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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...
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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.
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Odes et poésies diverses 1822
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
Religions et religion 1880
Les quatre vents de l'esprit 1881
La fin de Satan 1886
Toute la lyre 2 vols. 1888–1898
Les années funestes 1898
Derniere gerbe 1902
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
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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 that offers. An attentive examination, guided by the notions here thrown out, will show the idea fettered, bound down by the form which it ought to govern,—the mind in some sort absorbed by matter, which matter it ought to seize upon, pervade at every pore, and shine through brilliantly, like flame through alabaster,—it will show how Victor Hugo appears to me always to descend from the deity to the symbol, instead of rising, as I conceive poetry always should, from the symbol to the deity.
If this be the prevalent habit of Victor Hugo, if it be the characteristic of his poetry, dominant over all his conceptions, it is evident what must be the result in the poet's mind as relates to man, to his business on earth, and to God. Never generalize; never embrace life in its univer sality, or man in his functions relative to humanity; contemplate the former only in its several isolated manifestations, and in the latter seek only his individuality:—and thus place man in presence of God. What feeling can you deduce, if not a feeling of weakness, of absolute impotence? What destiny can be imagined as the lot of the human creature upon earth, if not a destiny of resignation and inaction? immensity crushes the individual. The finite contending with the infinite can engender nothing but doubt and scepticism for the strong, for those that wrestle,—nothing for the feeble but blind submission, the passive resignation of the East.
Now all this to be found in the poetry of Victor Hugo. Humanity plays no part in his verses. Of the three points of the triangle he retains only two, i.e., God and man. The intervening step, which alone could bring the one nearer to the other, being thus suppressed, nothing is left to man but the consciousness of his inability ever to attain to the infinite object of his desires. He sinks into lethargy, faintheartedness and insuperable ignorance; the noise of events oppresses him; life appears to him as an inexplicable enigma, as a development of aimless activity.
Ask not of Victor Hugo and his lays an increase of energy wherewith to strive against the evil existing in the world. Ask not of him advice respecting the path you must follow to arrive at truth. Ask not of him even consolation amidst your sufferings. He has nothing of the kind to give. 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.
Is this religion? Can this be the true God, the God whom we all seek—this terrible, mysterious, inaccessible God who seems to sport with his human work, who so fearfully resembles the pagan Fate? Can we adore God whilst despising his creature? Can we love him whilst knowing of him only his power? How, then, does he manifest himself in this world of ours (which also is his thought), if all be error, doubt, and darkness? Has life been given to us as—
Or as a mission of useful works, of progressive perfectibility, to be discharged, as the means of approximation to God himself? Would God have placed us here below had we not been designed to achieve something in this world; in a word, to act? And do not human actions hence acquire a high value, as the only means we possess of elevating ourselves towards God? Wherefore, then, incessantly endeavour to blight them by your scorn? Why despise what God himself does not despise, since it is by our actions that he judges whether we deviate from or strive to follow his law? Can you not magnify the Creator without outraging his creature? Can you not speak of God without trembling? For you tremble whenever you name him, and we imbibe from your lays a terror of infinity which enervates us, mutilates our faculties and arrests us in the midst of our finest bursts of self-devotion, of our holiest hopes. You recoil with a cry of terror from the invisible, because in its depths you have caught a glimpse of eternity (Feuilles d'Automne, xxix.); you fear the grave (Ib. vi.-xiii. xiv., etc.); you fear oblivion. Have you then no immortality within yourself? Is not this existence, for you as it is for us, a mere episode in the soul's life? What matters it to you though the man who has emitted a great idea should, in his turn, be obliterated? Does he not live on in that very idea which nothing can obliterate? Does he not live in the spark of good, in the fraction of perfectibility, which he has, by this idea, introduced into the hearts of his brethren? Has he not fulfilled his mission by contributing his share towards the fecundation of that flower of humanity which is to blossom in God? Tell us something of his future prospects. Tell us the futurity of the martyr; tell us what every drop of blood, every tear shed for the good of mankind, weighs in the balance of humanity's destinies. We are already so little disposed to self-devotion; our only great faculties, those of enthusiasm, of self-sacrifice, of love, of poetry, are already so feeble, so chilled by the wind of egotism blowing from without; and you come to freeze them yet more, impelling them to dash themselves, on the one side against a tomb, on the other against a heaven of brass, closed alike against faith and intellect! Poet, is this your ministry? Is it thus you think to accomplish a work of rehabilitation?
This is what souls endowed with a genuine sense of religion, whatever be their number at the present day, are entitled to ask of Victor Hugo. This is also, as I believe, the secret of the indifference which, as well in France as elsewhere, has succeeded to the enthusiasm once excited by every lay of the poet. It is not, as one of his critics appears to insinuate, because Victor Hugo has deserted Aristotle and Boileau, and revolted from the great age, that the public has in its turn deserted him: it is because he has not kept his promises; because he said, "I will remake art; I will renew its alliance with spirituality and religion;" and, instead of fulfilling his programme, has merely battered down the older art: then, when he was expected to rebuild, has fallen back either into extinguished creeds or into scepticism; because he has subjected art to the worship of sensation, has sacrificed to materialism, and made himself, in some sort, a heathen poet. And herein he is behind his age; for the age, amidst all its egotism and its theories of self-interest, is nevertheless actuated by spiritual instincts, is tormented with a sense of its want of belief, and of social belief, which, despite all efforts at counteraction, must augment from day to day, and will imperatively claim a solution which the poetry of Victor Hugo is incapable of supplying.
And, after all, is not this new theory of art for art's sake, in which M. Victor Hugo's loftier views have ended, which he has frequently advanced as an axiom, and almost always practised in his compositions, a compromise with the times of materialism, of literary paganism? Does not this theory involve the negation of a permanent social object, the negation of a universal life and unity; and, in the application of pure individualism to art, the death of all faith, of all acknowledged law of progression? The first, the only, the real fall of M. Victor Hugo was the development of this, now irrevocable, tendency to stagnate in individuality; to base all poetry upon the human Ego, whilst the epoch requires more. Hence his terrors and his doubts. Hence his disposition to look down upon all that is human, to supersede as far as possible in his works the man by the thing, the artist by the monument, the intelligent being by the first abstract idea,—antiquity, annihilation, or any other that offers. Hence, also, when he is compelled, whether by circumstances or by the real splendour of an action, to celebrate man, he can find only a brilliant, but unsubstantial and selfish, crown to allot him: to wit, glory; glory to Napoleon, glory to the July martyrs. Hence, when he speaks of suicide (Chants du Crépuscule, xiii.), he cannot find a single consolatory expression for the suffering spirit that is almost ready to desert its post; not one word of duty; not one tone to reprobate the egotism of dying to escape from sorrow, whilst the age offers so many ways of both living and dying for others. "A hazardous problem," says he; obscure questions, mediating upon which the poet is "driven to roam the livelong night through the streets of Paris." Doubt therefore—always doubt. And man must indeed always appear enveloped in doubt so long as he is not contemplated from the point of view of humanity. From the species only can the law governing the individual be learned. Only by taking the idea of man's mission here upon earth as our starting-point, are religion, philosophy, or poetry at the present day possible.
An objective poet, a poet of sensations and analysis, Victor Hugo paints nature such as he sees her, presenting her beauties one by one, minutely, accurately, as if reflected in a mirror. But—with some few exceptions, as, e.g., v. and xxxviii. Feuilles d'Automne—ask not of him to seek in her anything beyond forms. Never does it occur to him to look deeper for the sense of those forms, for the harmony that must needs exist between man and nature; never to contemplate the latter as the drapery of eternal thought, to borrow Herder's expression. Thus his pictures are seldom more than fine copies. Imitation of nature is as much his school as that of those classicist poets against whom he so vehemently battles. In his verses the whole material universe appears only a horizon, formed to our wish, as Fenelon said, for the delight of our eyes.
As the poet of individuality, wanting an unitary, universal conception, unable to become either an educator or a prophet of the future, Victor Hugo reflects without embellishing, and repeats without explaining; he follows the course of events, but never directs or foresees them. In his Autumnal Leaves, he has said that love, the tomb, life, glory, the wave, the sunbeam, and breath alike and successively make his crystal soul sparkle and vibrate. Again, in the prelude to the "Lays of Twilight," he avers,—
Le poète, en ses chants où l'amertume abonde,
Reflétait, écho triste et calm cependant,
Tout ce que l'ame rêve et tout ce que le monde
Chante, bégaie ou dit dans l'ombre en l'attendant!
The bard, in lays with bitter feelings fraught,
Echoed his tones, while grief, yet calmness, mark
All the soul dreams, all that the world e'er thought,
Sang, stammer'd, said, whilst waiting in the dark.
This is indeed M. Victor Hugo's poetry, painted with a single stroke; his muse is waiting in the dark.
It is not in a period of transition, like ours, characterised by an immense disproportion betwixt the soul's wants and reality; it is not in times when all things—war and peace, sorrow and joy, earth and heaven, speak of the future,—when every living being asks himself, "Whither are we going? What is to become of us?" that poetry, living upon disdain and insulation, or waiting tremblingly in the dark, can aspire to the honours of lasting celebrity, of lasting influence over men. In these days we set the poet a larger task. We exact of him that he should either guide us, or that he should modestly withdraw into obscurity. These last forty or fifty years have left around us a great void of creeds, of virtues, and of poetry. A very fatal divorce has taken place between genius and the public. The heart of the former is no longer full of faith, of love for the latter; nor has the latter respect for, or sympathy with, the former. Calculations, analysis, and the spirit of prose overflow; they threaten to stifle the holy devotion, the holy enthusiasm that form the pinions upon which the human soul rises towards God. There is nothing in all this to astonish the man who can extricate himself from actual existence to take more comprehensive views, especially if he think less of his sufferings than of his duties. This state of society, which is not new in the history of the world, which must recur as often as a great work of destruction shall have been accomplished, and a great work of renovation shall be upon the eve of accomplishment, is an additional prhis state subsists, the poet's is a solemn mission; the more so, because, through the slow operation of centuries, his voice is, at the present day, heard, not by his countrymen alone, but by all nations.
Now, if art would re-establish its influence, its fallen worship, it must burst forth from this state of anarchy or of indifference to the great things acting, or about to be acted, in the world; it must no longer withdraw to one side, but stand in the centre, swaying the heart of the social impulse. Art must no longer simply reflect reality without addition or modification, must no longer merely count the wounds affronting its eye; art must now whilst sounding those wounds with fearless hand, do that which shall determine men to heal them. Art must not say, "All is evil," and sink into despair; for well has Jean Paul declared, "Despair is the true atheism." Art must say, "There is evil here," and still must hope. Art must not, either in misanthropy or in the prudery or virtue, shun the fallen and corrupt creature; but accost it mercifully and devotedly, endeavoring to raise and purify it by a breath of innocence, of religion, and of poetry, and by revelations concerning its origin, its terrestrial lot, and its futurity. Whilst pointing out to man the arena assigned to his labour, art must teach him, not his weakness, but his strength; must inspire him, not with faint-heartedness, but with energy and a vigorous will. Are we in the desert? Are our steps in danger of being bewildered amidst the night of scepticism? Then be art our pillar of fire, guiding us to our promised land! We shall be found true believers, submissive and grateful.
But in order to be all this, must art undergo a complete revolution? Must the point of view, thestarting-post and the goal, be all simultaneously changed? Have we reached the point when, one epoch of art being exhausted, it must undergo a metamorphosis, or perish? Can all that has been done in literature during the third of a century which has just elapsed, all that we judged to be revolution, have been a mere work of reform, a return to independence, to literary freedom, opening the way, but leaving everything still to be done? Can this chance to be the secret of the despondence into which all the poets of the era in question finally sink, when they discover that, though powerful to destroy, they are impotent to construct; and of the scepticism of a generation that has not found in them the promised realisation of hope?
For the present I do no more than throw out these questions. They appear to me important in reference to the future prospects of art, and I would fain recommend them to the attention of our poets.
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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. This collection, the idea of which was a sudden fantasy which flashed across his mind one evening in connection with some reminiscence of Spain, depicts Moorish and Oriental life in its many romantic phases. Here his lyrical power appears in its greatest lustre. The French language had never before arrived at such a degree of flexibility and beauty of poetic diction. Never were poems so distinguished for harmony, delicacy, smoothness of rhythm, richness of coloring, and profusion of imagery. In another publication, Les Feuilles d'Automne, Victor Hugo cultivates a different field of fancy. In these poems, the strains are pure and simple, the sentiments calm, tender, and domestic. They are chiefly of a religious tendency, diversified with glowing, spontaneous effusions of youthful hopes and affections. One of them, entitled "La Prière pour tous," is one of the most touching devotional poems we have ever read, and leaves Pope's "Universal Prayer" at a cold and impassable distance. In his Chants du Crépuscule,—Twilight Songs,—our poet sings of the emotions that assail us in the twilight of life, when the hope of earthly happiness is gone, and the soul is absorbed in contemplation of the eternal change. Some of the finest specimens of psychological poetry which the present century has produced are to be found in this volume. It would be erroneous to suppose that these various collections of poems are loose and desultory pieces thrown at random into a volume. On the contrary, each has a special object, and represents a particular idea.
Les Voix Intérieures, which followed the Twilight Songs, are a series of poems devoted to the family affections. But unfortunately the lustre of the poet's genius seems here to desert him, and he has many feeble and poor lines. Amid numerous faulty and irregular compositions, marked by wild eccentricity, only a few gleam as bright and lustrous gems. On the appearance of this volume, the warmest admirers of Victor Hugo stood mutewith sorrow and chagrin. His vein seemed exhausted, and France beganto deplore the premature decline of her most brilliant poetic star. This proved, however, too hasty an impression, as the poet afterwarddemonstrated by the publication of Les Rayons et les Ombres, in which he seems to have surpassed all his former efforts. As a whole, it is undoubtedly to be considered his most faultless production, since every poem it contains beams with intelligence and genius. "There is infinite sweetness, pathos, and harmony in these poems. Pensive, serene, and peaceful glides along—among homely haunts, by the household hearth, amid the fields, the hamlets, and the woods—the verse that elsewhere rolls its mighty stream around kings and conquerors, triumphs and trophies, shattered thrones and contending factions. There is no lack of variety in his poetry. Few are the children of song in whom will be found a greater diversity of matter, a more free and facile multiformity of style." Ennui is a state of feeling never produced in his readers, and the charge of mechanical structure and wearisome monotony of rhythm, so often brought against French poetry, applies to none of his poems.
The latest lyric production of Victor Hugo is a volume of political poems, entitled Châtiments, printed at Jersey in 1853, and published at Geneva. This little volume is a collection of lyrics in various metres, all bearing upon the recent political events in France. In it he takes up the burden of his next preceding work, Napoléon le Petit, and summons the Emperor to the bar of justice, in the most thrilling and powerful verse which has ever flowed from his pen. Although the book may be termed a monody, in which the author sings the requiem of French liberty, it yet partakes of that infinite variety of treatment which characterizes all his works. Now we hear a melodious wail over the dead body of some exiled republican; now, a fierce upbraiding of imperial treachery; now, alofty and musical apostrophe to the martyrs of the 4th of December; now, a sharp, short satire, aimed at some courtly debauchee, every rhyme in which bites to the quick; and now, an impassioned call to the republicans to keep alive their faith and courage.
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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 encountered among the crowds, and many times I wondered, seeing him appear so often amid holiday excitement or in the silence of some lonely spot, how he could reconcile the needs of his incessant work with the sublime but dangerous taste for strolling and for reverie. This apparentcontradiction is evidently the result of a well ordered life and of a strong spiritual constitution which permits him to work while walking, or rather to be able to walk while he is working. At all times, in all places, under the light of the sun, in the surging crowds, inthe sanctuaries of art, beside dusty bookstalls exposed to the wind, Victor Hugo, serene and thoughtful, seemed to say to external nature: "Fix yourself in my eyes so that I may remember you."
At the time of which I am speaking, a time when he exercised a real dictatorship in literary matters, I occasionally encountered him in the company of Edouard Ourliac, through whom I also met Pétrus Borel and Gérard de Nerval. He seemed to me very affable, very powerful, always in control of his feelings, and relying on arestricted wisdom made up of a few irrefutable axioms. For a long time he had shown, not only in his books but also in the adornment of his personal life, a great taste for the monuments of the past, for picturesque furniture, china, engravings, and for all the mysteriousand brilliant décor of earlier times. The critic whose eye overlooks this detail would not be a real critic; for not only does this taste for the beautiful and even for the strange as expressed through the plastic, confirm the literary character of Victor Hugo; notonly did it confirm his revolutionary, or rather regenerative doctrine, but also it appeared as the indispensable complement of a universal poetic character. It is all very well that Pascal, fired by asceticism, should have persisted in living thereafter within four bare walls furnished with cane chairs, and that a priest of Saint-Roch (Ino longer remember which one) should have had all his furniture soldat auction, to the horror of all prelates fond of comfort; that is all beautiful and great. But if I see a man of letters who is not oppressed by poverty neglect things that delight the eye and entertain the imagination, I am tempted to believe that he is a very incomplete man of letters, to say the least.
Today when we glance over the recent poetry of Victor Hugo, we see that he has remained what he was, a thoughtful wanderer, a solitary man, yet in love with life, a contemplative and inquiring mind. But it is no longer in the wooded and flowering outskirts of the greatcity, on the rough embankments of the Seine, in paths swarming with children that he sets his feet and eyes to wander. Like Demosthenes, he talks with the wind and the waves; formerly he roamed alone in places seething with human life; today he walks in solitudes peopled with his thoughts. And so he is perhaps even greater and more remarkable. The colors of his dreams have taken on a solemn hue and his voice has grown deeper in rivaling that of the Ocean. But there as here, he still seems to us like a statue of Meditation in movement.
In the days, already so distant, of which I was speaking, happy days when men of letters formed a society sorely missed by its survivors, who will never again find its equal, Victor Hugo was the one towhom everyone turned, seeking the watchword. Never was royalty more legitimate, more natural, more acclaimed by gratitude, more confirmed by the impotence of rebellion. When one recalls what French poetrywas before he appeared, and what a rejuvenation it has undergone since he came; when one imagines how insignificant it would have been without him, how many mysterious and profound sentiments that have been given expression would have remained unvoiced, how many intellects he has discovered, how many men made famous by him would have remained obscure, itis impossible not to consider him as one of those rare, providential minds who bring about the salvation of all men in the literary order, as others do in the moral order and still others in the political order. The movement created by Victor Hugo still continues under our eyes. That he has received powerful support no onewill deny; but if today mature men, young people, and society women have a feeling for good poetry, for poetry that is profoundly rhythmic and intensely colored, if the public taste has again risen to pleasures it had forgotten, it is Victor Hugo to whom the credit belongs. It is, moreover, through his powerful instigation that erudite and enthusiastic architects are repairing our cathedrals and preserving our ancient monuments of stone. No one will hesitate to admit thisexcept those for whom justice is not a pleasure.
I can speak only very briefly in this article about his poetic faculties. Doubtless, in some matters I shall merely be summarizing many excellent things that have already been said; perhaps I shall have the good fortune to give them greater emphasis.
Victor Hugo was, from the outset, the man who was best endowed and most obviously chosen to express in poetry what I shall call the mystery of life. Nature which lies before us, no matter where we turn, and which envelops us like a mystery, shows herself under several simultaneous aspects, each of which, to the extent that it ismore intelligible, more perceptible to us, is reflected more intensely in our hearts: form, attitude and movement, light and color, sound and harmony. The music of Victor Hugo's verses is adapted to the profound harmonies of nature; as a sculptor, he carves into his stanzas the unforgettable form of things; as a painter, he illuminates them with the right color. And the three impressions penetrate the reader's mind simultaneously, as if they came directly from nature. From this triple impression comes the morality of things. No artist is more universal than he, more suited to put himself in contact with the forces of universal life, more inclined to bathe ceaselessly in nature. Not only does he express precisely and translate literally what is clearly and distinctly visible, but he expresses with an indispensable obscurity what is obscure and vaguely revealed. His works abound in extraordinary features of the kind which we could call tours de force, if we did not know that they are essentially natural to him. The poetry of Victor Hugo can translate for the human soul not only the most direct pleasures that it draws from visible nature but also the most fleeting, the most complicated, the most moral (I am purposely using the word moral) sensations which are transmitted to it by visible substance, by inanimate or what is called inanimate nature; it can translate not only the form of substance exterior to man, vegetable or mineral, but also its aspect, its expression, its sadness, its tenderness, its exultant joy, its repulsive hate, its charm or its horror; in short, in other words, all that is human in every imaginable thing and also all that is divine, sacred, or diabolic.
Those who are not poets do not understand these things. Fourier appeared one day, a littletoo pompously, to reveal to us the mysteries of analogy. I do not deny the importance of some of his small discoveries, although I believe that his mind was too attached to material accuracy not to make mistakes and to attain straight off the moral certitude of intuition. With the same care he could have revealed to us all the excellent poets whose works educate the reading public as much as the contemplation of nature. Moreover, Swedenborg, who possessed a much greater soul, had already taught us that heaven is a very great man; that everything, form, movement, number, color, perfume, in the spiritual as well as in the natural world, is significant, monstration of universal truth to man's facial conformation, had translated for us the spiritual meaning of contour, of form, of dimension. If we broaden the demonstration (not only have we the right, but it would be infinitely difficult to do otherwise), we arrive at this truth that everything is hieroglyphic, and we know that symbols are only relatively obscure, that is to say according to the mind's purity, good will, or native insight. Now, what is a poet (I am using the word in its broadest sense) if not a translator, a decipherer? Among the best poets, there are no metaphors, comparisons, or epithets which are not adapted with mathematical exactitude to the particular circumstance, because these comparisons, metaphors, and epithets are drawn from the inexhaustible storehouse of universal analogy and cannot be found elsewhere. Now let me ask if, after a careful search, one will find, not in our history only but in the history of all peoples, many poets who, like Victor Hugo, contain so magnificent a repertory of human and divine analogies. I have read in the Bible about a prophet who was asked by God to devour a book. I do not know in what world Victor Hugo has previously consumed the dictionary of the language which he was called upon to speak, but I see that the French lexicon, as he uses it, has become a world, a colorful, melodious, and moving universe. Through what sequence of historical circumstances, philosophical destinies, sidereal conjunctions this man was born among us, I haven't the least idea, and I do not think it is my duty to examine it here. Perhaps it is simply because Germany had Goethe, and England Shakespeare and Byron, that Victor Hugo was rightfully owed to France. I see from the history of peoples that each in its turn is called to conquer the world; perhaps the same thing is true of poetic domination as is true of rule by the sword.
From his ability to absorb the life around him, unique in its amplitude, as well as from his powerful faculty of meditation, Victor Hugo has become a very extraordinary poetic character, questioning, mysterious, and, like nature itself, vast and detailed, serene and agitated. Voltaire did not see mystery in anything, or at least in very few things. But Victor Hugo does not cut the Gordian knot of things with Voltaire's military dispatch; his keenly perceptive senses reveal abysses to him; he sees mystery everywhere. And indeed, where doesn't it exist? From it derives the sense of fright that penetrates several of his most beautiful poems; from it come those turbulent verses that rise and fall, those masses of stormy images carried along with the speed of a fleeing chaos; from it come those frequent repetitions of words, all destined to express the captivating shadows or the enigmatic countenance of mystery.
Thus Victor Hugo possesses not only greatness but universality. How varied is his repertory and, although always one and compact, how many-sided it is! I don't know if, among art lovers, there are many like me, but I can't help being extremely annoyed when I hear people speak of a landscapist (however perfect he may be), of a painter of animals or a painter of flowers with the same enthusiasm that might be used in praising a universal painter (that is to say a real painter) such as Rubens, Veronese, Velásquez or Delacroix. It seems to me, in fact, that he who does not know how to paint everything can not be called a painter. The renowned men whom I have just named expressperfectly everything that each of the specialists expresses and, in addition, they possess an imagination and a creative faculty which speaks vigorously to the minds of all men. The moment you wish to give me the idea of a perfect artist, my mind does not stop at perfection in one genre, but it immediately conceives the necessity of perfection in all genres. The same thing is true of literature in general and of poetry in particular. He who is not capable of painting everything, palaces and hovels, feelings of tenderness and of cruelty, circumscribed family affection and universal charity, the charm of plant life and the miracles of architecture, all that which is most pleasant and all that which is most horrible, the inner meaning and the external beauty of every religion, the moral and physical aspect of every nation, everything in short from the visible to the invisible, from heaven to hell—such a person, I say, is not really a poet in the broadest sense of the word and according to the heart of God. You say of one: he is a poet of the home or of the family; of another: he is a poet of love; and of another: he is a poet of glory. But by what right do you thus limit the range of each artist's talent? Do you mean to say that he who has extolled glory is for that very reason unsuited to celebrate love? You thereby invalidate the universal meaning of the word poetry. If you do not merely want to suggest that circumstances which have nothing to do with the poet have thus far confined him to one speciality, I shall always believe that you are speaking of a poor poet, of an incomplete poet, however clever he may be in his genre.
Ah! in the case of Victor Hugo we do not have to point out these distinctions, for his genius is without limits. Here we are dazzled, enchanted, and enveloped as if by life itself. The transparent air, the domed sky, the outline of a tree, the gaze of an animal, the silhouette of a house are painted in his books with the brush of an accomplished landscapist. In everything he puts the palpitation of life. If he paints the sea, no seascape will equal his. The ships which furrow its surface or which cut through its foam will have, more than those of any other painter, the appearance of fierce combatants, the character of will and of animality which mysteriously emerges from a geometric and mechanical apparatus of wood, iron, ropes and canvas; a monstrous animal created by man to which thewind and the waves add the beauty of movement.
As for love, war, family pleasures, the sorrows of the poor, national splendors, all that which is peculiar to man and which constitutes the domain of the genre painter and of the history painter, what have we seen that is richer and more concrete than the lyrical poetry of Victor Hugo? If space allowed, this would doubtless be the occasion to analyze the moral atmosphere which hovers and moves through his poems and which derives very obviously from the author's own temperament. It seems to me that it is unmistakably characterized by a love which makes no distinction between what is very strong and what is very weak, and that the attraction exercised over the poet by these two extremes stems from a single source, which is the very strength, the primordial vigor with which he is endowed. Strength delights and intoxicates him; he approaches it as if it were a brother: fraternal affection. Thus he is irresistibly attracted to every symbol of the infinite, the sea, the sky; to all the ancient representatives of strength, Homeric, or Biblical giants, paladins, knights; to enormous and fearful beasts. He makes child's play of fondling what would frighten weaker hands; he moves about in immensity without vertigo. On the other hand, but through a different tendency, whose source is, however, the same, the poet always shows warm compassion for all that is weak, lonely, sorrowful, for all that isfatherless: a paternal attraction. The man of strength, who senses a brother in all that is strong, sees his children in allthat has need of protection or consolation. It is from strength itself and from the certainty that it gives to one who possesses it that the spirit ofjustice and of charity is derived. Thus in the poems of Victor Hugo there constantly occur those notes of love for fallen women, for the poor who are crushed inthe cogwheels of society, for the animals that are martyrs of our gluttony and despotism. Few people have noticed the magic charm which kindness adds to strength and which is so frequently seen in the works of our poet. A smile and a tear on the face of a colossus is an almost divine form of originality. Evenin his short poems devoted to sensual love, in those verses sovoluptuous and so melodious in their melancholy, may be heard, like the continuous accompaniment of an orchestra, the deep voice of charity. Beneath the lover one senses a father and a protector. It is not a matter here of that sermonizing morality which, with its pedantic air and its didactic tone, can spoil the most beautiful piece of poetry but of an implicit moralitywhich slips unnoticed into poetic matter like imponderable fluids into the machinery of the world. Morality does not enter into this art as its avowed purpose; it is intermingled with itand lost sight of, as in life itself. The poet is unintentionally a moralist through the abundance and plenitude of nature.
The excessive, the immense are the natural domain of Victor Hugo; he moves in it as if in his native atmosphere. The genius which he has always displayed in painting all the monstrosity surrounding man is truly prodigious. But it is especially in recent years that he has experienced the metaphysical influence emanating from all these things; the curiosity of an Oedipus obsessed by innumerable Sphinxes. Who does not remember "La Pente de la Rêverie," done so long ago? A large part of his recent work seems to be the natural yet vast development of the faculty which gave birth to this fascinating poem. One might say that from that time on the poet's reverie has been interrupted more and more frequently by questioning and that in his eyes all aspects of nature are constantly bristling with problems. How has the fatherwho is one been able to engender duality, and how has he been finally metamorphosed into endless numbers? Mystery! Must or can the infinite totality of numbers be again concentrated intothe original unity? Mystery! The suggestive contemplation of the heavens occupies an immense and dominant place in the most recent works of the poet. Whatever the subject treated, the heavens dominate and rise above it like a changeless dome where mystery and light hover together, where mystery scintillates, where mystery invites curious reverie, where mystery dispels discouraged thought. Ah, even today, in spite of Newton and in spite of Laplace, astronomical certainty is not so great that reverie cannot find a place for itself among the vast lacunae still unexplored by modern science. Very rightly the poet letshis thought wander in an intoxicating labyrinth of speculations. There is not a problem that has been discussed or attacked, no matter when or by what philosophy, that has not inevitably come to demand its place in the works of the poet. Are the world of the stars and the world of souls finite or infinite? Is there a continuous bringing forth of beings in the vast cosmosas there is in the finite world? Would that which we are tempted to take for an infinite multiplication of beings be only a circulatory movement bringing these same beings back to life at times and under conditions marked by a supreme and all-embracing law?
Would matter and movement be only the respiration and inspiration of a God who brings forth worlds and then calls them back in turn to his bosom? Will all that which is multiple become one and will our universe and all those which we see suspended around us come to be replaced one day by new universes springing forth from the thought of Him whose sole happiness and sole function are to create unceasingly? And will not conjecture on the moral significance, on the intended purpose of all these worlds, our unknown neighbors, also naturally take its place in the immense domains of poetry?
Heavenly bodies, stars, suns, constellations, with your germinations, blossomings, flowerings, eruptions that are successive, simultaneous, slow or sudden, progressive or complete, are you simply forms of the life of God, or habitations prepared byhis goodness or his justice for souls whom he wishes to educate and to gradually bring near himself? Worlds eternally studied, unknown perhaps forever, speak, have you your paradises, hells, purgatories, prisons, villas, palaces, etc.? … Would there be anything so extravagant, so monstrous, so exceeding the rightful limits of poetic conjecture in believing that there may spring forth from the limbo of the future new systems and clusters of planets which will assume unexpected forms, adopt unforeseen combinations, undergo unrecorded laws, imitate all the providential vagaries of a geometry too vast and too complicated for understanding? I insist on the word conjecture which serves to define fairly satisfactorily theextrascientific character of all poetry. In the hands of a poet other than Victor Hugo, such themes and such subjects could too easily have taken on a didactic form, which is the greatest enemy of true poetry. To recount in verse known laws governing the movement of the moral or sidereal world is to describe what has been discovered and what falls completely under the scientist's telescope or compass; it is to confine oneself to tasks pertaining to science, to encroach on its functions, and to encumber its traditional language with the superfluous and, in this case, dangerous embellishment of rhyme;but to give oneself up to all the reveries suggested by the infinite spectacle of life on earth and in the heavens is the legitimate right of anyone, consequently of the poet who is empowered to translate into a magnificent language, other than prose and music, the eternal conjectures of inquiring humanity. In describing what is, the poet is degraded and descends to thelevel of the professor; in recounting the possible he remains faithful to his function; he is a collective soul who questions, who weeps, who hopes and who sometimes finds the answer.
A new proof of the same infallible taste is revealed in the latest work which Victor Hugo has offered for our pleasure. I am referring to La Légende des Siècles. Except at a nation's dawn, when poetry is both the expression of its soul and the repertory of its knowledge, history put into verse is a deviation from the laws which govern the two genres, history and poetry; it is an outrage against the two Muses. In periods of great culture there comes aboutin the spiritual world a division of work which strengthens and perfects each part; and he who then tries to create an epic poem as it was understood by younger nations, runs the risk ofdiminishing the magic effect of poetry, if only through the intolerable length of the work, and of robbing history of a partof the wisdom and sobriety which older nations demand of it. Usually it results in nothing more than tedious nonsense. In spite of all the well meaning efforts of a French philosopher [Edgar Quinet] who believed that, without long-standing talent and without pro-longed study, one could suddenly put poetry at the service of a poetic thesis, Napoleon, even today, is too much a part of history to be made into a legend. It is no more permissible than it is possible for man, even a man of genius, to artificially move back the centuries in that way. Such an idea could occur only to a philosopher, a professor, in other words to a man withdrawn from life. When in his first poems Victor Hugo tries to show us Napoleon as a legendary character, he is still a Parisian speaking, a contemporary who is deeply moved and lost in dreams; he evokes the legend that is possible in the future; he does not reduce it by his own authority to a past state.
Now, to come back to La Légende des Siècles, Victor Hugo has created the only epic poetry that could have been created by a man of his time for the readersof his time. First, the poems composing the work are usually short, and even the brevity of some is no less extraordinary than their power. This is already an important consideration, which is evidence of a complete understanding of all the possibilities of modern poetry. Next, wishing to create a modern epicpoem, in other words a poem that has its source or rather its pretext in history, he carefully refrained from borrowing anything from history except that which it can rightfully and profitably lend to poetry. I am referring to legends, myths, fables which are, as it were, condensations of national life, deep reservoirs where sleep the blood and tears of peoples. Finally, he has not celebrated any particular nation or the passion of any particular century in his verse; he has risen at once toone of those philosophical heights from which the poet can survey the whole evolution of humanity with a glance that is impartially curious, angry, or compassionate. The majesty with which he has made the centuries pass before us like ghosts emerging from a wall, the complete command with which he has set them in motion—each with its correct costume, its true appearance, its authentic behavior is something which we have allseen. The sublime and subtle art, the terrible familiarity with which this magician has made the Centuries speak and gesticulate, would not be impossible for me to explain; but what I amespecially anxious to point out is that this art could only move comfortably in a legendary milieu and that (putting aside the talents of the magician) it is the choice of the terrain that has facilitated the unfolding of the spectacle.
From his distant exile, toward which our eyes and ears are turned, the beloved and venerated poet has announced new poems. In recent years he has proved to us that the domain of poetry, however limited it may be, is nonetheless, by the law of genius, almost limitless. In what order of things, by what new means will he renew his proof? Will he wish hereafter to borrowunknown delights, for example, from buffoonery, (I am choosing at random), from immortal gaiety, from joy, from the supernatural, from the magical and from the marvelous, endowed by him with that immense, superlative character with which he can endow all things? It is not in the province of criticism to say; but what criticism can affirm without fear of being mistaken, because it has already seen successive proofs, is that he is one of those rare mortals, even more rare in the literary world than in any other, who draw new strength from the years and who, through an endlessly repeated miracle, continue growing younger and more vigorous until death.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7075
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 itself in Les Rayons et les Ombres, is accomplished in Les Contemplations. The third period is not closed; at the present moment we have the promise from Victor Hugo of important works in verse and prose. Possibly, any hypothesis as to the orbit he describes is still premature.
In a divided household the boy Victor naturally inclined towards the side of his mother, and from her he inherited the monarchical tradition. From Chateaubriand he learned to recognize the literary advantages offered by neo-Catholicism, and under his influence the Voltairean royalism of Victor Hugo's earlier years was transformed into the Christian royalism which was to do service for the writer of odes under the Restoration. The boy ambitious of literary distinction, and furnished with literary instincts and aptitudes, but as yet unprovided with subjects for song from his own experience, must look about in the world to find subjects. He needs something to declaim against, and something to celebrate. The Revolution satisfies one of these requirements, and the monarchy the other. The vantage-ground of a creed is now gained; the dominant conception of his poetry declares itself to him; he is to be the singer of the restored Christian monarchy. If history would only supply themes, he is now prepared to take them up and execute brilliant variations upon them. And history is disposed to assist him. What more fortunate subject can there be for a neo-Catholic royalist ode than the birth of a Christian duke, unless it be the baptism of a Christian duke, or the consecration of a Christian king? Happy age when dukes are born and baptized, and when a philosophic poet of the age of twenty resolves to "solemnize some of the principal memorials of our epoch which may serve as lessons to future societies." Happy age when atheist and regicide hide their heads, when the flood of Revolution has subsided, and the bow appears in the clouds! Highly favoured nation upon whom the presence of a Bourbon confers prosperity and peace, with all the Christian graces, and all the theological virtues:—
O, que la Royauté, peuples, est douce et belle!
In these odes the king is the terrestrial God; and God is the grand monarque who rules in the skies. If not the very same, he is a descendant not far removed from the aged and amiable God, something between a Pope and an Emperor, of the mediæval period, seated upon a throne, with a bird above his head, and his Son by his side, a courtly archangel on his right hand, and on the left a prophet, listening to harps, while Madame the Mother of God stands by, hand on breast. He is the God who was careful to punish the men of the Convention, and pulled down Napoleon from his high place; the God who chose Charles X. as the man after his own heart. If to disbelieve in this author of nature and moral governor of the universe be atheism, Victor Hugo is at present an atheist.
But the political and religious significance of these early poems was in truth a secondary affair. To reform the rhythm of French verse, to enrich its rhymes, to give mobility to the cesura, to carry the sense beyond the couplet, to substitute definite and picturesque words in place of the fadeurs of classical mythology and vague poetical periphrasis—these were matters awakening keener interest than the restoration of a dynasty or the vindicating of a creed. To denounce the Revolution was well; but how much higher and more divine to bring togther in brilliant consonance two unexpected words! Gustave Planche, reviewing at a later period this literary movement, and pronouncing in his magisterial way that the movement was primarily one of style, not of thought, recalls as a trivial circumstance, which however serves to characterize the time, that the ultimate word, the supreme term of literary art, was—"la ciselure." The glow of Royalist fervour was somewhat of a painted fire; the new literary sensations were accompanied by thrills of pleasure which were genuine and intense.
Before 1828, Victor Hugo's royalist fervour had certainly lost some of its efficiency for the purposes of literature. The drama of Cromwell had been published in the previous year; and the poet was in open revolt against the great monarchical period of French art—the age of Racine. Either the births and baptisms of dukes occurred less frequently than heretofore, or Victor Hugo was less eager to celebrate them. But if his early faith was falling piece by piece, no new faith as yet came to replace the old, unless it were the artist's faith of "art for art." Accordingly, Victor Hugo in the forefront of his next lyrical volume—Les Orientales—proclaims in a high tone the independence of the poet from the trammels of belief. Let no one question him about the subjects of his singing,—if the manner be faultless, that is all which can be required of him. He will not now "endeavour to be useful," he will not attempt "to solemnize some of the principal memorials of our epoch which may serve as lessons to future societies." Farewell to the safe anchorage of neo-Catholicism! "Let the poet go where he pleases, and do what he pleases: such is the law. Let him believe in one God, or in many; in Pluto or in Satan, …. or in nothing; …. let him go north or south, west or east; let him be ancient or modern … He is free." What appropriateness was there in these Orientales in the midst of the grave preoccupations of the public mind! To what does the Orient rhyme? What consonance has it with anything? The author replies that "he does not know; the fancy took him; and took him in a ridiculous fashion enough, when, last summer, he was going to see a sunset." There was another sunset which Victor Hugo witnessed before long—the setting in a stormy sky of the ancient monarchy of France. Then, too, he thought of the East, and began that greater series of Orientales, those songs of the sunrise of the Republic, which still vibrate in the air. These last came not through caprice, but of necessity, and the only freedom which the poet has since claimed has been the freedom of service to his ideas and of fidelity to his creed.
The poems, "Les Orientales," correspond with the announcements of the preface. They are miracles of colour and of sound. They shine and sparkle, and gleam like fiery opals, sapphires, and rubies. They startle the French muse, accustomed to the classic lyre or pastoral pipe, with the sound of sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music. Our eyes and ears are filled with vivid sensation. Does it greatly matter that they remain remote from our imaginative reason, our understanding heart, our conscience? The desires we possess for splendour and harmony are gratified: why should we demand anything further? Victor Hugo, still unprovided with sufficient subjects from his personal experience, and finding the monarchical pageant grow somewhat tarnished, had turned to Greece and Spain. With Spain the recollections of his boyhood connected him. Greece was a fashion of theperiod. The struggle with the Turkish power had surrounded the names of places and persons with associations which were effective with the popular imagination. Lord Byron had put his misanthropic hero into eastern costumes. The properties—jerreed, tophaike, ataghan, caftan, the jewel of Giamschid, the throne of Eblis—took the taste of the period. The plash of the sack which contains a guilty wife in the still waters of the Bosphorus—the bearded heads attached to the Seraglio walls, and left as food for crows—these were thrilling sensations offered by eastern poetry. "Conscience," "imaginative reason," "understanding heart," what metaphysical jargon is this? Pedantry! we need colour and harmony; we demand a nervous excitation. And in truth, Victor Hugo had advanced a step, for he had lost a faith, and gained a style.
The more ambitious efforts of the years immediately following the publication of Les Orientales were in the direction of the theatre, and to the same period belongs the novel Notre-Dame de Paris, in which the mediævalism of the writer is no longer political, or religious, if it ever were such, but is purely æsthetical, supplying him with the rich and picturesque background before which his figures move. It was a fortunate circumstance for his lyrical poetry that it ceased to be the chief instrument of his ambition. Any deliberate attempt to surpass Les Orientales would have overleaped itself, and fallen on the other side. No pyrotechnic art could send up fiery parachutes or showers of golden rain higher than the last. But if instead of the fantastic blossoms of the pyrotechnist he were to bring together true flowers of the meadows, and leaves of the forest trees, the nosegay might have a grace and sweetness of its own. Les Feuilles d'Automne was published in the month of November 1831, and Victor Hugo notes as curious the contrast between the tranquillity of his verses and the feverish agitation of the minds of men. "The author feels in abandoning this useless book to the popular wave, which bears away so many better things, a little of the melancholy pleasure one experiences in flinging a flower into a torrent and watching what becomes of it."
There is an autumn in early manhood out of which a longer summer, or a spring of more rapturous joy, may be born. One period of life has been accomplished; better things may come, but there must be an abandonment of the old; a certain radiance fades away; it is a season of recollection; our eye has kept watch over the mortality of man; we know the "Soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering." It was at this period that Wordsworth wrote his "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality." It was at this period that Victor Hugo wrote Les Feuilles d'Automne. No other volume of his poetry is marked by the same grave and tender self-possession; there is sadness in it, but not the ecstasy of grief; there is joy, but a wise and tempered joy. The calm of Les Rayons et les Ombres may be more profound; it is at all events a different calm—that of one who has the parting with youth well over, who has gone forward with confidence, and discovered the laws of the new order of existence and found them to be good. In Les Rayons et les Ombres the horizon is wider and the sky more blue; nature knows the great secret, and smiles. There is something pathetic in the calm of the earlier volume; something pathetic even in the shouts and laughter of the children which ring through it, though they ring clear and sweet as the bells upon the mules of Castile and Aragon.
Victor Hugo, who heretofore had for the most part been looking eagerly abroad for ambitious motives for song, now in Les Feuilles d'Automne very quietly folded the wing, dropped down, and found himself. Memories of his childhood, his mother's love and solicitude for her frail infant, the house at Blois where his father came to rest after the wars, the love-letters of thirteen years ago, his daughter at her evening prayer, the beauty of many sunsets, the voice of the sea heard from highheadlands, the festival of the starry heaven above, and, below, the human watcher, a "vain shadow, obscure and taciturn," yet seeming for a moment "the mysterious king of this nocturnal pomp,"—these and such as these are the themes over which the poet lingers with a grave sadness and joy. The feeling for external nature throughout is fervent, but large and pure. The poet stands in the presence of nature, and receives her precious influences; he is not yet enveloped by her myriad forces and made one with them; neither does he yet stand at odds with her, the human will contending in titanic struggle with the άνάγκη of natural law. God in these poems is a beneficent Father.
But now, again, Victor Hugo looked abroad. In Les Orientales he had treated subjects remote from his personal history. Les Feuilles d'Automne was a record of private joys and sorrows. In Les Chants du Crépuscule the personal and impersonal have met in living union; the individual appears, but his individuality is important less for its own sake than because it reflects the common spiritual characteristics of the period. The faith of France in her restored monarchy, her monarchy by divine right, had waned, and finally become extinct; and with the faith of France, that also of her chief poet. Many things had been preparing his spirit to accept the democratic movement of modern society. The literary war in which he had been engaged was a war of independence; it cultivated the temper of revolt, disdain of authority, self-confidence and a forward gaze into the future. None but a literary Danton could have dared in French alexandrines to name by its proper name le cochon. The noblesse of the poetical vocabulary had been rudely dealt with by Victor Hugo; and a rough swarm of words, which in a lexicon would have been branded with the obelus, now forced their way into the luxurious tenements of aristocratic noun-substantive and adjective. Victor Hugo had said to verse, "Be free;" to the words of the dictionary, "Be republican, fraternise, for you are equal." And in the enfranchisement of speech, was not thought enfranchised also? The poet had eloquently vindicated the rights of the grotesque in art. My Lady Beauty was no more needful to the world than her humorous clown; Quasimodo's face looked forth from the cathedral door, and vindicated all despised and insulted things. It was inevitable that the literary revolution should coalesce with the political revolution. Moreover, the monarchy had discredited itself,—it had been the agent of disorder; and the People had made itself beautiful by the virtue of the days of July.
Yet when the first acclamations which greeted a constitutional king had died away, there came a season of hesitation and surmise, a season of distrust. The dawn had seemed to open before men's eyes; and now again it was twilight—twilight of religious doubt, twilight of political disquietude. Les Chants du Crépuscule corresponds to this moment of welter and relapse in the wave of thought. Incertitude within, a vaporous dimness without—such is the stuff out of which this poetry has shaped itself; and the poet himself, hearing "Yes," and "No," cried by conflicting voices, is neither one of those who deny nor one of those who affirm. He is one of those who hope. The mysterious light upon the edge of the horizon, like the distant fire of a forge at night, is it the promise of the dawn, or the last brightness of receding day? Is the voice of Ocean a voice of joy or of fear? What is this murmur which rises from the heart of man?—a song, or perhaps a cry?
Notwithstanding the doubtful accent of Les Chants du Crépuscule, this volume leaves little uncertainty as to the direction in which the poet is tending. He is one of those who hope; and with Victor Hugo to hope is already half to believe. His former royalist Catholic convictions were not savagely demolished. They remained as a sacred and poetic ruin, appealing, as ruins do, to the sense in us of pathos and pity; but they exercised no authority over the will or the masculine part of the imagination. In Les Chants du Crépuscule we can discern this imagination venturing itself into the presence of the popular life and movement, and arrested and aroused by the new and marvellous objects which became visible. An exiled king is deserving of a respectful and sympathising gaze; but see, the billowy inundation of the people, the irresistible advance! and listen, the rumours, the terror, the joy, the mystery of the wind and of these waves that roll before it; the stormy murmur of the people around each great idea! Here is space, and strength, and splendour for the imagination to delight in, more satisfying to it than the livery of courtiers and the ceremonial of state days. And upon the other hand—(for what could Victor Hugo's imagination effect without a contrast?)—observe the gloomy faces of the enemies of liberty and of the people; not kings (for kings were not all tyrants in 1835), but the pernicious counsellors of kings, fulfilled with perjury and boldness, "unhappy, who believed in their dark error that one morning they could take the freedom of the world like a bird in a snare." The material of much future prophecy, triumphant and indignant, lies already in existence here.
But Victor Hugo was not going to allow his poetry to become the instrument of party politics. He must not allow the harmony of his nature to be violated. He must maintain his soul above the tumult; unmoved himself, he must be austere and indulgent to others. He must belong to all parties by their generous, and to no party by its vicious sides. His grave respect for the people must be united with scorn for mobs and mob leaders. He must live with external nature as well as with man. He may safely point out errors in little human codes if he contemplate by day and by night the text of the divine and eternal codes. And holding himself thus above all that is merely local and transitory, his poetry must be the portrait—profoundly faithful—of himself, such a portrait of his own personality being perhaps the largest and most universal work which a thinker can give to the world.
Such was the spirit in which Les Voix Intérieures and Les Rayons et les Ombres were written. It was a time of high resolves, and of successful conduct of his moral nature. And what gives joy and what restores faith like successful conduct of the moral nature? We cannot trace each step of the progress from Les Chants du Crépuscule to Les Rayons et les Ombres, but we can see that the progress was accomplished. The twilight had dissipated itself, and it was the dawn indeed which came, and not the darkness. Human love seemed to grow a more substantial and a diviner thing. Beside the light of their own beauty there was an "auxiliar light," illuminating the faces of the flowers. Some counter-charm of space and hollow sky had been found:
Let no one ask me how it came to pass;
It seems that I am happy, that to me
A livelier emerald twinkles in the grass,
A purer sapphire melts into the sea.
Nature which had been a tender mother, now becomes a strong and beautiful bride, with embracing arms, who has need of her eager lover the poet. God, who had been a beneficent father, is now something more than can be expressed by any human relation: He is joy, and law, and light. God and nature and man have approached and play through one another. What a moment ago wasdivine grace, is now light, and as it touches the heart it again changes into love, and once more is transformed from love to faith and hope. There is an endless interchange of services between all forces and objects spiritual and material. Nothing in the world is single. Small is great, and great is small. Below the odour of a rose-bud lies an abyss—the whole mysterious bosom of the earth,—and above it in the beauty of a woman's bending face, and the soul behind that face, rises an unfathomable heaven. The calm of Les Rayons et les Ombres, if it is profound, is also passionate. This is that "high mountain apart," the mountain of transfiguration. They who ascend there say, "It is good for us to be here," not knowing what they say: presently they come down from the mountain, with human help for those who are afflicted and diseased,—help which to some seems supernatural, and which assuredly those who have remained below are not always able to afford.
In the autumn of 1843, Léopoldine, daughter of Victor Hugo, and Charles Vacquerie, who had been her husband during some few spring and summer months, were drowned. After the Coup d'État of December 2, the poet became an exile from France. In 1853 was published in Brussels the volume entitled Les Châtiments. In 1856 (twelve years had elapsed since his daughter's death) appeared the two volumes of Les Contemplations.
Joy had been Victor Hugo's preparation for his great sorrow. Had a blow so sudden and dreadful fallen before his soul had been tempered and purified by joy, the soul might have been crushed into formless apathy, or shattered into fragments. But because joy and love and faith had maintained his nature in a state of high efficiency, because every part of it was now vital and sensitive, he was fitted to endure the blow. Extreme anguish can be accepted as a bitter gift if it comes from the hands of Life; martyrdom is unendurable only by one who is already half deceased, and little sensitive to pain. Les Contemplations is the lyrical record of twenty-five years. More than any other of Victor Hugo's collections of poetry it holds, as in a rocky chalice, the gathered waters of his life. "The author has allowed the book to form itself, so to speak, within him. Life, filtering drop by drop through events and sufferings, has deposited it in his heart." These deep waters have slowly amassed themselves in the soul's secret places. Les Contemplations completes the series of personal memorials which had preceded it by one more comprehensive than all the rest. Here nothing is absent—reminiscences of school-boy years, youth, the loves and fancies, the gaiety and the illusions of youth, the literary warfare of early manhood, and the pains and delights of poetical creation, friendship, sorrow, the innocent mirth of children, the tumult of life, the intense silence of the grave, the streams, the fields, the flowers, the tumbling of desolate seas, the songs of birds, solitude, the devout aspiration, doubt and the horror of doubt, the eager assault of the problems Whence? and Whither? and Wherefore? and the baffled vision and arrested foot there upon "the brink of the infinite." Into this book the sunlight and clear azure have gone; the storm and the mists. But when these, its tributaries, demand each the book as of right belonging to itself, when the forest claims it, and the blossoming meadowland, and the star, and the great winds, and the heaven, and the tempestuous sea, and the nests of birds—the poet refuses all these; he gives it to the tomb. An exiled man, he cannot now lay a flower upon his children's grave; he can only send to them his soul.
The first three books contain poems of many moods of joy. The fourth book includes the poems which recall all his daughter's sweetness and pretty ways in childhood—poems of a lovely purity and sadness. The father waits in his study for the morning visit of his child; she enters with her "Bonjour, mon petit père," takes his pen, opens his books, sits upon his bed, disturbs his papers, andis gone like a flying bird. Then his work begins more joyously, and on some page scribbled with her childish arabesques, or crumpled by her little hands, come the sweetest verses of his song. How the winter evenings passed with grammar and history lessons, and the four children at his knee, while their mother sat near and friends were chatting by the hearth! And those summer walks of the father, thirty years of age, and the daughter, ten, coming home by moonlight, when the moths were brushing the window panes. And the sight of the two fair children's heads stooping over the Bible, the elder explaining, and the younger listening, while their hands wandered from page to page over Moses, and Solomon, and Cyrus, and Moloch, and Leviathan, and Jesus. And she is dead; and to set over against all these, there is the walk begun at dawn, by forest, by mountain; the man silent, with eyes which see no outward thing, solitary, unknown, with bent back and crossed hands, and the day seeming to him like the night; and then when the evening gold is in the sky unseen, and the distant sails are descending towards Harfleur, the arrival, and a bunch of green holly and blossoming heath to lay upon the tomb.
Once more as the poems close Victor Hugo attains to peace. But it is not the peace of Les Rayons et les Ombres, the calm of the high table-lands of joy, the calm of a halt in clear air and under the wide and luminous sky. It is rather the peace of swiftest motion, the sleep of an orb spinning onward through space. For now the stress of life has become very urgent. Joy and sorrow are each intenser than before, and are scarcely tolerable. That atom, the human will, while still retaining consciousness and individuality, is enveloped by forces material and spiritual, and whirled onward with them in unfaltering career towards their goal. Odours, songs, the blossoms of flowers, the chariots of the suns, the generations of men, the religions and philosophies of races, the tears of a father over his dead child, winters and summers, the snows, and clouds, and rain, and among all these the individual soul, hasten forward with incredible speed and with an equal repose to that of the whirlpool's edge toward some divine issue. If the gloom is great, so is the splendour. We, poor mortals, gazing Godward are blind; yet we who are blind are dazzled as we gaze. The poems of later date in these volumes bear tokens of strain: the stress of life has become too intense, and the art of the poet, it may be, suffers in consequence. Shakspere was able, after enduring the visions of Lear upon the heath, and Othello by the bedside, to retire to a little English country town, and enjoy the quiet dignity of a country gentleman. Not all great artists are so framed. With Beethoven in his later period the passion of sound became overmastering, and almost an agony of delight. With Turner in his later period, the splendour of sunlight almost annihilated his faculty of vision. Blake's songs of Innocence and of Experience became mysterious prophecies of good and evil, of servitude and freedom, of heaven and hell. With Victor Hugo the joy and the sorrow of the world have been too exceedingly strong, and his art has had to endure a strain.
Les Châtiments, published some years earlier than Les Contemplations, belongs by its subject to a later period of Victor Hugo's life. His private sorrow was for a time submerged by the flood of indignation let loose against the public malefactor. In the last poem of an earlier collection Victor Hugo had spoken of three great voices which were audible within him, and which summoned him to the poet's task. One was the voice of threatening, of protest and malediction against baseness and crime, the voice of the muse who visited Jeremiah and Amos: the second was all gentleness and pity and pleading on behalf of the ignorance and errors of men: the third was the voice of the Absolute, the Most-High, of Pan, of Vishnu, who is affected neither by love nor hatred, to whom death is no less acceptable than life, who includes what seems to us crime as contentedly as what we call virtue. Now, for a season, Victor Hugo listened eagerly to what the first of these three voices had to say. It was the hour for art to rise and show that it is no dainty adornment of life, but an armed guardian of the land. "The rhetoricians coldly say, 'The poet is an angel; he soars, ignoring Fould, Magnan, Morny, Maupas; he gazes with ecstacy up the serene night.' No! so long as you are accomplices of these hideous crimes, which step by step I track, so long as you spread your veils over these brigands, blue heavens, and suns and stars, I will not look upon you." Les Châtiments is the roaring of an enraged lion. One could wish that the poet kept his indignation somewhat more under control. He is not Apollo shooting the faultless and shining shafts against Python, but a Jupiter tonans, a little robustious, and whirling superabundant thunderbolts with equal violence in every direction. It is now the chief criminal, the Man of December, now it is the jackals who form his body-guard, now the prostitute priest, now the bribed soldier, now the bon bourgeois, devotee of the god Boutique and on each and all descend the thunderbolts, with a rattling hail of stinging epithets, and with fire that runs and leaps. This eruption, which is meant to overwhelm the gewgaw Empire, goes on fulgurantly, resoundingly and not without scoriae and smoke. Victor Hugo's faith in the people and in the future remains unshaken. "Progress," "Liberty," "Humanity," remain more than ever magic watchwords. The volume which opens with "Nox"—the blackness of that night of violence and treason—closes with "Lux", the dreadful shining of the coming day of Freedom. "Doubt not; let us believe, let us wait. God knows how to break the teeth of Nero as the panther's teeth. Let us have faith, be calm, and go onward." Let us not slay this man; let us keep him alive—"Oh, a superb chastisement? Oh! if one day he might pass along the highway naked, bowed down, trembling, as the grass trembles to the wind, under the execration of the whole human race." … "People, stand aside! this man is marked with the sign. Let Cain pass; he belongs to God."
And now Victor Hugo's gaze travelled from his own period backward over the universal history of man. Was this triumph of evil for a season, with tyranny and corruption and luxury in the high places, and fidelity, and truth, and virtue, and loyalty to great ideas cast out, fading on remote and poisonous snores, or languishing in dungeons,—was this a new thing in the world's history? The exile in the solitude of his rocky island, and encircled by the moaning seas, loses the tender and graceful aspect of things. As he looks backward through all time, what does he perceive? Always the weak oppressed by the strong, the child cast out of his heritage by violent men, the innocent entrapped by the crafty, the light-hearted girl led blindfold to her doom, old age insulted and thrust away by youth, the fratricide, the parricide, the venal priest on one side of the throne, and the harlot queening it on the other, the tables full of vomit and filthiness, the righteous sold for silver, the wicked bending their bow to cast down the poor and needy. While he gazes, the two passions which had filled Les Châtiments from the beginning to the end, the passions of Hatred and of Hope, condense and materialize themselves, and take upon them two forms—the one, that of the tyrant, the proud wrong-doer; the other, that of the Justiciary, the irresistible avenger of wrong. La Légende des Siècles is the imaginative record of the crimes and the overthrow of tyrants. If no collection of Victor Hugo's poetry formed itself so quietly and truly, gathering drop by drop, as Les Contemplations, there is none which is so much the product of resolution and determined energy as this, La Légende des Siècles, which next followed. These poems are not lyrical outflowings of sorrow and of joy. The poet, with the design of shaping a great whole out of many parts, chooses from a wide field the subject of each brief epic; having chosen his subject, he attacks it with the utmost vigour and audacity, determined to bring it into complete subjection to his imagination. Breaking into a new and untried province of art now when his sixtieth year was not distant, Victor Hugo never displayed more ambition or greater strength. The alexandrine in his hands becomes capable of any and every achievement; its even stepping is heard only when the poet chooses; now it is a winged thing and flies; now it advances with the threatening tread of Mozart's commandatore.
Occasional episodes, joyous or graciously tender, there are in La Légende des Siècles. The rapture of creation when the life of the first man-child was assured, the sleep of Boaz, Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary, the calm death of the eastern prophet, the gallantry of the little page Aymerillot who took Narbonne, the Infanta with the rose in her tiny hand, the fisherman who welcomes the two orphan children, and will toil for them as for his own—these relieve the gloom. But the prominent figures (and sometimes they assume Titanic size) are those of the great criminals and the great avengers—Cain, pursued by the eye of God, Canute, the seven evil uncles of the little King of Galicia, Joss the great and Zeno the little, but equal in the instincts of the tiger, Ratbert and his court of titled robbers and wanton women, Philip the Second, the Spanish inquisitors and baptizers of mountains—where shall we look for moral support against the cruelty and the treachery and the effrontery of these? Only in the persons of the avengers,—Roland whirling Durandal in the narrow gorge, Eviradnus standing over the body of the sleeping countess, or shooting the corpses of the two defeated wretches down their hideous oubliette—only in these and in the future when all dark shadows of crime and of sorrow shall have passed for ever away.
It is to be noted of La Légende des Siècles that the aspect of nature as an antagonist of the will of man, or as Victor Hugo would grandiosely express it, as "one form of the triple ἀνάγκη," that aspect presented with such force and infinite detail in Les Travailleurs de la Mer, and in the earlier chapters of L'Homme qui Rit, appears distinctly in some of these brief epic records of human struggle and human victory or defeat.
La Légende des Siècles and the volume which next followed become each more striking by the contrast they present. Victor Hugo has somewhere told us how one day he went to see the lion of Waterloo; the solitary and motionless figure stood dark against the sky, and the poet stepped up the little hillock and stood within its shadow. Suddenly he heard a song; it was the voice of a robin who had built her nest in the great mouth of the lion. Les Chansons des Rues et des Bois viewed in relation to La Légende des Siècles resembles this nest in the lion's mouth. The volume was indeed a piquant surprise to those who had watched the poet's career through its later period, and who took the trouble to surmise about his forthcoming works. After the tragic legends came these slight caprices. The songs (while their tone and colour are very different from those of Victor Hugo's youth) are a return to youth by the subjects of many of them, and by the circumstance that once again, as in the Odes and Les Orientales, style becomes a matter of more importance than the idea. These later feats of style are the more marvellous through their very slightness and curious delicacy. Pegasus, who has been soaring, descends and performs to a miracle the most exquisite circus accomplishments. Language, metre, and meaning seem recklessly to approach the brink of irretrievable confusion; yet the artist never practised greater strictness, or attained greater precision, because here more than elsewhere these were indispensable. All styles meet in mirthful reunion. Virgil walks side by side with Villon; Lalage and Jeanneton pour the wine; King David is seen behind the trees staring at Diana, and Actaeon from the housetop at Bathsheba; the spider spins his web to catch the flying rhymes from Minerva's indignant nose to the bald head of St. Paul.
Yet all the while an ideal of beauty floats over this Kermesse; the goddesses do not lose their heavenly splendour; the sky bends overhead; the verse, while it sips its coffee, retains the fragrance of the dew. As to idea—the idea of such songs as these is that they shall have no idea. Enough of the mystery of life and death, the ascending scale of beings, the searching in darkness, the judicial pursuit of evil! Enough of visions on the mountain heights, of mysterious sadness by the sea! Let us live, and adjourn all these; adjourn this measureless task, adjourn Satan, and Medusa, and say to the Sphinx "Go by, I am gossiping with the rose." Friend, this interlude displeases you. What is to be done? The woods are golden. Up goes the notice-board, "Out for a holiday." I want to laugh a little in the fields. What! must I question the corn-cockle about eternity? Must I show a brow of night to the lily and the butterfly? Must I terrify the elm and the lime, the reeds and rushes, by hanging huge problems over the nests of little birds? Should I not be a hundred leagues from good sense if I were to go explaining to the wagtails the Latin of the Dies Irce? Such is the mirthful spirit of the book; not mirth in the "happy, prompt, instinctive way of youth;" but the wilfulness prepense of one who seeks relief from thought and passion. The apparent recrudescence of sensuality in some of these songs is not an affair of the senses at all, but of the fancy: or if the eye is inquisitive and eager, it is because the vague bewildering consciousness of youthful pleasure is absent.
Such songs as these could be no more than an interlude in the literary life of Victor Hugo. But the transition becomes tragic when we pass from Les Chansons des Rues et des Bois to L'Année terrible. The holiday in the woods is indeed over, and all laughter and sportive ways. The fields are trampled by the steady battalions of the invaders. The streets have a grave and anxious air. Paris, the heroic city, the city of liberty, the capital of the world, where Danton thundered, and Molière shone, and Voltaire jested, Paris is enduring her agony. But the empire has fallen. The imperial bandit "passes along the highway naked, bowed down, trembling, as the grass trembles to the wind, under the execration of the whole human race." And Victor Hugo stands in republican France.
L'Année terrible is a record for the imagination, complete in every important particular, of the history of Paris, from August 1870 to July 1871; and with the life of Paris, the personal life of the poet is intertwined inseparably, and for ever. Great joy, the joy of an exile restored to his people, the joy of a patriot who has witnessed the overthrow of a corrupt and enervating despotism, and who is proud of the heroic attitude of the besieged city—such joy is mingled with the great sorrow of his country's defeat and dismemberment. He is sustained by his confidence in the future, and in the ultimate victory of the democratic ideas which form his faith; though once or twice this confidence seems for a moment shaken by the rude assault of facts. The extravagance of his love and devotion to France, the extravagance of his scorn and hatred of the invader, must be pardoned, if they need pardon—and passed by. When will a poet arise who shall unite the most accurate perception of facts as they really are—exaggerating nothing, diminishing nothing—with the most ardent passion; who shall be judicial and yet the greatest of lovers? He indeed will make such passion as that of Victor Hugo look pale. Yet the wisdom and charity and moderation of many poems of L'Année terrible must not be overlooked: nor the freedom of the poet from party spirit. He is a Frenchman throughout; not a man of the Commune, nor a man of Versailles. The most precious poems of the book are those which keep close to facts rather than concern themselves with ideas. The sunset seen from the ramparts, the floating bodies of the Prussians borne onward by the Seine, caressed and kissed and still swayed on by the eddying water, the bomb which fell near the old man's feet while he sat where had been the convent of the Feuillantines, and where he had walked under the trees in Aprils long ago, holding his mother's hand, the petroleuse dragged like a chained beast through the scorching streets of Paris, the gallant boy who came to confront death beside his friends,—memories of these it is which haunt us when we have closed the book. Of these—and of the little limbs, and transparent fingers and baby smile and murmur like the murmur of bees, and the face changed from rosy health to a pathetic paleness, of the one-year-old grandchild, too soon to become an orphan.
In the works of 1877 no new direction has been taken; but splendours and horrors, heroisms and shames still fill up the legendary record of the centuries; and amidst these glories and dishonours of adult manhood, shines the divine innocence of the child.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 896
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. Swinburne, who, as we know, swears by Victor Hugo, and whose judgments seem to appeal less forcibly to the English sense of humor than they do to a corresponding quality on this side of the Atlantic. Be this as it may, however, Victor Hugo's new volumes are as characteristic as might have been expected—as violent and extravagant in their faults, and in their fine passages as full of imaginative beauty. Apropos of the sense of humor, the absence of this quality is certainly Victor Hugo's great defect—the only limitation (it must be confessed it is a very serious one) to his imaginative power. It should teach him occasionally to kindle Mr. Ruskin's "lamp of sacrifice." This "nouvelle série" of the Légende des Siècles is not a continuation of the first group of poems which appeared under this name: it is rather a return to the same ground, the various categories under which the first poems appeared being supplied with new recruits. These categories are too numerous to be mentioned here; they stretch from the creation of the world to the current year of grace. It is an immense plan, and shows on the author's part not only an extraordinary wealth of imagination, but a remarkable degree of research. It is true that Victor Hugo's researches are often rather pedantically exhibited; no poet was ever so fond of queer proper names, dragged together from dusty corners of history and legend, and strung together rhythmically—often with a great deal of ingenuity. He is too fond of emulating Homer's catalogue of the ships. But he has what the French call an extraordinary scent for picturesque subjects. These two volumes contain many examples of it; the story, for instance, of a certain king of Arragon who gives his son a blow on the cheek, whereupon the proud and sensitive young man, outraged, retires into the desert. The father, aggrieved at his desertion and greatly sorrowing, descends into the sepulchral crypt where his own father is buried, and there, apostrophizing the bronze statue on his tomb, complains of the young man's ingratitude and weeps. After this has gone on some time he feels, in the darkness, the statuestroke his cheek tenderly with its great hand. "L'Aigle du Casque," one of the best things in the two volumes, is the tale of a certain Northumbrian baron of the dark ages, Lord Tiphaine—Victor Hugo's English names are always very queer. He has a duel with a young Scotch noble—a delicate stripling many years his junior, and on the latter taking fright and fleeing from him, he pursues him a whole summer's day, over hill and dale, and at last overtakes him and murders him. The story of the chase and its various episodes is a specimen of Victor Hugo at his best. When the brutal Northumbrian has hacked his victim to death the brazen eagle perched upon his helmet suddenly becomes animate, utters in a rancorous scream its detestation of the dead, bends over and with its beak and talons tears his face to pieces, and then spreading its wings sails majestically away. Victor Hugo excels in leading a long narrative piece of verse up to a startling climax of this kind, related in the half-dozen closing lines. These volumes contain the usual proportion of fulsome adulation of Paris and of the bloodiest chapters in its history—that narrow Gallomania which makes us so often wonder at times, not whether the author is, after all, a great poet, but whether he is not very positively and decidedly a small poet. But, outside of this, this new series of what is probably his capital work contains plenty of proofs of his greatness—passages and touches of extraordinary beauty. No poet has written like Victor Hugo about children, and the second of these volumes contains a masterpiece of this kind. "Petit Paul" is simply the history of a very small child whose mother dies and whose father takes a second wife—a coarse, hard woman, who neglects the little boy. Before his father's second marriage he has been much with his grandfather, who delights in him—"Oh! quel céleste amour entre ces deux bonshommes." The grandfather dies and is buried, to Paul's knowledge, in the village churchyard. The stepmother comes; the child's life is miserably changed, and at last, one winter's night, he starts out, and not having been missed, is found the next morning dead in the snow at the closed gate of the cemetery. We must quote the lines in which the author describes him while he is meditating this attempt to rejoin his grandfather, the other bonhomme; on hearing his step-mother caress his step-brother, lately born:
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3974
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. Eighteen years later we received a second instalment of the yet unexhausted treasure. And here, at the age of eighty-one, the sovereign poet of the world has placed the coping-stone on the stateliest of spiritual buildings that ever in modern times has been reared for the wonder and the worship of mankind.
Those only to whom nothing seems difficult because nothing to them seems greater than themselves could find it other than an arduous undertaking to utter some word of not unworthy welcome and thanksgiving when their life is suddenly enriched and brightened by such an addition to its most precious things as the dawn of a whole new world of song—and a world that may hold its own in heaven beside the suns created or evoked by the fiat of Shakespeare or of Dante. To review the Divine Comedy, to dispose of Hamlet in the course of a leading article, to dispatch in a few sentences the question of Paradise Lost and its claim to immortality, might seem easy to judges who should feel themselves on a level with the givers of these gifts; for others it could be none the less difficult to discharge this office because the gift was but newly given. One minor phase of the difficulty which presents itself is this: the temporary judge, self-elected to pass sentence on any supreme achievement of human power, must choose on which horn of an inevitable dilemma he may prefer to run the risk of impalement. If, recognising in this new master-work an equal share of the highest qualities possible to man with that possessed and manifested by any previous writer of now unquestioned supremacy, he takes upon himself to admit, simply and honestly, that he does recognise this, and cannot choose but recognise it, he must know that his judgment will be received with no more tolerance or respect, with no less irritation and derision, than would have been, in Dante's time, the judgment of a critic who should have ventured to rank Dante above Virgil, in Shakespeare's time of a critic who should have dared to set Shakespeare beside Homer. If, on the other hand, he should abstain with all due discretion from any utterance or any intimation of a truth so ridiculous and untimely, he runs the sure and certain risk of leaving behind him a name to be ranked, by all who remember it at all, with those which no man mentions without a smile of compassion or of scorn, according to the quality of error discernible in the critic's misjudgment: innocent and incurable as the confidence of a Johnson or a Jeffrey, venomous and malignant as the rancour of Sainte-Beuve or Gifford. Of these two dangers I choose the former; and venture to admit, in each case with equal diffidence, that I do upon the whole prefer Dante to any Cino or Cecco, Shakespeare to all the Greenes and Peeles and Lillys, Victor Hugo to all or any, of their respective times. The reader who has no tolerance for paradox or presumption has therefore fair warning to read no further.
Auguste Vacquerie, of all poets and all men living the most worthy to praise the greatest poet of his century, has put on record long ago, with all the vivid ardour of his admirable style, an experience of which I now am but too forcibly reminded. He was once invited by Victor Hugo to choose among the manuscripts of the master's unpublished work, from the drawers containing respectively some lyric or dramatic or narrative masterpiece, of which among the three kinds he would prefer to have a sample first. Unable to select, he touched a drawer at random, which contained the opening chapters of a yet unfinished story—Les Misérables. If it is no less hard to choose where to begin in a notice of the Légende des Siècles—to decide what star in all this thronged and living heaven should first attract the direction of our critical telescope—it is on the other hand no less certain that on no side can the telescope be misdirected. From the miraculous music of a legendary dawn, when the first woman felt first within her the move ment of her first-born child, to the crowning vision of ultimate justice made visible and material in the likeness of the trumpet of doom, no radiance or shadow of days or nights intervening, no change of light or cadence of music in all the tragic pageant of the centuries, finds less perfect expression and response, less absolute refraction or reflection than all that come and go before or after it. History and legend, fact and vision, are fused and harmonised by the mastering charm of moral unity in imaginative truth. There is no more possibility of discord or default in this transcendent work of human power than in the working of those powers of nature which transcend humanity. In the first verses of the overture we hear such depth and height of music, see such breadth and splendour of beauty, that we know at once these cannot but continue to the end; and from the end, when we arrive at the goal of the last line, we look back and perceive that it has been so. Were this overture but a thought less perfect, a shade less triumphant, we might doubt if what was to follow it could be as perfect and triumphant as itself. We might begin—and indeed, as it is, there are naturally those who have begun—to debate with ourselves or to dispute with the poet as to the details of his scheme, the selection of his types, the propriety of his method, the accuracy of his title. There are those who would seem to infer from the choice of this title that the book is, in the most vulgar sense, of a purely legendary cast; who object, for example, that a record of unselfish and devoted charity shown by the poor to the poor is, happily, no "legend." Writers in whom such self-exposure of naked and unashamed ignorance with respect to the rudiments of language is hardly to be feared have apparently been induced or inclined to expect some elaborate and orderly review of history, some versified chronicle of celebrated events and significant epochs, such as might perhaps be of subsidiary or supplementary service in the training of candidates for a competitive examination; and on finding something very different from this have tossed head and shrugged shoulder in somewhat mistimed impa tience, as at some deception or misnomer on the great author's part which they, as men of culture and understanding, had a reasonable right to resent. The book, they affirm, is a mere agglomeration of unconnected episodes, irrelevant and incoherent, disproportionate and fortuitous, chosen at random by accident or caprice; it is not one great palace of poetry, but a series or congeries rather of magnificently accumulated fragments. It may be urged in answer to this impeachment that the unity of the book is not logical but spiritual; its diversity is not accidental or chaotic, it is the result and expression of a spontaneous and perfect harmony, as clear and as profound as that of the other greatest works achieved by man. To demonstrate this by rule and line of syllogism is no present ambition of mine. A humbler, a safer, and perhaps a more profitable task would be to attempt some flying summary, some glancing revision of the three great parts which compose this mightiest poem of our age; or rather, if this also should seem too presumptuous an aspiration, to indicate here and there the points to which memory and imagination are most fain to revert most frequently and brood upon them longest, with a deeper delight, a more rapturous reverence, than waits upon the rest. Not that I would venture to assert or to insinuate that there is in any poem of the cycle any note whatever of inferiority or disparity; but having neither space nor time nor power to speak, however inadequately, of each among the hundred and thirty-eight poems which compose the now perfect book, I am compelled to choose, not quite at random, an example here and there of its highest and most typical qualities. In the first book, for instance, of the first series, the divine poem on Ruth and Boaz may properly be taken as representative of that almost indefinable quality which hitherto has seemed more especially the gift of Dante: a fusion, so to speak, of sublimity with sweetness, the exaltation of loveliness into splendour and simplicity into mystery, such as glorifies the close of his Purgatory and the opening of his Paradise. Again, the majestic verses which bring Mahomet before us at his end strike a deeper impression into thememory than is left by the previous poem on the raising of Lazarus; and when we pass into the cycle of heroic or chivalrous legend we find those poems the loftiest and the loveliest which have in them most of that prophetic and passionate morality which makes the greatest poet, in this as in some other ages, as much a seer as a singer, an evangelist no less than an artist. Hugo, for all his dramatic and narrative mastery of effect, will always probably remind men rather of such poets as Dante or Isaiah than of such poets as Sophocles or Shakespeare. We cannot of course imagine the Florentine or the Hebrew endowed with his infinite variety of sympathies, of interests, and of powers; but as little can we imagine in the Athenian such height and depth of passion, in the Englishman such unquenchable and sleepless fire of moral and prophetic faith. And hardly in any one of these, though Shakespeare may perhaps be excepted, can we recognise the same buoyant and childlike exultation in such things as are the delight of a high-hearted child—in free glory of adventure and ideal daring, in the triumph and rapture of reinless imagination, which gives now and then some excess of godlike empire and superhuman kingship to their hands whom his hands have created, to the lips whose life is breathed into them from his own. By the Homeric stature of the soul he measures the capacity of the sword. And indeed it is hardly in our century that men who do not wish to provoke laughter should venture to mock at a poet who puts a horde to flight before a hero, or strikes down strongholds by the lightning of a single will. No right and no power to disbelieve in the arm of Hercules or the voice of Orpheus can rationally remain with those who have seen Garibaldi take a kingdom into the hollow of his hand, and not one man but a whole nation arise from the dead at the sound of the word of Mazzini.
Two out of the five heroic poems which compose the fourth book of the first series will always remain types of what the genius of Hugo could achieve in two opposite lines. All the music of morning, all the sunshine of romance, all the sweetness and charm of chivalry, will come back upon all readers at the gracious and radiant name of "Aymerillot"; all the blackness of darkness, rank with fumes of blood and loud with cries of torment, which covers in so many quarters the history, not romantic but actual, of the ages called ages of faith, will close in upon the memory which reverts to the direful "Day of Kings". The sound of the final note struck in the latter poem remains in the mind as the echo of a crowning peal of thunder in the ear of one entranced and spell-stricken by the magnetism of storm. The Pyrenees belong to Hugo as the western coasts of Italy, Neapolitan or Tuscan, belong to Shelley; they can never again be done into words and translated into music as for once they have been by these. It can hardly be said that he who knows the Pyrenees has read Victor Hugo; but certainly it may be said that he who knows Victor Hugo has seen the Pyrenees. From the author's prefatory avowal that his book contains few bright or smiling pictures, a reader would never have inferred that so many of its pages are fragrant with all the breath and radiant with all the bloom of April or May among the pine-woods and their mountain lawns, ablaze with ardent blossom and astir with triumphant song. Tragedy may be hard at hand, with all the human train of sorrows and passions and sins; but the glory of beauty, the loveliness of love, the exultation of noble duty and lofty labour in a stress of arduous joy, these are the influences that pervade the world and permeate the air of the poems which deal with the Christian cycle of heroic legend, whose crowning image is the ideal figure of the Cid. To this highest and purest type of mediaeval romance or history the fancy of the great poet whose childhood was cradled in Spain turns and returns throughout the course of his threefold masterpiece with an almost national pride and passion of sublime delight. Once in the first part and once in the third his chosen hero is set before us in heroic verse, doing menial service for his father in his father's house, and again, in a king's palace, doing for humanity thesovereign service of tyrannicide. But in the second part it seems as though the poet could hardly, with his fullest effusion of lyric strength and sweetness, do enough to satisfy his loving imagination of the perfect knight, most faithful and most gentle and most terrible, whom he likens even to the very Pic du Midi in its majesty of solitude. Each fresh blast of verse has in it the ring of a golden clarion which proclaims in one breath the honour of the loyal soldier and the dishonour of the disloyal king. There can hardly be in any language a more precious and wonderful study of technical art in verse of the highest kind of simplicity than this Romancero du Cid, with its jet of luminous and burning song sustained without lapse or break through sixteen "fyttes" of plain brief ballad metre. It is hard to say whether the one only master of all forms and kinds of poetry that ever left to all time the proof of his supremacy in all has shown most clearly by his use of its highest or his use of its simplest forms the innate and absolute equality of the French language as an instrument for poetry with the Greek of Æschylus and of Sappho, the English of Milton and of Shelley.
But among all Hugo's romantic and tragic poems of mediaeval history or legend the two greatest are in my mind "Eviradnus" and "Ratbert". I cannot think it would be rash to assert that the loveliest love-song in the world, the purest and keenest rapture of lyric fancy, the sweetest and clearest note of dancing or dreaming music, is that which rings for ever in the ear which has once caught the matchless echo of such lines as these that must once more be quoted, as though all the world of readers had not long since known them by heart:—
Viens, sois tendre, je suis ivre.
O les verts taillis mouillés!
Ton souffle te fera suivre
Des papillons réveillés.
Allons-nous-en par l'Autriche!
Nous aurons l'aube à nos fronts;
Je serai grand, et toi riche,
Puisque nous nous aimerons.
Tu seras dame, et moi comte;
Viens, mon cœur s'épanouit,
Viens, nous conterons ce conte
Aux étoiles de la nuit.
The poet would be as sure of a heavenly immortality in the hearts of men as any lyrist of Greece itself, who should only have written the fourteen stanzas of the song from which I have ventured to choose these three. All the sounds and shadows of a moonlit wilderness, all the dews and murmurs and breaths of midsummer midnight, have become for once articulate in such music as was never known even to Shakespeare's forest of Arden. In the heart of a poem so full of tragedy and terror that Hugo alone could have brightened it with his final touch of sunrise, this birdlike rapture breaks out as by some divine effect of unforbidden and blameless magic.
And yet, it may be said or thought, the master of masters has shown himself even greater in "Ratbert" than in "Eviradnus". This most tragic of poems, lit up by no such lyric interlude, stands unsurpassed even by its author for tenderness, passion, divine magnificence of righteous wrath, august and pitiless command of terror and pity. From the kingly and priestly conclave of debaters more dark than Milton's to the superb admonition of loyal liberty in speech that can only be silenced by murder, and again from the heavenly and heroic picture of childhood worshipped by old age to the monstrous banquet of massacre, when the son of the prostitute has struck his perjured stroke of state, the poem passes through a change of successive pageants each fuller of splendour and wonder, of loveliness or of horror, than the last. But the agony of the hero over the little corpse of the child murdered with her plaything in her hand—the anguish that utters itself as in peal upon peal of thunder, broken by sobs of storm—the full crash of the final imprecation, succeeded again by such unspeakably sweet and piteous appeal to the little dead lips and eyes that would have answered yesterday—and at last the one crowning stroke of crime which calls down answerable stroke of judgment from the very height of heaven, for the comfort and refreshment and revival of all hearts—these are things of which no praise can speak aright. Shakespeare only, were he living, would be worthy to write on Hugo's Fabrice as Hugo has written on Shakespeare's Lear. History will forget the name of Bonaparte before humanity forgets the name of Ratbert.
But if this be the highest poem of all for passion and pathos and fire of terrible emotion, the highest in sheer sublimity of imagination is to my mind "Zim-Zizimi." Again and again, in reading it for the first time, one thinks that surely now the utmost height is reached, the utmost faculty revealed, that can be possible for a spirit clothed only with human powers, armed only with human speech. And always one finds the next step forward to be yet once more a step upward, even to the very end and limit of them all. Neither in Homer nor in Milton, nor in the English version of Job or Ezekiel or Isaiah, is the sound of the roll and surge of measured music more wonderful than here. Even after the vision of the tomb of Belus the miraculous impression of splendour and terror, distinct in married mystery, and diverse in unity of warning, deepens and swells onward like a sea till we reach the incomparable psalm in praise of the beauty and the magic of womanhood made perfect and made awful in Cleopatra, which closes in horror at the touch of a hand more powerful than Orcagna's. The walls of the Campo Santo are fainter preachers and feebler pursuivants of the triumph of death than the pages of the poem which yet again renews its note of menace after menace and prophecy upon prophecy till the end. There is probably not one single couplet in all this sweet and bitter roll of song which could have been written by any poet less than the best or lower than the greatest of all time.
At every successive stage of his task, the man who undertakes to glance over this great cycle of poems must needs incessantly call to mind the most worn and hackneyed of all quotations from its author's works—"J'en passe, et des meilleurs." There is here no room, as surely there should nowhere now be any need, to speak at any length of the poems in which Roland plays the part of protagonist; first as the beardless champion of a five days' fight, and again as the deliverer whose hand could clear the world of a hundred human wolves in one continuous sword-sweep. There ishardly time allowed us for one poor word or two of tribute to such a crowning flower of song as "La Rose de l'Infante," with its parable of the broken Armada made manifest in a wrecked fleet of drifting petals; to the superb and sonorous chant of the buccaneers, in which all the noise of lawless battle and stormy laughter passes off into the carol of mere triumphant love and trust; or even to the whole inner cycle of mystic and primæval legend which seeks utterance for the human sense of oppression or neglect by jealous or by joyous gods; for the wild profound revolt of riotous and trampled nature, the agony and passion and triumph of invincible humanity, the protest and witness of enduring earth against the passing shades of heaven, the struggle and the plea of eternal manhood against all transient forces of ephemeral and tyrannous godhead. Within the orbit of this epicycle one poem only of the first part, a star of strife and struggle, can properly be said to revolve; but the light of that planet has fire enough to animate with its reflex the whole concourse of stormy stars which illuminate the world-wide wrestle of the giants with the gods. The torch of revolt borne by the transfigured satyr, eyed like a god and footed like a beast, kindles the lamp of hopeful and laborious rebellion which dazzles us in the eye of the Titan who has seen beyond the world. In the song that struck silence through the triumph of amazed Olympus there is a sound and air as of the sea or the Book of Job. There may be something of Persian or Indian mysticism, there is more of universal and imaginative reason, in the great allegoric myth which sets forth here how the half-brute child of one poor planet has in him the seed, the atom, the principle of life everlasting, and dilates in force of it to the very type and likeness of the eternal universal substance which is spirit or matter of life; and before the face of his transfiguration the omnipresent and omnipotent gods who take each their turn to shine and thunder are all but shadows that pass away. Since the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind no ear has heard the burst of such a song; but this time it is the world that answers out of its darkness the lords and gods of creed and oracle, who have mastered and have not made it. And in the cry of its protest and the prophecy of its advance there is a storm of swelling music which is as the sound of the strength of rollers after the noise of the rage of breakers.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1877
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 in 1914 had the publication not been delayed by a grand expression of Progress. A curious coincidence that this magniloquent praise of Progress should have been delayed six years by a European war; that this homage should be paid it at the very moment when its main idea is heavily discredited.
Hugo's faith in mechanically propelled vehicles as an evidence of Progress (the capital "P" seems as appropriate as in the allied Podsnappery), as a proof of civilization, even as being civilization itself, is childish and commonplace, though he was not the only one to mistake the husk for the kernel, the science of mechanics for the art of life. His Satyr prophesies railways in these words—
Qui sait si quelque jour on ne te verra pas,
Fier, suprême, atteler les forces de l'abîme,
Et, dérobant l'éclair à l'Inconnu sublime,
Lier ce char d'un autre à des chevaux à toi?
He describes the Great Eastern steamship as—
… un monstre à qui l'eau sans bornes fut promise,
Et qui longtemps, Babel des mers, eut Londres entier
Levant les yeux dans l'ombre au pied de son chantier,
Effroyable, à sept mâts mêlant cinq cheminées
Qui hennissaient au choc des vagues effrénées.
And his description of an aeronaut as a "fier cocher Du char aérien que l'éther voit marcher" is even more amusing. Fier cocher! And he seems to have thought a dirigible could fly to Sirius and back—
Yet, even though the naïveté of Hugo's faith in machines is ridiculous, though his Progress is now a demolished illusion, is his epic necessarily valueless? We do not believe in Homer's gods or Dante's theology, yet we do not deny that the Iliad and the Commedia are great poems. Lucretius made a great poem out of philosophic doubt, Dante out of religious belief; but it is not necessary to agree with either to appreciate his poem. In fact, when we find any person who does not admire both the De rerum Natura and the Commedia Divina we know that such a one is defective in taste and sensibility. We do not go to poetry for science. All Hugo's unfortunate cumber of balloons and railways and Great Eastern steamers is only worse than Milton's cannons and bridge over chaos because they are made a more important part of his work by the Frenchman. In reading La Légende des Siècles we must not be worried by accessories to which the author gave a disproportionate attention; we must not even trouble about the truth or falsity of his main theme. We must look for other qualities and other excellences.
What was fine in Hugo was his love of human beings, his persuasion that on the whole men are more good than bad, his hatred of oppression, meanness, cruelty, and greed, his humanity and sympathy, his gifts as an imaginative writer. You may show that his Progress was principally the popular self-deception of the last century, that he was melodramatic, a wind-bag, that he humbugged himself, that he plagiarised shamefully, that his erudition was a sham and his local details a mere collection of bric-à-brac; and when all that is said and proved it has not destroyed Victor Hugo, it has not contaminated the essence of his poetry. You cannot dispose of passages like the following by simply calling them rhetorical—
Oh! les lugubres nuits! Combats dans la bruine!
La nuée attaquant, farouche, la ruine!
Un ruissellement vaste, affreux, torrentiel,
Descend des profondeurs furieuses du ciel;
Le burg brave la nue; on entend les gorgones
Aboyer aux huit coins de ses tours octogones;
Tous les monstres sculptés sur l'édifice épars,
Grondent, et les lions de pierre des remparts
Mordent la brume, l'air et l'onde, et les tarrasques
Battent de l'aile au souffle horrible des bourrasques;
L'âpre averse en fuyant vomit sur les griffons;
Et sous la pluie entrant par les trous des plafonds,
Les guivres, les dragons, les méduses, les drées,
Grincent des dents au fond des chambres effondrées….
Nor is it a complete criticism to say that "Les Pauvres Gens" and similar poems are sentimental. There is something real in lines like these—
La mère, se sentant mourir, leur avait mis
Sa mante sur les pieds et sur le corps sa robe,
Afin que, dans cette ombre où la mort nous dérobe,
Ils ne sentissent plus la tiédeur qui décroit,
Et pour qu'ils eussent chaud pendant qu'elle aurait froid.
Add to these the portrait of Philip II of Spain in "La Rose et l'Infante," the parricide's spirit under the rain of blood, the scene in the great hall in "Eviradnus," the lugubrious warnings of the ten sphinxes, the dramatic lines in "Le Petit Roi de Galicie," when
Le chevalier leva lentement sa visière:
Je m'appelle Roland, pair de France, dit-il …
and they still are only part of the fine things scattered through the pages of La Légende des Siècles.
After reading these passages most people who are not affected with excessive modernity will agree that Hugo was a poet. But if we are to keep a just sense of proportion we cannot compare him with the greater poets already mentioned. Still less can we speak of him as French enthusiasts, who think he is like Shakespeare but rather better. La Légende des Siècles is not an epic at all; it is a collection of dramatic and narrative poems. If they are to be compared with anything it is with Men and Women and Poems and Ballads. And Hugo is not always up to that standard. Too often he strikes an English reader as an inferior Browning writing in the style of an inferior Swin-burne. He is less subtle than the author of In a Balcony; and he never wrote anything so sustained, so eloquent, and so harmonious as Atalanta in Calydon. Modesty and self-depreciation were not characteristics of Hugo; the kind of poem Browning was content to call a dramatic lyric Hugo called an epic. He had a mania for the grand and sublime, which too often with him meant the grandiose and the rhetorical. He tried to match himself with Shakespeare, but his best is not equal to Shakespeare's second best. He caught from Chateaubriand tricks of eloquence and phrase-making which do not always lead to complete sincerity. After Hugo, it is small wonder we had M. Jules Romains asking for poetry to be "nu et sobre." Hugo adopted the attitude of a prophet, of an inspired guider of weak humanity, a most difficult part to sustain before an enlightened public. Modern curiosity is too unscrupulous, criticism too searching, means of information too common for any man to be able to pose so grandly with success. We know too much about Hugo to be able to take him at his own estimate.
It makes no difference to one's estimate of Hugo's genius to learn that he collected much of his information from Moréri's dictionary, that he used that information carelessly, that his poems are full of blunders, anachronisms, sonorous names which mean nothing. One does not even object to his numerous plagiarisms from less-known contemporaries. But he cannot be exonerated when he is cheap or silly or a dupe, for such defects seriously mar his work. There is no doubt that Hugo was deceived by table-rappings. The spirits of Molière, Shakespeare, Dante, Æschylus, a toad, the lion of Androcles, the Angel of Light, all dictated poems (written in French) in the style of Victor Hugo, containing the ideas in which he was then interested. He seems never to have regarded these manifestations with anything but credulous awe; never to have suspected that they might be a subconscious thought transference through that "marvellous medium," Charles Hugo. The influences of these séances may be traced in "Le Satyre" and particularly in "Plein Ciel" and "Plein Mer." The pontifical and raving manner so displeasing in Hugo came from the fact that he regarded himself as inspired by God. M. Louis Barthou possesses a photograph of Hugo in an ecstatic pose with half-shut eyes, inscribed in the poet's handwriting: "V. Hugo écoutant Dieu."
If Hugo was a dupe in such matters, he was cheap in his snarlings at Napoleon III. It is the privilege of poets and prophets to denounce kings and governments, but not from motives of disappointed ambition. M. Berret tries to excuse Hugo by saying he was "always a liberal"; but why did he wait until he had been several times passed over for Cabinet rank before he found it out? Like Chateaubriand before him, he was corroded by disappointed political ambitions. "That is the speech of a man who has tried vainly for thirty years to enter the Cabinet," said Montalembert after hearing the famous denunciation of Napoléon le Petit. Unhappily, Montalembert was right. Who now can avoid a feeling of irritation at these furious denunciations of wounded vanity masquerading as an altruistic passion for the public welfare?
Oh! pourquoi la souffrance et pourquoi la laideur?
Hélas! le bas-empire est couvert d'Augustules,
Les Césars de forfaits, les crapauds de pustules….
Excellent invective, but how much more convincing if the author had not first vainly tried for a portfolio from Augustule.
Even Hugo's humanitarianism was a little silly. M. Berret tells an anecdote of a dinner scene. The Master says: "I saved a lizard to-day." Someone else says: "I saved a spider"; someone else: "I saved a crab." Then everyone tells in turn how he did it, and the Master concludes: "That lizard, that crab, etc., will open for us the gates of paradise." Yet the scrupulous prophet, who saved lizards, must have held human life rather cheap, judging from the rivers of blood shed in his words. There are few so blood-thirsty as your really tender humanitarian. This credulity, this cheapness, this sentimentality, have left their mark in Hugo's poems. What could be more deplorable than the famous ass?
Cet âne abject, souillé, meutri sous le bâton
Est plus saint que Socrate et plus grand que Platon.
Or the bathos of this couplet—
Un seul instant d'amour rouvre l'Eden fermé:
Un porceau secouru pése un monde opprimé.
Both of which are mawkish lies.
Victor Hugo was a poetic demagogue. It was therefore no more possible for him to be sincere than it is for other demagogues. We must look in his works for the many magnificent passages when the poet spoke and the demagogue was silent.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5348
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 eleven dramas of which seven are in verse, Hugo published in his life-time a dozen main collections of poetry….
As a boy of sixteen Victor Hugo won the Golden Amaranth offered by the Académie des jeux floraux de Toulouse. It was an academic prize for a stiff and academic poem, 'Les Vierges de Verdun', and those characteristics persisted in most of the verse contained in his first published volume of 1822, Les Odes et poésies diverses. Two subsequent volumes completed a work which Hugo finally republished under the collective title of Odes et ballades. The Odes were declamatory historical pieces, but the Ballades were based on legend and folklore and were recounted with a certain warmth and fantasy, as in the English ballad. By concentrating on these qualities, Hugo went on to produce Les Orientales. Their appearance in December 1828 marked a second stage in the progress of French Romanticism hardly less significant than 1820 had been with Les Méditations.
Les Orientales are romantic in both the literary and the popular senses. Their setting is ostensibly that most colourful of all regions—the East. But Hugo's Orient extended little further east than Istanbul and for the most part it was North African Arabic and Spanish. His stay in Madrid as a boy, his reading of the Romancero—that great storehouse of medieval Spanish ballads—the poems of Byron, and the splendour of summer sunsets over Paris—these were the chief sources of his 'local colour'. From such materials he built up an exotic-seeming world which warmed the imagination without overtaxing it. Lamartine's evocations of nature had been based on landscapes which, however mistily, he had observed. Hugo was bound by no such limitations. Rather than the Lake of Annecy, he could describe the Alhambra by moonlight, or the Nile whipped by a desert wind:
By means of this synthetic Orientalism, Hugo treated the kind of subjects that Delacroix treated in painting—the sack of eastern towns, foaming steeds and mustachioed janissaries, languishing harem-queens, minarets and palm-trees. None of it was entirely new, for even Racine, in Bajazet, had written on an 'eastern' subject. The novel of the first half of the seventeenth century (de Gomberville and Madeleine de Scudéry) had used similarly exotic settings, while in the eighteenth century Orientalism had permeated both novel and drama. But not poetry. And, besides this, Hugo's handling of such themes was more full-blooded and was carried out with a conscious intention of revolt. His avoidance of Greek and Latin subjects was deliberate. It enabled him to contrast his own work with that of the drier writers of the two previous centuries and so exaggerate the distinction between the coldness of the Classics and the warmth of the Romantics. Having applied his new principles to the theory of the drama in the preface to his unacted play Cromwell in 1827, he went on to state his conception of poetry in the shorter preface to the Orientales:
The author is not unaware that many critics will think him rash and absurd to desire for France a literature comparable to a medieval town. It is one of the maddest ideas that one could have. It means openly desiring disorder, abundance, eccentricity, bad taste. How much better is a fine, regular nudity, high walls entirely plain, as they say, with a few sober ornaments in good taste—scrolls and ovals, a bronze garland for the cornices, a marble ceiling with cherubs' heads for the vaulting! The Palace of Versailles, the Place Louis XV [Place de la Concorde], the Rue de Rivoli—there you have it. That gives you a nice literature ruled on the line.
Other nations say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. We say Boileau.
If Hugo had added Corneille, Molière, Racine, La Bruyère, Lesage, his argument would have been considerably weakened, but he and his contemporaries were irked more by the hand of a debased classicism which had grown academic than by the original masters. Though overstated, their protest was genuine.
By this time Hugo was a sufficiently accomplished poet to lead his own revolt. The verse of Les Orientales shows great virtuosity in the handling of rhythm and metre. Technically, he is both varied and sure. He can write plain rollicking poems of the ballad type:
Don Rodrigue est à la chasse.
Sans épée et sans cuirasse
Un jour d'été, vers midi,
Sous la feuillée et sur l'herbe
Il s'assied l'homme superbe,
Don Rodrigue le hardi.
He can also accomplish a metrical tour de force like 'Les Djinns', which swells through seven changes of metre to its climax, then diminishes through the same changes in reverse until it dies away in the two-syllable lines with which it began:
La nuit …
It was artificial, but it was a change—as Hugo intended—from Boileau, and even from Chénier and Lamartine. At some periods poetry should be sublime, at others exploratory and sensitive, but this was a time when a poet's most urgent duty was to be read. If we look on the early Hugo as a great resuscitator, shocking French poetry back to life by methods which his contemporaries were too fastidious or too slow to apply, we shall be doing him justice.
His metrical revolution was completed by an attack on the 'regular' alexandrine. He began to break it up, to displace the caesura from the exact middle of the line and to carry on his sentences over the rhyme from one line to the next (enjambement). Other poets around and before him had done the same, but an 'irregularity' which in Racine, La Fontaine or even Chénier is something of an event, in Hugo is a characteristic. His most conspicuous challenge to the belated classicists was made in his drama Hernani, of which the opening lines:
Serait-ce déjà lui? C'est bien à l'escalier
caused, according to Théophile Gautier, almost a riot in the audience.
After this, Hugo was ready to exploit the positions he had conquered. In his four great books of lyric verse—on which the least contestable part of his reputation is based—he writes with the same metrical freedom and originality, but with less desire to startle. He has grown accustomed to his own virtuosity, and in its place two different monsters are beginning to take shape: one is the personality of Hugo, and the other his windy, thundering rhetoric. But in the eighteen-thirties their outline was not yet perfectly clear, and to discuss them now would be to anticipate.
The four books reflect a certain growth in maturity from the first to the last, but in essentials they form a single body of poetry, beginning with Les Feuilles d'automne in 1831, through Les Chants du crépuscule (1835) and Les Voix intérieures (1837), to Les Rayons et les ombres of 1840. These poems are nearly all personal, in a perfectly open way. Whether Hugo speaks in the first person, or renames himself 'the poet' or Olympio—or, more familiarly, Ol—there is no real concealment that he is expressing the spontaneous reactions of Hugo. Spontaneity in love, in his response to nature, in his views on political questions, in his impressions of past ages ('Le Passe', 'La Statue'), expressed with that amazing fluency which caused Barrès to dub him 'Le maître des mots français.' Unsubtle and uninhibited, he gives himself away with the lavishness of a born showman. There is something for everyone, even the most fastidious if they happen to come his way, for who can really resist the lure of so opulent a sensuality? His emotional gusto is not forced. He believes in it completely, and why not, since these are the feelings which carry most conviction with the common man? His sensual approach is a universal approach, whether he is writing to> Juliette such a lyric as:
Puisque j'ai mis ma lèvre à ta coupe encor pleine,
Puisque j'ai dans tes mains posé mon front pâli,
Puisque j'ai respiré parfois la douce haleine
De ton âme, parfum dans l'ombre enseveli …
with its mounting accumulation of puisque 's which is a hallmark of his rhetoric; or whether, more delicately, he is describing a luminous midsummer night as in the short 'Nuits de juin', or regretting past happiness, as in 'Tristesse d'Olympio', or apostrophizing the ghosts of drowned sailors, as in 'Oceano Nox':
On s'entretient de vous parfois dans les veillées.
Maint joyeux cercle, assis sur des ancres rouillées,
Mêle encor quelque temps vos noms d'ombre couverts
Aux rires, aux refrains, aux récits d'aventures,
Aux baisers qu'on dérobe à vos belles futures,
Tandis que vous dormez dans les goëmons verts.
On demande:—Où sont-ils? sont-ils rois dans quelque île?
Nous ont-ils délaissés pour un bord plus fertile?—
Puis votre souvenir même est enseveli.
Le corps se perd dans l'eau, le nom dans la mémoire.
Le temps, qui sur toute ombre en jette une plus noire,
Sur le sombre océan jette le sombre oubli.
What has been most admired in these poems, and what remains, are the great commonplaces of feeling, expressed with more richness and a stronger souffle than in Lamartine. Hugo insists too much, it is agreed, but without him some of the most moving and lovely sentiments of ordinary humanity would have been left without adequate expression. This was no doubt his greatest achievement, and one which is easy to overlook unless it is replaced in its historical context. We have grown so used to supposing that normal 'poetic' diction is like this (ordinary speech emotionally heightened by rhyme and rhythm and by an occasional admixture of oratory) that we forget that for a hundred and fifty years before Hugo (in French poetry at least) it was not so. Poetry used a language composed of special ingredients which were out of reach of the average education. The opposition aroused in the twentieth century by various poetic techniques sometimes indiscriminately classed as 'modern' is due largely to a return to pre-Romantic practice. The film-star who was everyone's darling suddenly turns highbrow, or develops complicated sensibilities which cannot be expressed in the language to which we have grown accustomed. In the eighteen-thirties this was a new language of which Hugo can justly be considered to have been the father. But to-day … to-day it belongs to the world. To tear something from the world before it has finished chewing it is to invite those bellows of indignation still heard even now, though more faintly as time passes. In other terms, Hugo was too successful for the well-being of the Muse. He democratized her, as he claimed, leaving it painfully difficult for her to alter her status in the future.
If after this Victor Hugo had died, or had ceased writing for good, he would have taken his place with the three other great Romantics on about equal terms—a less tortured poet than Vigny, less limpid than Lamartine, heavier yet less passionate than Musset—but a necessary member of the quartet to complete its combined range. We have to consider whether, by beginning to publish and write again after a ten-years' break, he increased his poetic stature.
There can be little doubt about Les Contemplations. At first sight these poems—nearly all composed between 1840 and 1852 (they were published in 1856)—continue the personal, lyric manner of the earlier volumes. They are divided into two parts by a page left blank except for the words: 'Quatre Septembre 1843,' and the tragedy of Léopoldine's death becomes the leitmotiv of the poems grouped after it. Hugo's new attitude of despair is summed up in the poem 'Veni, vidi, vixi':
Puisque l'espoir serein dans mon âme est vaincu,
Puisqu'en cette saison des parfums et des roses,
O ma fille! j'aspire à l'ombre où tu reposes,
Puisque mon coeur est mort, j'ai bien assez vécu.
Yet it is doubtful if the blow of his daughter's death alone accounts for the underlying difference between these poems and, say, Les Rayons et les ombres. Something besides a tragic accident had occurred since 1840, and that was the natural cessation of the young Romantic's inner source of poetry. He had exhausted the novelty of sensual experience and was prepared to 'contemplate' it rather than to express it directly. The poems of the first part of Les Contemplations are invectives such as 'Réponse à un acte d'accusation' or A propos d'Horace,' quiet records of daily life or of communings with nature, searchings after the destiny of man, eclogues where the inspiration is still erotic, songs where it is more generally sentimental. An act or an impression is now the material for a poem; it no longer is a poem of itself, spontaneously.
The second part of Les Contemplations confirms the evidence of the first. Here are verses of subdued pathos, laments, nightmare speculations on death and eternity.
Hugo's chief poems on the death of Léopoldine ('A Villequier,' 'Demain dès l'aube,' 'Paroles sur la dune') stand as great 'commonplace' pieces beside his own 'Tristesse d'Olympio', Lamartine's 'Le Vallon', or Tennyson's 'In Memoriam':
Such poems form an essential part of a nation's stock of distinguished verse on universal themes. The word 'classic', in one of its most important senses, must certainly be applied to them. But they are elegiac rather than lyric. They are bets on immortality at such short odds that, thoughsuccessful, they do not thrill very much. It is when an outside chance like 'Bateau ivre' comes off that the heart is astonished and uplifted. But for the obvious futility of the living advising the dead and the critic the poet, one would say that Hugo ought to have devoted the whole of his second literary existence to this quieter and safer vein. We should then have had two very good poets instead of one vast but uneven writer. At the cost of a narrowing of range we should have been rid of a great mass of repetitive verbiage and should have been able to see some rare blooms of impersonal art. We should have had sharper satire in Les Châtiments to give point to its great Meissonier pictures of battles and defeats, and we might have had an unquestionable masterpiece in La Légende des siècles.
This was Hugo's epic of humanity, as Les Visions was to have been Lamartine's and L'Histoire de France was Michelet's. A fruit of his first years in the Channel Islands, the first volume was published in 1859. By that date the whole work had been conceived, through the second and third volumes followed only in 1877 and 1883. Its very loose theme is the progress of the human spirit from the earliest days of the Creation, as described in the Bible, through the ancient civilizations of Assyria and Egypt to the European Middle Ages, finally reaching forward into a cloudy future with the poems Dieu and La Fin de Satan, which were published posthumously. The grand design was a noble one typical of the aspirations of the mid-nineteenth century, though it took no account of the evolutionist conception of history which was already well established by the time the second volume of La Légende appeared. Apart from this, Hugo's knowledge of history and prehistory was too incomplete for his work to be more than a series of dips into a huge bran-tub of legend, mythology and literature out of which almost anything might come.
The resulting poems are best appreciated as separate tableaux—far more fluent than Vigny's evocations of the past, yet, in their totality, far less memorable. The most impressive have been skimmed by anthologists and the traditional choices are sound—'La Conscience,' 'Booz endormi,' 'Le Satyre,' 'La Rose de l'Infante' foremost among them. Of the many others, few are entirely first-rate, some are ridiculous, but most repay reading for the occasional strange or startling passages which they contain. As random examples from the second volume there is the story of Zim-Zizimi, a kind of Sardanapalus who conquers the world only to be snuffed out by a supernatural force:
Il a dompté Bagdad, Trébizonde et Mossul
Que conquit le premier Duilius, ce consul
Qui marchait précédé de flûtes tibicines;
Il a soumis Gophna, les forêts abyssines,
L'Arabie, où l'aurore a d'immenses rougeurs,
… Et le Sahara fauve, où l'oiseau vert asfir
Vient becqueter la mouche aux pieds des dromadaires.
A few pages further on is the legend of Sultan Mourad, a blood-thirsty tyrant who in his lifetime has slain thousands of human beings. In his last hours he relieves the sufferings of a pig, and when he appears before the Judgment Seat this single good deed saves him:
Soudain, du plus profond des nuits, sur la nuée,
Une bête difforme, affreuse, exténuée,
Un être abject et sombre, un pourceau, s'éleva,
Ouvrant un œil sanglant qui cherchait Jéhovah.
… Le pourceau misérable et Dieu se regardèrent.
During and after the composition of La Légende des siècles, the torrent of other poems continued. They were collected in Les Chansons des rues et des bois (1865), which were chiefly light pieces, L'Art d'être grand père (1877), familiar poems reflecting his delight in his grandchildren Georges and Jeanne, several volumes of philosophic and religious poems (some perhaps deserve to be called mystical) running from La Pitié suprême (1879) to Les Quatre Vents de l'esprit (1881) and prolonged in the posthumous Fin de Satan and Dieu, and in certain pieces of Toute la lyre (1888-93). There are also the patriotic verse of L'Année terrible (1872) and the Republican, anti-clerical tirades of Les Années funestes (1898). Many of these pieces deserve to be read more than they are. While some are senile vapourings, others are illuminations of the human mind, and the poet—unselective by temperament—often mingles the two in the same poem.
There are three levels of approach to Hugo. If one cannot penetrate to the third, it is perhaps best to stay on the first. One then remains free to appreciate, without hindrance or annoyance, some three or four dozen poems including all those which we have mentioned by their title.
But by penetrating beyond this, the reader becomes inescapably conscious of the poison which flows through all Hugo's work—the personality of Victor Hugo. It is this Hugo who writes with affectionate pride of himself in the first poem of Les Feuilles d'automne, who at the age of twenty-eight weeps over his love-letters written ten years before—not because they recall the woman he wrote them to, but because they recall his own younger self—who addresses to Juliette that cruelly patronizing poem, 'Oh, n'insultez jamais une femme qui tombe!' and the greater cruelty of
Quand tu me parles de gloire,
Je souris amèrement.
Cette voix que tu veux croire,
Moi, je sais qu'elle ment.
Hugo, who had tasted the delights of fame, could now preach disdain of such vanities to the woman whose stage ambitions he had stifled. This was the Hugo who kept human beings as pets, so long as they would perform for him, and posed as a martyr in the exile to which he condemned not only himself, but his entire family—with the result that his younger daughter was finally driven into madness. (There is plenty of grief in his verse for the dead Léopoldine, 'cet autre moi-même,' but not a word of sympathy for the unfortunate Adèle, who dared to defy him.) Finally there is themegalomaniac's self-identification with God, easily discoverable in his later poems and well illustrated by his remark to a tongue-tied workman who approached him in his old age: 'N'ayez pas peur. Je ne suis qu'un homme.'
This ridiculously inflated egoism cannot be ignored, because Hugo makes it the basis of his theory and practice. Once realized by the reader, it can be seen to be everywhere, and then every line he writes is suspect. 'Hélas!' he writes in the preface to Les Contemplations, 'quand je vous parle de moi, je vous parle de vous.' But this is precisely what he never succeeds in doing. Never was a writer more lacking in his perception of the feelings of others, yet few writers have based so much of their work on their personal relationships. Those he loved go in alive and come out as wax models, labelled the fiancée, the mistress, the dead daughter, the grandchild, with hardly a name or a human face among them. The only living presence in that booming echo-room is Hugo's.
But is it? What was Victor Hugo? If there is no satisfactory answer, does not that explain everything? Cocteau summed up the matter when he remarked: Hugo était un fou qui se croyait Hugo. Suppose that the whole of Hugo's life, and his work which was so closely bound to it, was a series of impersonations of some ideal figure: the Lover, the Poet, the Seer, the Exile, the Democrat, the Grand Old Man, the God-inspired. That would explain our exasperation with his egotism, which is not of itself an unusual or repulsive quality in literature and is not displeasing in a Villon, a Rousseau, or a Verlaine. But if the ego is placed at the centre of the work, and there is nothing at the centre of the ego, disappointment is inevitable.
We now reach the third level, which transcends the usual limits of literary appreciation. Certain critics have suggested that at the centre of the Hugolian ego was God, or a god. This would make of Hugo one of the great mystics and of his cloud-capped, thundering rhetoric a sublime attempt to express the inexpressible.
While only a celestial judge would be really competent to decide whether this is true or false, we can at least see how it may affect our opinion of Hugo as a poet. What appear most important in this light are not the plainly sensual earlier poems, not the picture-poems, but some of the later Contemplations and the pantheistic (or deistic?) broodings expressed intermittently from then until his death in such poems as 'Religio,' 'Ce que dit la bouche d'ombre,' 'La Vision des montagnes,' or Dieu, of which the final lines are:
Veux-tu planer plus haut que la sombre nature?
Veux-tu dans la lumière inconcevable et pure
Ouvrir tes yeux, par l'ombre affreuse appesentis?
Le veux-tu? Réponds.
Et je sentis
Que la création tremblait comme une toile.
Alors levant un bras et d'un pan de son voile
Couvrant tous les objets terrestres disparus,
Il [the angel] me toucha le front du doigt.
Et je mourus.
One would read with closer attention Hugo's description of the Day of Judgment, comparing it perhaps to d'Aubigné's description:
On comprenait que tant que ce clairon suprême
Se tairait, le sépulcre, obscur, raidi, béant,
Garderait l'attitude horrible du néant,
… Mais qu'à l'heure où soudain, dans l'espace sans rives,
Cette trompette vaste et sombre sonnerait,
On verrait, comme un tas d'oiseaux d'une forêt,
Toutes les âmes, cygne, aigle, éperviers, colombes,
Frémissantes, sortir du tremblement des tombes,
Et tous les spectres faire un bruit de grandes eaux,
Et se dresser, et prendre à la hâte leurs os,
Tandis qu'au fond, au fond du gouffre, au fond du rêve,
Blanchissant l'absolu, comme un jour qui se lève,
Le front mystérieux du Juge apparaîtrait!
And, reading on in the same long poem, one would wonder whether, and in what sense, Hugo had seen the immense trumpet of the final angel, with its symbolic dimensions—or whether it was just another instrument forged by his excessive mastery of words:
Pensif, je regardais l'incorruptible airain …
Sa dimension vague, ineffable, spectrale,
Sortant de l'éternel, entrait dans l'absolu.
Pour pouvoir mesurer ce tube, il eût fallu
Prendre la toise au fond du rêve, et la coudée
Dans la profondeur trouble et sombre de l'idée;
Un de ses bouts touchait le bien, l'autre le mal;
Et sa longueur allait de l'homme à l'animal,
Quoiqu'on ne vît point là d'animal et point d'homme;
Couché sur terre, il eût joint Eden à Sodome.
Son embouchure, gouffre où plongeait mon regard,
Cercle de l'Inconnu ténébreux et hagard,
Pleine de cette horreur que le mystère exhale,
M'apparaissait ainsi qu'une offre colossale
D'entrer dans l'ombre où Dieu même est évanoui.
Cette gueule, avec l'air d'un redoutable ennui
Morne, s'élargissait sur l'homme et la nature;
Et cette épouvantable et muette ouverture
Semblait le bâillement noir de l'éternité.
Reported or invented? The answer matters a great deal. In its absence one can certainly surrender oneself to a shudder—of some magnitude, but which never goes as near the nerve as the frisson nouveau which Hugo himself acutely detected in Baudelaire and such as is contained in Baudelaire's Le Gouffre or L'Irrémédiable.
In a less cosmic vein, Hugo also has his surprises for those who would confine him to the sensual platitude. There is this Blake-like verse to the 'Horse', from Les Chansons des rues et des bois:
Monstre, à présent reprends ton vol.
Approche que je te déboucle.
Je te lâche, ôte ton licol,
Rallume en tes yeux l'escarboucle.
And this from the first stanza of 'Crépuscule', in Les Contemplations:
L'étang mystérieux, suaire aux blanches moires,
Frissonne: au fond du bois la clairière apparaît;
Les arbres sont profonds et les branches sont noires;
Avez-vous vu Vénus à travers la forêt?
And this, which foreshadows Baudelaire:
Et la vase—fond morne, affreux, sombre et dormant,
Où des reptiles noirs fourmillent vaguement.
(Les Rayons et les ombres)
Injustice to Hugo such poems should be even better known, and a considerable volume could be made from them. Taken in isolation and subjected to examination by an expert alienist, they might enable us to decide whether Hugo, who is known to have been on the verge of madness in 1855, became or remained technically mad—and not merely in Cocteau's half-joking sense—like his brother Eugène and his daughter Adèle. The usual view is that he recovered most of his sanity after a period of intense spiritual concentration and solitude, with which went adventures into spiritualism (the table-turning séances held in Guernsey) and some initiation into the Oriental religions. In that case, his remarkable self-identification with the forces of nature grew out of a perhaps superficial study of Buddhism, and once again he is the écho sonore and not the creative spirit.
Certainly the voice of the earlier Hugo persists, now amplified, in his later poems, and the mere hint of those swelling tones causes the too experienced reader to wince away. Perhaps it will be less apparent to some future generation which, knowing nothing of his biography, having lost three-quarters of his work, and reading what they have in the wrong chronological order, will be inclined to set him without reserve on the level of Virgil and Dante. Hugo badly needs a new 'legend', based quite unscientifically on his work and as little as possible on the known facts of his biography.
Hugo never asked or doubted where he stood, but his compatriots have constantly asked the question, not without a certain embarrassment. Gide's: 'Le plus grand poète français, hélas,' best sums up their perplexities. Putting aside for the moment the seer, the satyr and the democrat, each of whom deserve their separate admirations, we have a poet who, in spite of his compelling eloquence, suffers from the very serious fault that his verse is static. Except in a small number of his best poems, there is no development from stanza to stanza, or from image to image, but only a constant variation of words and images all expressing the same concept. In Hugo's mind, ideas did not beget ideas: words begat words. He saw his outline too clearly before he began to write and his poems, instead of being a chain or a spiral of discoveries shared by the reader, are one long circling round in search of a better formula. And his megalomania compels him to efface nothing, because his first formulation, as much as his last, was part of Hugo. Ironically enough, he almost obeys Boileau's precept of
Avant donc que d'écrire, apprenez à penser.
But their kinship is concealed by the immense verbal richness with which Hugo floods and covers the single concept with which he starts and ends. Instead of the organic movement which good poetry ought to have, there is only a series of resounding hammer-blows on the same spot. The stationariness of the concepts contrasted with the mechanically rapid flow of the rhythms and the rhetoric points to a disunity between Hugo's thought and his medium, and is the chief reason why he cannot be considered a supremely great artist.
But is he still, for all his faults, the greatest French poet? He has in him the elements of half a dozen poets, none of whom he surpasses on their own relatively narrow ground. We have pointed to certain foreshadowings or reminiscences of Baudelaire but such passages would be eclipsed or ignored in the work of Baudelaire as a whole. We have quoted examples of Hugo's shorter strophes…. Many of Hugo's verses, particularly in La Légende des siècles, have a strong Parnassian tinge, but placed beside the exact and powerful work of Leconte de Lisle their weakness becomes apparent.
As a writer of light poetry Hugo is often charming. Many of his songs have grace and wit, as in:
Moi, seize ans, et l'air morose,
Elle, vingt; ses yeux brillaient.
Les rossignols chantaient Rose,
Et les merles me sifflaient.
Or, more sentimental:
Et j'entendais, parmi le thym et le muguet,
Les vagues violons de la mère Saguet.
But next to Musset, the master of this genre, how heavy and fumbling is Hugo. How pompously he writes to his mistress:
Tu peux, comme il te plaît, me faire jeune ou vieux.
Comme le soleil fait serein ou pluvieux
L'azur dont il est l'âme et que sa clarté dore,
Tu peux m'emplir de brume ou m'inonder d'aurore,
while Musset carelessly, almost mockingly, observes:
Oui, femmes, quoi qu'on puisse dire,
Vous avez le fatal pouvoir
De nous jeter par un sourire
Dans l'ivresse ou le désespoir.
Hugo consistently ignores the golden rule of love-poetry, whether light or serious, which is to write of the beloved and not of the lover, and in one more instance we must confront him with a poet who was a master of that art. Hugo writes 'A une femme':
Ronsard, promising little less, writes in an entirely different spirit and his final sestet saves everything:
Yet to conclude that Hugo was jack-of-all-trades and master of none would be an absurd under-estimate. He attempted more things than he achieved successfully, yet in his totality he was unlike any other poet and in his own speciality—the voice of Jupiter-Prometheus—he could be magnificent. Perhaps as the nineteenth century recedes still further from us and takes on more of the attributes of a teeming, boisterous second Renaissance, Hugo will be prized as its most perfect representative.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2717
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 heated discussion, one may be free from anxiety about his future. There are centuries of vigor ahead of him. His future will settle down into a fairly regular cycle of phases of indifference and phases of favor, moments of devotion and periods of neglect. For the duration of fame this is a stable condition. It has become periodic.
And so one author takes his place as a sun or planet in the literary firmament, whereas another, who was his rival and who originally shone no less brightly than he, passes by and escapes us—like a meteor, a luminous incident that will never recur.
Victor Hugo, a meteor in 1830, did not stop growing and shedding light until his death. At that time one might have wondered what would become of the prodigious phenomenon of his renown and influence. Time seemed, at first to work against them. Other poets appeared; they created new poetic fashions and new desires in the public. On the other hand, critics, men of various degrees of intelligence, dared to examine the enormous work without indulgence. What would become of that immense, almost monstrous glory?
We now know. Hugo, the meteor, the dazzling phenomenon who filled a whole century with his extraordinary radiance, but who, as has happened with so many others, might have gradually become dimmer and burnt out and entered forever the night of oblivion—Hugo today appears to us one of the greatest stars in the literary sky, a Saturn or a Jupiter in the system of the world of the mind.
When a man's work has reached this exalted rank, it acquires this very remarkable characteristic, that all the attacks of which it may henceforth be the object, the denunciation of the errors that sully it (and they are made the most of), the blemishes one finds in it, are infinitely more helpful than harmful. It is not hurt by them so much as revived and as it were rejuvenated. Its enemies are only apparent enemies; in reality, they aid it powerfully to attract still more attention and to overcome once more the truly great enemy of the written word: oblivion. Once a certain threshold is crossed, therefore, all the effort expended against a man's work only strengthens its established existence, directs public opinion to it, and forces the public once more to recognize in it a certain enduring principle against which objections, mockery, analysis itself, can do nothing.
Further, one could well assert that at this stage the faults of the work, when they are as outstanding as the work itself, act as foils to its beauties and, moreover, provide criticism with opportunities for easy triumphs, for which in the end the work may be grateful.
But what is this enduring principle, this curious quality which preserves writings from being entirely effaced, endows them with a value very similar to that of gold, since, sustained by it, they oppose the effects of time by some kind of marvelous incorruptibility?
Here is the reply, whose excellent formula I take from Mistral. "Form alone exists," said the great poet of Provence. "Only form preserves the works of the mind."
To demonstrate the truth of this simple and profound saying, it is enough to notice that primitive literature, which is not written, which is kept and transmitted only by the actions of a living being, by a system of exchanges between the speaking voice, the hearing, and the memory, is necessarily a rhythmical, sometimes rhyming, literature, provided with every means that words afford for creating a memory of itself, for getting itself retained and imprinted on the mind. Everything that seems precious enough to preserve is put in the form of a poem, in epochs that do not yet know how to invent material signs. In the form of a poem: that is, one finds rhythm, rhymes, meter, symmetry of figures, antitheses, and all those means which are the essential characteristics of form. The form of a work, then, is the sum of its perceptible characteristics, whose physical action compels recognition and tends to resist all those varying causes of dissolution which threaten the expressions of thought, whether it be inattention, forgetfulness, or even the objections that may arise against it in the mind. As stress and weather perpetually tax the architect's building, so time works against the writer's productions. But time is only an abstraction. It is the sequence of men, events, tastes, fashions, and tend to render it uninteresting or naïve or obscure or tedious or absurd. But experience shows that all these causes of neglect cannot destroy a really assured form. Form alone can indefinitely guard a work against the fluctuations in taste and culture, against the novelty and charm of works produced after it.
Finally, so long as the last judgment of works by the quality of their form has not been made, there exists a confusion of values. Does one ever know who will endure? A writer may, in his day, enjoy the greatest favor, excite the liveliest interest, and exert immense influence: his final destiny is not in the least sealed by this happy success. It always happens that this fame, even if justified, loses all those reasons for existing which depend only on the spirit of an age. The new becomes old; strangeness is imitated and surpassed; passion changes its expression; ideas become widespread;manners worsen. The work that was only new, passionate, significant of the ideas of a period can and must perish. But, on the contrary, if its author has been able to give it an effective form, he will have built upon the constant nature of man, on the structure and function of the human organism, on life itself. He will thus have forearmed his work against the diversity of impressions, the inconstancy of ideas, the essential mobility of the mind. Nay, more, an author who imparts to his compositions this deep-seated power thereby shows an unusual vitality and physical energy. A vitality and energy that involve sensuousness, an abundance of dominant bodily rhythms, the unlimited resources of the individual being, confidence in his strength and intoxication with the abuse of strength—are not these the very characteristic powers of Victor Hugo's genius?
Hugo can risk all the darts of criticism, face all the reproaches, present his adversaries with many arguments against himself, be prodigal of errors; one may well point out in his work many weaknesses and blemishes, even great ones. Thanks to the magnificence of what remains, these are only spots on the sun.
What is more, this work and this fame have often, and without perishing, undergone the severest test that can affect a man's work and fame. Even before the poet's death, other poets, lesser perhaps, but poets of the rarest quality, were already publishing works of a delicacy or violence or profundity or a new magic that one did not find in his. One might think that this novelty, these marvels of perfection or surangeness or charm, would attenuate, would weaken the great man's dominion over poetry. This result was all the more probable in that they all derived more or less openly from him. Everyone knows that to aim at not following or imitating someone is still in some way to imitate him. The mirror reverses images.
Hugo, however, endures and has power still. My invariable experience confirms this: each time I happen—I who was so charmed, forty-five years ago, by the magic of the enchanters of that epoch—each time I happen to open a volume by Hugo, I always find, in turning over a few pages, enough to fill me with admiration.
But I must explain in a few words how this great poetic force began, established, and developed itself.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the matter of form, whose importance I have tried to show, was widely neglected. Purity, richness, and propriety of language, and the musical quality of verse were little sought after. Facility won the day. But facility, when it is not divine, is disastrous. The romantics generally were concerned with acting almost exclusively on the first impulse of the soul, whose emotions they tried to communicate without considering the reader's resistance, without bothering about the formal conditions I have mentioned. They put their trust in vehemence, intensity, singularity, the naked force of their feeling: they did not wait to organize its expression. Their verses are astonishingly unequal, their vocabulary vague, their images often imprecise or traditional. The immense resources of language and poetics were unknown to them; or else they thought them hindrances, bars to the possession of genius. These are naïve conceptions—of a detestable slackness. We recognize today to what extent very great poets, men like Lamartine, Musset, Vigny himself, suffer and will suffer more and more from having neglected all these things. This is easily verified by considering the events that followed. One then observes that although these poets have given riseto innumerable imitators, they have found no one to continue their work; that is, no one could develop the ideas and téchnical qualities that they did not possess. They gave us something to imitate but nothing to learn.
But Hugo arose among them. He noted their verbal insufficiency and the decadent state of the art of verse that all the triumphs of his rivals did not hide from so profound a connoisseur. For that is what Hugo is. Nothing is more significant than his choice of his true masters: Virgil and, above all, Horace, among the Latin authors. In France he cultivated most fruitfully the most substantial and the richest writers we have, of whom many are little known and read, some literally unknown. I refer to the poets and prose writers of the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth, whose influence on Hugo is undoubted and from one of whom, the obscurest of all, he even borrowed one or two pages. If one goes back from Racine to Ronsard, one notices that the vocabulary is richer, the forms are firmer and more varied. Corneille, du Bartas, d'Aubigné were for Hugo models that in his mind he must have opposed to Racine. Hugo, like all true poets, is a critic of the first rank. His criticism is exerted through fact, and the fact is that he very soon opposed to the weaknesses of his rivals the resources of an art that he was to develop by incessant exercise until the end of his career.
Yes, in him the artist is dominant. For more than sixty years he spent from five until noon each day at his poet's workbench. He spent himself in assaults on the ease and difficulties of a calling that came more and more to be his own creation. Picture this inventor at work. I mean just that: inventor; for with him the invention of form is as stimulating and urgent as the invention of images and themes. From the time of the Odes and the Orientales, he seems to take pleasure in imagining unusual and sometimes baroque types of poems. But he thus trained himself in all the possibilities of his art. Madame Simone will recite the 'Djinns' to you wonderfully. This poem is one of the many exercises he performed in order to become master of the universe of verbal effects. Sometimes he reaches an extreme and, indeed, somewhat perilous point. He came to be able to solve, or to think he could solve, all problems not only of art but of thought through the action and artifices of his rhetoric. Just as he knows how to describe, or rather to create, the prodigious presence of all visible things, and makes a sky, a tempest, a Cirque de Gavarnie, a Titan, so he boldly deals with the Universe, God, life, and death with extraordinary and sometimes stupefying freedom. Here criticism gets its chance. It can easily point out monsters of absurdity and puerility in these sequences of magnificent alexandrines. But perhaps in its zeal it does not see that a very profound lesson is hidden in this sometimes startling manner of attacking, or rather of assaulting, every possible question and of resolving them between two rhymes, usually rich. Indeed, whatever may be the problems that puzzle the mind, whatever the solutions it decides to give them, they are in the end (if it is able to give them expression) only combinations of words, arrangements of terms whose elements lie in the alphabetical chaos of a dictionary. Mallarmé said to me one evening, rather jestingly, that if there were a world mystery it could be contained in an article of the Figaro. Hugo, perhaps, flattered himself unconsciously that he had written or could one day write that particular page….
Although he did not write it, he wrote others. This man ran through the whole universe of vocabulary; he tried every genre, from the ode to the satire, from the drama to the novel, criticism, and oratory. Nothing, indeed, is finer than to see him unfold his incomparable faculty of organizing verses and words. In our language the capacity for saying everything in correct verse has never been possessed and exercised to the same extent. To the point of abuse, perhaps. Hugo is, in a way, too strong not to abuse his power. He transmutes everything he wishes into poetry. In the use of poetic form he finds the means of imparting a strange life to everything. For him there are no inanimate objects. There is no abstraction he cannot make speak, sing, lament, or threaten, and yet with him there is no verse that is not a verse. Not one error of form. This is because with him form is the supreme mistress. The action that makes form is entirely predominant in him. This sovereign form is in some way stronger than himself; he is as it were possessed by poetic language. What we call Thought becomes in him, by a strange and very instructive reversal of function … thought becomes in him the means and not the aim of expression. Often with him the development of a poem is visibly deduced from a wonderful accident of language that has occurred in his mind. The case of Hugo merits long and deep reflections that I cannot even touch upon here.
But how can one, in speaking of this extraordinary man, conclude without invoking his own voice, surely the finest verses he wrote and perhaps the finest ever written. Here they are: they end the piece he wrote, at the age of seventy, on the death of Théophile Gautier:
Passons, car c'est la loi; nul ne peut s'y soustraire;
Tout penche, et ce grand siécle avec tous ses rayons
Entre en cette ombre immense où, pâles, nous fuyons.
Oh! quel farouche bruit font dans le crépuscule
Les chênes qu'on abat pour le bûcher d'Hercule!
Les chevaux de la Mort se mettent á hennir
Et sont joyeux, car l'âge éclatant va finir;
Ce siècle altier qui sut dompter le vent contraire
Expire … o Gautier! toi, leur égal et leur frère,
Tu pars aprés Dumas, Lamartine et Musset.
L'onde antique est tarie où l'on rajeunissait;
Comme il n'est plus de Styx, il n'est plus de Jouvence.
Le dur faucheur avec sa large lame avance,
Pensif et pas à pas, vers le reste du blé;
C'est mon tour; et la nuit emplit mon œil troublé
Qui, devinant hélas! l'avenir des colombes
Pleure sur des berceaux et sourit á des tombes.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3781
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 becomes vision;" in fact, as early as the time of his first travels to see the world, when he composed Le Rhin, his exercises in imagination, and sometimes in hallucination, in the face of nature foreshadow the methods of a Rimbaud.
The poet's task is not only to see the world as a Baudelairean forest of symbols, like the seer who deciphers God's intentions in the book of the universe. He must not merely let himself be penetrated by reality, he must penetrate it, and prolong it, so to speak, in the direction sketched out by God: "the vast yearning for what could be, such is a poet's perpetual obsession. What could be in nature, what could be in destiny." In short, the poet must continue the work of divine creation where ascertainable truth gives place to potential truth: "what is it to look at the ocean, compared with looking at the possible!" It is this rivalry with God—"the poet putting himself in the place of destiny"—this going beyond, which engenders beauty: "in art, however lofty the truth, beauty is still higher."
Prisoner as he is within the boundaries of reality, the poet can find his escape toward the possible only through supernaturalism, "the part of nature that is beyond our senses." To reach it the poet must use observation, imagination and intuition. Here is a sensualist theory of knowledge: nature is the object of imagination, imagination being the interiorization of the world perceived by the senses; mankind is the object of observation, but mankind is still nature, observed in man; "supernaturalism" is the object of intuition. Intuition, or conjecture, makes the poet kin to the scientist, with the difference that the latter's work remains to be perfected, whereas a poem is a final and perfect form. Conjecture is, we might say, an extrapolation from the given of the senses, or, again, a conception of possible infinity inferred from a finite given: "nature mirrored by the soul is more abysmal than when seen directly … This reflection … is an augmentation of reality." Infinity is the only reality, be it called God or moral ideal or absolute, or simply consciousness of what is beyond man, a consciousness which in itself makes him great and is the source of all poetry.
Any esthetics which limits Beauty by certain definitions or by the application of certain rules negates infinity and sterilizes imagination. This is the case with French classicism. Even irregularity can be a part of true poetry; in one of his drafts, under the title The Infinite in Art, Hugo sketches a theory of the baroque: "What makes the charm of irregularity? apparently irregularity is unfinishedness, and in unfinishedness there is infinity." Even ugliness or evil can be part of poetry: "What we call evil we should perhaps call good if we could see the beginning and the end of it. Evil, whether in nature or in destiny, is a thing mysteriously begun by God which stretches beyond us into the invisible … Some apparent ugliness … is really part of a supreme beauty."
The poet, therefore, eager to contemplate the absolute, must cast away any preconceived esthetics. He must be sure not to let literary tradition interpose itself between him and nature. Not only must he not restrict his inspiration to the beaten path, he has to be more than original. For an original poet may still follow guides and models; in order to create a beauty that can be called his own, it is then sufficient if he has personal traits of style: thus Vergil imitating Homer. Such beauty, however, quickly fades from imitation to imitation, and Hugo often compares "original" poets to moons more and more pallidly reflecting other moons of an invisible sun (here we recognize a personal versionof a criticism frequently levelled at classicism by the Romantics). The true mark of poetic genius is thus not originality but "primitiveness." The word has no chronological connotation: "one can be primitive in any epoch: whoever draws direct inspiration from man is primitive." Molière is in Amphitryon only original, in the Misanthrope he is primitive. The poet copies from life, and his art does not lie in stylistic devices but in idées-mères, that is, in archetypes: "What is the use of copying books, copying poets, copying things already done, when you are rich with the enormous richness of the possible, when all the imaginable is yours, when you have before you, at your disposal, the whole dark chaos of types." Let us note the word: the poet does not grope about at random but knows how to select characters representative of fundamental traits of the human mind. Such characters Hugo calls prototypes or "Adams," each of them representing a whole psychological family. Nowhere more clearly than in this theory of types do we see what he means when he says that the poet continues the work of God: "the types are cases foreseen by God; genius actualizes them."
The type lives more intensely than real people do; it is not an abstraction but the union of converging psychological forces all the more powerful because concentrated within the narrow channel of a single passion; the type is a life, but a life in the form of a monomania. Don Juan, for example, epitomizes, in a figure always and everywhere valid, not only the seducer in his various forms but one kind of appetite, just as Macbeth symbolizes another sort of appetite, that of men who are nothing but a blind, insatiable hunger: the conquerors, the ambitious.
These types are powerful poetically because they embody anxieties and desires which man has felt and repressed since his remote beginnings. All these types have the same "point of departure, since they all have the same human heart." By comparing the actualizations of the same types in various cultures, by comparing Priam and Lear, for instance, Hugo easily traces their enduring quality to deep psychological roots: the types are the "points of intersection of creative forces," they all have something of the "same subterranean before-life shadowiness." Never perhaps until C. G. Jung do we find the concept of archetypes of the collective unconscious so clearly formulated.
This underlines how important it is for the poet to be docile to the suggestions of his unconscious, to what Hugo calls the "unknown collaboration." Communication with the mind's depths is indeed a true mark of genius: "what pedants call caprice, what fools call folly, what the ignorant call hallucination … this strange openness to the breath of the unknown is necessary to the deeper life of art." It demands of the poet good faith, a kind of naive acceptance of his mind's phantasms: Shakespeare believes in them, Molière does not; therefore the spectre of Elsinore imposes itself upon the reader, whereas the animated statue of the Commandeur in Don Juan looks only like what it is, a theatrical machine. Communication with the depths is achieved through meditation, for a time in Hugo's case through turning tables, but above all through night or day dreams (among his papers he left a number of "verses written while sleeping"). More than any other Romantic, more than Charles Nodier, the man who convinced him that the visions of sleep are not errors but knowledge, Hugo believes that "the phenomena of sleep put the invisible part of man in communication with the invisible part of nature." He underscores the fact that dreams permit the poet to perceive what conscious thought represses: "what we unjustly thrust out of our thoughts takes refuge in dreams." In fact, Hugo does not recoil from conclusions such as we might find in modern psychoanalytical writings: John wrote the Apocalypse because he was the "old virgin," and "love, unsatisfied anduncontented, changes at the end of life into a sinister disgorging of chimeras."
The respect the poet must feel for the "unknown collaboration" and the attention he turns to whatever in nature escapes our senses, sets up what we might call a "binary" poetics. That is, everything is conceived and expressed in terms of contrasts, in pairs. To begin with, the intellectual process of the creative genius is twofold: he uses logic, on the one hand, to apprehend whatever in this world is accessible to reason or at any rate to sensory perception, and on the other hand "caprice," which is to say fantasy, imagination. And reality is characterized by a fundamental duality, by the coexistence of contraries: the tritest of these are the facile oppositions which seem to delight God, a naive author, though they would incur the scorn of critics—night and day, mountain and valley. This universal duality is the physical confirmation of a Manicheism always present in Hugo's mind. Duality is above all the point in common between art and nature: "the ubiquitous antinomy … the ego and the non-ego, the objective and the subjective … such is the dark burning conflict, the ceaseless ebb and flow … the stupendous apparent antagonism from which a Rembrandt draws his chiaroscuro." This is to say that the artist has at his disposal the same devices as God: the "perpetual confrontation between contraries is the essence of life, in poetry as in Creation." Antithesis is at the same time an organizing principle of the cosmos and the basic figure of rhetoric—a special case of inseparability of form and content, on which more later. Antithesis is not a facile device of rhetorical amplification, as the adversaries of Romanticism have contended, but the graphic symbol of the great metaphysical dichotomy. The poet concentrates on this dichotomy, since it is his task to oppose "the invisible truth to superficial reality," since he has two ears for listening to life and to death, since poetry expresses man and man is "a double being, the boundary of two worlds. On this side of him is physical matter; beyond him, mystery … The luminous world is the one we do not see. Our eyes of flesh see only the night." Hugo, in a passage on St. Paul—where, incidentally, God's grace is defined in the same terms as is poetic inspiration elsewhere—attributes to the apostle the dual spiritual life he himself experienced: "half his thought is on earth, and half in the Unknown, and you would say at times that verse responds to verse through the dark wall of the sepulchre." Of course this "binary" poetic approach is not limited to the expression of opposition between visible and invisible; it gives structure to the whole of Hugo's inspiration; he constantly alternates between power and grace, between visionary anguish and the fantasy best exemplified by the Chansons des Rues et des Bois; his favorite symbols, such as the image of the two slopes of a mountain which he uses so often, emphasize the faculty which sets the poet apart: that of seeing at the same time the surface of things and their depths.
Neither the role of the unseen collaboration nor any structural identity between nature and art implies that the poet does no more than transcribe an inspiration which is beyond his control. On the contrary, only will power can create a masterpiece: "the will to beauty combined with the will to truth … This twofold intuition of the ideal civilizes man by making God manifest, and amends the relative by confronting it with the absolute." True, the content of a poem must be such that "one can never contemplate it without discovering new horizons filled with the mysterious radiance of infinity." Yet form demands an "austere precision," for if the ideal must have some indefiniteness, Beauty "needs contours." The poet of genius turns off his furor poeticus whenever he feels like it. The poet is enslaved only by his own idea; it is no sooner conceived than it focuses the entire force of his will: "however disturbing or formidable it may be, the poet follows up his idea to the bitter end, without pity for his fellow man." The poet must keep control of the unconscious forces that drive him: Shake-speare's chief merit, for instance, is that he is "a dreamer stronger than his dream;"Hugo often insists that madness is the abyss awaiting many thinkers who seek to draw knowledge from the oneiric world. Of the three physiological centers which condition literary creativity—brain, heart and belly—the last is the treacherous one: it degrades; this is why sensual poetry offers a spectrum ranging all the way from the Song of Songs to off-color doggerel: "Volupté remplace Volonté." Thus will-created art is perforce moral art, poetry being conscience. Hence poetic creation is a kind of heroism, or at least an act of missionary spirit, a pre-Sartrian engagement: "Destiny, especially other people's, must not be taken lightly … Any meditation of a sane, straight mind leads to a dim awakening of responsibility. To live is to be engaged."
In the concrete realization of the work of art, this selfmastery is exercised in two directions; first, it maintains immediate contact between the deep sources of poetry and their stylistic expression—an expression which must exert maximal effect on the reader. Second, it aims at creating a reality more real than that surrounding us, by making form more perfectly adequate to thought—the poet has within him "a reflector, observation, and a condenser, emotion."
An effective image, a good symbol, for instance, must have outward justification, appropriateness, naturalness and similitude; it is natural that Don Quixote, being a knight, should ride a horse, and despite Sancho's promotion to squirehood, his jackass mount reminds us that he is just a peasant after all. But in the same way that the phenomena of God's Creation conceal His intention, the poet's symbols serve as a mere facade for the deeper world of his poetic intention. Cervantes invented Sancho as the incarnation of common sense: he "sets him astride Ignorance, and … to Heroism he gives Fatigue as a mount. Thus he draws … the two profiles of Man and parodies them, sparing the sublime as little as he spares the grotesque … Enthusiasm takes the field, and Irony falls into step." The shape of everything, animate and inanimate, has a meaning which the poet's intuition makes clear; his own symbols are as rigorously shaped: in Dieu, for instance, where each dogma is symbolized by a different winged creature, infamous birds represent the lowest grade in the spiritual ascension, and the griffin, a triple animal, symbolizes Christianity, etc.
Thus form is inseparable from idea. This is true also of prosody, because there must be harmony between feelings expressed and the metre chosen: so that "drama more closely resembles nature" and reflects changes in emotional stress, the poet passes from one rhythm to another: "hence the use of the anapest for the chorus, of the iamb for dialogue and the trochee for passion;" a spondaic line of Lucretius, for example, because of its long syllables, looks almost monstrous and full of shadow. But these correspondences are still superficial; the true value of rhythm lies in the fact that it is the form the divine order of the universe takes in poetry. This order Hugo, following the esoteric writers of his time, calls Number: "number reveals itself to art through rhythm, which is the heartbeat of infinity." It is difficult not to balk at such formulas. It is one thing to say that poetry depends on number just as science does; it is something else to state blandly that number governs metre and "the iridescence of imagination," differential calculus and poetic archetypes. The temptation is great to suspect that Hugo is here indulging in mere verbalism. Nothing of the sort: we must not take him too literally. The use of the word nombre is not excessive; it is purely incantatory. There are words that make him dizzy, that are like chinks in the wall of reality. Hugo counts on such words to awaken his readers' metaphysical anxiety, to revive in our reasonable world the idea of the Unknown: this method will be taken up again by the Surrealists. But the word nombre, for all its poetic haze, has a precise meaning, which is order. Hugo has a definition for it: "order is the full development ofevery man's faculties in accordance with the diameter Nature and Providence have given him."
It follows for Hugo that there is an ideal form for the expression of any idea, a form that is consequently inseparable from the idea: "it is a mistake to believe that an idea can be rendered in several different ways … An idea can be expressed only one way." This ideal was to be Flaubert's as well, and it seems to contradict the endless synonymic amplifications so typical of Hugo's own style. Actually he is not groping about for the right phrase, he is exercising a faculty which he sees as the "very essence of poetry," the faculty of "casting light upon all kindred ideas encircling a central idea."
On the other hand, "the idea without the word would be an abstraction; the word without the idea would be noise." Their fusion is no superimposition but an identification, and to separate the two elements would be to vivisect them. In the three stages of poetic genesis, as Hugo sees it—the act of imagination, which conceives, the act of creation, which organizes, and the act of production, which weaves the initial concept into the cloth of the poem—there is nowhere a simple adding of form to content, but rather an exteriorization of content, which makes it visible and palpable. This stamps the idea with the seal of the poet, with what Hugo calls his idiosyncracy, that is to say his style.
It is in the word, the smallest component of style, that this idiosyncrasy is most manifest: "genius … thinks the word simultaneously with the idea. Hence these deeper meanings inherent in the word." Hugo recognized the importance of verbal obsessions, both as signs enabling the reader to identify a style, and as indices of the writer's deeper preoccupations; these signs are the more striking because they reflect streams of thought which underlie the more superficial meaning: they are a "sudden blossoming out of the unknown." More generally, the power of words arises from the discrepancy between the immensity of man's inner world and the paucity of the lexicon: to each single word corresponds a wealth of meanings: "sometimes in order to find a substitute for a word you will need a whole sentence." The great writer reveals more of a word's inner meaning than language ordinarily does. The only shoals to be avoided are inappropriate and improper words, and also those which have been worn out by too great success (this includes some of Hugo's own early neologisms).
Because of the part played by words in style, the latter is rigidly conditioned by language. This does not detract from the author's originality, since much of it lies in the effects he is able to draw from semantic contrasts and extensions of meaning: the appropriateness of a word in context is often its impropriety in language; this makes a deeper impression on the reader, since it violates his habits. Thus form is not only the aptest expression of content, it is also built in such a unique and characteristic fashion that permanence is guaranteed which will resist any distorting substitution and will insure the same effects on successive generations of readers. This is also the purpose of the formal restrictions of verse: we should not look upon these restrictions as added obstacles or artificial constraints; like syntax or vocabulary, they are natural and necessary linguistic forms: rhyme after all is as natural in poetic style as the echo is in nature. The structure of the language does orient the development of poetry: Hugo paints a vivid picture of the literary paralysis which follows upon the phonetic decay of a language. According to climate, a language has a predominance of vowels or consonants, and therefore different criteria of poetic beauty: Northern, consonantic languagesemphasize harmony; Southern, vocalic languages emphasize melody.
A writer chooses his words with a view to effects in a context, not within the confines of a vocabulary previously weeded, as the classicists would have it: what would you think of a botanical handbook which excluded certain plants! The appropriateness of any word is entirely dependent upon the context: when Beaumarchais calls his Suzanne Suzon or Suzette, the three possibilities offered by the language, because of their opposition in the text of the Mariage de Figaro, have a comparative value found nowhere else, expressing as they do three different psychological aspects of the character.
The fundamental criterion of Hugo's poetics is thus the prevailing importance of the work as an organic whole over any intrinsic value its components might have in other contexts. The poem is a closed world, which dictates its own standards and yardsticks; it is an "entity like nature." Little matter if it shocks tastes for which it was not created. What counts is its harmony in relation to itself. The savage story of Iphigenia, for instance, is beauty and verisimilitude in the wild world of Aeschylus' kings of prey; the same story becomes revolting when garbed in the polite conventions of Racine. Thanks to this concept of the poetic work as an autonomous body, what would be normally considered a defect becomes in this singular whole a stress, an accent: the only real defect is a lacuna in the ensemble. It all comes back to "giving each component the amount of space it demands." True, these quantities, if translated from a work of genius into any other context might seem extreme or excessive. But it is precisely this excessiveness, this quid divinum, as Hugo calls it, that sublimizes reality. Vergil may be accused of servile flattering when he sets Augustus among the constellations. This is moral weakness in the eyes of men. But the reader, bewitched by style, steps into the world of poetry, leaving behind all moral considerations belonging to the ordinary world: "il entre en vision, le prodigieux ciel s'ouvre au-dessus de lui."
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12050
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 during the nineteenth century. The wide range of his poetry from the early academic declamations of "Les Vierges de Verdun" ("The Virgins of Verdun") to the cabalistic symbolism of the posthumously-published collections, La Fin de Satan (The End of Satan) and Dieu (God) recounts the history and the development of French Romanticism in the most tellingly comprehensive terms we have. The seventeen volumes of poems that were published during Hugo'slong lifetime (1802-85) and shortly after his death unfold both his evolution and that of French poetry from the neo-Classicism and the social Romanticism of the first part of the century to the school of Art for Art's sake and the Symbolism or Modernism of the last five decades. The entire gamut of Hugo's verse is rescued from the limitations of his thought and messages; the power of his imagination and the suggestiveness of his imagery are discernible traits that characterize a significant number of his poems in such widely divergent collections as Odes et Ballades (1826), Les Orientales (1829), Les Voix intérieures (Inner Voices) (1837), Les Châtiments (1853) and Les Contemplations (1856). The last two volumes of poetry and the unfinished epic, La Légende des siècles (1859 and 1885) constitute Hugo's greatest legacy to the French Romantic movement and to the restoration of lyricism in France during the nineteenth century. Despite whatever embarrassing pretentiousness may have dictated the poet's intention in these collections, their undeniably convincing and moving lyrical strain overshadow such shortcomings and make their reading an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.
It has already been stated that the originality of French Romanticism rests much less on the idealism of its messages than on the manner in which such idealism is conceived and expressed. The whole history of western thought and civilization reveals the efforts of mankind to derive a meaningful sense of unity and balance from the confusion of a world that asserts itself in terms that are mostly fragmentary and heterogeneous. The evolution of social, political, and religious institutions from ancient times to the French Revolution records the various solutions attained by man in his attempts to explain the enigma of man in the universe. Such views were necessarily geared, in varying degrees, to the existing structure of the time, and whatever reforms were advocated were understandably defined and limited by such frames of reference. The French Revolution was a categorical rejection of the Old Order for its inability to provide and maintain an equilibrium that could meet the requirements of a society that had grown significantly more complex. In its dramatic rejection of the literary principles that guided and dictated French expression since the seventeenth century, Romanticism emerged as the literary corollary of the social and political revolution of 1789. Dismissing the purely rationalistic tenets of the Enlightenment as inadequate to shape modern thought, the French Romanticists sought the extension of expression through their recognition of the roles of instinct, intuition, and inspiration in the cognitive process. The appendage of such faculties to reason, they maintained, would permit man to attain knowledge that was more comprehensive. This view, somewhat cautiously and conditionally endorsed in the verse of Lamartine and Vigny, was destined to receive its fullest statement in the poetry of Victor Hugo. The study of the poet's slow progression to such an attitude constitutes a study of Hugo's verse from his beginnings in 1820 to the early 1840's which marked the turning point in his life and work.
The completed version of Odes et Ballades (1828) includes poems published earlier under various titles in 1822, 1824, and 1826. The collection of 1828 affords us the opportunity of examining the technical and intellectual development that took place in the poet's early career. The odes and ballads that constitute the final version of 1828 underscore Hugo's sustained political and religious conservatism even though they serve as a subtle delineation of his evolution from neo-Classicism to a moderately-stated acceptance of some of the innovations of Romanticism. Such obvious odes as the "Mort du duc de Berry" ("Death of the Duke of Berry") and "Naissance du duc de Bordeaux" ("Birth of the Duke of Bordeaux") bespeak the kind of official and circumstantial flavor that hardly qualifies them to be considered lyrical expressions. The nostalgic Bonapartist ode to heroic action in "Mon Enfance" (1823) ("My Childhood") is already a moderately effective personal statement of the mal du siècle experienced by the poet when he calls to mind the glory and excitement associated with the Imperial regime. The ode, "A. M. Alphonse de L[amartine]" composed in October of 1825 strikes a revealing chord in the development of Hugo's poetics. Advising Lamartine that he must ignore the criticism and lack of understanding of the "epicureans" that prefer to read voluptuous verse, he goes on to define the nature of true lyric poetry:
["Such is the majesty of your supreme concerts, that you seem to know even how the angels manipulate their fingers on the harps of heaven! One would think that even God, the inspiration of your boldness, appears to you from time to time in the desert, and that he speaks to you with the voice that is manifest in your verse!"]
Whatever else, Les Orientales liberated French versification of its restrictive use of vocabulary and of the stiffness of its metrical system. Aside from a group of poems inspired by the Greek War for Independence, most of the verse in the collection is impregnated more with a sense of the picturesque than with any profoundly personal emotion. As the newly recognized leader of the Romanticists, Hugo asserts himself as the spokesman for the repressed victims of the Greek Revolution in such poems as "Têtes du serail" ("Heads in the Harema") and "Mazeppa" and "L'Enfant grect" ("The Greek Child"), no doubt influenced by Eugène Delacroix's The Massacres of Scio, painted in 1824. The orientalism of Hugo is, in fact, his imaginative description of the Spain that he had visited during his youth while his father, the General Hugo, was stationed near Madrid. Complicated by his later readings and his interest in the Near East, the Orient depicted in Les Orientales is one imbued with fantasy. Whatever falseness may be discernible in his interpretation of the East is to a large degree compensated by the vividness and suggestiveness of his imagery. The mosques, gardens, and steps that he describes are conveyed in such picturesque language that we are ready to ignore their essentially Spanish flavor.
The Preface to Les Orientales, in the tracks of the explosive Préface de Cromwell of 1827, proclaims the freedom and gratuity of art in terms that predicted the later pronouncements of Théophile Gautier, the chief exponent of art for art's sake during the 1830's: "Let the poet go where he wishes, doing what he likes; that is the only rule. The poet is free." Such statements mark his evolution from literary conservatism to the expansiveness and freedom of Romanticism. With characteristic verve for masking fact and testimony in order to make his point with more éclat than precision, Hugo bemoans the lack of greatness in French literature in the following terms: "Other nations say: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare. We say: Boileau."
Les Orientales reveal Hugo's unmistakable mastery of French versification. Indeed, the most sustained single impression that is conveyed to the reader is the poet's masterful handling of the formal elements that constitute the collection. The poem, "Les Djinns," for instance, contains seven different types of metre that ascend and then descend from the climax that is achieved in precisely the eighth strophe. The "Djinns" for Hugo represent the evil spirits of the night as they approach with terrifying intensity and gradually disappear in the distant calm. The poem is little more than a technical tour deforce. As with so many poems that make up Les Orientales, the idea in the poem seems to weave itself gradually into the imagery. In other words, the inspiration or the basic idea emerges as an obvious extension of the principal images. The cadences and the increasing and decreasing sonorities produced in "Les Djinns" remind us, to an extent, of the effect that is-achieved in Ravel's Bolero. Like the Bolero, also, "Les Djinns" is more attractive and pleasing for its novelty than for the theme that it actually unfolds. Yet, the poem does betray Hugo's unfailing sense of instinct; the dramatic form of "Les Djinns" does blend neatly with the sense of fright and terror that he meant to portray. The imagery of the poem, the haunting crescendoes and decrescendoes contribute to the kind of purely external musical effects of this minor verbal symphony.
The mournful strain detectable in some of the verse of Les Voix intérieures (1837) is a projection of the kind of poignancy which Hugo's poetry will achieve with sustained force during his years of exile on the islands of Jersey and Guernsey. The death of the last Bourbon king, Charles X, the admitted infidelity of his wife with Sainte-Beuve, the passing of his brother, Eugéne, all served to unnerve the poet and to increase his already noticeable sense of insecurity to the point where he felt compelled to voice his almost paranoiac complaint in a poem addressed to his alter ego, "A Olympic" For the most part, the lyricism of Les Voix intérieures is somber. Yet such rêverie discernible in "La Vache," for instance, announces the kind of attitude toward nature which the poet comes to adopt in "Tristesse d'Olympio" of the collection, Les Rayons et les Ombres. The last volume of poems to appear before his exile, Les Rayons et les Ombers (1840) reveals Hugo's slow evolution toward an increasing acceptance of the creeds and aesthetic codes of the French Romanticists. Somewhat more imbued with the social humanitarianism of his noted counterparts, the overall effect of the collection is more purely lyrical than it is utilitarian. Among the best-known love poems of Hugo, and of all French poetry for that matter, is "Tristesse d'Olympio" ("Olympio's Lament"), composed in 1837 and inserted into the volume of 1840. Written with his mistress, Juliette Drouet, in mind, "Tristesse d'Olympio" is an evocation of the places where Hugo had spent many happy moments in the valley southwest of the city of Paris. His return to the property of the Bertin family provokes a meditation upon the passage of time that is underscored with sadness and regret. Yet the poem is far from conveying a pessimistic message; in the face of the seeming indifference of nature, Hugo expresses faith in the power and durability of the humanmemory to conserve the fleeting moments of happiness experienced by man. At the time of its composition in 1837, Hugo had not suffered the loss of his mistress; the anguish of "Tristesse d'Olympio" is prompted by the realization that his love for her has become transformed with the passing of time. The external natural setting of the Bièvre valley, recently rejuvenated by the spring, serves as an annoying reminder to the poet that his experience is doomed to disappear into cruel anonymity in the great receptacle of nature.
"Tristesse d'Olympio" illustrates one of the most popular themes of French Romanticism: the attempt to achieve both an ideal and permanent expression of human love. The resultant anguish and agony suffered by the poet when he recognizes that his efforts meet with failure constitute one of the major motifs of Romantic love poetry. Like Lamartine before him, Hugo expressly isolates his passion in nature, far from the crass considerations of a bustling and pragmatic world. Too, by so situating his love experience in a natural setting, he is more easily capable of conjuring up an association of purity and innocence, thus succeeding in appealing to a greater majority of his readers for sympathy. If Lamartine resolved the problem of the disconcerting transitoriness of human experience through the transfiguration of his love for Madame Charles, Hugo attempts to solve the problem by calling our attention to the more positive value to be found in remembrance and recollection. "Tristesse d'Olympio" is comprised of some thirty strophes, which may be divided into five parts, each of which may be considered as logical developments leading up to the resolution of the problem which Hugo presents. The first two strophes, serving as an introduction, reveal to us the slightly melancholic poet revisiting the scene of his love experience. These strophes constitute somewhat the reversal of the pathetic fallacy: nature does not reflect the sadness of the poet. The introductory strophes act, then, as a kind of prelude to the theme developed by the poem as a whole. The negatives of the first three lines are counteracted by the positive statements contained in the next nine lines which act as effective antitheses. The vague and general language of the introductory strophes conveys an almost religious atmosphere which is, to a degree, cancelled out by the documented inventory of realistic details which roughly comprise the make-up of strophes three through seven and constitute the second part of "Tristesse d'Olympio." The elaborate listing of things, specifically familiar to Juliette Drouet and to Hugo, is prompted by the desire to conjure up the past that is no more. But the poet's present frame of reference as he views the nature setting prevents him from resurrecting the past successfully. This idea is brought forth in the sixth strophe; only his thoughts attempt to fly on wounded wings—they, like the dead leaves on the ground which the poet moves with his feet will never become green or alive again.
["The leaves which were strewn on the ground of the solitary woods, trying under his feet to rise from the ground, flurried about in the garden; thus, sometimes, when the heart is sad, our thoughts take flight for a moment on their wounded wings, then fall down again, suddenly."]
Part Three (strophes eight and nine) utters the poet's plea: is he a pariah, an outcast? The answer is provided him in strophes ten through fifteen which constitute the fourth part of the poem. Nature has changed; the poet recalls the past situation and attempts to relate it to the present; the idea of change is reiterated and effectively conveyed by the repetition and the variations on the single word, change. Part Five, beginning with strophe fifteen introduces the theme of death within the natural setting which undergoes continual change. The reminder "For no one here on earth ever ends or achieves the changes" imparts the final message of "Tristesse d'Olympio:" death ends everything; we all awaken at the same place in the dream. What nature has given to the two lovers, nature has taken from them.
"Tristesse d'Olympio" achieves through the clever counterpointing of negations and affirmations a novel interpretation of the passing of time. Nature is but an externalization of the human psychological process. In his aging maturity, man recalls in sadness the extinguishing dream of the romantic love he experienced when he contemplates the scene of his experiences. But he realizes that nature, however sympathetic it may have appeared to him at the moment of earlier happiness, will not bear witness for him. Hugo concludes with the thought that man has no need of nature to safeguard and preserve his experience. The essence of the experience, abstracted through time, lies in the heart of man. Remembrance is sweetened and ripened by his reminiscence; in a sense, he has vanquished both time and nature since the memory of his romantic love finds its lasting crystallization within himself.
Despite its obvious length, the love poem preserves its unity of thought and theme development. The poet's predilection for antitheses to impart his thoughts is given prominent display in the poem. Technically, "Tristesse d'Olympio" reveals Hugo's special talent for varying the rhythm of his verses to correspond or harmonize with the various shadings in the theme that is expressed. Hugo breaks the traditional caesura of the alexandrine with frequent irregularity in order to vary his rhythms and fit them to the moods of the individual strophes of the poem.
"Fonction du poète" and "Sagesse" ("Wisdom"), strategically placed at the beginning and at the end of Les Rayons et les Ombres, underscore the social and metaphysical dimensions already perceptible in Hugo's poetical creed by 1840. The two poems may be considered as part of the elaborate theoretical amplification that dictated the nature of Hugo's later and best-known verse. Like the "Moïse" of Vigny, "Fonction du poète" and "Sagesse" asserted the poet's superiority, but unlike Vigny, Hugo tended to view the resultant isolation experienced by the poet less dramatically and more constructively. The poet's momentary withdrawal from the tainted limitation of society afforded him the opportunity to communicate with the forces of nature in order to decipher the secret mysteries of the universe. Such a sense of isolation was permeated with the poet's burning desire to solve the enigma of human destiny and summarily dismissed the haughty and disdainful aloofness advocated by Chateaubriand's René. Hugo's poet has more in common with Senancour's protagonist, Obermann, who explained his withdrawal from society in the following terms: "I do not wish to enjoy life, I want to hope, I would like to know." With Lamartine's "Réponse à Némésis" ("Answer to Nemesis") (1831), "Fonction du poète" hurled a blanket condemnation of the purely egotistical stance advocated by René who does not seek to understand men:
Dieu le veut, dans les temps contraires,
Chacun travaille et chacun sert,
Malheur à qui dit à ses frères:
Je retourne dans le désert!
Malheur à qui prend ses sandales
Quand les haines et les scandales
Tourmentent le peuple agité!
Honte au penseur qui se mutile
Et s'en va, chanteur inutile,
Par la porte de la cité!
["God wishes that in troubled times everyone must work, everyone must serve. Woe on him who tells his brothers: I am returning into the desert! Woe on him who takes up his sandals when hatred and scandal torture a beleaguered people! Shame on the thinker who mutilates himself by going away outside the gates of the city, a useless singer of songs!"]
Unlike Vigny, but more like Lamartine, Hugo invests a religious or metaphysical ingredient into the poet's function. Nature, as a direct manifestation of God, remains the poet's greatest source of inspiration. The poet's enthusiasm for nature enables him to read and decipher the divine answer to the mysteries of the universe; thus, he becomes the Orphic interpreter of the earth for his fellow man. Hugo speaks of the poet's communion with nature in the first part of "Fonction du poète" as the divine bow of the great lyre. This relationship is, of course, intuitively felt and experienced by the poet. Of technical interest is Hugo's increasing reliance upon the technique of antitheses to delineate the theme and message of his poem. The use of such categorical language is to a large extent related to the reassurance with which his poetical creed endows him. There can be no mistaking the function of the poet: he must become the leader of the people, the prophet, and fashioner of the new society that must be created; in Hugo's own words, the poet is the man of Utopias who, like the prophet, shares in the comprehensive vision that must guide humanity. Unlike his fellow man, his eyes pierce the veils of an inner, superior vision that he shares with God. The poem, "Sagesse," bearing the subtitle, "A Mademoiselle Louise B.," links the poet's function with that of the prophet: the poet's destiny is to become a thinker, to be a magus and a king, to be the alchemist who from nature and the world extracts God and reveals him to the people.
Despite his increasing awareness of the social and political problems that beset France during the 1830's and 1840's, Hugo resisted committing himself in outright fashion to any specific position until August 1848 when he openly campaigned in his newspaper, L'Evénement, in behalf of Louis Napoleon's candidacy to the presidency of the Second Republic. The failure of his play, Les Burgraves (March 1843) left him disgusted with the French theatre and he published little or nothing during the years immediately following. The tragic loss of his daughter, Léopoldine, who drowned as a result of a boating accident at Villequier on her honeymoon trip with her husband, Charles Vacquerie, on 4 September of the same year drained Hugo of his literary ambitions and energies for many months. Named a peer of France in 1845, he became more absorbed with the political destiny of France, assuming moderately liberal views. Elected mayor of the Eighth Arondissement in Paris during 1848, Hugo became the champion of the poor and the oppressed, pronounced himself against capital punishment, and advocated freedom in education. At work on his monumental social novel, Les Misérables, Hugo soon detected in the president of the Republic for whom he had campaigneda dangerous usurper of power. Seven months prior to the coup d'état of December 1851, Hugo's newspaper, L'Evénement, was ordered confiscated by the reigning prince, Louis Napoleon. Such an unexpected reprisal confirmed Hugo as a staunch apostle of liberal republicanism and inspired his vituperative attack upon the emperor, Après Auguste, Augustule (After Caesar Augustus, little Augustus) later in that year. His declared opposition to the emperor, crystallized in his membership on the Comité d'insurrection, ended in his official expulsion from France in January of 1852. Fleeing at first to Brussels, Hugo finally found refuge on the island of Jersey (1852-55), then on the nearby Channel island of Guernsey (1855-70), where he, his family, and Juliette Drouet lived separated from their native France. Far from distracting him to the point of inactivity, the eighteen years of exile endured by Hugo confirmed and reinforced his sense of purpose and mission as a writer. At the urging of his friend, Pierre Leroux, he solemnly and formally resolved to dedicate all of his literary efforts to the service of humanity. The exile years inspired Hugo with the kind of fervor and intensity, heretofore absent in his earlier poetical collections, that won for such volumes as Châtiments, Les Contemplations and La Légende des siècles a place of true distinction in French and western European lyricism during the nineteenth century.
The reign of Louis Napoleon III as second Emperor of France during the years 1851-70 struck a death blow to the French social Romanticists whose works advocated progress and humanitarianism. The strictly imposed censorship during the 1850's left such writers little choice: they could either accept exile and continue their moral and social preachments on foreign territory, or they could withdraw into relative quiet and isolation and practice the kind of literature that posed no threat to the newly-established status quo of the Second Empire. With the exception of such writers as Hugo, Pierre Leroux, and Emile de Girardin, the greatest majority of Romanticists elected to remain in France, diverting their literary talents in the Parnassianism developed by Théophile Gautier and the staunchest advocates of art for art's sake. From his house overlooking the sea in Guernsey, Hugo held to the Saint-Simonian conception of the social function of poetry, complicating his aesthetic creed with his personal notion of the prophetic power of the poet who was both the new priest and magus. His attraction to the magnetism, illuminism, and spiritualism, rampant in certain literary circles in the 1840's and 1850's, was destined to endow his lyricism with greater urgency and intensity than had been manifested before his exile in 1851.
Composed at Jersey during 1852 and 1853, Les Châtiments, Hugo's collection of violently effective attacks upon Louis Napoleon and the Second Empire, must be regarded as an impressive masterpiece of satirical lyricism. Les Châtiments translate the poet's howling scorn for the Emperor whose blatant usurpation of power in 1851 divested France of her freedom and condemned Hugo to the excruciating pain of exile from his native land. Hugo's anger, as it finds expression in the various pieces that constitute Les Châtiments, betrays his personal revulsion against the nephew of Napoleon I as well as the anguish and frustration that he experiences over the scandalous curtailment or deprivation of civil liberty in the France of the Second Empire. The epic and lyrical elements so prominently evident in Les Châtiments combine with the obvious political satire to make of the work the greatest and fullest expression of Hugo's talent as a poet up to this point. There can be no serious questioning of the author's sincerity of intention and the truthfulness of his expression in the many violent and often vituperative satirical poems in the collection. Even a cursory reading of the satires conveys the impression of intensity of feeling and emotion that doubtlessly dictated most of the poems. We are far from the amusing mockery of Voltaire in this collection; there can be nomistaking the fury that inspires the poet's attacks against everyone and everything that is symbolically associated with the regime of Napoleon III. The object of Hugo's derision is far from limited to the person of the Emperor; generals, clergymen, politicians, and writers who by their actions or silence acquiesced in the dictatorship bear the brunt of Hugo's often brutal attacks.
Part Four of the section entitled, "Ainsi les plus abjects" ("Thus, the Most Contemptible Ones"), characterizes the kind of lyricism underlying the often very angry and vituperative satire of Les Châtiments. Hugo's conviction that France's progress has been cruelly and arbitrarily thwarted by the usurpation of Louis Napoleon's power with the proclamation of the Second Empire in 1852 is conveyed with sustained explicitness throughout the section, so much so, in fact, that the poet's anger appears situated or influenced by an almost hallucinatory setting of hysteria and disorder. Hugo refers to a situation that has today fallen into the realm of history; his poem recalls events that appear more colored by the power of his imagination than by the facts revealed in existing records. There can be no denying the effectiveness of his satirical comments since they are so inextricably intertwined with his own strong emotions and reactions. The author's invective embraces in somewhat devastating language all those who by omission or commission allowed the Second Empire to be proclaimed. Hugo refers to the plebiscite of 2 December 1852 and decries the fear, greed, and stupidity that motivated or intimidated the will of the people to approve and proclaim the Empire of Napoleon III. "Ainsi les plus abjects" rails at the perpetrators of the downfall of France without the slightest restraint or exception. The section may be considered as a huge antithesis between the forces of evil, delineated with such categorical denunciations, and the forces of good, conspicuously absent but implied in the tremulous words of the satirist himself:
["They have voted! Oh! Flock which is brought to pasture in fear under the direction of the church sexton and the village policeman, you, who are filled with terror, just look at the great jawsof the hydra open wide every morning to devour you, your homes, your woods, your orchards, your lucerne millstones, and your cider apples; good people, who believe in your farmlands and who so conveniently append religion to your sense of property; souls that are affected by the sight of money and whose devotion is increased by gold; bantering mayors, dragging your peasants to the voting place; Councilmen with glassy stares; snubnosed priests howling in your pulpits: We praise the Devil: fools, […] invalids, lions transformed into bowwows; simpletons, for whom this man is a redeemer, all of you, do you think, really, that you represent France, that you are the people, and that you ever possessed the right to give us a master, you bunch of animals?"]
The three hundred and eighty six lines that constitute "L'Expiation" ("The Atonement") illustrate Hugo's remarkable talent for blending satire with epic elements. Although completed in 1852, "L'Expiation" is to a large extent a reworking of Hugo's earlier speech denouncing Louis Napoleon in July of the preceding year, "What! After Caesar Augustus, little Augustus! / What! Just because / We Have Had the Great Napoleon, / Must We Now Have Napoleon the Little One!" On the surface, the poem, in true epic fashion, recalls the exploits and the destiny of Napoleon. Although Hugo speaks in admiring terms about the first Napoleon, he ascribes his need for atonement to the fact that his coup d'état during the Revolution deprived France of its civil and political liberty. The contrasts with Napoleon III are in ample evidence; compared to the magnitude of his uncle's accomplishments, Louis Napoleon and his empire of 1852-70 appear as a lamentably ironic parody of the great Napoleonic era that opened the nineteenth century. Hugo deftly evokes the great army in the cruel snows of Russia, and the defeat suffered at Waterloo as well as Napoleon's death at Saint-Helena. In Hugo's poem, the great Emperor is made to question God if the various defeats he has experienced are a form of chastisement for whatever sins he may have committed against mankind. A voice from the shadows assures him that his downfall does not constitute the atonement that he must endure to repair the evil that he may have committed. Napoleon awakens from the dead, finally, to receive the chastisement reserved for him: the realization that his name and his fame is ignominiously exploited by his nephew. The last section of "L'Expiation" affords Hugo the opportunity to catalogue his scorn and contempt for the Second Empire. The juxtaposition of the two Napoleons is both clever and effective, since the life and the deeds of each serves as an antithesis to the other. Too, the poet of "L'Expiation" is enabled to voice his condemnation of authoritarianism with considerable dramatic effect by describing the downfall of the former and predicting the forthcoming demise of the latter. At the same time, Hugo's venemous hatred for Louis Napoleon accounts for much of the emotional lyricism. Again, the poet's personal reaction leads him to construct his epic-satire with striking metaphors and antitheses, as in the following lines:
Ton nom leur sert de lit, Napoléon premier.
On voit sur Austerlitz un peu de leur fumier.
Ta gloire est un gros vin dont leur honte se grise.
["Napoleon I, they use your name for a bed. We can see in Austerlitz a bit of their manure. Your glory is a great wine by which their shame becomes fuddled."]
Hugo is at his best in Les Châtiments when he depicts the present by evoking events of history with epic touches. His talent, made obvious in such successful pieces as "L'Expiation," predicts the effectiveness of his unfinished epic, La Légende des siècles. His propensity for amplification and exaggeration enables him to conceive of his heroes in nearly superhuman terms physically as well as morally; his Napoleon in "L'Expiation," for example, is a highly idealized conception of the historical figure, much more in tune with the poet's vivid imagination than rooted in fact or acceptable documentation. Conversely, his enemies, such as they are evoked in Les Châtiments, are portrayed as cruel monsters and emerge more as hallucinatory figures than as credible persons. The presentation that results is a strangely impressive blend of lyrical and epic satire that helps us to understand the nature of Hugo's conception of Romanticism. The fury and rage expressed against Louis Napoleon and his regime is sporadically relieved by confessional poems of considerably less violence which underscore more directly Hugo's sense of loss and suffering in his long exile from his native France. "Chanson," composed in Jersey in 1853, is the poet's mournful reverie of a France that he knew in earlier days. Such lyrical expression of his nostalgia for his country fits neatly in the overall pattern of Les Châtiments: it recalls the ills of the Second Empire with more subtlety and indirection and lends variety to the collection of poems decrying the reign of Louis Napoleon:
…Je meurs de ne plus voir les champs
Où je regardais l'aube naître,
De ne plus entendre les chants
Que j'entendais de ma fenêtre.
Mon âme est où je ne puis être.
Sous quatre planches de sapin,
Enterrez-moi dans la prairie.
On ne peut pas vivre sans pain;
On ne peut pas non plus vivre sans la patrie.—
[" … I die from not being able to see the fields where I used to watch the dawn rise, from not being able to hear the songs that I used to hear from my window. My heart is where I cannot be. Bury me under four planks of pine in the prairie. One cannot live without bread; one cannot live either without his country."]
Les Châtiments illustrates Hugo's strengths and weaknesses as an artist. The great variety of expression in the poems attests eloquently to his technical genius, but the almost excessive venom detectable in many instances unveils the weaknesses evident in his own character. Although his images and his metaphors strike the reader with stunning force, they also serve as a constant reminder that the views and arguments presented are so exclusively and narrowly dependent upon the poet's single-minded reactions. Were it not for the dazzling display of poetic versatility so prominent in Les Châtiments, the collection, taken in its entirety, would likely have disintegrated into a monotonous litany of complaints and accusations. The kind of Romantic lyricism so evident in the volume stems, in part, from Hugo's exalted sense of indignation which, at certain intervals, suggests an effacement of time and space. At such moments, Les Châtiments translates unquestionably profoundly-felt emotions which by stirring recollections of the past excite the creation of intense lyricism at the moment of composition. When Les Contemplations were originally published in two volumes in 1856, the first volume bore the title, Autrefois (In Times Past), and the second, Aujourd'hui (Today. Hugo explained in his preface that the poems presented in the first volume were the result of his poetic efforts prior to the tragic death of his daughter, Léopoldine, in 1843, and that the poems included in the second volume recorded directly or indirectly his reactions to the event during the following twelve years. The poet's claim is more interesting than it is wholly reliable; at least, it reveals the dominant source of inspiration for his most universally acclaimed collection, Les Contemplations. The same preface discusses the basic thematic structure of the six books that comprise the collection: "It begins with a smile, continues with a sob, and ends with a resounding clamor of the bugle arising from the abyss." The first three books, "Aurore" ("Dawn"); "L'Ame en fleur" ("The Budding Heart") and "Les Luttes et les rêves" ("Struggles and Dreams") are often successful evocations of happy experiences and balanced meditations on human suffering; many of the poems assume the various forms of narratives, descriptive tableaux, elegies, and songs, as well as moral and didactic pieces that recall Hugo's earlier Les Voix intérieures. The last three books, especially "Pauca Meae" ("A Few Verses for Mine," Hugo's dead daughter, Léopoldine) and "Au Bord de l'infini" ("At the Edge of the Infinite"), Books Four and Six respectively, reveal a lyricism and a philosophical dimension unmatched in the poet's entire literary production. Hugo's expression of grief over the death of his daughter and his protest against his forced exile become welded to metaphysical considerations which make of Les Contemplations the most compelling collection of French Romantic poems.
In September of 1853, Madame de Girardin, the former Delphine Gay, introduced the grieving Hugo and his family to the turning tables or the ouija boards that issued messages from beyond the grave through the efforts of mediums. Prior to 1853, again through the intermediation of Madame de Girardin, Hugo had already attracted the attention of the illuminist-artist, the former priest, Alphonse-Louis Constant, better known by his pseudonym, Eliphas Lévi, who attempted to prove that cabalistic doctrine was at the root of all occult thought. Gustave Simon describes the 11 September 1853 séance in the living room of Marine-Terrace when Hugo and his family believed they made contact with the deceased Léopoldine. Several other attempts at contact were made in which Hugo transcribed the messages he thought had been communicated to him. Nor was contact established only with Hugo's daughter; the poet of Les Contemplations believed he communicated with the spirits of Moses, Shakespeare, and Luther as well as a variety of somewhat lesser known historical figures. Gwendolyn Bays points out that the séances were not resumed after Hugo was forced to leave Jersey for Guernsey in 1855, presumably on the order of the poet's doctor who feared that his patient's mental health would become severely endangered by his persistence in such activities. Whatever else, these experiences with the voices and spirits from the great beyond provided Hugo with the assurances necessary for him to evolve the tenets of his newly-found religion in which he assumed the role of priest and magus. Declarations of his new religiosity appear in such collections as Books Four and Six of Les Contemplations, Dieu, and La Fin de Satan.
There can be little doubt that Hugo's brushes with the occult forces of spiritualism and the ouija boards are responsible for the amplification and the intensification of his conception of the poet's function after 1853. Not only is the emotional quality in the poems concerning his deceased daughter charged with greater poignancy and authenticity, but there is also ample evidence of Hugo's growing need to expand the scope of his poetic vision in the first three books of Les Contemplations as well. His exper-iences with occult forces rescued Hugo from the despair and discouragement brought on by his exile, and they provided him with the sense of direction that enabled him to assert himself with sustained assurance. The knowledge that had been revealed to him during the spiritualist séances convinced him that he had found at last the key to the mystery of the universe. This secret he wished to convey to his fellow man by assuming the role of a prophet, elected specifically by God, to collaborate in the work of making known the way to man's redemption. The twenty-sixth poem, found in Book Two, entitled "Crépuscule" ("Twlight"), allegedly completed in August of 1854, is one of the more obvious attempts on the part of Hugo to reach out for the kind of supra-terrestrial knowledge provided him in such séances.
"Crépuscule" is ostensibly a meditation on the nature of human love. Hugo's contemplation of love takes place on an absolute level since he strives to balance it with the idea of death and the complete destiny of man. The first lines plunge the reader immediately into the unreal setting of the supernatural world:
L'étang mystérieux, suaire aux blanches moires,
Frissonne; au fond du bois la clairière apparaît;
Les arbres sont profonds et les branches sont noires;
Avez-vous vu Vénus à travers la forêt?
["The mysterious pond, a shroud for the watery substances, shivers; in the depths of the woods a clearing appears; the trees are thick and the branches are black; have you seen Venus anywhere in the forest?"]
The title, "Twilight," announces mystery, and the alexandrine lines aptly convey the sense of gravity that permeates the poem. The setting is rather one of a séance: "shroud" carries with it a suggestion of the dead, and the luminous quality perceptible in the undulating white moires conveys the idea of life within the shadows and points to the possible presence of spirits. This strophe portrays something considerably more than the poet's melancholia; the question posed in the fourth line, "Have you seen Venus?," translates the nature of Hugo's vision: he wishes to know and so he asks the question that will penetrate the secrets of the unknown. To an extent, we may characterize "Crépuscule" as a visionary or hallucinatory poem; we may detect the fusion of material and spiritual elements as the poet's attempt to bridge the gap between the known visible world and the mysterious invisible world of the dead. Nor is matter simply relegated to the natural order in Hugo's poem: the highly imaginative use of images succeeds in suggesting such an ethereal setting that the imagery becomes a part of the vision itself—the invisible, spiritual world made visible. The thickness of the trees and the black branches, Hugo's setting for the lovers who are walking, issue a call beyond the visible reality to the unreal or supernatural world suggested by the "shroud" and the "watery white substances."
The secret of God is revealed to the two lovers by the blade of grass encountered in the third stanza. Nature as represented by the blade of grass is transformed by Hugo into a supernatural agent which becomes the main protagonist in this visionary poem. The poet, here the lovers, enters into communion with it in order to receive some kind of answer to the cosmic enigma of human life and death. The revelation contained in the first line of the fourth strophe constitutes the theme of "Crépuscule:" "God wants us to have loved." Life and death are joined only by love which provides the single, continuous line to eternity. The dead pray for the living; death transforms love into prayer. The last three strophes close the curtain to the vision: the glowworm alluded to in the fifthstrophe represents the bridge between the natural and supernatural orders by evoking the countryside and by suggesting the idea of the buried ones. The torch light symbolizes love transformed into prayer after death; the grass and the tomb quiver and become silent. The revelation is completed and the hand of the supernatural draws the curtain as everything returns once again to the natural order.
Les mortes d'aujourd'hui furent jadis les belles.
Le ver luisant dans l'ombre erre avec son flambeau.
Le vent fait tressaillir, au milieu des javelles,
Le brin d'herbe, et Dieu fait tressaillir le tombeau.
["The dead women of today were the beautiful women of yesteryear. The glowworm in the shadows roams with his torch light. In the midst of the bundles of wheat, the wind causes the blade of grass to quiver and God causes the tomb to throb."]
"Crépuscule" dramatically underscores the intimately personal nature of the religiosity that resulted from Hugo's experiences with the turning tables of Jersey and the spiritualist séances of the early 1850's. Hugo's religious belief is largely dictated by his need to be consoled and reassured in his personal life. The religious beliefs that he evolved became an integral part of his poetic creed which he unhesitatingly expounded in his poems from then on. However unorthodox or extreme his views of "visions" may appear to us as they find expression in his poetic production, they are nearly always related in some fashion and to some degree to the recognizable, conventional world of reality. The fact that his religious inspiration is so directly connected with his own experience prevents Hugo from embarking with any sustained degree upon a completely hallucinated realm of the imagination. His mystical illusion always refers itself eventually, however briefly, to realistic elements which heighten the reader's fascination. There exists in such poems an immediacy or urgency of expression that makes them resemble the poetry of such modernists as Baudelaire and Rimbaud. The presence of such a visionary poem as "Crépuscule" in the second book of Les Contemplations points out Hugo's literary progression from the kind of carefully rearranged recollections found in his "Tristesse d'Olympio," for instance. The sense of frenzy, excitement, and immediacy which emerges from "Crépuscule" foreshadows the manner of the later French Symbolists.
It would be a gross exaggeration to assume that all of the poems in Les Contemplations reveal such metaphysica verse signed before and after 1843 assumes the tone of simple elegy. The third poem of the section entitled "Aurore," called simply, "Mes deux Filles" ("My Two Daughters"), is a case in point. More than direct descriptions of his daughters, Léopoldine and Adèle, the poem is somewhat impressionistic in that the images constitute a dreamy, moody setting for the two girls. The familiar but clever contrast between the white carnations, the dusk, and the butterfly suggests with effective indirectness the idea of the charm and the delicacy possessed by the two girls. The mood of Hugo at the writing of the poem is injected with unobtrusiveness; as a result, the portrait of Léopoldine and Adèle is conveyed in unusually quiet yet eloquent terms. By contrast, such direct didacticism as the lengthy "Réponse à un acte d'accusation" was meant as a reply to the charges contained in Alexandre Duval's pamphlet that he held a perverted influence on French letters. There can be little mistaking the programmic tone of the piece; Hugo defines the intention of his poetry with such bluntness that the poem verges on the bombastic. Ironically, the revolutionary aims of Romanticism are defined and described in the extreme language that characterizes his own Romanticwriting.
Lanterne dans la rue, étoile au firmament.
Elle entre aux profondeurs du langage insondable,
Elle souffle dans l'art, porte-voix formidable;
Et, c'est Dieu qui le veut …
["A lantern in the street, a star in the firmament. She [the literary revolution] enters into the depths of the fathomless language, she breathes into art, the tremendous megaphone, and, it is God that wishes it so …"]
Book Four, entitled, "Pauca Meae," contains without a doubt the most touchingly effective lyricism in Hugo's entire poetic output. The poems in this section recall the memory of his daughter, Léopoldine, who succumbed under tragic circumstances while Hugo was on a trip in the Pyrenees in September of 1843. By and large, the poems contain none of the despairing and inconsolable grief which the poet is reputed to have borne in the year immediately following the accident. The poems which constitute "Pauca Meae" are rather eloquent yet emotional meditations that evoke the memory of his daughter; they more frequently than not assume the form of simple and direct elegies. Despite the tone of relative restraint that may be discerned, the poems translate Hugo's grief in heartrending terms whose sincerity of expression cannot be questioned. The rhythmic harmony of the majority of these verses combines with often striking imagery from which the intensity of the poet's total emotional experience may be deciphered. The father's despair over the loss of his beloved child is counterbalanced with quiet effectiveness by his heroic attempts at resignation. The sense of revolt that he experiences is ultimately assuaged by the appeasement he finally attains in such humble and quivering resignation. The poems unfold most eloquently Hugo's talent and genius as a lyricist principally because they are almost completely devoid of the pretentiousness of the verbal or pseudo-intellectual polemics that mar so much of his other verse. The poems in this section constitute one of Hugo's most distinguished poetic legacies for posterity.
Of the seventeen poems that celebrate the memory of Léopoldine, "A Villequier," composed for the first anniversary of her death, 4 September 1844, and expanded somewhat in 1846, is Hugo's most perfectly achieved expression of paternal grief. The prayerful tone of restraint and resignation invites the kind of pathos seldom elicited with such force in the poetry of Victor Hugo. The skillful alternation of the familiar stanza forms of the elegy provides the variety of rhythm necessary to sustain the emotional warmth and development of the contemplation. The juxtaposition of such different stanza forms has the effect of a counterpoint between the alternating moods of doubt, revolt, resignation, and appeasement. The poet's heavy reliance upon antitheses stems more from the nature of his inspiration and conviction than upon any willful intent to produce dazzling and startling effects. There can be no doubting Hugo's genuineness or sincerity in the poem; despite its ultimate restraint, "A Villequier" conveys the sense of catastrophic loss produced by the death of his eldest daughter. Yet the poem is not entirely freed of the poet's own idea of his importance as an educator of the masses, even though, admittedly, the apostrophe is convincingly enough joined to the main theme of the elegy to prevent it from attaining any overbearing dimension.
["O God! I beg you to look into my soul, and to consider that, with the humility of a child and the gentleness of a woman, I come to worship you! Consider again that, from the dawn, I have worked, fought, thought, marched, struggled, explaining nature to man from whom it escapes, illuminating everything with your light; that, confronting hatred and anger, I had accomplished my duty here on earth, and that I could not expect this reward …"]
Like the poems, "Trois Ans après" ("Three Years After") and "Mors" ("Death"), "A Villequier" translates what Pierre Moreau has termed the "positive force" of the human memory and imagination which has produced in "Pauca Meae" the reflection of Hugo's richly complicated soul state.
Like the majority of the Romantic poets, Hugo considered the forces of nature as the expression of the will of God which revealed crucial secrets of the meaning of the universe to man. The poem, "Mugitusque Boum" ("The Boom of the Oxen"), the title and theme of which is partly inspired by Vergil's Georgics, is the lyrical expression of Hugo's belief that the principle of love is contained within the bosom of the animate and inanimate elements of nature. In "Mugitusque Boum," it is the voice of the oxen that teaches man: "To love unceasingly, to love always, and to love again." The inspiration of the piece may be easily traced to Hugo rather than to Vergil who is indirectly extolled. The statement of Hugo's personal vision of the universe is readily discernible: man tends to be dominated by nature into which he gradually becomes absorbed whereby he is enabled to achieve his own self-definition.
Hugo's experiences with the occult forces and spiritualism at Jersey during 1853 further complicated and deepened his conception of the poet as prophet or magus, an idea that he had suggested in Les Voix intérieures of 1837 and which had been shared, in varying degrees, with most of the French Romantic poets. The seven hundred and ten lines that comprise "Les Mages," completed in April of 1855, describe the function and responsibility of the poet as interpreter of the voices of God, Nature, and Humanity. Again, the assurances of the superiority of the vision which Hugo believes he possesses, thanks to his spiritualist conversations with the great men of history, leave their imprint upon the seventy-one strophes by conveying the immediacy of an impression or experience rather than the balanced or ordered refashioning of a past emotion or feeling. The theme of "Les Mages"—that the superior man, the thinker, the scholar must through the articulate expression of their genius guide humanity toward its betterment and solve the most pressing enigmas of theuniverse—announces the tenor of Hugo's unfinished, yet nevertheless, monumental epic, La Légende des siècles. The almost interminable listing of the eighty names approved by the poet as priests intermediary between God and mankind is a fairly comprehensive review of the world's greatest artists, scientists, and scholars up to the time. The thirtieth strophe speaks of the poet's inherited gift from God to decipher the mysteries of nature for his fellow man; despite its programmic appeal, Hugo's talent as a lyricist is still very much in evidence:
Comme ils regardent, ces messies!
Oh! comme ils songent, effarés!
Dans les ténèbres épaissies
Quels spectateurs démesurés!
Oh! que de têtes stupéfaites!
Poètes, apôtres, prophètes,
Méditant, parlant, écrivant,
Sous des suaires, sous des voiles,
Les plis des robes pleins d'étoiles,
Les barbes au gouffre du vent!
["How they gaze, these messiahs! Oh! how they think, bewildered! in the thickening darknesses, what inordinate spectators they are! Oh! what astounding heads they have! Poets, apostles, prophets, meditating, speaking, writing, under shrouds, under veils, the folds of their gowns are filled with stars, their beards are filled with the abyss of the wind!"]
The collaboration between the magus-prophet and God which Hugo implies in "Les Mages" as well as elsewhere in Les Contemplations is momentarily challenged by the poet himself when he decreed the following formula to his fellow poets so that in times of stress they might affirm their wills to the acquisition of truth whatever the cost: "He must steal the eternal fire from the austere heavens, conquer his own mystery and steal from God." When the poem, "Ibo" ("I Shall Go"), was first published in Les Contemplations, the poet was decried for his haughtiness and audacity. Hugo's intention was misunderstood, for "Ibo" was meant as an affirmation of the poet's resolve to persist in his lonely quest for knowledge and truth. If the poem is seen as an expression of the defiance, such as we find in the poems of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, for example, it is important to observe that Hugo chooses to emphasize in his poem the constructive aspect of the poet's willful alienation from convention and tradition. The poètes maudits of the Parnassian and Symbolist schools emphasized, by contrast, the sense of decadence and disintegration experienced by the poet as a result of his revolt.
"Ibo" leads logically to "Ce que dit la Bouche d'ombre" ("What the Voice from the Abyss Decrees"). The seven hundred and eighty-six lines that comprise this long poem provide us with a summation of Hugo's somewhat cosmogonic solution to the fundamental problems besetting man. Most likely completed in 1854 and presented as the poet's philosophic conclusion to the six books of Les Contemplations, "Ce que dit la Bouche d'ombre" makes it plain that Hugo's alleged communication with the spirits of the departed at Jersey confirmed the views that he expounded in his poetry. Despite the pseudo-metaphysical intentions of "Ce que dit la Bouche d'ombre," the powerful manipulation or transposition of ideas with striking imagery rescues this impressive piece from any kind of overbearing pretentiousness and bequeaths to it a memorable lyrical quality. Hugo's cosmogonic system is an entirely personal one, dictated by his own need to assuage the grief and despair engendered by the death of his daughter, and his banishment from France by Louis Napoleon and the regime of the Second Empire. The poem is in fact a treatise on the problem of death and the destiny of man after death. Hugo evolves his own conception of eternity and links it to the origin and nature of evil in the universe. Rejecting the view that punishment, like reward, is something eternal, he explains evil as something heavily engrossed in matter that aspires through human and temporary forms of chastisement to the perfection of the spirit; he establishes the uninterrupted chain of beings wherein the deceased evil doers may expiate their wrongs. Hugo's conception of the transmigration of souls in the universe causes him to see nature through the magnified vision of hallucination.
Oh! que la terre est froide et que les rocs sont durs!
Quelle muette horreur dans les halliers obscurs!
Les pleurs noirs de la nuit sur la colombe blanche
Tombent; le vent met nue et torture la branche;
Quel monologue affreux dans l'arbre aux rameaux verts!
Quel frisson dans l'herbe! Oh! quels yeux fixes ouverts
Dans les cailloux profonds, oubliettes des âmes!
C'est une âme que l'eau scie en ses froides lames;
C'est une âme que fait ruisseler le pressoir.
Ténèbres! l'univers est hagard.
["Oh! how cold is the earth and how hard are the rocks! What silent horror resides in the hidden thickets! The black cries of the night fall upon the white dove; the wind strips and tortures the tree branch. What a horrible monologue takes place in the tree with the green branches! What a shudder runs through the grass! Oh! what fixed open eyes are in the underlying pebbles, dungeons of souls! The water saws a soul in its cold lamina; it is a soul that causes the wine press to trickle. Darknesses! the universe is haggard."]
The punishment of the wicked, however, is terminal as Hugo cries out; "there is no eternal hell!" Hell on earth is destined to be eventually transformed into the Edens of heaven, and the work of the genius, the prophet and the poet is to lead mankind slowly to that evolution.
The beliefs expressed in Les Contemplations by and large incited the poet to assume a role of leadership in world affairs. As self-appointed arbiter, he intervened with astonishing effrontery in domestic and international issues to the point where he became eventually known throughout the Western World. With all the assurance of a patriarch, from his residence overlooking the ocean at Guernsey, Hugo addressed pleas to the Swiss in behalf of the abolition of capital punishment, encouraged the Mexicans to do battle against Napoleon III, and reminded England of its duty toward the Irish. Like the philosophy presented in Les Contemplations, Hugo's advice elicited the mixed reactions of its receivers. The reception of the poet's advice as well as of his latest collection of poems perhaps contains the most telling clue of the nature of his work. Whatever may be said of the vagueness of his metaphysical revelations or visions, Les Contemplations translates admirably thepoet's complete lack of concern for the accepted criteria by which reality is judged or measured. In Books Four and Six especially of his collection, the rational substratum is meager to the point of being completely overcome by the poet's delirium and emotion. We are a long way from the reasonable epigrams of Voltaire and other exponents of the rationalist interpretation of the Enlightenment in Hugo's Les Contemplations. The visionary aspects, frequently conveyed with convincing sincerity, make it plain that the poet's sensitivity was considerably sharpened by the long exile and isolation endured in the Channel Islands. Much of the lyricism of Les Contemplations is endowed with a force that is as sweeping as it is suggestive. If the collection still commands our attention and elicits our interest, it is rather for the manner in which the principal poems are expressed than for any explicit theme or message which they may impart. For their undeniably personal strain and emotional scope, Les Contemplations serves as an excellent example of what we mean when we speak of Romantic poetry. For the sense of immediacy and urgency which so many of the poems convey, Les Contemplations serves as a valid illustration of the kind of verse that represents a transition from Romanticism to Modern poetry.
The poetic form perhaps best attuned to the Romantic mind or temper was the epic, and such French Romanticists as Lamartine and Vigny experimented with it without succeeding in achieving any special distinction. For the more visionary Hugo, however, with a comprehensive view of humanity to relate to his readers, the epic form proved to be a challenge which he met with daring and achieved for himself, in so doing, a measure of greatness as an epic poet. Published in three series, 1859, 1873, and 1877, La Légende des siècles constitutes in actual fact a series of episodes or "lesser epics" which purport to commemorate the major events and institutions that have shaped humanity from the days of the Old Testament to the nineteenth century. Finally joined together in a collective edition in 1885, La Légende des siècles was originally meant to contain the crowning poems, La Fin de Satan and Dieu which remained uncompleted and whose fragments were published posthumously. Hugo's conception of the epic differs considerably from that of his predecessors in that like his counterpart, Lamartine, in the fragments of Les Visions, Hugo believed that the whole history of humanity could be achieved through the composition of individual poems linked together by a fundamental theme or thesis. La Légende des siècles traces the ascension of man from the darkness of ignorance to the light of progress and humanitarianism, and may be considered as a logical corollary to the apocalyptic poem in Les Contemplations, "Ce que dit la Bouche d'ombre." Hugo's comprehensive intention in the vast epic is perhaps best stated by himself in the 1859 perface to the First Series: "To express humanity in a kind of cyclic work; to portray it succes sively and simultaneously from all aspects, the historical, the legendary, the philosophical, the religious, and the scientific, all of which eventually fuse into a single and immense movement of ascension toward enlightenment."
H. J. Hunt points out that if "Ce que dit la Bouche d'ombre" revealed the secret of man as an individual, Hugo still sought to explain the unity of the human race as he saw it in history and created his epic to meet this end. The many episodic poems that constitute La Légende des siècles are in fact bound together by three doctrinal sections that set forth the poet's interpretation of the progress of man in time. "La Vision d'où est sorti ce Livre" ("The Vision out of Which Was Born this Book"), "Le Satyre," and "Pleine Mer—Plein Ciel" ("Full Ocean—Full Sky") explain the core of Hugo's epic on humanity.
The vastness of such an enterprise afforded Hugo ample opportunity to inject into the series the degree of magnitude of his own vision of humanity. La Légende des siècles is underscored with the poet's own political and social views; numerous poems are little more than vitriolic attacks upon kings, princes, and emperors as the repressive forces that prevented mankind for so long from ascending to an enlightened state. Conversely, the almost purely lyrical treatment of the plight of the poor in such notable sections as "Les pauvres Gens" ("The Poor People") in the 1859 series, is striking by its eloquence. Metaphysical allusions to the mysterious, the infinite, and the supernatural abound; Hugo preaches a kind of deistic devotion to God. La Légende des siècles may be likened to a group of uneven tableaux or frescos, some impressive and others merely banal or childish, that often capture the sense of the picturesque. The poet's temperament is easily visible in the great canvases which he paints; his predilection for conceiving reality and super-reality in antithetical strokes is readily discernible throughout the three series of poems. Nearly everything is contrasted in terms of good and evil, darkness and light, ignorance and truth. Yet such simplicity of conception is more frequently than not overridden by his outstanding genius to invent metaphors and analogies that lend to the epic tales a sense of virtually overwhelming lyricism. Hugo's imaginative powers were well adapted to the epic genre; his tendency to magnify and amplify endows such biblical and legendary figures as Boaz and Roland, with a sense of grandiose majesty. Yet he manages to transform those elements of magic and the miraculous usually associated with the epic into highly suggestive symbols that represent the various stages in man's attempt to understand the mysteries of the universe that will enable him to ascend to light and perfection.
Among the most celebrated poems in La Légende des siècles that best demonstrate Hugo's talent for evoking biblical events with great vividness yet with considerable directness of expression are "Booz endormi" ("Boaz Asleep") and "La Conscience," both of them from the first series of poems published in 1859. "Booz endormi" is a beautifully achieved evocation from the Book of Ruth of the union of Boaz and Ruth from which was destined to emerge the lineage of David and Christ. Hugo's treatment of the biblical passage is a christianization of the Old Testament. The elliptic nature of "Booz endormi" announces rather the message of the Incarnation of the God-Man through the intercession of the race founded by Boaz and Ruth. "La Conscience" is a much more orthodox portrayal of the guilt suffered by Cain: Hugo stresses, rather, the vigilant eye of God pursuing Cain as the awakening of conscience in man.
Central to an adequate understanding of the scope and purpose of La Légende des siècles is the long poem, "Le Satyre" which Hugo placed alone under the multiple subheading, Sixteenth Century: Renaissance and Paganism. So strategically placed at the center of the three series, "Le Satyre" may be said to be the synthesis of the poet's philosophical and metaphysical doctrine. The satyr in Hugo's epic is presented as a mythological character—half-animal, half-man; he symbolizes the metamorphosis of man's ascension from matter to spirit. The Satyr, in the end, is changed into a giant, whose immense proportions are meant to suggest those of the universe itself. The Satyr's song before the gods on Mount Olympus relates the struggle of man against their tyranny for freedom and enlightenment. The spirit of man finally comes to dominate the repressive and dogmatic spirit of a useless deity. "Le Satyre" is divided into four sections, the first of which is appropriately entitled, "Le Bleu" ("The Blue") since it amusingly evokes the gods gathered on Mount Olympus before whom is brought the Satyr who had been caught observing Psyche bathing. The haughty gods condescend to forgive him for his boldness if he will sing for them. The Satyr's song constitutes thethree remaining parts of the poem. Accompanying himself on the flute which he has borrowed from Mercury, the Satyr begins his song with "Le Noir" ("The Black") which narrates the creation of earth, and reiterates Hugo's favorite thesis: that from the inert and unconscious matter emerges life and the consciousness of man. The second song of the Satyr, "Le Sombre," celebrates the effort of man struggling to overcome the heaviness of matter to attain enlightenment, while the third song, constituting the last part of the poem, entitled, "L'Etoilé" ("The Starred") predicts or prophesizes the ultimate success of man in his struggle to rid himself of the shackles of ignorance from the meaningless deity by the achievement of liberty. "Le Satyre" represents man's deliverance from the superstitions and the fears that have repressed his expression of freedom and have limited his quest for true enlightenment. Hugo has cleverly made his faun represent the spirit of the Renaissance with its insatiable curiosity for knowledge. In the end, the Satyr assumes the proportion of a Gargantuan giant, towering the silly gods, representing dogmatic religion, who are gathered on Mount Olympus. "Le Satyre" expresses the triumph of the spirit of enlightened man over the despotism of the narrow, binding dogmatism that stunted the growth of humanity until the Renaissance. It reveals Hugo's curious blend of the non-transformist interpretation of evolution with his personal metaphysics, partly inspired in turn by Saint-Simonian idealism; the faun sings of the genesis of man in "Le Sombre" in the following terms:
Oui, peut-être on verra l'homme devenir loi,
Terrasser l'élément sous lui, saisir et tordre
Cette anarchie au point d'en faire jaillir l'ordre,
Le saint ordre de paix, d'amour et d'unité,
Dompter tout ce qui l'a jadis persécuté,
Se construire à lui-même une étrange monture
Avec toute la vie et toute la nature …
["Yes, perhaps we will see man become the law, overwhelm the elements under him, seize and twist his anarchy to the point of springing order from it, the holy order of peace, love and unity, subdue everything which formerly persecuted him, and build by himself a strange stock with all of life and all of nature …"]
In Hugo's estimation, the evil that is present in creation stems from its material texture; "Le Satyre" makes evil synonymous with matter, and the problem remains for man to rid himself of this imperfection before he may truly ascend to an enlightened state. As Hunt maintains, the enfranchisement of man is achieved through the discovery of the laws which govern matter which enable him to harness it for his own purposes and thus allows him to follow his own destiny. The gods assembled on Mount Olympus symbolize the principle of limitation, fear, and ignorance from which the half-animal, half-man, the satyr, must free himself and mankind to permit the new reign of enlightenment. The final words of the satyr's song translate the exultation of mankind in its deliverance from the peril and darkness of ignorance.
Place au fourmillement éternel des cieux noirs,
Des cieux bleus, des midis, des aurores, des soirs!
Place à l'atome saint qui brûle ou qui ruisselle!
Place au rayonnement de l'âme universelle!
Un roi c'est de la guerre, un dieu c'est de la nuit.
Liberté, vie et foi sur le dogme détruit!
Partout une lumière et partout un génie!
Amour! tout s'entendra, tout étant harmonie!
L'azur du ciel sera l'apaisement des loups.
Place à Tout! Je suis Pan; Jupiter! à genoux.
["Make way for the eternal coming and going of the black heavens, of the blue skies, the noonday suns, the dawns and the evenings! Make way for the holy atom that burns or trickles! Make way for the radiation of the universal soul! A king means war, a god means the darkness of the night. Freedom, life and faith become superimposed on the destroyed dogma! Everywhere glows a light and everywhere glows a genius! Love. There will be understanding everywhere, since all is harmony! The azure-blue sky will be the appeasement of the wolves. Make way for Everything! I am Pan; Jupiter! get down on your knees."]
Except for the poems, La Fin de Satan and Dieu, published in their incomplete format after Hugo's death in 1885, Hugo's verse as typified in such collections as L'Art d'être grand-père (The Art of Being a Grandfather), published in 1877, and Toute la Lyre (The Whole Song), published posthumously in 1888, became considerably tempered and overshadowed by the earlier appearances of Les Châtiments, Les Contemplations and La Légende des siècles. Both La Fin de Satan and Dieu take up the message of the unfinished epic, and had they been completed by Hugo, they would likely have been inserted into the three series of poems to round out the epic cycle. La Fin de Satan, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Milton and Blake, transforms Lucifer into an angel of deliverance and liberty. Dieu is the attainment of man's enlightenment through his containment of matter which causes the imperfection and evil of the world.
Despite his repeated claims of total and comprehensive vision of the universe, Hugo as a poet stirs the interest and enthusiasm of his readers more for the forceful and vivid manner of his expression than for the doctrines which may emanate from his poems. For the most part, his poetry represents the essence of French Romanticism. His conception or perception of knowledge transcends the rationalistic realm without however totally disregarding it in order to reach out into the intuitive and instinctive world of the subconscious as well as the conscious. 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 and our subconscious aspiration toward perfect knowledge and happiness. As such, his poetry moves in the direction of the modernism unleashed by the "acceleration of history" beginning with the French Revolution. The poetry of Victor Hugo may be viewed as a rejection of the rationalistic principle as too narrowly exclusive as an adequate guide for the acquisition of the depths of truth and wisdom. Whatever may be said of the nature of the "truths" or "visions" unveiled in Hugo's poetry, it must be admitted that his poetry does satisfy a partial need to visualize the world with more unity and homogeneity. A reading of Hugo's better verse affords us the opportunity to enrich, from time to time, with our imagination an otherwise bland and exasperating perception of the world by reason and practical experience alone.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5164
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 eventually to predominate in nineteenth-century French literature. Such, at least, is the opinion of the poet Banville, who surveyed post-revolutionary poetry in 1871: "l'Ode, je le répète, une dernière fois, a absorbé tous les genres poétiques [ … ] elle est devenue toute la poésie moderne." A dramatization of the poet's creative powers became relatively more prominent in poetry, in comparison to the depiction of private emotions and to the relation of a collective adventure in a timebound setting. [Vigny] moved steadily in this direction. "L'Esprit pur" and even "La Maison du Berger" could be defined as odes. But Hugo was a much more prolific and consistent writer of poems that are unequivocally odes. His treatment of the sublime is the key to his innovations in and renewal of the genre.
Traditional Neoclassical French literary theory distinguished three types of ode according to their tone and subject. The Anacreontic Ode praised wine, women, and song. The Horatian Ode treated a wide variety of subjects with a relatively informal diction. The Pindaric heroic Ode, characterized by a "noble and elevated" tone, dealt with poetic and religious inspiration, moral exhortation, and the destinies of dynasties and nations.
Hugo's early odes, composed between 1816 and 1828, are generally of the Pindaric type. At first glance they seem static, outmoded, and uninteresting, "a curiously petrified form of neoclassical diction in which the middle and low styles have been forgotten and only the noble tone survives, forcing all subjects into its mold." From this viewpoint, the Orientales of 1829 emerge as the first great liberation of Hugo's artistic imagination in verse. A closer look at the early odes, however, reveals that "les promesses du vrai Hugo, du visionnaire et du mystique des Contemplations, sont, ici, plus perceptibles qu'en aucun autre recueil antérieur à l'exil—Les Rayons et les Ombres étant mis hors de pair." Granted that the early Hugo remains mainly within the limited compass of the heroic ode, he nevertheless transforms it decisively during his first few years as a poet.
The essence of the heroic ode was traditionally considered to reside in the "sublime." The concept of the sublime (applied to epics and to tragedies as well as to the ode) was most fully developed by "Longinus" in the third century A.D. Down through the eighteenth century, few later commentators went far beyond him. Longinus explains that the sublime aims at transcending the human condition, either by evoking a superhuman scale and an ideal of divinity which embodies the incontaminate, or by repressing the undesirable weaknesses of humanity—lamentation, pain and fear. Examples given by Longinus and his followers fall into two main categories: the spatial, and the temporal sublime. The spatial sublime evokes the might and vastness of the gods. Olympus trembles when Jupiter nods; the coursers of Neptune leap to the horizon with a single bound. The spatial sublime can be summed up by the metaphor that the world is the house of the gods.
The temporal sublime appears in the heroic human resolve which defies death. This defiance affirms moral qualities which transcend the limits of our mortality. The poet further transcends mortality by commemorating these qualities in the monument of art. So Achilles chooses a short, glorious life over a long and obscure one; Ajax implores the gods to dispel the clouds which hide and protect the Trojans so that he can return to battle, even if the gods then intend to slay him; old Horace, asked what he expected his son to do alone against three warriors, other than running away, replies: "Qu'il mourût." Early in his poetic practice, Hugo renovated both spatial and temporal sublime, discovering devices which characterize the greatest odes ("Les Mages"; "Le Satyre"; "Plein Ciel") of his maturity.
Once the vitality of classical pagan mythology declined, the hero of the ode, epic, or tragedy no longer could affirm his timeless human virtues by defying hostile gods (of course there are striking exceptions to this statement, such as Sartre's Les Mouches). So there arose the "moral ode" of the eighteenth century. It sought the temporal sublime on an abstract plane. The poet demonstrated his imaginative power by personifying in detail those virtues which are our immortal part. Hugo follows this tradition in his very early "Ode à l'Amitié" (1816: Cahier de Vers français). He begins with an apostrophe to this "adorable divinité," and after two exempla repeats the apostrophe. The power of friendship makes men lay down their life for their friends.
The moral ode transcends the fear of death and other base emotions, not by depicting a struggle against a personified human or divine enemy, but by creating episodic, personified anti-heroes who serve to embody human weakness. The moral ode characteristically portrays this anti-self, and ritually expels him from the world of the poem, just before the culmination of heroic resolve with which the ode ends. This resolve is usually expressed through an appeal to some spiritual power to maintain the poet in the happiness of virtue: So Hugo's long second apostrophe to L Amitié concludes:
Loin de toi ces vils scélérats
Qui n'ont jamais senti tes charmes,
Et ne jouissent ici-bas
Que par la terreur et les larmes!
Ce n'est point auprès de Plutus,
Dans les palais et le tumulte,
Que tu rassembles sous ton culte
Ceux qui chérissent les vertus.
Plaise aux dieux que de ce bonheur,
Je puisse enivrer mon cœur.
The "Dernier jour du monde," also composed in 1816, carries to its logical extreme the tendency of the moral ode to polarize good and evil with clear-cut moral judgments. God appears on His throne to mete out reward and punishment. Even some stanzas are divided in half to separate the wicked from the virtuous. Later, a heavily sarcastic passage of "La Bande noire" will grant the anti-self the unusual privilege of elaborating an anti-ode of its own (Odes Book II, number 3). Nobody believes the things a moral ode condemns—sin, cruelty, greed, and cowardice—are desirable, but the ode exhorts us to virtue and demands an active response to the good by dramatizing the repellent nature of its contrary.
Both moral and heroic odes seek to assure the immortality of the poet as well as of the hero. First the creative act associates the poet with lasting material achievements or with timeless moral excellence. Then he proclaims the word more real than the deed. As Vigny put it in "L'Esprit pur," speaking of his noble ancestors, "C'est en vain que d'eux tous le sang m'a fait descendre: / Si j'écris leur histoire, ils descendront de moi." Ever since Pindar, the ode writer had stressed the poet's power to confer or withhold immortality.
Hugo quickly abandoned the moral ode in its traditional form. From late 1818 to early 1821, most of his odes are politically inspired by events such as the Vendée massacres, the assassination of the Duc de Berry, the birth of the Due de Bordeaux, and the re-erection of Henri IV's statue. But even these odes, mainly referring to the recent past, sometimes transcend it to achieve a refinement of the temporal sublime. First he associates heroic deeds with an implied Exegi monumentum topos, suggesting once again that the poem is more important than the history whose memory it preserves; and then he promotes the poem itself from the status of a monument to that of the monument of a monument—a superlative of immortality. By making his poem commemorate not a man, but a monument to a man, Hugo transcends the Exegi monumentum topos which leaves the poem itself subject metaphorically to the risks of deterioration and oblivion. Consider "A la Colonne de la Place Vendôme" (Odes III, 7), or the last stanza of "Le Rétablissement de la Statue de Henri IV" (Odes I, 6):
After having described the return of his statue, with magical powers of moral inspiration, Hugo dismisses the statues of the bad rulers or anti-selves which it is the ode's business to purge. These endure, forgotten, in the larval form of meaningless dilapidated pyramids, "la ruine d'untombeau." Thus Hugo suggests the superlative of a superlative: death squared. But the undefined eternity of loyalty in "our hearts" survives both the boundary of life marked by the tombstone, and the span of known human history which marks the boundary of the life of monuments. The title of the poem, and the projet (memorializing a memorial) which that title represents, promote the poem beyond a mere restatement of the Ubi sunt topos to the rank of an assurance of the eternity of the poetic vision.
Often the early Hugo confers immortality upon his verse much more explicitly. The ode poet's traditional role of making heroes' fame live forever appears only optatively in the "Ode à l'Amitié" when Hugo speaks of Castor and Pollux, Orestes and Pylade:
Puissent vos noms, amis constans,
Couverts d'une éternelle gloire,
Passer au temple de mémoire,
Jusqu'aux derniers de nos enfans.
Of course the poem itself is a room of this temple. "Le Temps et les Cités" affirms the poet's immortality more directly by contrasting material monuments, and the mountains themselves—all of which must eventually fall—with genius. "Ilion fut, Homère existe."
[ … ] d'une cité périssable
Si le sort compte les instans,
Il est un pouvoir plus durable
Qui seul peut défier le Tems;
C'est le Génie
Then in "Le Désir de la Gloire—Ode" (1818), Hugo confers immortality upon himself rather than on Homer, though he remains in the conditional. And soon an open-ended equation of the spatial sublime leads him to a superlative of the temporal sublime of poetic immortality. He describes the seven planets revolving around the sun:
Et peut-être cet astre immense
Ressent lui-même la puissance
D'un astre plus immense encor.
Astres, dont le feu nous éclaire,
Parlez, avez-vous un Homère
Dont le nom vive plus que vous?
As the vastness of the solar system is in proportion to the entire universe, so is Homer's fame in proportion to the glory Hugo desires. After this grandiose vision, however, the effect of the poem trails off through ninety more lines.
Religious inspiration comes to dominate political inspiration in the Odes early in 1821. Hugo had allied himself with the ultraroyalists, becoming their main poetic spokesman. But their overreaction to the murder of the Duc de Berry made allegiance to their cause seem less attractive. At the same time, Lamennais's religious writings began to influence Hugo (in July 1820 he uses a Lamennais text as an epigraph to an ode to Chateaubriand), and he became acquainted with Lamennais personally in the spring of 1821. His mother's death in June of that year reinforced his meditative tendencies. The preface to the Nouvelles Odes, dated February 1824, reflects his new orientation: "II ne sera jamais l'écho d'aucune parole, si ce n'est de celle de Dieu." But when Hugo attempts literally to put this intention into practice, by having God speak in his odes, he mars them with anticlimax similar to that of "Le Désir de la Gloire," by continuing the poem after the divine words have been uttered (compare the effective sobriety of having God speak only seven words at the conclusion of La Fin de Satan). He obviates this difficulty, in his more successful odes, by not depicting God directly. Instead, he imbues history with a spiritual significance, under the influence of Joseph de Maistre, Saint-Simon, Ballanche, Lamennais, and the articles by Baron Eckstein which he admiringly published in Le Drapeau Blanc, and which introduced him to the ideas of Schlegel, Fichte, and Schelling. Hugo spiritualizes history by combining two familiar topoi: Exegi monumentum, and hopes for the future of mankind. Antithesis effectuates this combination in the third stanza of "La Bande noire" (Odes II, 3): "vieux monuments d'un peuple enfant." The vast span of civilization coextensive with the life of the monuments—themselves nearly immortal in comparison with individual human lives—merely corresponds to the childhood of humanity, evolving through eons towards an as yet undefined maturity.
It is in the domain of the spatial sublime that Hugo's innovations proved most effective. The implied metaphor that "the world is the gods' house" was renewed in Christian visions of a Last Judgment and Apocalypse, and in eighteenth-century Deistic visions of the plurality of worlds, but the poetic vision of these systems remained static, confined within the limits of a known cosmology. Eventually Hugo transcends these limits by no longer naming the vaster theater to which his metaphors of expansion point. And rather than simply shifting suddenly from the human to the divine spatial perspective (a shift accomplished in the traditional ode with the exclamation "Que vois-je!" and the like), he will depict the human as dynamically expanding until it attains and then exceeds the proportions of the divine: "Et, si vous aboyez, tonnerres, / Je rugirai" ("Ibo," Les Contemplations). Thus the imagination comes to mediate between visionary consciousness and the phenomenal world. It preserves Nature from apocalyptic destruction and sustains a dialectical relationship between mind and nature, while keeping both intact.
The static form of the sublime spatial metaphor, with its abrupt shift of perspective, appears in Hugo's "Dernier jour du monde" written in 1816. The vision is related from the viewpoint of a resurrected man. "Où suis-je? Quelle main me rend à la lumière?" the ode begins. God appears; earth trembles; chaos engulfs the universe; and the spatial sublime leads to frozen time: "le Temps dort et s'arrête / Sur le trône du ciel." Christian cosmology here imposes an ultimate limit on poetic vision.
The poetry of Hugo's maturity at times simply suggests the implications of such expansive figures—God is the Selfhood of the infinite—more eloquently, frequently, and clearly. He speaks, for example, of "l'immensité qui n'est qu'un œil sublime" ("Pleurs dans la nuit," Les Contemplations). Elsewhere, combining the spatial with the temporal sublime, he declares:
Le vent de l'infini sur ce monde souffla.
Il a sombré….
Qu'est-ce que le simoun a fait du grain de sable?
Cela fut. C'est passé. Cela n'est plus ici.
("Pleine Mer," Légende)
But he transcends this cosmic framework even in the early odes (a) by creating an open-ended version of the motif of proportions and (b) by leading the imagination from the spatial sublime to a dynamic, evolving continuum of heroic resolve for the future.
So "A la Colonne de la Place Vendôme" (Odes) describes the huge column as only a small part of a fallen empire unimaginably vaster. The Vergilian epigraph "parva magnis" emphasizes the motif of proportions, which will recur, for example, in the magnificent expatiation "Magnitudo parvi" of the Contemplations. In the latter poem, the world of the human imagination symbolized by the shepherd's fire is vaster than the stars. In "A la Colonne," a scale yet vaster than the Napoleonic empire is implied when Hugo compares the column itself to a warrior. As much as the column is greater than a single human, so much greater than the empire of Napoleon would be an undefined empire of the imagination, conquered by an army of such columns which the poet had brought back to life.
Again, and similarly, the connotations of warlike valor and the active verbs associated with the key metaphor of "Aux ruines de Montfort-L'Amaury" (Odes)—the town as sword—removes the limits from the movement of visionary expansion. This expansion represents only an initial expression of soldierly resolve, the prelude to great exploits in a theater unimaginably vaster than the physical world itself:
Je médite longtemps, en mon cœur replié;
Et la ville, à mes pieds, d'arbres enveloppée,
Etend ses bras en croix et s'allonge en épée,
Comme le fer d'un preux dans la plaine oublié.
This time, nostalgia aborted the prophetic adventure, which was to achieve its plenitude only in the poetry of Hugo's exile. Otherwise, he might well have continued:
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
(Blake, Milton, preface)
What warrior would take Hugo's sword-town in hand, and what would be his battle? It has been described: "The ancient struggle between man and spirit-influence—that is, of man for self-dependence—is continuing in a more intimate way. What do the spirits want? Always the same: man's fall, his ontic degradation. How does humanism deal with that? By sending against them the thunderbolt of hermeneutic degradation." Hugo will finally dramatize this humanistic strategy in what is perhaps his greatest poem, "Le Satyre." Summoned before the Olympian gods, the humble faun sings. And as he sings, he grows and swells until the gods shrink into insignificance:
L'avenir [ … ]
C'est l'élargissement dans l'infini sans fond,
C'est l'esprit pénétrant de toutes parts la chose!
On mutile l'effet en limitant la cause;
Monde, tout le mal vient de la forme des dieux.
On fait du ténébreux avec le radieux;
Pourquoi mettre au-dessus de l'Etre, des fantômes?
Blake said this often, but he couldn't have put it better.
The royal road past the divine to a humanistic perspective is the archetype of Inversion ("to see the World in a Grain of Sand") implied by the motif of proportion, as stated and illustrated, for example, in "A la Colonne de la Place Vendôme." What seemed bad, proves good. (What seemed enormous, proves small. What seemed insignificant, proves important, etc. For countless examples, see Christ's sayings in the Gospels, passim.) It was Hugo's explicit statement of the archetype of Inversion in the early odes which inspired him, apparently, to discover a new verbal dimension beyond spatial vastness, and thus to overcome the power of the gods. "A M. de Chateaubriand" (Odes) praises that minister for resigning from the government in 1824. Material renunciation leads to a moral triumph. "Chacun de tes revers pour ta gloire est compté [ … ] Tomber plus haut encore que tu n'étais monté!" Here the archetype of Inversion functions to transfer the perception of vastness from the objective to the subjective plane. Then the "beyonding" effect of the sublime will not depend on the existence of a God or gods, the theater of whose action is larger than ours, but rather on the creative fiat of the poetic imagination. God is in us, not "up there."
Thus the mechanism of transcendence is shifted from the continual evocation of mythological beings, personified abstractions, and angels or spirits (which persist to create the beyonding effect as late as the poetry of Baudelaire and of the early Mallarmé) to the poet's manipulation of syntax. So, at the beginning of this same ode to Chateaubriand, Hugo writes:
As far as I know, "mondes volcans" is Hugo's earliest use of the "metaphor maxima," the juxtaposition of noun with noun in violation of ordinary French syntax, which has attracted much attention in the Contemplations and later collections. (In English, on the contrary, the juxtaposition of noun and noun—e.g. houseboat, boathouse—is so common that some computer programs for machine translation do not distinguish between English nouns and adjectives, calling both parts of speech "nadjes.") Clearly the metaphor maxima arises from placing a noun in apposition to another ("des astres, rois"), for in this situation French drops the article before the second noun, removing a barrier to its assimilation with the first. This condensation may seem trivial, but it is not. First, by violating normal syntax it implies a poetic vision which normal syntax cannot adequately communicate. It shows rather than tells the topos of inexpressibility. Second, without the metaphor maxima Hugo would have to express the sublime equation in a sentence with verb and subject ("The world is a volcano"). By condensing this equation to the single unit of two noun/adjectives, he frees the surrounding syntax. This syntax then no longer constitutes a mechanism ending with and limited by the metaphor maxima. It becomes capable of maneuvering that metaphor in the context of a vaster vision ("The world-volcano flies").
In this way the poet acquires limitless possibilities for displacing or transforming metaphorical immensity through his use of verbs. He ("le génie," above) rather than a god becomes the master of time and space, through his use of language ("des symboles"). The final step in this process will be to subject the entire known universe to the dynamic dominion of syntax: "L'hydre Univers tordant son corps écaillé d'astres" "Ce que dit la Bouche d'Ombre," (Les Contemplations). The metaphor maxima becomes an "être verbal" (e.g. the familiar "knife without a handle, whose blade is missing"), a concept which exists across our ordinary categories for experience—abstract and concrete, moral and physical, being and non-being—and thus dramatizes the transcending power of the creative imagination at work in a universe of words.
Hugo's theoretical statements in his prefaces to the Odes clearly show that he associates the Ode form with the Ancien Régime. Progressively as he evolves from monarchical views towards liberalism, he experiences the ode as inadequate for his poetic vision. His earliest definition of the ode proclaims quite conventionally that it "avec majesté célèbre les exploits / Des dieux, des conquérants, des héros et des rois" ("Régles de l'Ode"). His 1822 preface reaffirms the reactionary viewpoint that "l'histoire des hommes ne présente de poésie que jugée due haut des idées monarchiques et des croyances religieuses." And again in 1823 he advocates replacing pagan mythology with Christian dogma in an attempt to support and console French monarchical society "qui sort, encore toute chancelante, des saturnales de l'athéisme et de l'anarchie."
The reactionary reign of Charles X made Hugo change his mind. From late in 1821, moreover, he had been prepared for a change of heart by a progressive reconciliation with his father, who had been a general under Napoleon. The 1826 preface no longer casts a nostalgic backward glance at the Ancien Régime. Hugo, now chafing under the restraint of the ode's historical associations with a political system from which he is coming to wish himself free, simply defines the genre so broadly that his definition becomes meaningless. The ode reflects "toute inspiration purement religieuse, toute étude purement antique, toute traduction d'un événement contemporain ou d'une impression personnelle." Already in 1825, moreover, the weakening of Hugo's religious faith and his desire for a larger public led him to bid farewell—for a time—to visionary poetry. The October 1825 ode "A M. Alponse de L[amartine]" which introduces the third book of odes exclaims "Ah! nous ne sommes plùs au temps où le poète / Parlait au ciel en prêtre, a la terre en prophète!" and yields the palm to Hugo's friendly rival. No later poem in the Odes et Ballades proclaims the poet's prophetic mission, describes the abysses which open to his visionary gaze, nor invokes God or History.
The 1828 preface traces the evolution of his choice of subjects for the ode from historical (Books I-III) to "sujets de fantaisie" (Book IV), to "impressions personnelles" (Book V). With the ballades of Book VI and the Orientales of 1829 he abandons the formal designation of "ode" altogether: since "tout a droit de cité en poésie" (1829), any generic label seems overly restrictive. Until the Feuilles d'automne, published in 1831, Hugo marks time with prosodie virtuosity, exoticism, and the light fantastic. The Ballades and Orientales show Hugo turning his attention away from France and from the decaying political influence of the aristocracy and monarchists with whom he had allied himself. The very act of juxtaposing the playful Ballades with the serious Odes in 1828 reflects a certain depreciation of the latter in Hugo's mind.
Nevertheless, to call to mind the features of the ode is to perceive more clearly the imaginative origins of the great poetry of the exile period. There Hugo multiplies original versions of the sublime suggested by his discoveries in the early odes. But beyond that, several other possibilities inherent in the ode, suggested but not exploited in the 1820's, receive a detailed imaginative development in the 1850's: the excoriation of the scapegoat figure (Les Châtiments); the redemption of the scapegoat (Les Contemplations; La Fin de Satan); the extension of the static temporal sublime into the dynamic future of humanity (La Légende des siècles); and the dramatization of an inexhaustibly unfolding poetic vision (Dieu).
After 1828, Hugo's transformation of the Ode passes through two main phases: generally speaking, the middle period collections—Les Feuilles d'Automne, Les Chants du Crépuscule, Les Voix intérieures, and Les Rayons et les Ombres—reverse the traditional arrangement of (a) inspiration from a superior order, and (b) report of the resulting vision. Hugo's growing democratic sensibilities now preclude his presenting himself as an intellectual or spiritual aristocrat at the outset of the poems. Instead, an imaginative encounter with the physical world leads him and the reader together towards the visionary insight suggested at the conclusion of the poems. Not having received an initial revelation, the poet can no longer play the role of Christ and Judge, self-confidently separating the sheep from the goats. Generalized metaphors of light and darkness replace the overtly judgmental polarities of hero and scapegoat, good and evil. To counterbalance this diminution of poetic prestige, Hugo reverses the relationship between poet and nature. Rather than nature being a source of inspiration for the poet, she receives a revelation from him. And it remains apparent that the implied author—as distinguished from the lyric self—has undergone a visionary experience by the beginning of the poems: allusions to it are insinuated into the initial sections of the poem, by descriptive details which imply an overarching harmony into which the polar oppositions of good and evil have been subsumed. Thus "La Vache" of Les Voix intérieures is compared both to a doe and to a leopard; her hide combines the colors white and russet red (ice and fire); and her barnyard contains both a sedentary old man and noisy children, before the visionary climax which equates her to universal nature. Hugo's rural landscape with figures revives, both in theme and subject, the seventeenth and eighteenth-century descriptive poetry which celebrated the cosmic order of concordia discors.
In 1823, "Le Poète" (Odes) already anticipates standing the ode on its head: inspiration and the message from a higher order occur at the very end of the poem. The first section evokes the poet's solitary condition; the second complains that he must live amidst the frivolous crowd; the third tells that crowd to leave him in peace, because he is divinely inspired; and the fourth shows him appearing among mankind once more, bearing a transcendent revelation: "son front porte tout un Dieu!" "Extase" in 1828 (Orientales) is the first poem in which the poet's contemplation of nature, rather than the dictation of a Muse, leads to spiritual revelation. The stars and the waves beneath them proclaim the presence of God: "Mes yeux plongeaient plus loin que le monde réel."
In "Pan" of Les Feuilles d'Automne, the poet becomes the interpreter as well as the recipient of messages from a panpsychic nature, of "le mot mystérieux que chaque voix bégaie." He invites other poets to mingle their souls with creation. In an inversion of the poet-as-Aeolian-harp topos, nature metaphorically becomes a keyboard passively responding to the poet's strong fingers. As Pierre Albouy comments, here.
Hugo renoue avec la haute ambition du poète 'vates' qui s'exprimait dans les Odes; à nouveau, le poète est défini comme un être 'sacré,' dont la mission consiste à traduire en langage humain ce 'verbe' divin qu'est la nature. Le poème annonce ainsi, lointainement, les Mages, et, aussi, par le symbole du dieu Pan, le mythe du Satyre, dans la Légende des Siècles.
The poet's mental processes are compared in detail to natural processes, and nature imitates him as much as he imitates her, in "Dictée en présence du glacier du Rhône" and "La Pente de la Rêverie" of Les Feuilles d'Automne. In the latter poem,
La Seine, ainsi que moi, laissait son flot vermeil
Suivre nonchalamment sa pente, et le soleil
Faisait évaporer à la fois sur les grèves
L'eau du fleuve en brouillards et ma pensée en rêves!
Fused with nature, the poet no longer can hold himself aloof, a detached intellect, to judge and condemn the anti-selves of the traditional ode. In "Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne," for example (July 1829; Les Feuilles d'Automne,), he distinguishes both a hymn of praise and a wail of lamentation emanating from the land scape. But now he feels sympathy for the dark world of suffering.
In short, Hugo's middle-period poetry adopts a three-fold rather than a two-fold vision. He undertakes a mission of mediation and reconciliation, rather than simply discriminating between black and white, evil and good. His habit of tripartite thinking is evident in La Préface de Cromwell (1827) and in the preface to Les Voix intérieures, but it becomes associated with a hierarchy of soul, mind, and body only in the "Prélude" of the Chants du Crépuscule. The poet as mind mediates between the soul and body. He echoes "tout ce que le monde [the body] / Chante [the soul] dans l'ombre en attendant!" The word "Crépuscule," which can mean either pre-dawn or dusk, also transcends a simple binary opposition of light and darkness, as Hugo insists in his preface:
Tout aujourd'hui, dans les idées comme dans les choses, dans la société comme dans l'individu, est à l'état de crépuscule. De quelle nature est ce crépuscule? de quoi sera-t-il suivi? … La société attend que ce qui est à l'horizon s'allume tout à fait ou s'éteigne complètement.
The preface likewise transcends the opposition of Good and Evil: "Dans ce livre … il y a tous les contraires, le doute et le dogme, le jour et la nuit … Le poète n'est pourtant, lui, ni de ceux qui nient, ni de ceux qui affirment. Il est de ceux qui espèrent." And in the liminal "Prélude," the nearest approach to an anti-self is the uncertain poets and priests who seek a revelation and a new role. Hugo's poet-persona of the middle period odes seeks to penetrate a mystery rather than to distribute praise and blame.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4961
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 intérieures (1837), and Les Rayons et les ombres (1840)—trace an equally radical realignment of the poet's literary persona: Hugo was becoming detached from his royalism and Catholic faith, reflecting the crises of meaning which pervaded the July Monarchy. His brother's madness and death (in 1837), the suicides of several friends, guilt and anger at his and his wife's infidelities also echo political, moral, and religious upheavals. A new poetics—and Olympio, Hugo's permanent persona—emerge from that transition.
Hugo's four pre-exile collections are unified by the poet's discovery of faith through uncertainty and doubt. Not a Christian faith, but a modern faith which understands anxiety as an appropriate response to rapid social, political, and intellectual change. Using a gross biographical fact we can hypothesize an intentional progression from Les Chants du crépuscule (1835) to Les Voix intérieures (1837): Hugo composed his two great poems on doubt in the fall of 1835—"Que nous avons le doute en nous" (dated 13 October) and "Pensar, Dudar" (dated 8 September). He distributed them in different books. "Que nous avons le doute en nous," a negative view of doubt, appears at the end of Les Chants du crépuscule, whereas his positive acceptance of doubt, "Pensar, Dudar," almost concludes Les Voix intérieures. The biographical facts simply confirm a rhetorical reading: a traditional apologetic strategy forms the four collections into one spiritual itinerary.
Hugo develops the topos of the descent into hell as preparation for redemption to affirm doubt as theonly path to modern faith. To do this he must transform his readers' consciousness. The Romantic poet confronts his century's proud rationalism as did Pascal, whose Pensée 72 (in the Brunschwicg numbering) transports the skeptic into the sublime world of the two infinites in order to produce a humble receptivity to the divine:
Qui se considérera de la sorte s'effraiera de soi-même, et, se considérant soutenu dans la masse que la nature lui a donné, entre ces deux abîmes de l'infini et du néant, il tremblera dans la vue de ces merveilles; et je crois que sa curiosité se changeant en admiration, il sera plus disposé à les contempler en silence qu'à les rechercher avec présomption.
Hugo evokes terror and uncertainty which imitate the trembling of Pascal's philosopher, "égaré dans ce canton détourné de la nature." Hugo challenges philosophical doubt with esthetic intuitions of nature's sublime inscrutability. Feelings of terror provoke his and the reader's conversion, literally, by scaring the daylights out of them. From the darkness will emerge a complex sense of the sacred.
The poet exemplifies a modern faith when he extracts meaning (and beauty) from confusion. Hugo stresses such words as doute, vague, ombre, nuit, and especially crépuscule ambiguously to characterize both intellectual uncertainty and the terror of otherness or non-being. Esthetic doubt draws from the pictorial chiaroscuro to evoke emotions of fear, whereas ontological doubt, which provokes similar emotions, conveys the person's uncertainty about reality itself. Hugo's apologetic strategy hinges upon the confusion of esthetic and ontological doubt, the translation of a vague feeling into a metaphysical insight. The poet's great accomplishment was to blend these two dimensions of doubt in a new poetry of commitment.
Paul Bénichou, in his seminal study, Le Sacre de l'écrivain, demonstrates the crucial importance of doubt in Romantic reflection on poetry and faith. Lamartine exemplifies the inseparability of doubt and belief as he ambiguously deplores the skepticism of Lord Byron in "L'Homme" (Méditations poétiques, 1820). But Hugo illustrates a more explicitly positive approach. This emerging liberal view was prepared by the philosopher Théodore Jouffroy in his famous pronouncement "Comment les dogmes finissent," first published in Le Globe in 1825. Jouffroy describes his era's "anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness" as a conflict between skepticism and nostalgia for an expired faith. During the Restoration, serious debate was followed by polemics which degenerated into mockery; nevertheless, as Jouffroy maintains, the need to believe persisted: "Le doute est un état qui ne peut nous plaire que comme l'absence d'une fausse croyance dont nous nous sentons délivrés." Restoration liberals understood the true function of doubt: "A eux se dévoile l'énigme qui avait échappé aux autres; à eux le doute ne paraît plus la révolution, mais sa préparation." Far from increasing lethargy and escapism, doubt stimulated indignation against the emptiness of the present; those who courageously acknowledged the crisis could face the future. Victor Hugo's poet-prophet anticipates the modern "existential" courage that accepts doubt as a step towards knowledge and confronts meaninglessness with an enthusiastic commitment to life.
Hugo's enthusiastic faith did not spring full grown from his tremendous ego. It developed fitfully through the disappointment and sadness which permeate the first lyrical collection, Les Feuilles d'automne. The famous "Pente de la rêverie" (no. 29) anticipates his post-exile method of discovering vast historical frescoes and suggests that the subconscious can engender vision. ButHugo begins to exploit the struggle of doubt and faith in Les Chants du crépuscule. Doubt is the fundamental paradox of the age: on the one hand, it signifies anguish about the absence of transcendent meaning, despair about the death of religion; on the other hand, doubt liberates the mind from narrow preconceptions. Doubt can unveil the universe. Through radical doubt, Hugo will discover the depths of his genius. Olympio will illuminate the darkness.
The thematic symmetry of Les Chants du crépuscule anticipates the unity of the whole series. Its first and penultimate poems—"Prélude" and "Que nous avons le doute en nous" (no. 38)—elaborate the theme of the ambiguous dawn: the question as to whether the twilight is a death or a new beginning. Imagery of clair/obscur links several dimensions of doubt: the political, intellectual, religious, psychological, and ontological. "Tout aujourd'hui, dans les idées comme dans les choses, dans la société comme dans l'individu, est à l'état de crépuscule. De quelle nature est ce crépuscule? de quoi sera-t-il suivi?" Here doubt signifies anxiety about the future.
But poetry is better served by psychological reactions to ideas; Hugo's imagery joins the inner and outer dimensions to make social analysis reciprocal with feelings: "c'est cet étrange état crépusculaire de l'âme et de la société dans le siècle où nous vivons; c'est cette brume au dehors, cette incertitude au dedans; c'est ce je ne sais quoi d'à demi éclairé qui nous environne." Hugo mixes his antitheses: "ces cris d'espoir mêlés d'hésitation, ces chants d'amour coupés de plaintes, cette sérénité pénétrée de tristesse," etc. His imagery of mixture encompasses the complexities of "cette époque livrée à l'attente et à la transition."
Hugo's "Prélude" establishes that imagery and defines its meaning. Pictorial and affective mixtures evoke what Tillich calls the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, an appropriate reaction to a state of rapid and chaotic social change. Hugo's refrain "Tout s'y mêle" focuses upon that anxiety as a desire for meaning:
Seigneur! est-ce vraiment l'aube qu'on voit éclore?
Oh! l'anxiété croît de moment en moment.
Dans l'âme et sur la terre effrayant crépuscule!
The technical term anxiété connects to the imagery of ambiguous dawn to the inner life. According to the Larousse du XIXe siècle, "anxiété" refers to a "tourment d'esprit, causé principalement par l'incertitude." Doubt is the result, not the cause (as Hugo's Catholic opponents believed), of that cultural transition.
Doubt includes three separable conflicts: (1) the incapacity to embrace cherished inherited ideas ("Croyances, passions, désespoir, espérances"), (2) anguish about the future ("c'est peut-être le soir qu'on prend pour une aurore!") and (3) intellectual skepticism, the true enemy of modern faith because it resists hope:
Et l'homme qui gémit à côté de la chose;
Car dans ce siècle, en proie aux sourires moqueurs,
Toute conviction en peu d'instants dépose
Le doute, lie affreuse, au fond de tous les cœurs!
Hugo sharply opposes conviction to doute. Conviction combines intellectual certainty and the active adhesion of the will to an ideal; the opposite is cynicism which can lead to despair. Both appear as an ironic sourire moqueur. Hugo attacks irony which separates an individual from the shared dilemma; irony implies, in his view, a willful hardness of heart that destroys moral solidarity.
Two consecutive poems, both dedicated to Louise Berlin, formulate the potentials of doubt. The first, "A Mademoiselle Louise B." (no. 37), opposes the young woman's wisdom and serenity to the poet's horror of time and human frailty. In the second poem, "Que nous avons le doute en nous," Hugo explores the negative associations of doubt. The poet's conquest of the anxiety of doubt should inspire his nation.
Disbelief is the fundamental problem, whether it be willful incredulity or an incapacity to believe. "Que nous avons le doute en nous" assimilates ideological uncertainty and psychological anguish. The first six stanzas present the poet's interior twilight as a desire for faith:
Si vous me demandez, vous muse, à moi poète,
D'où vient qu'un rêve obscur semble agiter mes jours,
Que mon front est couvert d'ombres, et que toujours,
Comme un rameau dans l'air, ma vie est inquiète;
Pourquoi je cherche un sens au murmure des vents;
Je vous dirai qu'en moi je porte un ennemi,
Le doute, qui m'emmène errer dans le bois sombre,
Spectre myope et sourd, qui, fait de jour et d'ombre,
Montre et cache à la fois toute chose à demi!
The word doute is emphasized by the enjambment. Doubt is an enemy, but it also implies a positive restlessness, as suggested by the italicized words: "un rêve obscur semble agiter mes jours … ma vie est inquiète … je cherche un sens au murmure des vents." This "enemy" generates curiosity and effort; it is concern about the future.
The text then recapitulates three objects of yearning: a divine plan for humanity, an historical pattern that rises above political upheavals, authentic intimacy between men and women. The first two seem out of reach, and Hugo maintains a grim vision of the antagonism between flesh and spirit; mankind's internal contradiction is inescapable:
Un instinct qui bégaye, en mes sens prisonnier,
Près du besoin de croire un désir de nier,
Et l'esprit qui ricane auprès du cœur qui pleure!
Doubt is the legacy of the age: "Le doute! mot funèbre." The passions of sensuality and the desire for money nurture moral indifference, yet that very egotism leads to despair (see "A un riche," no. 19). The political discontinuity augments the personal conflict: "C'est notre mal à nous, enfants des passions … A nous dont le berceau … Vogua sur le flot noir des révolutions." Two lines summarize the emptiness felt by the enfant du siècle: "Nous portons dans nos coeurs le cadavre pourri / De la religion qui vivait dans nos pères."
Hugo's solution is individualistic. He withdraws from the social arena and makes of his intimate life the growing edge: "Heureux qui peut aimer, et qui dans la nuit noire, / Tout en cherchant la foi, peut rencontrer l'amour!" Philosophical hope must repose on interpersonal love when God remains aloof. "Aimer, c'est la moitié de croire" is the didactic conclusion of Les Chants du crépuscule.
Although Hugo took his moral seriously, the final poem, "Date Lilia," endows it with a curious ambiguity. The malicious Sainte-Beuve remarked that this tribute was Hugo's guilt offering to the "faithful" spouse for his liaison with Juliette. Les Chants du crépuscule ends with an ideal image of bourgeois love: "Une femme au front pur, au pas grave, aux doux yeux, / Que suivent quatre enfants dont le dernier chancelle." Yet Hugo admits that he too chancelle and that his wife understands his guilt: "Celle qui, lorsqu'au mal, pensif, je m'abandonne, / Seule peut me punir et seule me pardonne." The poet seems to blame his sexual infidelity and insensitivity to his family's companionship on his penchant to dream. And he strives, perhaps in vain, to reconcile the opposition in the final line: "La fleur est de la terre et le parfum des cieux!" Les Chants du crépuscule leaves behind a subtle, but significant, question about love and marriage as solutions to France's weak faith.
Hugo consolidates his mission and dramatizes the ontological sources of his poetic vision in Les Voix intérieures. The poet is a civilizer who echoes three voices—le foyer, le champ, la rue—in the Preface and in the optimistic first poem, "Ce siècle est grand et fort." The disequilibrium of the poem's structure, however, reflects the disequilibrium of his faith. The first ten stanzas celebrate the century's intellectual and technological progress, while in the final stanza, it evokes a spiritual deficit:
Dans tout ce grand éclat d'un siècle éblouissant,
Une chose, ô Jésus, en secret m'épouvante,
C'est l'écho de ta voix qui va s'affaiblissant.
Of course Hugo seeks to replace the official savior and the priest with the poet-vafes. He counterpoises modern anxiety to the expired faith in order to promote his solution.
The poet intends to resolve his and his nation's intellectual twilight through an interpretation of nature, for nature represents that which is independent of the human mind. Nature becomes a source of faith because it is God's book and the poet its most perceptive reader. Poem no. 19, " A un riche," defines the pre-Baudelairian correspondences which make such spiritual knowledge possible: "Tout objet dont le bois se compose répond / A quelque objet pareil dans la forêt de l'âme." The reciprocity is exact. The garden as metonymy for the wood, the wood for the forest, and the forest for nature ingeneral will symbolize the human condition. Obscure nature, then, reflects human obscurity. Hugo's great task is to discover in and through nature a meaning beyond anxiety.
Two emblematic poems, early in Les Voix intérieures, explore the twilight of the spirit. Jean Gaudon has analyzed parallels between "A Virgile" (no. 7) and "A Albert Durer" (no. 10) and has traced Hugo's inspiration from Virgil through Durer and Piranese. Further analysis reveals the ontological dimension. Doubt, in these two twilight poems, conveys the poet's uncertainty about reality itself. As he questions his very rationality, as doubt becomes absolute, poetic vision emerges. These poems effect a crucial transition from an intellectual dilemma to an esthetic solution.
"A Virgile" dramatizes the genesis of poetry. It follows the day from morning to sunset and moonlit solitude. The poet leaves Paris, "cette ville au cri sinistre et vain," which represents the emptiness of a "superior" civilization: "Lutèce … / Qui jette aujourd'hui … / Plus de clarté qu'Athène et plus de bruit que Rome." The poet internalizes the dawn as he sets out with his mistress, "Avec l'amour au cœur et l'aube dans les yeux." He can then confront the darkness.
The two final stanzas illustrate how twilight opens the poet's visionary eyes. Virgil inspires Hugo to experience reality as a mixture of known and unknown. The terror of that ontological doubt stimulates special intuitions. First, female sensitivity actualizes nature's silences: "Elle aime comme nous, maître, ces douces voix [de la nature]"; the surroundings which Juliette, Virgil, and the modern poet love are then unveiled by the evening, "quand le couchant morne a perdu sa rougeur." In the atmosphere of uncertainty, nature becomes animated and its hidden consciousness manifest:
Les marais irrités des pas du voyageur,
Et l'humble chaume, et l'antre obstrué d'herbe verte,
Et qui semble une bouche avec terreur ouverte,
The poet projects his anxiety on nature, for one would expect people to be terrified, not the landscape. Yet Hugo retains the comparison "qui semble une bouche" to rationalize his vision of the night's ambiguity. This is what the esthetic experience reveals.
Nature differentiates itself further from the poet in the final stanza. But with the help of his partners, Juliette and Virgil, he discerns nature's secrète attitude, that is, its innate psychological disposition:
Nous irons tous les trois, c'est-à-dire tous deux,
Dans ce vallon sauvage, et de la solitude,
Rêveurs, nous surprendrons la secrète attitude.
Rêveur describes the contemplative or visionary mode of intuition developed more fully after the exile. Nature's consciousness is so hidden ("secrète") that the conventional hyperbole of black darkness fails to convey its mixture of realities "dans la brune clairière" (my italics). According to his special vision, the spectacle steals the initiative from the spectator: "Dans la brune clairière où l'arbre au tronc noueux / Prend le soir un profil humain et monstrueux…."
This is one of the earliest appearances of Hugo's characteristic anthropomorphism when nature notonly becomes human, it menaces. The paradoxical "humain et monstrueux" expresses the poet's troubled identification with nature's unconscious. Ontological doubt then awakens. The text's progression delineates a method: in four lines solitude leads to dream, nature's secret feelings are perceived in the uncertain darkness, human and extraordinary shapes evoke a terror which suggests the sacred.
When reality itself is thrown into question, poetry is born. Frightful otherness whets the poet's appetite, which, in turn, engenders images. Hugo illustrates the positive thrust of anxiety in a Virgilian idiom as he becomes prepared to see, in exterior nature, what he had remembered from literature:
Et, l'oreille tendue à leurs vagues chansons,
Dans l'ombre, au clair de lune, à travers les buissons,
Avides, nous pourrons voir à la dérobée
Les satyrs dansants qu'imite Alphésibée.
The profusion of clair/obscur images makes the poet avide. The visual ambiguity incites the imagination to transform reality. Hugo's faith in the possible reenactment of Virgil's Bucolics represents his limitless poetic power.
The parallel poem "A Albert Durer" (no. 10) continues where "A Virgile" left off. It is a visionary manifesto. Hugo identifies with Albert Dürer, "vieux peintre pensif," who already sees the images hidden in the mystery:
On devine, devant tes tableaux qu'on vénère,
Que dans les noirs taillis ton œil visionnaire
Voyait distinctement, par l'ombre recouverts,
Le faune aux doigts palmés, le Sylvain aux yeux verts,
The paradoxical formulation "Voyait distinctement, par l'ombre recouverts" imitates the artist's "œil visionnaire" which enlarges reality. As nature's veil becomes translucent, the poet formulates an ontology of mixture: "Une forêt pour toi, c'est un monde hideux. / Le songe et le réel s'y mêlent tous les deux".
Hugo's fantastique insinuates supernatural beings into a realistic framework, but the next lines deepen the ambiguity. The poet questions nature's very status:
Là se penchent rêveurs les vieux pins, les grands ormes
Dont les rameaux tordus font cent coudes difformes,
Et dans ce groupe sombre agité par le vent
Rien n'est tout à fait mort ni tout à fait vivant.
Hugo fully experiences nature's autonomy. The realistic explanation "ce groupe sombre agité par le vent" lends credibility to the intuition; but the trees, not only the poet, are rêveurs. Imaginationpenetrates, it does not deform, reality.
This is the crucial moment of Hugo's apologetic strategy. Just as esthetic ambiguity in "A Virgile" stimulates poetic vision, so, in "A Albert Durer," esthetic and ontological ambiguity reveals a metaphysics. The poet effects a synthesis of esthetic and metaphysical intuitions of mystery and otherness: "Rien n'est tout à fait mort, ni tout à fait vivant." The texts realize that synthesis through images which provoke feelings of horror, what Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy, calls the mysterium tremendum, religious dread. (Hugo had named it in Les Contemplations.) According to Otto, experiences of the scared include "the peculiar quality of the 'uncanny' and ['awesome'] which survives with the quality of exaltedness and sublimity …." The sacred is both attractively fascinating and repulsively alien.
How does the mysterium tremendum relate to doubt? Doubt is the incapacity to believe. If a person wants to believe and cannot, anxiety and terror may arise. Doubt, then, from the perspective of the seeker of faith, can become an intuition of divine otherness, of God's inaccessibility to the intellect. Religious dread, as well, includes a frightful intuition of God's transcendence and overwhelming power. That is why Hugo's images of the uncanny can prepare readers to imagine a divine presence hidden in nature.
Hugo identifies with Dürer's sacred. The final stanza describes how the artist is inspired by horror and dread:
Aux bois, ainsi que toi, je n'ai jamais erré,
Maître, sans qu'en mon cœur l'horreur ait pénétré,
Sans voir tressaillir l'herbe, et, par le vent bercées,
Pendre à tous les rameaux de confuses pensées.
Hugo anticipates Baudelaire's formulation "La nature est un Temple" which emits "de confuses paroles" as he begins in fear and trembling and ends in curiosity. The text passes from animism to a more precise suggestion that the trees' "confuses pensées" are the occult pages of nature's book (the variant "d'ineffables pensées" stresses the transcendent character of the message). The detail "par le vent agités"—which parallels "ce groupe sombre agité par le vent"—again rationalizes this vision of the sacred.
The apologetic goal is fulfilled: use nature to clarify the human dilemma. Emotions of the uncanny mediate the transition. Hugo leaps from doubt into faith:
Dieu seul, ce grand témoin des faits mystérieux,
Dieu seul le sait, souvent, en de sauvages lieux,
J'ai senti, moi qu'échauffe une secrète flamme,
Comme moi palpiter et vivre avec une âme,
Et rire, et se parler dans l'ombre à demi-voix,
Les chênes monstrueux qui remplissent les bois.
Hugo confidently asserts that nature and mankind speak the same language, since their soulis, at bottom, identical. Anxiety had conveyed this truth by forcing the poet to participate in multi-dimensional nature. The forest tells those who doubt to trust the unknown.
Two consecutive poems near the end of Les Voix intérieures resolve the problematic of doubt: "Après une lecture de Dante" and "Pensar, Dudar" (nos. 27 and 28). The first combines the insights of the bucolic Virgil with those of the frightful Dürer as it elaborates the forest as allegory of the human condition; Dante both interprets the world and inspires readers. It is significant that these three poems (which evoke Virgil, Dürer, and Dante) explicitly continue literary or artistic works which already interpret human mysteries; Hugo allegorically repeats already allegorical texts.
"Après une lecture de Dante" begins with a translation of the symbolism shared by the two poets:
Quand le poète peint l'enfer, il peint sa vie:
Sa vie, ombre qui fuit de spectres poursuivie;
Forêt mystérieuse où ses pas effrayés
S'égarent à tâtons hors des chemins frayés;
This accumulation of frightful, vague, and dark images evokes intellectual doubt which wanders without tradition ("hors des chemins frayés") in quest of an elusive faith. The first long stanza allegorizes the sins of lust, vengeance, fear, poverty, luxury, avarice, and hatred. Fantastic hallucinations concretize chaotic feelings of a life without predictable meaning:
Noir voyage obstrué de rencontres difformes;
Spirale aux bords douteux, aux profondeurs énormes,
Dont les cercles hideux vont toujours plus avant
Dans une ombre où se meut l'enfer vague et vivant!
Cette rampe se perd dans la brume indécise;
Hugo multiplies feelings of intellectual and emotional insecurity ("aux bords douteux," "cercles hideux," "la brume indécise") and combines them with a sense of objective danger ("l'enfer vague et vivant"). Not only is mankind lost, but it stands helpless before a hostile, unknowable will.
Nevertheless, the poet-guide who undergoes life's horrors rises above paralyzing anxiety. The despair of a lost soul does not condemn the enlightened prophet:
[Dante, poète inspiré,]
Vous nous montrez toujours debout à votre droite
Le génie au front calme, aux yeux pleins de rayons,
Le Virgile serein qui dit: Continuons!
Hugo, Dante, and Virgil share their interior light with troubled readers. "Après une lecture de Dante" condenses the entire series as it recapitulates a fourfold movement: (1) anxiety and horror at human folly and perversity, (2) objective acknowledgement of suffering, (3) gathering of personal faith through detachment, (4) writing which represents a hopeful commitment to the future.
"Pensar, Dudar" reiterates the itinerary. No escape is possible; the realistic goal is to understand and accept doubt. The first stanza analyzes the psycho-physiological experience:
C'est l'âpre anxiété qui nous tient aux entrailles,
C'est la fatale angoisse et le trouble profond
Qui fait que notre cœur en abîmes se fond,
Quand un matin le sort, qui nous a dans sa serre,
Nous mettant face à face avec notre misère,
Nous jette brusquement, lui notre maître à tous,
Cette question sombre:—Ame, que croyez-vous?
Hugo's subtle phenomenology of anxiety reflects his esthetics of horror: both provoke somatic reactions, "aux entrailles"; both are intuitions of intrinsic precariousness ("la fatale angoissse"). Like Pascal, Hugo evokes God's distance as we face "I'infirmité de toute notre race."
Mankind is frail, subjected to chance, and our inescapable anxiety appropriately reflects the limits of reason. For Hugo, the incapacity to believe points to the real inscrutability of the world. But there is a positive side. Doubt is the philosophical counterpart of esthetic admiration:
C'est l'hésitation redoutable et profonde
Qui prend, devant ce sphinx qu'on appelle le monde,
Notre esprit effrayé plus encor qu'ébloui,
Qui n'ose dire non et ne peut dire oui!
The world as forest of symbols becomes a sphinx, a sublime enigma whose solution eludes common mortals. The mind remains cowed rather than being inspired by admiration: "Notre esprit [est] effrayé plus encore qu'ébloui."
The proud are not the only victims, for even the wise person, free from tyrannical passions, remains unsatisfied: "Lui, ce cœur sans désirs, sans fautes et sans peines? / II pense, il rêve, il doute … O ténèbres humaines!" Hugo challenges readers—as did Pascal in Pensée 72 on the two infinities—to transform terror into humble awe, the precondition of faith.
Hugo draws a vivid picture of the century as a "frêle esquif démâté" and mortals as "matelots furieux." Images of darkness, madness, and terror evoke the disorder of the age. The poet provides "une boussole," "un port"; he must become "un phare." He will rewrite the "livre déchiré" and unify the nation. He will resolve the contradition of "l'effroi" and "l'espoir." Hugo reinvents for himself "Ce mot d'espoir écrit sur la dernière page" and, challenging the incoherent present, commits himself to the future.
Hugo relentlessly repudiates nineteenth-century skepticism. Ten more stanzas explore the relationship between thought and doubt. The two final stanzas of "Pensar, Dudar" refine the polarity of belief and doubt by combining humility and awe. Hugo rejects once and for all proud, destructive skepticism: "Rire, et conclure tout par la négation, / Comme c'est plus aisé, c'est ce que font les hommes." Modem faith must acknowledge that the path to God must, at some crucial point, bypassreason. The conclusion seems to feature resignation, but closer scrutiny reveals its complexity:
Il suffit que chaque âme en recueille une goutte [de la vérité],
Même à l'erreur mêlée! Hélas! Tout homme en soi
Porte un obscur repli qui refuse la foi.
Thinking remains ambivalent, for it both conceives the ideal and questions it. But there is an alternative to despair—dread, a mixture of respect and terror before the mystery: "Dieu! la mort! mots sans fond qui cachent un abîme! / L'épouvante [variant: L'anxiété] saisit le cœur le plus sublime / Dès qu'il s'est hasardé sur de si grandes eaux." Anxiety is the necessary threshold to the holy.
Hugo's religious anxiety combines resignation, terror, and hope. The mind will cure its relative impotence if the heart perceives its divine foundation:
Il n'est pas de croyant si pur et si fidèle
Qui ne tremble et n'hésite à de certains moments.
Quelle âme est sans faiblesse et sans accablements?
Enfants! résignons-nous et suivons notre route.
Tout corps traîne son ombre, et tout esprit son doute.
This acceptance does not exclude effort nor does it cease to challenge. The poem's penultimate line, in fact, stresses the activist imperative: "résignons-nous et suivons notre route,'" which echoes Virgil's "Continuons!" in "Après une lecture de Dante." The voyage requires courage, however, for doubt and pain are as inseparable as body and mind. Even the purest of believers carries his burden of dread.
Hugo consolidates his mission when he resolves the problem of doubt. "Pensar, Dudar" is followed by only four other poems in Les Voix intérieures. The spiritual itinerary is complete. Readers conclude that doubt and thought are inseparable, but that the struggle can release a rich flow of creative energy. Hugo's terror passes from esthetic titillation to participation in the sacred. The poet's conscious understanding of mystery somewhat paradoxically endows him with the confidence to reconcile himself with his brother's madness and death (in poem 29) and to formulate his permanent persona, Olympic Finally, he announces his militancy, boldly, and somewhat violently, in the last poem, "O muse, contiens-toi! muse aux hymnes d'airain." The fourth volume, Les Rayons et les ombres (1840), repeats those commitments in the famous manifestoes, "Fonction du poète" (no. 1), "Tristesse d'Olympio" (no. 34), and the final poem, "Sagesse" (no. 44). The Romantic prophet has emerged from the ambiguous dawn.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3627
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 retrospection upon the Revolution, or indeed—to cite a less evidently conservative/conservatory instance—Heine's Deutschland, Ein Wintermärchen, generated out of the depressing yet constant condition of political exile.
Rather, the conditions of writing of L'Année Terrible—from the last months of Republican exile in Jersey through residence in the Paris of siege and civil war, to brief renewed exile in, and expulsion from, Belgium after the Commune—resemble the vicissitudes of that other great epic of mixed political hope and despair, Paradise Lost. And indeed, in its invective power, its coruscations and intercalations of mythology, its problematic convictions of righteousness, L'Année Terrible deserves the epithet "Miltonic," with its further connotations of classical virtue and the imperatives of resistance to political degeneracy, as specified in Hugo's "Prologue":
La république anglaise expire, se dissout,
Tombe, et laisse Milton derrière elle debout;
La foule a disparu, mais le penseur demeure
[The English republic fades, dissolves,
Falls, leaves Milton standing there;
The crowd has disappeared, the thinker remains]
Particularly, the negotiations in Hugo's work, of poetic/textual truth and political/historical fact, are oblique. The text contains relatively little explicit reference to the "major" historical events with which it is closely involved; historical references, obscure to the modern reader, are often made in passing with the result that recourse to the footnotes of a scholarly edition has the effect of engendering, for the reader, a certain sense of fragmentariness, of structured chaos both within the writing and in its further communication. In general, the relation of text and context in L'Année Terrible comes to seem very like that perceived in those configurations of ground and figure with which we are all familiar, those complementary silhouettes where each constitutes the other by its momentary absence and where the branches of a tree may, in the blinking of an eye, be transformed into a donkey's head, and vice versa. Such a paradoxical relationship—arguably the condition of all textuality, particularly evident here—is signally achieved in the three poems of invective against the hapless and subsequently (deservedly) obscure general Trochu (Janvier V "Sommation"; Janvier XII; Juin XVII). In the first, a "Sommation" of extreme agitated tension, directed at the unnamed but identifiable military butt, deployment of proto-expressionist chiaroscuro effects enacts the contrast between action and inaction, popular will and military timidity:
L'heure est sombre; il s'agit de sauver l'empyrée
Qu'une nuée immonde et triste vient ternir,
De dégager le bleu lointain de l'avenir,
Et de faire une guerre implacable à l'abîme.
[The hour is dark; now to save the firmament
Threatened by a ghastly deadening cloud,
To free the future's distant blue,
and fight to the end against the abyss.]
The tendency of the poem is to cast its ostensible historical subject, Trochu, into a gulf of nothingness (it is notable to what extent familiar Hugolian imagery—"gouffre," "abîme," "ombre"—gains a new preponderance throughout the text); the corresponding imaging of inchoate viscosity has more in common with Rimbaud (and later Sartre and Malraux) than with the relatively stable identities of earlier romantic utterance:
Quand tous les êtres bas, visqueux, abjects, jaloux,
L'affreux lynx, le chacal boiteux, l'hyène obscène,
L'aspic lâche, ont pu, grâce à la brume malsaine,
Sortir rôder, glisser, ramper, boire du sang …
[When all those creatures, vile, viscous, abject, jealous
Hideous lynx, lame jackal, obscene hyena,
Creeping asp, have, through the foetid mist
Come to slide, slither, crawl, suck blood …]
Similarly, in the second poem against Trochu-Tartuffe—"ce pauvre homme" (Janvier XII)—the motor forces of history, "Audace, Humanité, Volonté, Liberté," are juxtaposed/deadlocked against the personality of their conjunctural bearer, "dont le suprême instinct serait d'être immobile" ["whose primordial instinct would seem to be remaining still"]; the resultant articulation is of madness, nothingness:
… notre démence,
Devant le noir nadir et le zénith vermeil,
Ajoute un chien d'aveugle aux chevaux du soleil.
[ … our madness
Before the black nadir and the crimson zenith,
Sends a blind man's dog towards the horses of the sun.]
Intriguingly, Trochu's last poetic (dis)appearance (in Juin XVM) involves his reduction to a suggestive epistemological trace, to the status—in a brilliantly apposite pun—of the past participle of the invented verb tropchoir (to fall too far); a reflexive evocation of the collapse, not only of the ruling state order and its dominant notions of subjectivity, but of its very possibilities for signification itself.
The eclipse of the established, individualist, notion of the subject and of his/her language is centralto the work as a whole; L'Année Terrible may be seen, indeed, as a notation of the disintegration of the romantic ideology of subjectivity and its quasi-mythological certainties under the pressure of events, notably the transition from foreign to civil war and the accompanying destabilization of perceptions of self and world as political discourses.
Thus the Prologue, "Les 7 500 000 oui (Publié en Mai 1870)"—ostensibly an attack on Napoléon Ill's last, successful, plebiscite—articulates at a high level of concentration the contradictions of liberal romantic Republicanism; it may be seen, in major ways, to assert the continuation from exile of the Second Republic which had been Hugo's project ever since the Coup d'état. In it we find much classic Republican élitism, manifest in the familiarly Olympian self-imaging of the poet:
La foule passe, crie, appelle, pleure, fuit;
Versons sur ses douleurs la pitié fraternelle.
[The crowd goes by, shouts, calls out, weeps, flees;
Let us assuage its pain with fraternal pity.]
Romantic poetic subjectivity is, then, initially manifest in a distanced sympathy for the coherent entity represented by the "peuple," as against the inchoate anarchy of the (lumpenproletarian) "foule." The uncertainty of the distinction was to be made explicit by Marx in his text on the Commune, The Civil War In France, where capacity for both "the highest and the lowest deeds" is ascribed to the lumpenproletariat; it is, moreover, reminiscent of perennial tensions in the romantic social thinking of 1848, of Michelet, Renan, George Sand. To the suggested plenitude of "le peuple"—"Ce vieux dormeur d'airain"—however, is counterposed "la foule," as later in Yeats, seen as fluctuating and contradictory, as "… la sombre faiblesse et … la force sombre." More socially specific, yet suffused with a certain conservatism, is the critique of modern individualist rootlessness as the product of capitalist property-relations:
Ah! le premier venu, bourgeois ou paysan
L'un égoiste et l'autre aveugle, parlons-en!
[Oh! anyone at all, bourgeois or peasant
Whether selfish or blind, let us speak of them!]
Yet running counter to this ideological set we perceive in the text a latent critique of it; a critique which, in its self-betraying language, may be seen, for instance, to demonstrate through its deployment of an obscure imagery which approaches oxymoron, the insubstantiality of Olympian "truth" as a commodity to be distributed rather than a process collectively elaborated:
La vérité, voilà le grand encens austère
Qu'on doit à cette masse où palpite un mystère.
[See now the truth, great austere incense
Owed to the masses throbbing with mystery.]
The distanced formulations of post-enlightenment optimism can still be made with notable banality:
On interrompt Jean Huss; soit; Luther continue
La lumière est toujours par quelque bras tenue …
Des justes sortiront de la foule asservie
Iront droit au sépulcre et quitteront la vie.
[Maybe Jan Huss is stopped; but Luther carries on
The light is always passed on from hand to hand …
Just men will come out from the oppressed masses
To go to the tomb, give up their life]
Yet their notional effect is subsequently undercut by a dynamic and graphic realization of the workings of ideology itself:
… On dirait que la vie éternelle recule
La neige fait, niveau hideux du crépuscule,
On ne sait quel sinistre abaissement des monts;
Nous nous sentons mourir si nous nous endormons;
… on ne distingue plus son chemin. Tout est piège.
… It is as if life eternal slips away
The snow, dread surface of the dusk,
Bears ominously down upon the hills;
We feel that sleeping we are already dead
… We can no longer find our way. All's a trap.]
The perceived drive towards nothingness "—[la] mort à la vertu donne un baiser farouche" ["death gives a wild kiss to virtue"]—outruns the text's manifest assertion of reformist palliatives, just as fluid contortions of language and imagery outrun banal assertion:
Qui donc s'est figure
… Que j'entrasse au cachot s'il entre au cabanon!
[Who had ever thought
… that I should go to the dungeon as he to the
Thus does the verse attain the contradictory position which its ostensible discourse ascribes to "le premier venu," the average individual representative of the nineteenth-century status quo: "Il est sa propre insulte et sa propre ironie" ["He is his own insult, his own irony"]. Such fluctuations and contradictions extend across the corpus of L'Année Terrible as a whole, their critical andproblematic nature becoming increasingly evident. Thus in the sequence "Août" we have, repeatedly, the arresting sense of the writing of a new conjuncture, the impact of total war as the consequence of Napoleon III's modern manipulation of mass politics as disorientation and dream:
Jamais les siècles le passé,
L'histoire n'avaient vu ce spectacle insensé,
Ce vertige, ce rêve, un homme qui lui-même,
… Prend la peine d'ouvrir sa fosse …
[Never had centuries past,
Had history seen this senseless spectacle
This dizzying dream, a man himself,
… Working to open up his tomb …]
The perennial structured confusions of the late Napoleonic project are of course innovatory; their dimensions are more systematically explored both in Hugo's Histoire d'un Crime and in Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; their significance for developments of right-wing totalitarianism in the twentieth century is now apparent. Yet at this point the discourse presented in opposition is still one of liberal balance; Hugo's elegiac suggestion of a decline from the status of the Napoleon for whom "le côté de clarté cachait le côté d'ombre" ["the side of light hid the side of darkness"] seems a notable escape from contemporary engagement into past myth.
In the same way we perceive in Octobre III—a poem notably shackled, so to speak, by residual bourgeois ideology—a retreat, a considerable reduction of dynamic range; first the Miltonic imaging of the chaos of battle, in which the rapid intermingling of concepts and levels ensures that chaos becomes not merely the topic but the condition of the poem:
Le gouffre est comme un mur énorme de fumée
Où fourmille on ne sait quelle farouche armée;
… Et les bruits infernaux et les bruits souterrains
Se mêlent, et, hurlant au fond de la géhenne,
Les tonnerres ont l'air de bêtes à la chaîne.
… Et ce chaos s'acharne à tuer cette sphère.
Lui frappe avec la flamme, elle avec la lumière.
[The gulf is like a massive wall of smoke
In which some wild army rages;
… And sounds infernal, subterranean
Are mingled, and, shrieking in hellish depths,
Thunder has the sound of beasts enchained.
… Such chaos seeks to kill the very sphere.
Which, struck by its flame, strikes back with light.]
But then follows the imposition of uncertain stability, implicit—if momentary—confirmation of a pathetically serene liberal ideology:
Tout à coup un rayon sort par une trouée
Une crinière en feu, par les vents secouée,
Apparaît … le voilà!
[A sudden shaft of light shines through a crack
A fiery mane, swept by the winds,
Comes forth … see!]
In the opposite direction, however, we observe in the series "Novembre" and "Décembre" the eventual eclipse of a series of articulations of conventional bourgeois moralism. In "Du haut de la muraille de Paris" (Novembre I), notably, is to be found a reversionary poetic tendency more characteristic of Vigny than Hugo. Here, evocation of the twilight is anything but conventionally harmonious,
La nuit se fermait ainsi qu'une prison
… Le couchant n'était plus qu'une lame sanglante
[Night closed in like a prison
… The setting sun just a dripping blade]
yet the last stanza obliterates the immediacy of the effects which precede it by a dogmatic specification of explicit significance: "Cela faisait penser à quelque grand duel…" ["It called to mind some great duel …"].
The procedure—of dogmatic pedagogics rather than of poetic logic—has its correlatives in the inadequate, explicit politics of much of the series, with their simple manicheism ("Paris diffamé à Berlin"), banal moralism ("A tous ces princes") and—perhaps the nadir of the tendency—the vindictive banality of "En voyant flotter sur la Seine des cadavres prussiens":
'Allons chez la prostituée
… Paris, cette ville publique,
… Nous ouvrira ses bras …'
Et la Seine son lit.
['Let us go whoring
… Paris, strumpet city,
… Will open her arms to us …'
And the Seine her bed.]
But against such an image of Paris must be set the emergent notation of the city as collective subjectivity. Already apparent in "Lettre à une femme" (Janvier II) in which poetic Olympian individuality is occluded—"On est un peuple, on est un monde, on est une âme" ["Being a people, being a world, being a soul"]—the tendency is later more fully manifest, not just as a mode of being, but in a sense of shared practice:
Ce tumulte enseignant la science aux savants
Ce grand lever d'aurore au milieu des vivants.
(Janvier 1871, IV)
[This tumult teaching science to the scholar
This great dawning in the middle of the living.]
Such a perception of the transformation of "normal" human and social relations may be seen to provide the narrative context for the negative primordial charge of three centrally important poems, "Sommation," "Une bombe aux Feuillantines," and "Le Pigeon" (Janvier 1871, V, VI, VII). Here we have a coruscation of expressionist effects avant la lettre—of light and dark, of emptiness, focus and flux, of presence and absence, infinite space and minute detail ("Le pigeon")—which collectively constitutes a clear notation of political and cultural crisis to which received notions of writing are clearly no longer adequate.
The nature of the crisis—and of the work's figuration of it—is already apparent in the positive centrality of "Loi de formation du progrès" (Février V). The significance of the poem may be seen, in a sense, as the transition it effects from the world of 1848 to the world of the Commune, from the abstract post-enlightenment suggestion, reminiscent of Pope and Voltaire, of
quelque but final, dont notre humble prunelle
N'aperçoit même pas la lueur éternelle,
[Some final end, whose everlasting light
Cannot be glimpsed by our humble gaze]
to the implicit and forceful denunciation of such abstractions as projections of order, authority and social privilege:
Qui se promènera dans les éternités
Comme dans les jardins de Versailles Lenôtre?
[Who shall stroll through eternity
As did Lenôtre in the gardens of Versailles?]
From the distanced assertion of Olympian judgment
On voit la loi de paix, de vie et bonté
Pardessus l'infini dans les prodiges luire
[The law of peace, of life, of goodness
Is seen to shine beyond infinity in its marvels]
to the evocation of the self as discontinuous, problematic:
Qui la connaît? Quelqu'un parmi nous, hors de soi,
Comme en soi …
A-t-il percé ce gouffre?
Who knows it? Who amongst us, beside himself,
As in himself …
Has penetrated this chasm?]
From affirmation of the isolate self to that of positive human relations through and with others, the poem significantly moves from its earlier bland assertion that slavery is at least an advance on cannibalism to a final denunciation of imperialism very different in tone:
Le plus grand siècle peut avoir son heure immonde;
Parfois sur tous les points du globe un fléau gronde.
[The greatest age of all may have its darkest hour;
And all across the globe rumbles the scourge's sound.]
From these central movements on, reversion to liberal individualist discourse in L'Année Terrible is increasingly disrupted, offset, outweighed by radical shifts in understanding in which "literature" and "politics" are often merged. Thus, characteristically, the bloody repression of the Commune is denounced as "Alceste … aujourd'hui fusillé par Philinte" ["Alceste today … shot down by Philinte"], a Rousseauesque reading of Molière which breaks drastically with bourgeois notions of good sense and rationality. Thus does the poem "Les fusillés" (Juin XII) proclaim its indivisible radicalism; further, it incorporates a shift to a point in political understanding (of the "otherness" of opposing classes and their forms of reason) unrivalled in contemporary writing (or indeed in the early sequences of the work itself).
A stupendous realization of empathy with the Communard insurgents is throughout apparent:
qu ils ont hâte de fuir un monde âpre, incomplet.
They long to leave a world so harsh, so incomplete.]
(Politicization of romantic notions of totality)
… ils ne tiennent pas à la vie; elle est faite
De façon qu'il leur est égal de s'en aller.
[They do not care for life; it is such
That they do not mind leaving it behind.]
(Discretion and laconic respect);
Ils sont étrangers à tout ce qui se passe.
[They are apart from everything that happens.]
(Recognition of alienation both as a social variable and as an ontological category);
Etre avec nous, cela les étouffait.
[Being with us stifled them
(Recognition of the writer's social distance; an elegy rather than an affirmation).
Moments such as these are indeed extraordinary. They culminate in the transformation of the Hugolian trope of "l'abîme" into the realization that this abyss is indeed the hell of oppressive social relations. And the transforming recognition is complemented by that of the narrating subject as, necessarily, the bearer of privilege. The import of such a transformation—how far, so to speak, the poem has come—may be demonstrated by a comparison of two poems, "Choix entre deux pations" (September I) and "A qui la faute?" (Juin VIII), which use virtually identical effects of narrative retardation to achieve their effect. In the first, a contrived and rather effete climax is achieved by the brief exclamation—"O ma mère!"—which constitutes the entirety of the poem's second part ("A la France"), the first part consisting of a lengthy enumeration of the qualities of German culture ("A L'Allemagne"). The touching simplicity of conventional patriotism is quite evidently the sought-after effect, and no doubt achieved within its limits which are, after all, merely those of ritual confirmation. In the later poem, the narrator's interrogation of a Communard who has just set fire to a library carries an altogether different impact. Here, the contrast between the interrogator's prolonged, sonorous, idealist abstractions
"As-tu donc oublié que ton libérateur,
C'est le livre?"
["Can you have forgotten that the book
Is your liberator?"]
and the worker's one line reply—"Je ne sais pas lire" ["I cannot read"]—points to the material superficiality of pretentions to exclusive cultural power in a situation where two divergent class-discourses, two languages, can have little contact. Clearly, between the two poems the discourse of nation has been supplanted by the discourse of class; a manner of discursive disruption emerges which, in its laconic questioning of the axiomatic validity of established notions of language and culture themselves, looks forward notably to the poetry of Brecht.
In "Flux et reflux" (Juillet II), the awareness of discontinuity and structural diversity which we have already noted is warranted, amplified, by a consciousness of the significance of will as a necessary shaping principle, if human experience is not to be enclosed in a mechanistic fatalism:
Ces flux et ces reflux,
Ces recommencements, ces combats, sont voulus.
[These ebbs and flows
These new beginnings, struggles, all are willed.]
Stress on the will as a determinant natural factor, paradoxical though it may seem, places Hugo's poem here in a line of rational materialist thinking that leads from Marx to Gramsci and Althusser. In the same text, notably, the awareness of possible universal degeneracy—
Le pauvre a le haillon, le riche a le lambeau,
Rien d'entier pour personne; et sur tous l'ombre infâme.
[To the poor his rags, to the rich his tatters,
Nothing whole for anyone; and over all the dread shadow.]
—has evident affinities with Marx's warning of the possible "common ruin of all classes," the very antithesis of the mechanistic optimism so perennially ascribed to revolutionary thinking.
The alternative to such a distortion is suggested, finally, in Hugo's articulation of a revolutionary, collective optimism far removed from the text's initially distanced representation of the "peuple," in "Le Procès à la Révolution" where material conflict rather than abstract harmony is frankly asserted as the motor of history:
Le monde ténébreux râle; que d'agonies!
Il fait jour, c'est affreux! …
Le rayon sans pitié prend l'ombre et la dévore …
[The world of shadows slowly rattles out its last!
And now the dreadful birth of day! …
Its heartless light seizes and devours the gloom …]
Darkness at noon? At any event, the collusive stance of individualist romanticism has been supplanted by a discourse revolutionary in both procedure and effect.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1029
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 Hugo. London: Walter Scott, 1888, 254 p.
General biography which includes an early bibliography of works by and about Hugo.
Maurois, André. Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo, translated by Gerard Hopkins. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956, 498 p.
Definitive biography. Maurois calls Hugo the greatest of all French poets and states that "we need to know the story of his life if we are to understand his tormented genius to the full."
Babuts, Nicolae. "Hugo's La fin de satan: The Identity Shift." Symposium 36, No. 2 (Summer 1981): 91-101.
Analysis of La fin de Satan in which Babuts states: "I propose to show that Hugo's capacity to form bonds of identity with the fallen archangel has its beginnings in the act of meditation, and that it is a part of a prevailing creative behavior in which the poet assumes the identity of the protagonist."
Bach, Raymond. "Les Contemplations or Paternity Regained." Romanic Review 82, No. 3 (May 1991): 297-316.
Provides a reading of Les contemplations as spiritual autobiography, basing his argument on the fact that Hugo's eldest child died when he was writing this work.
Bailey, John C. "Victor Hugo." In The Claims of French Poetry: Nine Studies in the Greater French Poets, pp. 177-244. London: Archibald Constable and Co., 1907.
Positive evaluation of Hugo's poetry, in which Bailey compares Hugo's works to the writings of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alfred Tennyson, and others.
Burt, E. S. "Hallucinatory History: Hugo's Révolution." Modern Language Notes 105, No. 5 (December 1990): 965-91.
Examines Hugo's treatment of history in Révolution, stating "the question to be pursuedin what follows … is the question of what poems have to say about the pressures in language toward reference and signification, as also what they have to say about their historicity."
Grant, Richard B. "Progress, Pessimism, and Revelation in Victor Hugo's Dieu" Nineteenth Century French Studies 17, No. 1 (Fall/Winter 1988-1989): 44-57.
Addresses the difficulties associated with interpreting Hugo's unfinished poetic work Dieu, which the poet left with three possible endings.
——. "Sequence and Theme in Victor Hugo's Les Orientales." PMLA 94, No. 5 (October 1979): 894-908.
Offers a fresh perspective on Hugo's Les orientales, based on the discovery of a new pattern among the poems.
Greenberg, Wendy Nicholas. The Power of Rhetoric: Hugo's Metaphor and Poetics. New York: Peter Lang, 1985, 143 p.
Analyzes formal aspects of Hugo's lyrical poetry, including structure, symbolization. extended metaphor, and symbolization.
Houston, John Porter. "Hugo's Later Poetry." In The Demonic Imagination: Style and Theme in French Romantic Poetry, pp. 140-71. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969.
Examines the theological concepts underlying Dieu, La fin de satan, and La légende des siècles.
Kessler, Joan C. "'Cette Babel du monde': Visionary Architecture in the Poetry of Victor Hugo." Nineteenth Century French Studies 19, No. 3 (Spring 1991): 417-31.
Analyzes the architectural imagery in such poems as "Le feu du ciel," "La pente," and "La vision."
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. "Victor-Marie Hugo." In The Poets and Poetry of Europe, p. 494. London: C. S. Francis and Company, 1855.
Briefly praises Hugo's poetry.
Martin, Eva. "Victor Hugo: Poet, Patriot, Philosopher (1802-1885)." The Hibbert Journal XLIV (October 1945): 69-75.
Laudatory overview of Hugo's life and career.
Nash, Suzanne. Les Contemplations of Victor Hugo: An Allegory of the Creative Process. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, 229 p.
Attempts to distinguish Hugo's contributions to modernist poetics, which historically have been overlooked by English critics.
——. "Victor Hugo's Odes et ballades and the Romantic Lyric." Michigan Romance Studies IX (1989): 73-95.
Reevaluates Odes et ballades and examines the influence of the works on future experiments in the poetic genre.
Peyre, Henri. Victor Hugo: Philosophy and Poetry. Translated by Roda P. Roberts. University: University of Alabama Press, 1980, 132 p.
Discusses Hugo's ideas on such subjects as prayer, evil, and immortality.
Poulet, Georges. "Hugo." In The Interior Distance. Translated by Elliott Coleman, pp. 153-87. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1952.
Examines spatial imagery in Hugo's poetry and prose.
Prais, Henry. "The Lilith Myth in Victor Hugo's La Fin de Satan and Its Source." In Myth and Legend in French Literature: Essays in Honour of A. J. Steele, edited by Keith Aspley, David Bellos, and Peter Sharratt, pp. 155-72. London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 1982.
Examines Hugo's interpretation of the biblical myth of Lilith in La fin de Satan.
Riffaterre, Michael. "The Poem as Representation: A Reading of Hugo." In Text Production, translated by Terese Lyons, pp. 181-201. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
Detailed reading of Hugo's poem, "Ecrit sur la vitre d'une fenêtre flamande" from Les rayons et les ombers. Riffaterre states: "I am concerned with seeing how the utterance … submits to the imperatives of semantic and formal associations among words."
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. "The Work of Victor Hugo." In The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne: Prose Works, Vol. III, edited by Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise, pp. 13-111. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1926.
Discusses and praises Hugo's poetry.
Taylor, Bayard. "Victor Hugo." In Critical Essays and Literary Notes, pp. 37-54. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1880.
Mixed review of La légende des siècles.
Ward, Patricia A. "La Légende des Siècles." In The Medievalism of Victor Hugo, pp. 84-99. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975.
Discusses Hugo's portrayal of the Middle Ages in La légende des siècles.
Wellek, Rene. "Stendhal and Hugo." In A History of Modern Criticism Vol. II : The Romantic Age, pp. 241-58. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955.
Analysis of Hugo's theories of poetry within the context of French Romanticism.
Additional coverage of Author's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 3, 10, 21; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: Dramatists Module; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Novelists Module; DISCovering Authors: Poets Module; World Literature Criticism, 1500 to Present; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 119; and Something About the Author, Vol. 47.