The Poetry of Hugo

by Victor Hugo

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1666

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 Bonaparte. In “To the Column,” Hugo not only traces the history and legend of Napoleon in breath-taking fashion, but reveals a fine talent for taking an inanimate object—in this case the column in the Place Vendome in Paris—and exploiting all its power as a symbol. His, too, is the gift of bringing to life an extremely precise vision, with great economy, by a judicious choice of a few telling details; and he displays this talent to perfection in “The Cow.” He could make himself new in every circumstance, apparently; behind every image he detected an idea, behind every idea an image, and some of his genius may be explained by this ability. Increasingly, Hugo seems to have been attracted by the mysteries of life and death, an attraction especially obvious in LES RAYONS ET LES OMBRES. In “Oceano Nox,” which is in this collection, Hugo conveys with great power the idea of nature, in this case the sea, as a force that shows only its surface to man, reveals little while suggesting much:

Where are they, these sailors that founderedin the darkness of night?O waves, how many dismal stories yousurely know!Deep waves, dreaded by mothers downon their knees!You tell each other the stories whilecoming in on the rising tide,And that is what gives you these desperatevoicesThat you have in the evening whenyou come towards us!

The unfortunate or tragic events in Hugo’s private and public life in the 1840’s divide his life and poetry into two parts. However regrettable these happenings may have been for Hugo the man, they did serve to restore to the public Victor Hugo the poet. After being exiled from Imperial France in 1851, and finally settling in the Channel Islands, Hugo at last seemed to find the time and energy to take up his pen once more.

In LES CHATIMENTS, the first fruit of his exile, Hugo too often fails to hold in check his wrath or indignation at the injustice of Napoleon III. Yet elsewhere, recent misfortunes and grievances act as a catalyst to release a brilliant display of swift, even language or vivid imagery. It would be wrong to condemn Hugo outright for being too closely involved in the movements of upheaval of his century; he was involved, and if this is sometimes a reason why his poetry dates so rapidly, it is also, on occasion, one of the greatest strengths of his verse.

Poems in which the mood is essentially serene find a place alongside the other, angrier ones in Les Chatiments. “Stella,” for example, recalls similar pieces by Lamartine and Musset. The poet seeks in the sky and sees in Venus, as it stands bright in the midst of darkness, announcing morning, a symbol of light and truth, a promise of a better fate for mankind. The poet of contrasts was to become increasingly, in exile, the visionary, the prophet.

CONTEMPLATIONS is one of the collections for which Victor Hugo’s name is best remembered. In it, the poet is truly mature. Not only does he show himself to be in full possession of all the resources of the language, but much suffering seems to have given a new depth and intensity to his thought. The collection is divided into two parts: Formerly and Today, that is to say poems dating from before and after the death of his daughter Leopoldine. The predominant note that is struck is not one of protest, but rather of resignation. Hugo seems to say, in effect, that without understanding the mysterious workings of God, he accepts them. Nowhere is this more obvious than in “Villequier,” an elegy, one of many fine poems dedicated to the memory of Leopoldine:

I come to Thee, Lord! confessing thatThou artGood, clement, indulgent, gentle; Oliving God!I acknowledge that Thou alone understandThy workings,And that man is nought but a reedthat trembles with the wind. . . .

In an epic series as enormous as LA LEGENDE DES SIECLES, with its ambitions as great as the title suggests and its intertwining of history, legend, and prophecy, it was perhaps inevitable that Hugo would at times test the patience and credulity of his readers. However, considered individually, the finer poems of this collection bear comparison with the best French poetry can offer. Many critics have admired “As Boaz Lay Sleeping.” Every line of this beautiful poem seems to strive toward, and obtain, an effect of fusion and harmony which matches the subject perfectly. Hugo is impressively successful in investing with life a Biblical universe in which past, present, and future are fused, and the thoughts and feelings blend smoothly with the setting:

Ruth was dreaming as Boaz slept; thegrass was black;The bells of the flocks stirred faintly;The great goodness of God came downfrom the Heavens;It was the peaceful hour when lionsgo to drink.

LES CHANSONS DES RUES ET DES BOIS, an uneven collection, seemed to announce an appreciable weakening of Hugo’s poetic inspiration. In fact, in L’ART D’ETRE GRAND-PERE, the poet showed himself capable of writing moving, lyrical verse, while in LES QUATRE VENTS DE L’ESPRIT he gave a conclusion to a body of thought that had not been completed in a LEGENDE DES SIECLES.

Victor Hugo has not by any means been fully understood. The vastness of the man and of his literary production has intimated too many people for too long. Out of the reappraisals that are now at last being made, two conclusions are likely to arise: on the one hand, the full extent of Victor Hugo’s influence on the development of French poetry is probably much greater than has generally been supposed; on the other, it seems certain that one can no longer safely and glibly sum up the poetry of Victor Hugo in a few words. He did more than think he thought, and it seems certain that his thought cannot be reduced to any simple, single formula.

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