and Lefeuvre-Deumier also gave a few fragments; but it was not until 1819 that a first imperfect attempt was made by Henri de la Touche to collect the poems in a substantive volume. Since the appearance of the editio princeps of Chénier's poems in La Touche's volume, many additional poems and fragments have been discovered, and an edition of the complete works of the poet, collated with the manuscripts bequeathed to the Bibliothèque Nationale by Mme Elisa de Chénier in 1892, has been edited by Paul Dimoff and published by Delagrave.
During the same period the critical estimates of the poet have fluctuated in a truly extraordinary manner. Sainte-Beuve in his Tableau of 1828 sang the praises of Chénier as an heroic forerunner of the Romantic movement and a precursor of Victor Hugo. Chénier, he said, had "inspired and determined" Romanticism. This suggestion of modernity in Chénier was echoed by a chorus of critics who worked the idea to death; in the meantime, the standard edition of Chénier's works was being prepared by M. Becq de Fouquiéres and was issued in 1862, but rearranged and greatly improved by the editor in 1872. The same patient investigator gave his New Documents on André Chénier to the world in 1875.
In the second volume of La Vie littéraire Anatole France contests the theory of Sainte-Beuve. Far from being an initiator, he maintains that Chénier's poetry is the last expression of an expiring form of art. His matter and his form belong of right to the classic spirit of the 18th century. He is a contemporary, not of Hugo and Leconte de Lisle, but of Suard and Morellet. Émile Faguet sums up on the side of M. France in his volume on the 18th century (1890). Chénier's real disciples, according to the latest view, are Leconte de Lisle and M. de Heredia, mosaistes who have at heart the cult of antique and pagan beauty, of "pure art" and of "objective poetry." Heredia himself reverted to the judgment of Sainte-Beuve to the effect that Chénier was the first to make modern verses, and he adds, "I do not know in the French language a more exquisite fragment than the three hundred verses of the Bucoliques." Chénier's influence has been specially remarkable in Russia, where Pushkin imitated him, Kogloff translated La Jeune Captive, La jeune Tarentine and other famous pieces, while the critic Vesselovsky pronounces "il a rétablé le lyrisme pur dans la poésie française" ("he re-established pure lyricism in french poetry").
The general French verdict on his work is in the main well summed by Morillot, when he says that, judged by the usual tests of the Romantic movement of the 1820s (love for strange literatures of the North, medievalism, novelties and experiments), Chénier would inevitably have been excluded from the cénacle of 1821, On the other hand he brought to the world ennui and melancholy which were among the early symptoms of the movement, and he experimented in French verse in a manner which would have led to his excommunication by the typical performers of the 18th century. What is universally admitted is that Chénier was a very great artist, who like Ronsard opened up sources of poetry in France which had long seemed dried up. In England it is easier to feel his attraction than that of some far greater reputations in French poetry, for, rhetorical though he nearly always is, he yet reveals something of that quality which to the Northern mind has always been of the very essence of poetry, that quality which made Sainte-Beuve say of him, that he was the first great poet "personnel et réveur" in France since La Fontaine. His diction is still very artificial, the poetic diction of Delille fransformed in the direction of Hugo, but not very much. On the other hand, his descriptive power in treating of nature shows far more art than the Trianin school ever attained. His love of the woodland and his political fervour often remind us of Shelley, and his delicate perception of Hellenic beauty, and the perfume of Greek legend, give us almost a foretaste of Keats. For these reasons, among others, Chénier, whose art is destined to so many vicissitudes of criticism in his own country, seems assured among English readers of a place among the Dei Majores of French poetry.
The Chénier literature of late years has become enormous. His fate has been commemorated in numerous plays, pictures and poems, notably in the opera by Umberto Giordano, the epilogue by Sully-Prudhomme, the Stello by Alfred de Vigny, the delicate statue by Puech in the Luxembourg, and the well-known portrait in the centre of the "Last Days of the Terror." The best editions are still those of Becq de Fouquières (Paris, 1862, 1872 and 1881), though these are now supplemented by those of L Moland (2 vols., 1889) and R Guillard (2 vols., 1899).