Olympio's Sadness by Victor Hugo

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“Olympio’s Sadness” is Hugo’s realization that nature, endlessly beautiful, can be seen as cruel to human beings, whose beauty, in love and as part of nature, is fleeting and cannot, or will not, be sustained by nature: “How little time it takes for you, Nature, with your unwrinkled brow, to change everything, disregardingly, and, in your acts of transformation, to snap the mysterious threads that bind our hearts.” Hugo saw himself as an Olympian, both in his unorthodox religiousness, which was closer to Greek paganism than to Christianity, and in his sense of personal greatness. For him, sadness was not the opposite of happiness but the comprehension of happiness, even as he considered the true light of the religious soul to be implicit in the darkness and not external to it.

The poem was composed in October, 1837, and is rich in autumnal resonance; but the day is bright with light, and the sky is unvaryingly clear. The external light brings the poet no joy. Joy is to be remembered only in the natural things—birds, streams, the sky, lakes, and such—that have no remembrance but are themselves remembered and, in being remembered, are for lovers “the shadow of love itself.” The thirty-eighth, and last, stanza locates the soul in a pitch-black night, where the holiness of memory, the essence of human happiness, sleeps in the shadow.

In making this sentimental journey to the scene of his early days of love with his mistress Juliette Drouet, Hugo is following the examples of his fellow Romantic poets Alphonse de Lamartine and Alfred de Musset, each of whom had written superb poems about such retreats.

The first eight stanzas of the poem, each consisting of a pair of two and a half Alexandrine verses, is a third-person narrative of the poet’s return to the scene of his love: the pond, the garden, the orchard, the chestnut tree where the poet and his mistress held trysts and which they used as a repository for love letters. These stanzas are followed by thirty Alexandrine quatrains in which the poet recounts in direct statement his reactions to the loss of subjective syntony over a three-year passage of time.

The poem opens with “The fields were no longer dark,” and, in the smiling autumn light, the poet finds the sadness of his soul. The poem closes with “this night which no light spangles,” in which in darkness his soul senses the pulsation of memory. The progression of the day from light...

(The entire section is 602 words.)