Victor Hugo Hugo, Victor - Essay


(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 noted that these four collections "are unified by the poet's discovery of faith through uncertainty and doubt. Not a Christian faith, but a modern faith which understood anxiety as an apporopriate response to rapid social, political, and intellectual change."

During the 1840s, Hugo concentrated on his social and political activities and published little poetry. In the 1850s, however, when he lived in exile on the islands of Jersey and Guernsey, Hugo wrote Les contemplations (1856) and the three-volume collection La légende des siécles (1859–1883; The Legend of the Centuries). Both of these works have been hailed as poetic masterpieces and are considered among Hugo's best works. Les contemplations, which explores the metaphysical aspects of death and life as well as the mysteries of human consciousness, is divided into two parts. "Autarefois" celebrates innocence, youth, love, and creation, while "Aujourd'hui" reveals Hugo's grief over the drowning death of his daughter Léopoldine in 1843 and addresses such issues as the incomprehensibility of the universe, religion, and good and evil. La légende des siècles presents a panorama of human history from the Old Testament to the nineteenth century. Hugo wrote that he intended the work to trace "the development of the human race over the centuries, mankind rising out of the shadows on its way to the ideal, the paradisiacal transfiguration of earthy hell, the low, the perfect coming to full bloom of freedom."

Hugo's later poetry comprises a diverse body of work. Les chansons des rues et des bois (1865) consists of light and fanciful pieces; L'Année terrible (1872) centers on French history, particularly the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870; and L'art d'être grandpère (1877) contains poems that reflect Hugo's delight in his grandchildren Georges and Jeanne. La fin de Satan, which Hugo worked on from 1854 to 1860, was published posthumously in 1886. Considered a theological epic poem, this volume depicts Satan accepting God's offer to return to heaven.

Critical Reception

At the time of Hugo's death, many of the works that were praised upon their publication were still highly regarded; La légende des siècles, for example, was pronounced "the greatest work of the century" by Algernon Charles Swinburne in 1886 and is still favorably compared to John Milton's Paradise Lost by late twentieth-century critics such as John Porter Houston. Although scholars have faulted the romantic excesses and pretentiousness sometimes evident in Hugo's writing, they are often more forgiving of his sentimentalism when it is conveyed with the grace, power, and technical virtuosity that characterizes much of his poetry. What has most hampered the pace of Hugo scholarship in English-speaking countries has been the lack, inadequacy, and inaccessibility of critical editions and translations of Hugo's poetry; in recent decades, however, Hugo's works have inspired international scholarly activity.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Odes et poésies diverses 1822

Odes 1823

Nouvelles odes 1824

Odes et ballades 1826

Les orientales [Eastern Lyrics] 1829

Les feuilles d'automne 1831

Les chants du crépuscule [Songs of Twilight] 1835

Les voix intérieures 1837

Les rayons et les ombres 1840

Les châtiments 1853

Les contemplations 1856

La légende des siècles. 3 vols. [The Legend of the Centuries] 1859–1883

Les chansons des rues et des bois 1865

L'Année terrible 1872

L'art d'être grand-père 1877

Le pape 1878

La pitié supreme 1879

L'Ane 1880

Religions et religion 1880

Les quatre vents de l'esprit 1881

La fin de Satan 1886

Toute la lyre 2 vols. 1888–1898

Dieu 1891

Les années funestes 1898

Derniere gerbe 1902

Océan 1942

Tas de pierres 1942

Other Major Works

Han d'Islande [Hans of Iceland] (novel) 1823

Cromwell [Cromwell] (drama) 1827

Le dernier jour d'un condamné [The Last Day of a Condemned] (novel) 1829

Hernani [Hernani] (drama) 1830

Marion de Lorme [The King's Edict] (drama) 1831

Notre Dame de Paris [The Hunchback of Notre Dame] (novel) 1831

Le roi s'amuse [The King's Fool] (drama) 1832

Lucrèce Borgia [Lucretia Borgia] (drama) 1833

Marie Tudor (drama) 1833

Angélo, tyran de padoue (drama) 1835

Ruy Blas [Ruy Blas] (drama) 1838

Les burgraves (drama) 1843

Les misérables [Les Misérables] (novel) 1862

William Shakespeare [William Shakespeare] (criticism) 1864

Les travailleurs de la mer [The Toilers of the Sea] (novel) 1866

L'homme qui rit [The Man Who Laughs] (novel) 1869

Quatrevingt-treize [Ninety-three] (novel) 1874

Torquemade (drama) 1882

Le théâtre en liberté (drama) 1886

Choses vues [Things Seen] (essays) 1887

Amy Robsart. Les jumeaux (drama) 1889

Joseph Mazzini (essay date 1838)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "On the Poems of Victor Hugo," in Life and Writings of Joseph Mazzini, Volume II, Smith, Elder, and Company, 1890, pp. 257–303.

[In the following excerpt, taken from an essay originally published in British and Foreign Review in 1838, Mazzini discusses the faults and limitations of Hugo's poetry, stating that "his words are cold, fleshless, desolate; at times even imbued with a bitterness quite incomprehensible in a poet who has so often been called religious."]

I have not leisure here to analyze completely any of Victor Hugo's poems. But let the reader open any one of his collections, Les Feuilles d'Automne excepted, and peruse the first piece...

(The entire section is 2722 words.)

North American Review (review date 1855)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Genius and Writings of Victor Hugo," in North American Review, Vol. 81, October, 1855, pp. 324–46.

[In this excerpt, the critic offers a laudatory review of Hugo's verse up to and including Les châtiments.]

[If] the genius of Victor Hugo is great as a novelist, it is still greater as a poet. And he seems to be almost equally distinguished in the lyric and the dramatic schools of poetry. His first publication was the Odes et Ballades, a volume strewn with beautiful verses, inspired with a religious and royalist enthusiasm. His next volume of lyric poetry was Les Orientales,—differing widely in form and substance from any of his other works....

(The entire section is 812 words.)

Charles Baudelaire (essay date 1861)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Victor Hugo," in Baudelaire as a Literary Critic: Selected Essays, translated by Lois Boe Hyslop and Francis E. Hyslop, Jr., Pennsylvania State University Press, 1964, pp.233–47.

[A French poet and critic, Baudelaire is best known for his poetry collection Les fleurs de mal, which is considered among the most influential works of French verse. In the following excerpt, which was originally published in La revue fantaisiste in 1861, he offers praise for Hugo, citing the poet's universality and greatness of theme.]

For many years now Victor Hugo has no longer been in our midst. Iremember the time when his figure was one of those most frequently...

(The entire section is 4609 words.)

Edward Dowden (review date 1873)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Victor Hugo," in Studies in Literature: 1789–1877, Kegan Paul, Trench and Company, 1889, pp. 428–67.

[In this excerpt from a review originally published in 1873, Dowden traces Hugo's development as a poet.]

The career of Victor Hugo naturally divides itself into three periods—first, that in which the poet was still unaware of his true self, or seeking that true self failed to find it; secondly, that presided over by the Hugoish conception of beauty; thirdly, that dominated by the Hugoish conception of the sublime. Les Orientales marks the limit of the first period; the transition from the second to the third, which begins to indicate...

(The entire section is 7075 words.)

Henry James (review date 1877)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hugo's Légende des Siècles," in Literary Reviews and Essays, edited by Albert Mordell, Twayne Publishers, 1957, pp. 136–38.

[In following review of La légende des siècles, which was originally published in The Nation in May 3, 1877, James discusses Hugo's strengths and weaknesses as a poet.]

From the very flattering notices which the English journals have accorded to the new volumes of Victor Hugo's Légende des Siècles, it is apparent that the writer has lately become almost the fashion in England—a fact to be attributed in a measure to the influence of the "æsthetic" school, or, to speak more correctly, probably, of Mr....

(The entire section is 896 words.)

Algernon Charles Swinburne (review date 1883)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Victor Hugo: La Légende des Siècles," in Fortnightly Review, Vol. XXXIV, 1883, pp. 497–520.

[Swinburne was an English poet, dramatist, and critic. Though renowned in his lifetime for his lyric poetry, he is remembered today primarily for his rejection of Victorian mores. In the following excerpt, taken from a discussion of La légende des siècles, Swinburne lavishes praise on the work, favorably comparing it to the works of William Shakespeare and Dante.]

The greatest work of the century [La Légende des Siècles] is now at length complete. It is upwards of twenty-four years since the first part of it was sent home to France from Guernsey....

(The entire section is 3974 words.)

Richard Aldington (essay date 1926)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Victor Hugo and La Légende des Siècles," in Literary Studies and Reviews, Dial Press, 1926, pp. 253-63.

[In the following mixed review, Aldington faults Hugo's naïveté, mawkishness, and tendency to copy other poets but praises his humanism.]

La Légende des siècles was designed by its author as an Epic of Progress. It was published in 1859, so that only sixty years elapsed between its first appearance and its inclusion in the series of "Grands Écrivains de la France," which is a kind of final homage to the illustrious. Yet, if one may judge from the date at the end of M. Paul Berret's excellent introduction, this edition would have appeared...

(The entire section is 1877 words.)

Geoffrey Brereton (essay date 1956)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Victor Hugo," in An Introduction to the French Poets: Villon to the Present Day, Methuen and Company, 1956, pp. 119-36.

[In the following excerpt, Brereton surveys Hugo's poetry, comparing his works to those of such other French poets as Charles Baudelaire and Alphonse de Lamartine.]

Rather than a work, the writings of Hugo are a territory—so vast and so strongly characterized that few readers can pass through it and remain neutral. They are forced into adopting an attitude either of excessive admiration or of hostility.

Besides his four great and several lesser novels, a considerable body of shorter and more occasional prose-writings, and...

(The entire section is 5348 words.)

Paul Valéry (essay date 1958)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Victor Hugo, Creator through Form," in The Art of Poetry, translated by Denise Folliot, Vintage Books, 1958, pp. 251-59.

[In this essay, Valéry discusses the enduring quality of Hugo's poetic genius.]

Victor Hugo is said to be dead, to have been dead for fifty years…. But an impartial observer would not be so sure. Only the other day he was being attacked just as though he were alive. An attempt was being made to destroy him. That is a strong proof of existence. However, I grant that he is dead: though not, I am convinced, to the point some say he is and wish he were.

When, half a century after his disappearance, a writer still provokes...

(The entire section is 2717 words.)

Michael Riffaterre (essay date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Victor Hugo's Poetics," in The American Society Legion of Honor Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 3, 1961, pp. 181-96.

[In the essay below, Riffaterre offers his interpretation of Hugo's philosophy of poetics.]

As any poetics must be, Hugo's is inseparable from a certain theory of inspiration, since the nature of his inspiration affects a writer's techniques.

The poet finds inspiration in what surrounds him. His concern is with the "mysteries which rise to blind him … every morning with the sun, every evening with the stars." But Hugo goes far beyond contemplation and meditation upon the spectacle of nature: "the horizon darkens and contemplation...

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Robert T. Denommé (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Victor Hugo and the Prophetic Vision," in Nineteenth-Century French Romantic Poets, Southern Illinois University Press, 1969, pp. 91-129.

[In the following essay, Denommé examines Hugo's poetic oeuvre, stating that it is representative of the development of French Romanticism. The critic concludes: "Hugo's poetry invites us to strip away the restrictions dictated to us by practical reason and experience in order to view the world more directly with our emotions."]

The widespread association still made today between the name of Victor Hugo and the term Romanticism attests to the prominence that he enjoyed within the movement both in France and on the Continent...

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Laurence M. Porter (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Sublimity of Hugo's Odes," in The Renaissance of the Lyric in French Romanticism: Elegy, "Poëme" and Ode, French Forum Publishers, 1978, pp. 75-106.

[In this excerpt, Porter examines the ways in which Hugo transformed the ode genre during the early and middle phases of his career.]

Those contemporaries who were sympathetic to French Romanticism considered that it had revitalized three poetic genres: ode, elegy, and "Poëme." Later in the century, a neo-elegiac strain continues in the love poems of Baudelaire and Verlaine; a neo-epic tendency persists in Leconte de Lisle; and many romantic verse epics of redemption were composed; but the ode came...

(The entire section is 5164 words.)

Edward K. Kaplan (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Victor Hugo and the Poetics of Doubt: The Transition of 1835-1837," in French Forum, Vol. 6, No. 2, May, 1981, pp. 140-53.

[In the essay below, Kaplan examines how various "political, moral, and religious upheavals " in Hugo's life are reflected in his early lyric collections.]

Victor Hugo's post-exile religious ideas are well known, as is the anguish at their foundation. Critics tend to prefer Les Contemplations, which is organized around Léopoldine's death in 1843, and the ambitious metaphysical epics which follow. Yet his earlier four lyrical collections—Les Feuilles d'automne (1831), Les Chants du crépuscule (1835), Les Voix...

(The entire section is 4961 words.)

John E. Coombes (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "State, Self and History in Victor Hugo's L'Année Terrible" in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 367-78.

[In the essay below, Coombes discusses Hugo's treatment of history and politics in L'Année terrible.]

Hugo's last major poem sequence, and perhaps the last major poetic statement of European romanticism [L'Année terrible], was written in 1870-72, throughout the historical events with which it is concerned: the Franco-Prussian war, the Commune and their aftermath. Its articulation upon those events is thus very different from that of Wordsworth's The Prelude, with its attempt at a monolithic tranquillity of...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. Revised. Boston: Twayne, 1988, 167 p.

Concise study of Hugo's life and works, with an emphasis on his poetry. Includes selected bibliography.

Josephson, Matthew. Victor Hugo: A Realistic Biography of the Great Romantic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1942, 514 p.

Detailed biography in which Josephson considers Hugo "one of the greatest exemplars of the sedentary, meditative type of man, turning from his study to service in public life."

Marzials, Frank T. Life of Victor...

(The entire section is 1029 words.)