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.
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.
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.
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.