The name and the work of Victor Hugo fill the whole of the nineteenth century. Hugo the poet has been neglected, although few critics would deny that most modern French poetry has in one way or another been marked by him.
It matters little that one of Hugo’s first major collections, LES ORIENTALES, seems to have been inspired by his watching the sun set over Paris. Nineteenth century artists were often to turn to the Orient, observed or only imagined, for their inspiration. In France, certainly, where imaginations had been expanded by the Napoleonic adventure, it was hardly surprising that poets and painters should, around 1830, turn their gaze away from the internal political and social scene. Hugo, like others, seems to have sought in the East a sharpness, splendor, and color that he could not find in the French domestic scene. The technical innovations to be found in LES ORIENTALES indicate that Hugo was fully conscious of the severe limitations on French as a language of poetry, compared to other European languages.
In the 1829 collection, many poems are fascinating experiments with rhyme and rhythm, in which Hugo’s affection for color, contrast, and movement—later to become legendary—is already obvious. The best-known piece in this collection is undoubtedly “The Djinns.” It owes its name to spirits of popular Mohammedan belief, said to be associated both with good and evil, though Hugo considers only their malevolent aspect. “The Djinns” is very obviously conceived as a whole from the first to the last line. It is a splendidly successful technical experiment. The opening stanza, of two-syllable lines, describes a scene of perfect calm before the approach of the Djinns. Stanza by stanza, the line expands, the pace becomes more rapid, until, to describe the arrival of the Djinns and their full, terrifying fury, Hugo makes use of a ten-syllable line. With the retreat of the spirits, the movement loses pace and volume; in the final strophe, the poet has returned to the two-syllable line; calm has once again fallen over the scene. The poem is fascinating, for it shows what effects could be obtained when a French poet, without losing precision, was prepared to discard outmoded conventions.
While Claude Roy’s remark to the effect that Hugo’s poetry was a form that eventually found a content seems a little unjust, there is certainly a progression in his work away from brilliance for brilliance’ sake towards a realization and expression of deeper patterns of meaning in life. The signs of an evolution may be observed in LES FEUILLES D’AUTOMNE. The title is significant, as in the frontispiece of the original edition, showing two men, wrapped in cloaks, crossing a graveyard at sunset. The fundamental problems of life and death, the frailty of man, the unchanging face of nature, and the basic emotions that center around the family are the recurring themes in this volume. One of the finer poems of LES FEUILLES D’AUTOMNE, and there are many that are good, is called “When the Child Appears.” Here, as is so often the case in other collections, Hugo selects a simple, almost banal, theme and makes out of it a finely executed, moving poem that is not overdone. Characteristically, the poet makes use of contrast throughout this piece, to enhance the impression he wishes to leave, and it closes with a philosophical meditation.
Some general differences are to be found between the collection titled LES CHANTS DU CREPUSCULE, which appeared in 1835, and the two others that followed it, LES VOIX INTERIEURES and LES RAYONS ET LES OMBRES. Yet they have much in common. In all three one notices the more frequent or urgent presence of social or political themes; Hugo’s vision of the world now seems wider and deeper than before, and better able to distinguish the general pattern behind the particular example. Everywhere new facets of Hugo’s creative genius are to be discovered; his seeking out of new sources for poetry is evident in his lively interest in Napoleon...
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