Victor Hugo Poetry Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3075

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...

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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

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 Blois and mourns his father’s death. These panegyrics to his parents set the tone for the entire collection.

Less than a handful of poems deal with the topic of childhood, yet Hugo was the first to introduce this subject into French verse. The masterpiece of the collection is one such poem, “Lorsque l’enfant paraît” (“Infantile Influence”), touching in its description of the young child whose presence signifies a blessed household. Hugo concludes with a prayer imploring God to preserve family and friends from a home without a child. Such a sentimental ending would not have been found in Les Orientales, and it manifests a further development in the poet’s style.

Another development, but on a different plane, establishes the poet’s concern for the correspondences between people and nature, as in the poem “Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne” (“What Is Heard on the Mountain”). The role of the poet becomes significant in such an interchange; he becomes an interpreter in this dialogue, as Hugo announces in “Pan.” These assertions were manifest again in later poetic works.

Les Rayons et les ombres

In Les Rayons et les ombres, Hugo conceives of a social mission for the poet. The poet becomes a sacred dreamer, an impartial observer of his time, seeking inspiration from humankind, nature, and God. This collection is, therefore, rather diverse in its subject matter. There are love poems, poems devoted to nature, verses inspired by a search for religious significance, childhood memories, and poems with greater social content.

Two celebrated poems are to be found in Les Rayons et les ombres. The first is “Tristesse d’ Olympio,” in which the poet is presented as a keeper of the secrets of the universe. The tone of sadness which pervades the piece is in large measure a reflection of the unhappy events of 1837, the year it was written. Sainte-Beuve had published a story titled “Mme de Pontivy,” in which he described a love affair similar to his alleged affair with Adèle Hugo. Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine had been seriously ill that year. At the same time, the poet himself had been afflicted with an eye disorder. In that same year also, Hugo’s brother Eugène died after spending many years in an asylum, his illness caused in large part by Hugo’s marriage with Adèle, whom he had also loved. The inspiration for the poem is, therefore, overwhelmingly personal. The mood of the poem reflects Hugo’s disillusionment with the mutability of nature. In striking contrast with poems of this same genre, such as Alphonse de Lamartine’s “Le Lac” (“The Lake”), Hugo asserts that, though nature may forget, humankind will not.

The second important poem in this collection is “Oceano Nox.” Though it is much shorter and less complicated than “Tristesse d’Olympio,” it nevertheless successfully introduces the sea into Hugo’s poetic corpus. The poet chose the elegiac form to describe the force of the ocean and the tragedy of men who are engulfed in the sea, remembered only for a short time by their loved ones. The final stanza is powerful in its description of the desperate voices contained in the roar of the sea at night.

“L’Expiation”

It was during his stay in Jersey in 1853 that Hugo published Les Châtiments, a volume of satiric poetry. The work is a ceaseless diatribe against the Second Empire and Louis Napoleon. Hugo’s indignation against the Emperor was inexhaustible. He believed Napoleon to be a tyrant, a ruler who had compromised the liberty of the French people. Hugo evokes every imaginable vituperative image in his denunciation of “Napoleon the Dwarf.” Though these pages are replete with a succession of ingenious epithets and metaphors, one poem in this collection is particularly noteworthy, “L’Expiation.”

The poem combines both epic and satiric styles; its structure is particularly ingenious. Opening with an account of the glorious reign of Napoleon I, it develops the concept of the crime which the poet must expiate: the coup d’état on the Dix-huit Brumaire of the revolutionary calendar. Hugo then details the Emperor’s retreat from Moscow, his army’s struggle in the blinding snow, the loss of countless men to the elements. Napoleon wonders at this point whether this is his punishment. A voice replies: No.

The second part of the poem recounts the battle at Waterloo. Hugo describes the conflict at its height. Napoleon witnesses the fall of the French army, and this time he knows that his defeat will be total. Once more the question is asked: Is this the punishment? Once more, the voice answers: No.

The third segment of the poem concerns Napoleon’s exile on Saint Helena. Hugo ably contrasts the prisoner Napoleon with the formerly glorious emperor. The latter is now preoccupied with the memories of Moscow, with his wife’s infidelity, and with the constant surveillance of his jailer, Sir Hudson Lowe. As the fallen emperor lies dying, he once more raises the question: Is this the punishment? This time, the voice replies: Not yet.

Thirty years later, Napoleon I is awakened in his tomb by a familiar voice. It is the voice of his nephew, who has debased the name of Napoleon. Now the punishment is clear: The name of Napoleon is to be remembered not in glory but in ignominy.

Though it is known that Hugo researched his subject carefully, the tension and the concentration of events which make this poem so remarkable are his own distinctive contributions. The ingenuity of the threefold intervention of the voice sustains the dramatic movement, while the portrait of Napoleon is a powerful study in contrast.

Les Contemplations

Published in two volumes, titled Autrefois (former times) and Aujourd’hui (today), Les Contemplations has been called by the critic Ferdinand Brunetière “the most lyrical collection in the French language.” The dividing line between the two volumes was the death of Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine, in 1843. Consequently, the poems in this collection are very personal, yet the poet generalizes his experiences to include the experiences of all people. Central to the work is the relationship of God and humankind, of humankind and external nature, and of life and death.

In this collection, there are two groups of poems that are particularly significant. The first is “Pauca meae,” comprising seventeen poems composed between 1841 and 1855. They were inspired by Hugo’s daughter, Léopoldine. The best-known poem in this series is “A Villequier,” which expresses the poet’s deep despair at the loss of his beloved daughter. It treats the poet’s attempt to submit to the will of God and to resign himself to a life without his child. Though he is able to achieve the former, complete resignation is something which eludes him. Unable to restrain his emotion, he claims the right to weep. The grief of a father dominates the rest of the poem, which concludes on a note of extreme sadness.

The second important series in Les Contemplations, “Au bord de l’infini,” comprises twenty-six poems containing a statement of Hugo’s philosophical ideas. The poet aspires to penetrate the unknown, perhaps through prayer. His search for truth will be as a winged dreamer or as a startled wise man. The crowning piece of this series, “Ce que dit la bouche d’ombre” (“What the Mouth of the Shadow Says”), deals with such concepts as Pythagoreanism (in particular, the metempsychosis of souls), Platonism, and pantheism.

“What the Mouth of the Shadow Says” is set at the dolmen of Rozel. There the poet meets a specter with whom he discusses the unity of the universe and the essential vitality of all that is in it. Everything in creation has a soul and a consciousness, but how is this universe to be explained? If God is in everything and everything is in God, then how can one reconcile the imperfections of the world with the perfection that is God? It is here that Hugo introduces the notion of evil. If evil is caused by the absence of light, then the resulting darkness and heaviness can only be associated with matter. Because man is conscious of the difference between darkness and light, he chooses to do evil by his own free will. Moreover, man chooses his own punishment. An evildoer’s soul will be metamorphosed into something degrading; the soul of Judas, for example, is to be found in the spit of men. Ultimately, however, there is hope for humankind, a hope that the dualism between light and darkness, between goodness and evil, will be reconciled. It is on this thought that the poem ends.

The Legend of the Centuries

Considered by many to be the greatest epic poem since the Middle Ages, The Legend of the Centuries differs from other epics in its humanitarian concerns. Hugo states in the preface that he is interested in showing the human profile “from Eve, the mother of men, to the Revolution, the mother of peoples.” This is to be accomplished with the notion of progress foremost in his mind. This is not a historical collection, but rather, as Charles Baudelaire put it, a collection of those things which are poetic, that is, legend, myth, and fable, those things which tap the deep reservoirs of humanity.

Among the many subjects presented are the following: “Le Sacre de la femme” (“The Crowning of Women”), which opens the volume and which treats the story of Eve, not from the perspective of original sin, but from the perception of idyllic beauty; “La Conscience” (“Conscience”), which is the story of Cain’s attempt to flee from the Eye that follows him everywhere, even to his grave; “Booz endormi” (“Boaz Asleep”), which was inspired by the Book of Ruth and in which Hugo attributes to the patriarch Boaz a dream in which he sees a great oak leading from himself to David and finally to Christ; “Le Mariage de Roland,” which is considered by critics to be the prototype of the little epic and which presents the four-day struggle between Roland and Olivier, ending with the proposal that Roland marry Olivier’s sister; “La Rose de l’infante” (“The Infanta’s Rose”), which deals with the destruction in 1588 of the Spanish Armada and describes a great gust of wind which scatters the fleet and simultaneously arrives in the royal garden of Aranjuez, stripping the petals of the rose held by the infanta and scattering them in the nearby fountain; “Le Satyr” (“The Satyr”), which is considered to be the most important philosophical poem of the collection and treats the double nature of man, a being at once allied with the gods because of his spirit, but who now has his feet in the mud; and two poems, “Pleine mer” (“Out at Sea”) and “Plein ciel” (“Up in the Sky”), which together constitute “Vingtième siècle,” contrasting the evils of old-world war symbolized by the steamship Leviathan with the vision of goodness symbolized by the airship.

La Fin de Satan

Although La Fin de Satan was not published until after Hugo’s death, it was conceived of during his stay in Guernsey. Hugo’s treatment of the fallen angel differs greatly from the Miltonic version. Whereas the fall of Satan in Milton’s work is precipitous, in Hugo’s version Satan’s fall takes thousands of years, while the feathers from his wings fall even more slowly. Furthermore, while Milton’s Satan reigns over a host of other devils, Hugo’s Satan is alone until he is able to engender a daughter, the veiled Isis-Lilith. It is she who brings evil into the world. After the great Flood, she returns to Earth the three weapons with which Cain had slain Abel: a bronze nail, a wooden club, and a stone. For Hugo, these instruments symbolically represent war, capital punishment, and imprisonment. These three representations determine the structure of the work.

In the first section, “Le Glaive,” Hugo illustrates the evils of war through the symbolic character of Nimrod. Hugo’s Nimrod is arrogant and bellicose, and his attack on the kingdom of God is doomed to failure. The most remarkable section of this first part concerns another Hugoesque creation. One of the feathers from Lucifer’s wings had not fallen into the abyss, landing instead on the edge of a precipice. The angel, Liberty, engendered from this feather is a creation of God rather than of Satan, and together with Lilith, she represents the dual nature of Lucifer-Satan.

The second section, centering on an earthly drama, is titled “Le Gibet” (“The Cross”). It is divided into three parts: “La Judée,” “Jésus-Christ,” and “Le Crucifix.” Hugo’s attack on capital punishment takes the form of a contrast between the innocent Christ, who is crucified, and the guilty Barabbas, who is set free. Hugo adds an effective scene not found in the biblical narration, wherein Barabbas comes to the foot of the Cross after the Crucifixion.

In the meantime, Liberty beseeches God to allow Lucifer to return to the light. Before putting Lucifer into a peaceful sleep, she receives his blessing to undo the work of Lilith on Earth. The final section of the poem, dealing with imprisonment, was not complete at Hugo’s death. Hugo, however, did write a conclusion to the work, titled “Satan pardonnée” (“Satan Pardoned”). Liberty is able to gain the salvation of both humankind and Lucifer.

Dieu

Composed in large part during Hugo’s stay in Guernsey in 1855, Dieu was left unfinished for many years. Hugo returned to it in 1875, and it was published posthumously in 1891. The poem concerns Hugo’s search for God. Twenty-one voices warn the poet of the futility of his search for a complete understanding of God; nevertheless, the poet continues on his journey. He meets a series of symbolic birds, for he himself is winged. These birds are emblems of various understandings of the godhead: atheism, skepticism, Manichaeanism, paganism, Judaism, and Christianity. Finally, the poet achieves the light in “La Lumière” (“The Light”), although he is denied complete understanding, for a veil falls before him. Man is to know the secrets of the infinite only in death.

Together with La Fin de Satan, Dieu represents a synthesis of Hugo’s religious and philosophical ideas, revealing the poet as a privileged seeker of truth. Hugo shows himself to be not only a master of versification but also a man consumed by the desire to comprehend the deeper mysteries of existence and of the universe.

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