Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, CHARLOTTE CORDAY (REVOLUTIONARY TRIBUNAL, JULY 17, 1793), by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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CHARLOTTE CORDAY (REVOLUTIONARY TRIBUNAL, JULY 17, 1793), by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Where is your home?
Last Line: I am content.
Subject(s): Corday, Charlotte (1768-1793)


MONTANE, Presiding judge.
FOUQUIER-TINVILLE, Prosecutor.
CHAVEAU-LAGARDE, Defending counsel.
DANTON, ROBESPIERRE, Leaders of the Jacobins.
MADAM EVARD, Marat's friend.
CHARLOTTE CORDAY.

MONTANE

Where is your home?

CHARLOTTE

Caen.

MONTANE

Why did you come to Paris?

CHARLOTTE

To kill Marat.

MONTANE

Why?

CHARLOTTE

His crimes.

MONTANE

What crimes?

CHARLOTTE

The woes of France! His readiness to fire
All France with civil war.

MONTANE

You meant to kill
When you struck?

CHARLOTTE

Yes! I meant to kill.

MONTANE

How old are you?

CHARLOTTE

Twenty-four.

MONTANE

A woman
Young as you are could not have done this murder
Unless abetted.

CHARLOTTE

No! You little know
The human heart. The hatred of one's heart
Impels the hand better than other's hate.

MONTANE

You hated Marat?

CHARLOTTE

Hated! I did not kill
A man, I killed a wild beast eating up
The people and the nation.

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

She's familiar
With crime, no doubt.

CHARLOTTE

You monster! Do you take me
For just a common murderer?

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

Yes! Why not?

Here is your knife!

CHARLOTTE

Oh! Yes, I recognize it.
I bought it at the cutler's shop.

MONTANE

What for?

CHARLOTTE

To kill Marat with; cost me forty sous.
After I came to Paris --

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

When?

CHARLOTTE

Four days ago.

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

That was the day you wrote Marat?

CHARLOTTE

Same day.

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

Saying you knew of news in Caen, knew
Means by the which Marat could render service
To the Republic!

CHARLOTTE

By his death!

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

But yet
You gave him credit in this note for love
Of France, our France. You tricked him.

CHARLOTTE

Like a viper.

He was a mad-dog, dog-leech, alley rat,
With bits of carrion festering 'twixt his teeth,
Hair glued with ordure, urine. Why not trick
By best means, so to catch a beast with fangs
As venomous as his? He was a fire
That crawled and licked its way; why not put out
The fire by water, snuffing, stamping, why
Be precious of the means?

MADAM EVARD

You know me, woman?

CHARLOTTE

You struck me when I stabbed him. You're his whore!

MADAM EVARD

Oh! Oh!

ROBESPIERRE

(To Danton)
This is enough! When fury claws at fury.
I hear the tumbril for her. Come!

DANTON

The slut!

(Danton and Robespierre leave the room together.)

CHARLOTTE

Was that not Robespierre who left the room?

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

Why do you ask?

CHARLOTTE

I wanted him for counsel.

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

For what? The guillotine?

CHARLOTTE

(Shrinking) You monster! You!

MONTANE

Have you a lawyer?

CHARLOTTE

No! I wrote Doulcet.
He shirks the honor, doubtless; have not heard.
I thought of Chabot and of Robespierre.

MONTANE

Chauveau-Lagarde shall counsel you. Proceed!

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

Is this your letter?

CHARLOTTE

Yes.

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

This letter here
Is written to a man named Barbarous,
Her lover --

CHARLOTTE

No! You monster!

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

Very well!
Is this yours: "To the French, friends of the laws,
And friends of peace."

CHARLOTTE

Yes! I admit what's true.

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

And is this yours: "To the Committee of Public Safety"?

CHARLOTTE

I wrote it, yes.

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

Let's see now what's her mind.
This letter to the friends of peace and laws: --
"O France, thy peace depends upon the laws."
Laws! And she hastens to the cutler's shop,
And buys a knife with which to slay Marat.
Now look! This friend of France's peace and laws
Must dodge self-contradiction. How? That's plain:
"I do not break the law, killing Marat."
Why? What's Marat? A man? Of course, a man.
But then an "out-law," as she writes. How's that?
Outlawed by whom? Charlotte Corday of Caen!
What else? A man! But then condemned. By whom?
"The universe." Voila! The universe
Is swallowed by her swollen vanity.
She speaks for God, for solar systems, stars;
Adjudges laws, interprets, executes;
Is greater than the Revolution, France.
She's a descendant of the great Corneille;
A stage imagination, actress, acts,
And quotes here in this letter from Voltaire's
"Mort de Cesar." Now listen what her hate
Has used for whetrock, in the words of Brutus:
"Whether the world astonished loads my name
"And deed with horror, admiration, censure,
"I do not care, nor care to live in Time.
"I act indifferent to reproach or glory,
"A free, untrameled patriot am I.
"Duty accomplished I shall rest content.
"Think only, friends, how you may break your chains."
So Brutus lives in her! And like disease
Loosed from the crumbling cerements and dust
Of broken tombs, the madness which slew Caesar
Infects, makes mad this woman; and she slays
The great Marat!
She does not care for the world's
Censure or admiration! Does not care
To live in time! She lies! Why, in this room
A man, Huer, is sketching her. Behold
He's drawing now her face for Time to see.
And in this letter written to the Committee
She says: "Since I have little time to live,
"I trust you will permit me to have painted
"My portrait." Why? If careless if she live
In memory or time? The secret's out,
And written in her hand: "I want to leave
"A picture for remembrance to my friends."
What friends? Her father? Barbarous? Caen,
Paris, the whole of France, the world, if Time
Writes down the people's friend as beast, would see
The face, in such case, which destroyed Marat,
Condemned first by the "universe" and at last
By France, the world! What next? She doubts her God,
Her Brutus warrant, "universe" approval,
And writes here as a reason, in addition:
"That as men cherish memory of good men,
"So curiosity" -- see her spirit flop
And smile with idiot guilt upon itself --
"So curiosity sometimes seeks out
"Memorials of criminals." That's her word:
"Criminals," and by that word she stands
Self-dedicated to the guillotine.

CHARLOTTE

Well, am I not a criminal in the eyes
Of such a beast as you? Will nature spawn
No other beasts like you?

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

Yes, in my eyes,
You are a criminal. But you mistake.
I have no curiosity about you.
When you are dead I'd have your name erased,
Your face erased, lest it corrupt the face
Of Brutus, and lead hands in years to come
To speak the "universe," interpret "laws,"
And slay whom they would slay.

This is not all
About her picture, a memorial
For admiration by posterity.
She writes this Barbarous, lover or what,
It matters nothing, writes him pages here
In detail of herself, and intimate
Portrayal of her feelings: how she planned,
And killed Marat. To Barbarous she writes
About her letter to the Committee, asking
To have her portrait painted. Now, for whom?
Her friends? Not now! For the department now
Of Calvados. There! hanging on a wall,
A prize of history, is the deathless face
Of Charlotte Corday, destroyer of Marat,
Saviour of France, as Brutus struck for Rome!
Yes, I invite your thought to what she writes
To Barbarous: description of her act
In sneaking to Marat with hidden knife;
And as he sat there helpless in the tub,
And unsuspecting of her hatred, quick
She rips him like a butcher. Then, "A moi!"
He cries, "A moi!" And she's elate, her eyes
Bright as the lightning that has struck. Look now!
How she writhes here, how passing cross her face
Are lights of ghastly fields of fire and clouds
When hurricanes descend.

CHARLOTTE

You beast! You beast!

FOUQUER-TINVILLE

I am a beast, eh? You are what? I'll tell.
From Caen, as 'tis known. She's being sketched,
I'll sketch her too. You see, she's strongly built,
Large eyes of blue, large features, handsome though;
Nose shapely, and good teeth; equipped to play
In dramas of Corneille, her ancestor.
She needs a man. A husband would have drawn
Innocuously the electric passion, which
Collected in a bolt to loose and lurch
Against Marat. All women should be farmed.
She has her schooling in a convent, reads;
Lives with her thoughts and dreams. I'll sketch her soul:
Has not enough of living to consume
The forces of her dreams. She reads Rousseau,
And Plutarch's heroes, Brutus most of all.
Thrills at the words "Republic," "Liberty."
Thinks the Girondists only can set up
A real republic. Ideas are the stuff
Of history. Kill ideas or be killed
By ideas is the fate of man. Republic,
Liberty, Brutus are ideas. Ideas
Are dangerous, being truths, more so as lies.
And lies destroyed Marat.

Who was Marat?
A man of study, learning. Physicist,
Admired of Franklin, Goethe for his works
On heat and light; a doctor, having won
An honorary title at St. Andrew's
In England. Linguist, speaking Spanish, German,
Italian, English. Versed in Governments: --
You know his work on England's constitution
Whereby he sought to clear the mind of France --
This Charlotte Corday's with the rest -- that England
Is free, her systems free; stop the Girondists
From that re-iterated lie; stop France
From taking on the English system.

So
True ideas of Marat, evolved from life,
Living and study must combat, destroy
False ideas of Girondists, will succeed;
But cannot bar the door to the idea
That enters at his bathroom with a knife.
How was it that no valet and no guard
Preserved him? Why? Lovers of liberty
Starve in her service!

But there was a time
When he knew elegance and privacy.
But Liberty and Wisdom would be served.
He went to rags, was hunted, had to hide
In sewers for the cause of Liberty;
And there took loathsome trouble, eased at times
By steam, hot tubs. And thus our people's friend
Is found accessible to this female lie,
Girondist lie, possessing her, and stabbed.
Or at the best ideas of Liberty
Conduct her to his bath-room, where Marat
Is tubbed in sequence and in punishment
Of his idea of Liberty. Gods can laugh,
But men must weep. O worthless, rotten world!
It is most pitiful, most tragic, lifts
Man's heart to spit at heaven, that these friends
Of peoples must be slain, starved, hunted first,
Then butchered for their service and their love.
Saved not by truth; destroyed by lies, a lie
That he was evil, by the maniac lie
Of her mad vision that she knew what Freedom,
Liberty, Republic mean. Slain by the lie
Of this Girondist dream, this milk and water,
Emasculated, luke-warm craft of states:
Girondists: patches on the robes of kings;
Girondists: autogamists; mating sisters,
The past, and in the mating without child
Of truth or progress. Neither hot nor cold,
Spewed, therefore, from the mouth of Time. Betrayers,
Waylayers of the brave, the clear of eye;
Girondists: 'twixt republicans and kings,
And holding hands of each to make them friends.
Workers and owners of the new foaled mule
Bred of the royal stallion and an ass.
Girondists! loving wealth and ease, the church
Which loves them too. Girondists picking steps
Of moderate reform. Girondists hating
The Revolution, which must kill the foes
Of Liberty, as criminals are killed
For robbery, yet rejoice to see the blood
Of dead Marat. They're lofty! They are pure!
They love the laws, love peace! Yes, as this woman
Loves law and peace.

What is it like? A play
Where all is mimicked. Do we talk of facts?
Are these not fautocinni? Where's the hand
That plays this coarse and bloody joke to eyes
Of men that crave reality? I mean this:
A woman with lovers who suggest, abet;
A woman with no man, who dreams and reads,
Lives in the stench of these Girondist lies;
Ghosts float on fogs of her miasmic soul.
She hears Marat's a monster, dabbling blood,
A rabid ignoramus running foul
Of liberty and order, nihilist,
And sanguinary madman, dragon slimed
In back-wash of all hatred, envy, lust
Of the dispossessed, malformed, misborn; and then
She dreams of Brutus, who struck down -- there now
I nail a lie that will be always truth
To Charlotte Cordays. Caesar! Tyrant? No.
No man is tyrant who sees truth and rules
For truth's sake. For the ruled must share the truth
Where Caesars rule.

So much for her. She stands
Watchful and envious in the wings, and sees
Marat, not as we see him; not as Time
Will see Marat. L'Ami du Peuple to her
Is enemy of France, of Liberty.
This man most rare, most pure of soul, most clear
Of vision that the contest lies between
The rich and poor, has always lain between
The rich and poor, and not between the people
And kings; that poverty's the thing, is seen
By Charlotte Corday from the wings, as nothing
But hatred, murder.

Well, my girl, you'll get
Your picture in the galleries of history.
You'll get it; and to choke you with your words:
"So curiosity would have memorials
"Of criminals, which serve to keep alive
"Horror for their crimes."

Your picture's up
Already. Horror stares! You killed Marat.
That is your place in Time: you killed Marat!
You sneaked upon a great man, true man, weak
From torture of disease, contracted serving
Democracy, and slew him like a beast.
Charlotte Corday, assassin! That's your place,
And character in history.

CHARLOTTE

Let it be.
Assassin. Well, assassins kill assassins:
The words repel, destroy each other, sir.
If any grieve for me I beg of them
To think of me in the Elysian Fields
With Brutus and the heroes.

CHAVEAU-LAGARDE

Gentlemen!
The deed's admitted. What to say, but ask
Your clemency? The girl's fanatical.
The prosecutor argues well for me
In saying that a lie corrupted her,
And maddened her to act; which is to say
If that lie were a truth, she had the right
To slay Marat. With this regard Voltaire,
Great minds before him, painted Brutus great
Because he slew a tyrant. But if Caesar
Was not a tyrant, how does Brutus stand
But mad-man who believed, was honest, slew
In honesty of heart? Then what's the case?
To punish for ill-judging of the facts,
Or mercy show for human frailty
Of judgment and of vision? Great Marat
Has done his work, and left his legacy.
We cannot help him, meting death for death,
And would his noble spirit ask her death?
Think of it! You will answer no, I think.
He would say: kill the ideas of Caen,
The world which fires these Charlottes with a lie.
Smallpox is deadly as a butcher knife,
He had to die. The syllabus is death
In this our human logic: what's the odds
What premises produce conclusions? Knives,
Consumptions, fevers, wars? We may be gods
Withholding death where we have power to kill;
Withhold it saying: She mistook, believed
A lie, was faultless for believing it,
And slew believing. Were it truth and all
Believed we would applaud, as nations war,
Bound in a common vision of one truth.
The Revolution, France, will lose not, rather
Gain by this clemency; 'twill lift a light,
First in the world, of reason, justice purged
Of hatred's refuse: vengeance, fear, all passions
Of bitterness of soul. We worship Reason,
And this is Reason.

CHARLOTTE

You have done your part
And served me well. I thank you.

THE JURY

Let her join
Brutus in the Elysian Fields. We say:
The guillotine!

THE MOB

(Outside) To the guillotine! To the guillotine!

CHARLOTTE

I am content.





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