Victor Hugo 1802–1885
(Full name Victor Marie Hugo) French poet, dramatist, novelist, essayist, and critic.
Hugo is considered one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in French literature as well as one of its most prolific and versatile authors. Although chiefly known outside France for the novels Notre Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Les misérables (1862; Les Misérables), he is renowned in his own country primarily for his contributions as a Romantic poet. Hugo's verse has been favorably compared to the works of William Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer; and he has influenced such diverse poets as Charles Baudelaire, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Walt Whitman. Hugo's technical virtuosity, stylistic experimentation, startling range of emotion, and variety and universality of his themes not only established him as a leader of the French Romantic school but anticipated modern poetry.
Born into a military family, Hugo traveled extensively during his childhood until age twelve when his parents separated. He settled with his mother in Paris, where he attended school and attained literary recognition at a young age. In 1819, Hugo founded with his brothers a prominent literary journal, Le conservateur littéraire, and published his first volume of poetry, Odes et poésies diverses (1822). This volume, which celebrated the monarchy, earned him a pension from French king Louis XVIII and enabled him to marry his childhood sweetheart Adèle Foucher. Hugo's home was the center of intellectual activity, and he counted among his devoted friends literary critic Charles Sainte-Beuve and writer Théophile Gautier. In 1841, Hugo was elected to the Académie française, and four years later he was made a peer. Hugo was also elected to the National Assembly in 1848, when Louis's regime collapsed and Louis Napoléon Bonaparte established the Second Republic. Distressed by Napolèan's dictorial ambitions, which were made evident when Napoléan seized power in a coup d'etat in 1851, Hugo fled to Belgium. He then moved to the English Channel island of Jersey and, later, to the island of Guernsey; he lived in exile on the islands for eighteen years. There he conducted séances, wrote speeches and appeals concerning world politics, and published some of his greatest poetical works. Hugo returned to Paris a day after the Third Republic was proclaimed in 1870 as a national hero. He continued to write prolifically even as he became increasingly detached from the outside world. When he died in 1885, Hugo was given a state
funeral and was eventually buried in the Panthéon, though his body was transported in a poor man's hearse in accordance with his last wishes.
Hugo's early verse consists primarily of odes, ballads, and lyrics. His odes, which are collected in such volumes as Odes (1823) and Nouvelles odes (1824), were written in the neoclassical style and contain traditional poetic devices. In his ballads, Hugo used more experimental forms of versification and began to address such romantic themes as faith, love, and nature. He explained in the preface to Odes et ballades (1826) that the ballad form was a "capricieux" or whimsical genre that lent itself to the telling of superstitions, legends, popular traditions, and dreams. Hugo continued his experiments with versification in Les orientales (1829; Eastern Lyrics), which is set in North Africa and the Near East and focuses on such subjects as the Greek war of independence, passionate love, and exotic cultures. Considered a protest against the materialism of western society, this volume was extremely popular and widely read in France. Hugo's lyric poetry of the 1830s primarily addressed such themes as nature, love, and death in a style that was both personal and uninhibted. Collections of this period include Les feuilles d'automne (1831), Les chants du crépuscule (1835; Songs of Twilight), Les voix intérieures (1837), and Les rayons et les ombres (1840). Edward K. Kaplan has noted that these four collections "are unified by the poet's discovery of faith through uncertainty and doubt. Not a Christian faith, but a modern faith which understood anxiety as an apporopriate response to rapid social, political, and intellectual change."
During the 1840s, Hugo concentrated on his social and political activities and published little poetry. In the 1850s, however, when he lived in exile on the islands of Jersey and Guernsey, Hugo wrote Les contemplations (1856) and the three-volume collection La légende des siécles (1859–1883; The Legend of the Centuries). Both of these works have been hailed as poetic masterpieces and are considered among Hugo's best works. Les contemplations, which explores the metaphysical aspects of death and life as well as the mysteries of human consciousness, is divided into two parts. "Autarefois" celebrates innocence, youth, love, and creation, while "Aujourd'hui" reveals Hugo's grief over the drowning death of his daughter Léopoldine in 1843 and addresses such issues as the incomprehensibility of the universe, religion, and good and evil. La légende des siècles presents a panorama of human history from the Old Testament to the nineteenth century. Hugo wrote that he intended the work to trace "the development of the human race over the centuries, mankind rising out of the shadows on its way to the ideal, the paradisiacal transfiguration of earthy hell, the low, the perfect coming to full bloom of freedom."
Hugo's later poetry comprises a diverse body of work. Les chansons des rues et des bois (1865) consists of light and fanciful pieces; L'Année terrible (1872) centers on French history, particularly the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870; and L'art d'être grandpère (1877) contains poems that reflect Hugo's delight in his grandchildren Georges and Jeanne. La fin de Satan, which Hugo worked on from 1854 to 1860, was published posthumously in 1886. Considered a theological epic poem, this volume depicts Satan accepting God's offer to return to heaven.
At the time of Hugo's death, many of the works that were praised upon their publication were still highly regarded; La légende des siècles, for example, was pronounced "the greatest work of the century" by Algernon Charles Swinburne in 1886 and is still favorably compared to John Milton's Paradise Lost by late twentieth-century critics such as John Porter Houston. Although scholars have faulted the romantic excesses and pretentiousness sometimes evident in Hugo's writing, they are often more forgiving of his sentimentalism when it is conveyed with the grace, power, and technical virtuosity that characterizes much of his poetry. What has most hampered the pace of Hugo scholarship in English-speaking countries has been the lack, inadequacy, and inaccessibility of critical editions and translations of Hugo's poetry; in recent decades, however, Hugo's works have inspired international scholarly activity.
Odes et poésies diverses 1822
Nouvelles odes 1824
Odes et ballades 1826
Les orientales [Eastern Lyrics] 1829
Les feuilles d'automne 1831
Les chants du crépuscule [Songs of Twilight] 1835
Les voix intérieures 1837
Les rayons et les ombres 1840
Les châtiments 1853
Les contemplations 1856
La légende des siècles. 3 vols. [The Legend of the Centuries] 1859–1883
Les chansons des rues et des bois 1865
L'Année terrible 1872
L'art d'être grand-père 1877
Le pape 1878
La pitié supreme 1879
Religions et religion 1880
Les quatre vents de l'esprit 1881
La fin de Satan 1886
Toute la lyre 2 vols. 1888–1898
Les années funestes 1898
Derniere gerbe 1902
Tas de pierres 1942
Other Major Works...
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SOURCE: "On the Poems of Victor Hugo," in Life and Writings of Joseph Mazzini, Volume II, Smith, Elder, and Company, 1890, pp. 257–303.
[In the following excerpt, taken from an essay originally published in British and Foreign Review in 1838, Mazzini discusses the faults and limitations of Hugo's poetry, stating that "his words are cold, fleshless, desolate; at times even imbued with a bitterness quite incomprehensible in a poet who has so often been called religious."]
I have not leisure here to analyze completely any of Victor Hugo's poems. But let the reader open any one of his collections, Les Feuilles d'Automne excepted, and peruse the first piece that offers. An attentive examination, guided by the notions here thrown out, will show the idea fettered, bound down by the form which it ought to govern,—the mind in some sort absorbed by matter, which matter it ought to seize upon, pervade at every pore, and shine through brilliantly, like flame through alabaster,—it will show how Victor Hugo appears to me always to descend from the deity to the symbol, instead of rising, as I conceive poetry always should, from the symbol to the deity.
If this be the prevalent habit of Victor Hugo, if it be the characteristic of his poetry, dominant over all his conceptions, it is evident what must be the result in the poet's mind as relates to man, to his business on earth, and to...
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SOURCE: "Genius and Writings of Victor Hugo," in North American Review, Vol. 81, October, 1855, pp. 324–46.
[In this excerpt, the critic offers a laudatory review of Hugo's verse up to and including Les châtiments.]
[If] the genius of Victor Hugo is great as a novelist, it is still greater as a poet. And he seems to be almost equally distinguished in the lyric and the dramatic schools of poetry. His first publication was the Odes et Ballades, a volume strewn with beautiful verses, inspired with a religious and royalist enthusiasm. His next volume of lyric poetry was Les Orientales,—differing widely in form and substance from any of his other works. This collection, the idea of which was a sudden fantasy which flashed across his mind one evening in connection with some reminiscence of Spain, depicts Moorish and Oriental life in its many romantic phases. Here his lyrical power appears in its greatest lustre. The French language had never before arrived at such a degree of flexibility and beauty of poetic diction. Never were poems so distinguished for harmony, delicacy, smoothness of rhythm, richness of coloring, and profusion of imagery. In another publication, Les Feuilles d'Automne, Victor Hugo cultivates a different field of fancy. In these poems, the strains are pure and simple, the sentiments calm, tender, and domestic. They are chiefly of a religious tendency, diversified...
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SOURCE: "Victor Hugo," in Baudelaire as a Literary Critic: Selected Essays, translated by Lois Boe Hyslop and Francis E. Hyslop, Jr., Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964, pp.233–47.
[A French poet and critic, Baudelaire is best known for his poetry collection Les fleurs de mal, which is considered among the most influential works of French verse. In the following excerpt, which was originally published in La revue fantaisiste in 1861, he offers praise for Hugo, citing the poet's universality and greatness of theme.]
For many years now Victor Hugo has no longer been in our midst. Iremember the time when his figure was one of those most frequently encountered among the crowds, and many times I wondered, seeing him appear so often amid holiday excitement or in the silence of some lonely spot, how he could reconcile the needs of his incessant work with the sublime but dangerous taste for strolling and for reverie. This apparentcontradiction is evidently the result of a well ordered life and of a strong spiritual constitution which permits him to work while walking, or rather to be able to walk while he is working. At all times, in all places, under the light of the sun, in the surging crowds, inthe sanctuaries of art, beside dusty bookstalls exposed to the wind, Victor Hugo, serene and thoughtful, seemed to say to external nature: "Fix yourself in my eyes so that I may remember you."...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Victor Hugo," in Studies in Literature: 1789–1877, Kegan Paul, Trench and Company, 1889, pp. 428–67.
[In this excerpt from a review originally published in 1873, Dowden traces Hugo's development as a poet.]
The career of Victor Hugo naturally divides itself into three periods—first, that in which the poet was still unaware of his true self, or seeking that true self failed to find it; secondly, that presided over by the Hugoish conception of beauty; thirdly, that dominated by the Hugoish conception of the sublime. Les Orientales marks the limit of the first period; the transition from the second to the third, which begins to indicate itself in Les Rayons et les Ombres, is accomplished in Les Contemplations. The third period is not closed; at the present moment we have the promise from Victor Hugo of important works in verse and prose. Possibly, any hypothesis as to the orbit he describes is still premature.
In a divided household the boy Victor naturally inclined towards the side of his mother, and from her he inherited the monarchical tradition. From Chateaubriand he learned to recognize the literary advantages offered by neo-Catholicism, and under his influence the Voltairean royalism of Victor Hugo's earlier years was transformed into the Christian royalism which was to do service for the writer of odes under the Restoration. The boy...
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SOURCE: "Hugo's Légende des Siècles," in Literary Reviews and Essays, edited by Albert Mordell, Twayne Publishers, 1957, pp. 136–38.
[In following review of La légende des siècles, which was originally published in The Nation in May 3, 1877, James discusses Hugo's strengths and weaknesses as a poet.]
From the very flattering notices which the English journals have accorded to the new volumes of Victor Hugo's Légende des Siècles, it is apparent that the writer has lately become almost the fashion in England—a fact to be attributed in a measure to the influence of the "æsthetic" school, or, to speak more correctly, probably, of Mr. Swinburne, who, as we know, swears by Victor Hugo, and whose judgments seem to appeal less forcibly to the English sense of humor than they do to a corresponding quality on this side of the Atlantic. Be this as it may, however, Victor Hugo's new volumes are as characteristic as might have been expected—as violent and extravagant in their faults, and in their fine passages as full of imaginative beauty. Apropos of the sense of humor, the absence of this quality is certainly Victor Hugo's great defect—the only limitation (it must be confessed it is a very serious one) to his imaginative power. It should teach him occasionally to kindle Mr. Ruskin's "lamp of sacrifice." This "nouvelle série" of the Légende des Siècles is not a...
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SOURCE: "Victor Hugo: La Légende des Siècles," in Fortnightly Review, Vol. XXXIV, 1883, pp. 497–520.
[Swinburne was an English poet, dramatist, and critic. Though renowned in his lifetime for his lyric poetry, he is remembered today primarily for his rejection of Victorian mores. In the following excerpt, taken from a discussion of La légende des siècles, Swinburne lavishes praise on the work, favorably comparing it to the works of William Shakespeare and Dante.]
The greatest work of the century [La Légende des Siècles] is now at length complete. It is upwards of twenty-four years since the first part of it was sent home to France from Guernsey. Eighteen years later we received a second instalment of the yet unexhausted treasure. And here, at the age of eighty-one, the sovereign poet of the world has placed the coping-stone on the stateliest of spiritual buildings that ever in modern times has been reared for the wonder and the worship of mankind.
Those only to whom nothing seems difficult because nothing to them seems greater than themselves could find it other than an arduous undertaking to utter some word of not unworthy welcome and thanksgiving when their life is suddenly enriched and brightened by such an addition to its most precious things as the dawn of a whole new world of song—and a world that may hold its own in heaven beside the suns created or evoked...
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SOURCE: "Victor Hugo and La Légende des Siècles," in Literary Studies and Reviews, Dial Press, 1926, pp. 253-63.
[In the following mixed review, Aldington faults Hugo's naïveté, mawkishness, and tendency to copy other poets but praises his humanism.]
La Légende des siècles was designed by its author as an Epic of Progress. It was published in 1859, so that only sixty years elapsed between its first appearance and its inclusion in the series of "Grands Écrivains de la France," which is a kind of final homage to the illustrious. Yet, if one may judge from the date at the end of M. Paul Berret's excellent introduction, this edition would have appeared in 1914 had the publication not been delayed by a grand expression of Progress. A curious coincidence that this magniloquent praise of Progress should have been delayed six years by a European war; that this homage should be paid it at the very moment when its main idea is heavily discredited.
Hugo's faith in mechanically propelled vehicles as an evidence of Progress (the capital "P" seems as appropriate as in the allied Podsnappery), as a proof of civilization, even as being civilization itself, is childish and commonplace, though he was not the only one to mistake the husk for the kernel, the science of mechanics for the art of life. His Satyr prophesies railways in these words—
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SOURCE: "Victor Hugo," in An Introduction to the French Poets: Villon to the Present Day, Methuen and Company, 1956, pp. 119-36.
[In the following excerpt, Brereton surveys Hugo's poetry, comparing his works to those of such other French poets as Charles Baudelaire and Alphonse de Lamartine.]
Rather than a work, the writings of Hugo are a territory—so vast and so strongly characterized that few readers can pass through it and remain neutral. They are forced into adopting an attitude either of excessive admiration or of hostility.
Besides his four great and several lesser novels, a considerable body of shorter and more occasional prose-writings, and eleven dramas of which seven are in verse, Hugo published in his life-time a dozen main collections of poetry….
As a boy of sixteen Victor Hugo won the Golden Amaranth offered by the Académie des jeux floraux de Toulouse. It was an academic prize for a stiff and academic poem, 'Les Vierges de Verdun', and those characteristics persisted in most of the verse contained in his first published volume of 1822, Les Odes et poésies diverses. Two subsequent volumes completed a work which Hugo finally republished under the collective title of Odes et ballades. The Odes were declamatory historical pieces, but the Ballades were based on legend and folklore and were recounted with a certain...
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SOURCE: "Victor Hugo, Creator through Form," in The Art of Poetry, translated by Denise Folliot, Vintage Books, 1958, pp. 251-59.
[In this essay, Valéry discusses the enduring quality of Hugo's poetic genius.]
Victor Hugo is said to be dead, to have been dead for fifty years…. But an impartial observer would not be so sure. Only the other day he was being attacked just as though he were alive. An attempt was being made to destroy him. That is a strong proof of existence. However, I grant that he is dead: though not, I am convinced, to the point some say he is and wish he were.
When, half a century after his disappearance, a writer still provokes heated discussion, one may be free from anxiety about his future. There are centuries of vigor ahead of him. His future will settle down into a fairly regular cycle of phases of indifference and phases of favor, moments of devotion and periods of neglect. For the duration of fame this is a stable condition. It has become periodic.
And so one author takes his place as a sun or planet in the literary firmament, whereas another, who was his rival and who originally shone no less brightly than he, passes by and escapes us—like a meteor, a luminous incident that will never recur.
Victor Hugo, a meteor in 1830, did not stop growing and shedding light until his death. At that time one might...
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SOURCE: "Victor Hugo's Poetics," in The American Society Legion of Honor Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 3, 1961, pp. 181-96.
[In the essay below, Riffaterre offers his interpretation of Hugo's philosophy of poetics.]
As any poetics must be, Hugo's is inseparable from a certain theory of inspiration, since the nature of his inspiration affects a writer's techniques.
The poet finds inspiration in what surrounds him. His concern is with the "mysteries which rise to blind him … every morning with the sun, every evening with the stars." But Hugo goes far beyond contemplation and meditation upon the spectacle of nature: "the horizon darkens and contemplation becomes vision;" in fact, as early as the time of his first travels to see the world, when he composed Le Rhin, his exercises in imagination, and sometimes in hallucination, in the face of nature foreshadow the methods of a Rimbaud.
The poet's task is not only to see the world as a Baudelairean forest of symbols, like the seer who deciphers God's intentions in the book of the universe. He must not merely let himself be penetrated by reality, he must penetrate it, and prolong it, so to speak, in the direction sketched out by God: "the vast yearning for what could be, such is a poet's perpetual obsession. What could be in nature, what could be in destiny." In short, the poet must continue the work of divine...
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SOURCE: "Victor Hugo and the Prophetic Vision," in Nineteenth-Century French Romantic Poets, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969, pp. 91-129.
[In the following essay, Denommé examines Hugo's poetic oeuvre, stating that it is representative of the development of French Romanticism. The critic concludes: "Hugo's poetry invites us to strip away the restrictions dictated to us by practical reason and experience in order to view the world more directly with our emotions."]
The widespread association still made today between the name of Victor Hugo and the term Romanticism attests to the prominence that he enjoyed within the movement both in France and on the Continent during the nineteenth century. The wide range of his poetry from the early academic declamations of "Les Vierges de Verdun" ("The Virgins of Verdun") to the cabalistic symbolism of the posthumously-published collections, La Fin de Satan (The End of Satan) and Dieu (God) recounts the history and the development of French Romanticism in the most tellingly comprehensive terms we have. The seventeen volumes of poems that were published during Hugo'slong lifetime (1802-85) and shortly after his death unfold both his evolution and that of French poetry from the neo-Classicism and the social Romanticism of the first part of the century to the school of Art for Art's sake and the Symbolism or Modernism of the last five...
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SOURCE: "The Sublimity of Hugo's Odes," in The Renaissance of the Lyric in French Romanticism: Elegy, "Poëme" and Ode, French Forum Publishers, 1978, pp. 75-106.
[In this excerpt, Porter examines the ways in which Hugo transformed the ode genre during the early and middle phases of his career.]
Those contemporaries who were sympathetic to French Romanticism considered that it had revitalized three poetic genres: ode, elegy, and "Poëme." Later in the century, a neo-elegiac strain continues in the love poems of Baudelaire and Verlaine; a neo-epic tendency persists in Leconte de Lisle; and many romantic verse epics of redemption were composed; but the ode came eventually to predominate in nineteenth-century French literature. Such, at least, is the opinion of the poet Banville, who surveyed post-revolutionary poetry in 1871: "l'Ode, je le répète, une dernière fois, a absorbé tous les genres poétiques [ … ] elle est devenue toute la poésie moderne." A dramatization of the poet's creative powers became relatively more prominent in poetry, in comparison to the depiction of private emotions and to the relation of a collective adventure in a timebound setting. [Vigny] moved steadily in this direction. "L'Esprit pur" and even "La Maison du Berger" could be defined as odes. But Hugo was a much more prolific and consistent writer of poems that are unequivocally odes. His treatment of the sublime is the...
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SOURCE: "Victor Hugo and the Poetics of Doubt: The Transition of 1835-1837," in French Forum, Vol. 6, No. 2, May, 1981, pp. 140-53.
[In the essay below, Kaplan examines how various "political, moral, and religious upheavals " in Hugo's life are reflected in his early lyric collections.]
Victor Hugo's post-exile religious ideas are well known, as is the anguish at their foundation. Critics tend to prefer Les Contemplations, which is organized around Léopoldine's death in 1843, and the ambitious metaphysical epics which follow. Yet his earlier four lyrical collections—Les Feuilles d'automne (1831), Les Chants du crépuscule (1835), Les Voix intérieures (1837), and Les Rayons et les ombres (1840)—trace an equally radical realignment of the poet's literary persona: Hugo was becoming detached from his royalism and Catholic faith, reflecting the crises of meaning which pervaded the July Monarchy. His brother's madness and death (in 1837), the suicides of several friends, guilt and anger at his and his wife's infidelities also echo political, moral, and religious upheavals. A new poetics—and Olympio, Hugo's permanent persona—emerge from that transition.
Hugo's four pre-exile collections are unified by the poet's discovery of faith through uncertainty and doubt. Not a Christian faith, but a modern faith which understands anxiety as an appropriate...
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SOURCE: "State, Self and History in Victor Hugo's L'Année Terrible" in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 367-78.
[In the essay below, Coombes discusses Hugo's treatment of history and politics in L'Année terrible.]
Hugo's last major poem sequence, and perhaps the last major poetic statement of European romanticism [L'Année terrible], was written in 1870-72, throughout the historical events with which it is concerned: the Franco-Prussian war, the Commune and their aftermath. Its articulation upon those events is thus very different from that of Wordsworth's The Prelude, with its attempt at a monolithic tranquillity of retrospection upon the Revolution, or indeed—to cite a less evidently conservative/conservatory instance—Heine's Deutschland, Ein Wintermärchen, generated out of the depressing yet constant condition of political exile.
Rather, the conditions of writing of L'Année Terrible—from the last months of Republican exile in Jersey through residence in the Paris of siege and civil war, to brief renewed exile in, and expulsion from, Belgium after the Commune—resemble the vicissitudes of that other great epic of mixed political hope and despair, Paradise Lost. And indeed, in its invective power, its coruscations and intercalations of mythology, its problematic convictions of righteousness, L'Année...
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Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. Revised. Boston: Twayne, 1988, 167 p.
Concise study of Hugo's life and works, with an emphasis on his poetry. Includes selected bibliography.
Josephson, Matthew. Victor Hugo: A Realistic Biography of the Great Romantic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1942, 514 p.
Detailed biography in which Josephson considers Hugo "one of the greatest exemplars of the sedentary, meditative type of man, turning from his study to service in public life."
Marzials, Frank T. Life of Victor Hugo. London: Walter Scott, 1888, 254 p.
General biography which includes an early bibliography of works by and about Hugo.
Maurois, André. Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo, translated by Gerard Hopkins. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956, 498 p.
Definitive biography. Maurois calls Hugo the greatest of all French poets and states that "we need to know the story of his life if we are to understand his tormented genius to the full."
Babuts, Nicolae. "Hugo's La fin de satan: The Identity Shift." Symposium 36, No. 2 (Summer 1981): 91-101....
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