Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3757
Hugo’s literary artistry has as its base a definitive Romanticism, a religious sensibility, and a constant regard for the oppressed; its superstructure—a huge corpus of lyric poetry, an important group of verse dramas, and a soaring succession of novels—rises like a Gothic cathedral above the less excessive and more orderly monuments of nineteenth century French literature. For Hugo, excess confirmed and did not suppress greatness: “Heaven,” he wrote, “is excess.” His religious sensibility was nurtured by his sense of the divine, both in all things, in accordance with pagan depths of imagination, and above all things, in keeping with the Judeo-Christian concept of a deity of creation and succor. His regard for the oppressed is evident in his novels, with their pageantry of victimized innocence, and in his political tracts in favor of revolutionary changes to better the lot of workers and the poor.
To select from his works those most patently representative of the respective constituents of his literary artistry’s base, one would perhaps choose the play Hernani, which ensured the victory of Romanticism for an entire generation, the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with its personification of God as human expression and female force, and the novel Les Misérables, with a christological pilgrim of immortality as its hero.
For the inner Hugo, the subjective Olympio, one may turn to the Romanticism of his deeply subjective lyric poems. While the lyrics are replete with Romantic excess and concern for the downtrodden, they offer the reader the religious insight and the sense of personal triumph that Hugo experienced in the complex dimensions of human sadness. His Romantic melancholy is born of a joy in life and nature that reacts poignantly to its own curtailment by its own realization of the brevity and imperfection of human life before the lasting grandeur and magnificent beauty of nature.
In his 1856 collection of poems, Les Contemplations, his attitude toward poetic composition is most explicit. The collection is divided into six books, inclusive of 156 poems written during the period from 1830 to 1856, along with preface, prefatory poem, and long eight-part valedictory poem addressed “A celle qui est restée en France” (“To Her Who Has Remained in France”), that is, his daughter Léopoldine, who had died in 1843 and whose spirit pervades the second half of the collection. In the first book, “Aurore,” the seventh poem, “Réponse à un acte d’accusation” (“Answer to an Accusation”), written in 1834, constitutes his ars poetica. He pleads guilty to trampling upon good taste and traditional French verse, to saying “Let there be darkness” in the manner of God saying “Let there be light,” and to ravaging the “old A B C D.” He asserts his disregard of Aristotelian limitations and his declaration of the equality, independence, and maturity of words. He sees himself as a revolutionary force taking art by the neck and standing as the instigator of a revolution of words.
In his declaration of the independence of words, he is like Jacques Derrida and the twentieth century deconstructionists who see words as Protean in their resistance to inflexible denotation and lexical boundaries. Just as the deconstructionists came to see words as objects, and objects as words, Hugo, in “À Propos d’Horace” (“Apropos of Horace”), had seen nature as “alphabet des grandes lettres d’ombre” (the alphabet of the great literature of darkness). Darkness or shadow, in Hugo’s perspective, is where the truth lies: Light is the mask of Apollo, the disguise of darkness.
“Suite” (“Continuation”), a poem written in 1855 on the island of Jersey, is placed directly after “Answer to an Accusation” in “Aurore.” It...
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