Victor Hugo Poetry Analysis
Victor Hugo’s poetry took many forms, from the lyric to the epic to the elegiac. Along with this variety of form, the range of the poet’s ideas expanded during his long career. From poems with political overtones, Hugo’s poetry grew to exhibit the tenets of Romanticism. He wrote of more personal and intimate subjects, such as family and love. He also wrote about humankind’s relationship with nature and with the Creator. As Hugo matured, his themes became more philosophical and humanitarian, and his self-appointed role became that of a poet-seer attempting to understand the mysteries of life and creation.
Hugo’s shift toward Romanticism and away from political themes first became apparent in Odes et ballades. In this collection, the poet makes copious use of the fantastic, the uncanny, and the horrifying, a popular style of the time, exemplified by the German ballads of Gottfried Burger, Christoph Wieland, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Hugo’s inspiration was drawn also from contemporary translations of Spanish, English, and French ballads, a diversity of sources that infused his own ballads with eclecticism.
Odes et ballades
In the preface to Odes et ballades, Hugo compares the sculptured gardens of Versailles with the primitive forests of the New World. The artificiality of the former, Hugo claims, stands in opposition to the laws of nature, whereas in the untouched forests, “everything obeys an invariable law.” The true poet, then, must look to nature as his model, forsaking the contrived in favor of the natural. This was the new precept which Hugo sought to follow in this work.
Hugo received praise from his contemporaries for his imaginative use of his subject matter and for his great technical versatility. He used not only the classical Alexandrine but also other forms of versification, such as the octosyllabic line in the poem “La Fiancée du timbalier” (“The Cymbaleer’s Bride”) and the little-used Renaissance seven-syllable line in “À Trilby.” Though original and clever, these poems are devoid of the philosophical intent which characterizes the poet’s later work. They were pronounced excellent, however, by a young critic for Le Globe by the name of Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve.
Les Orientales marks Hugo’s departure from neoclassical rhetorical forms and inaugurates his bolder, more colorful style. Hugo’s use of metaphor gains precision and originality; he employs verse forms drawn from the Renaissance Pléiade, to which he had been led by Sainte-Beuve.
The most famous poem of Les Orientales is “Les Djinns” (“The Djinns”), which exhibits Hugo’s technical virtuosity. There is exoticism in the choice of both subject and form; in this, the poem is representative of the entire collection. The djinns are identified as evil spirits who sweep into a town and leave just as quickly. Their anticipated arrival is marked by a mounting from a two-syllable line to a decasyllabic line, while their departure is signaled by a parallel decrescendo. In this manner, Hugo is able to create an atmosphere of mystery and terror, with a contrasting feeling of relief. The poem won the plaudits not only of Hugo’s contemporaries, but also of later poets and critics; Algernon Charles Swinburne was to comment that no other poet had “left a more exquisite piece or one more filled with delicate lyricism.”
Les Feuilles d’automne
In Les Feuilles d’automne, Hugo’s lyrical voice achieves maturity. The central themes are those of childhood, nature, and love. Although the style is less spectacular than that of Les Orientales, Hugo achieves a profound poetic effect through greater simplicity. His treatment of domestic themes is reminiscent of William Wordsworth, whose works Hugo may have known through the influence of Sainte-Beuve.
The opening poem is a tribute to the poet’s mother’s love and devotion. This is followed by a warm acknowledgment of his father, in which Hugo recalls the General’s house at...
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