Victor Hugo

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Introduction

(Poetry Criticism)

Victor Hugo 1802–1885

(Full name Victor Marie Hugo) French poet, dramatist, novelist, essayist, and critic.

Hugo is considered one of the leaders of the Romantic movement in French literature as well as one of its most prolific and versatile authors. Although chiefly known outside France for the novels Notre Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Les misérables (1862; Les Misérables), he is renowned in his own country primarily for his contributions as a Romantic poet. Hugo's verse has been favorably compared to the works of William Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer; and he has influenced such diverse poets as Charles Baudelaire, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Walt Whitman. Hugo's technical virtuosity, stylistic experimentation, startling range of emotion, and variety and universality of his themes not only established him as a leader of the French Romantic school but anticipated modern poetry.

Biographical Information

Born into a military family, Hugo traveled extensively during his childhood until age twelve when his parents separated. He settled with his mother in Paris, where he attended school and attained literary recognition at a young age. In 1819, Hugo founded with his brothers a prominent literary journal, Le conservateur littéraire, and published his first volume of poetry, Odes et poésies diverses (1822). This volume, which celebrated the monarchy, earned him a pension from French king Louis XVIII and enabled him to marry his childhood sweetheart Adèle Foucher. Hugo's home was the center of intellectual activity, and he counted among his devoted friends literary critic Charles Sainte-Beuve and writer Théophile Gautier. In 1841, Hugo was elected to the Académie française, and four years later he was made a peer. Hugo was also elected to the National Assembly in 1848, when Louis's regime collapsed and Louis Napoléon Bonaparte established the Second Republic. Distressed by Napolèan's dictorial ambitions, which were made evident when Napoléan seized power in a coup d'etat in 1851, Hugo fled to Belgium. He then moved to the English Channel island of Jersey and, later, to the island of Guernsey; he lived in exile on the islands for eighteen years. There he conducted séances, wrote speeches and appeals concerning world politics, and published some of his greatest poetical works. Hugo returned to Paris a day after the Third Republic was proclaimed in 1870 as a national hero. He continued to write prolifically even as he became increasingly detached from the outside world. When he died in 1885, Hugo was given a state

funeral and was eventually buried in the Panthéon, though his body was transported in a poor man's hearse in accordance with his last wishes.

Major Works

Hugo's early verse consists primarily of odes, ballads, and lyrics. His odes, which are collected in such volumes as Odes (1823) and Nouvelles odes (1824), were written in the neoclassical style and contain traditional poetic devices. In his ballads, Hugo used more experimental forms of versification and began to address such romantic themes as faith, love, and nature. He explained in the preface to Odes et ballades (1826) that the ballad form was a "capricieux" or whimsical genre that lent itself to the telling of superstitions, legends, popular traditions, and dreams. Hugo continued his experiments with versification in Les orientales (1829; Eastern Lyrics), which is set in North Africa and the Near East and focuses on such subjects as the Greek war of independence, passionate love, and exotic cultures. Considered a protest against the materialism of western society, this volume was extremely popular and widely read in France. Hugo's lyric poetry of the 1830s primarily addressed such themes as nature, love, and death in a style that was both personal and uninhibted. Collections of this period include Les feuilles d'automne (1831), Les chants du crépuscule (1835; Songs of Twilight), Les voix intérieures (1837), and Les rayons et les ombres (1840). Edward K. Kaplan has...

(The entire section is 61,961 words.)