Part II of II

Getting involved with Victor Hugo

Pierre Ferrand


n a poem first published in a magazine, the Revue des deux Mondes, in 1831, Victor Hugo proclaimed his own arrival in this world, 200 years ago, with characteristic fanfare: “Ce siecle avait deux ans. Rome remplacait Sparte...” (This century was two years old. Rome was replacing Sparta...). He was referring to the fact that by the year of his birth, 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte had definitely ended the First French Republic. He assumed the title of Emperor two years later.

The epic quality of Napoleon I’s career appealed to Hugo, the son of one of the Emperor’s generals, and he wrote many fine poems about it, which fostered the legend, though what he had always found most impressive about him was Napoleon’s ultimate failure. Hugo still was haunted by his memory after he had become the arch-enemy of his nephew, Napoleon III, whom he called “Napoleon le petit,” (Napoleon the Little). In exile and dedicated to democracy, social justice, and to an united Europe, he included in his Chatiments, his collection of vehement attacks in verse on the Second Empire and all its works, published in 1853, a last poem about Napoleon I, arguably his greatest on this theme. It starts with the retreat from Russia, Waterloo, and St. Helena, and ends with a vision of Napoleon’s true punishment for his crime of having assumed power by force: his nephew’s regime. The Second empire was started by street violence and deportations and was characterized by sordid speculation, vulgarity, and orgies. A long chapter in Les Miserables, written nearly a decade later, is a description of the battle of Waterloo and a meditation on it.

There are many other epic themes in Hugo’s huge poetic output, which in the latest complete edition fills some 5,000 pages. In his Legende des Siecles (Legend of the Centuries), he writes impressive verse about Cain, Jesus, and Mahomet. He creates his own cosmic myths, such as the one about one of the giants who fought the Greek gods. He gives voice to the glory of the “Seven Wonders of the World” of antiquity. A grim poem, “The Epic of the Worm,” stresses that all of them, except for those tombs, the pyramids, have been destroyed, and graphically proclaims the doom of all human endeavor. It is followed by a proud nod to nihilism, and a note of hope in spite of all.

He evokes the historical and mythical tyrants of the East and the West, and the brutal evil of medieval robber barons and the Inquisition. On the other hand, he revived the more attractive legends about Roland and the Cid, and invented his own tales of knights’ championing justice and compassion. He described the sufferings and the decency of the common people through the ages and presented his hopes of a better future. While he presented Dantesque visions of horror and doom, a long and powerful poem, The End of Satan, suggests that even the devil will be redeemed. Among his many other visionary verses, there are the impressive fragments of a lengthy epic entitled Dieu (God) in which he struggled, as in many of his other poems, with the problems of belief and of the existence of evil. It is totally wrong to claim that he is satisfied with bland and facile answers of any kind.

Besides his epic, visionary and, indeed, cosmic poetry and his political and literary satires, Victor Hugo’s work includes exciting descriptions of nature, notably of the oceans and clouds, and also beautiful idylls, such as his retelling of the Biblical story of Ruth. In his moving verse about personal tragedies in his life, he more than matched the other French poets of his time on such themes. He also wrote colorful exotic pieces, rousing songs, and bewitching love poetry. He described charmingly, in some poems, episodes of his own childhood and of his encounters with his grandchildren. There is hardly any kind of verse in which he did not excel, and, indeed, his work anticipates in some ways practically all outstanding French poetical styles from his age onwards.

Victor Hugo has remained tremendously popular in France. Still, for various reasons, many literary connoisseurs have had the reaction of Andre Gide, who, when asked who was the greatest French poet, answered, “Victor Hugo, alas!” What sophisticated French writers have missed in him has been what the French call “mesure” — equilibrium, a sense of limits, and “good taste,” indeed, classical characteristics. Also, since familiarity breeds contempt, the standard anthology pieces, which Frenchmen have had to learn in school, have often not been valued as they deserve to be. It is only in the past 50 years that his less familiar visionary verse has been closely studied and has gained him again the respect of French literary connoisseurs. The fact is that he was a poetic Titan, larger than human-size, and serious readers should study him in the context of his work as a whole.

There were strong political reasons for reservations about him. He was for the separation of church and state and was anti-clerical, though he admired good priests (as witness a pivotal scene in Les Miserables) and had deep (though unorthodox) religious feelings. This made him unpopular with the Catholic establishment. Since he became, with his white beard, a true icon of the Third Republic, the intelligentsia of the French left has scorned him for his “bourgeois” values and sentimentality, and the French right has hated him for his democratic ideals and dreams of equality and justice, which have been described as “superficial” or even “stupid.” These were absurd judgments, to my mind, for his principles remain much less stupid and more valid than all the reactionary or fundamentalist religious bigotry or Marxist and Fascist jargon adopted by many of those who claimed to despise him. The fact that much of the 20th Century has been a disappointment for believers in peace, social justice, and human decency does not mean that these are not worthwhile ideals.

Much of his unique verbal skill is language-bound and not really accessible to those who do not know French. The half-a-score plays he wrote for the stage, some of which were very successful in his time in France, have hardly crossed its borders except in the form of opera librettos adapted from them (particularly Verdi’s Ernani and Rigoletto, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda). With the exception of Ruy Blas and Hernani, the plays them-selves are comparatively rarely performed even in France, though they are not without some interest and appeal. On the other hand, some of his half-a-score novels have remained very popular in France and elsewhere. Notre Dame de Paris and Les Miserables have been the subject of many movie adaptations, and the latter book has become a phenomenally successful musical.

Victor Hugo by Auguste Rodin in Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris. Image from the collection of Pierre Ferrand.

Emile Bayard’s illustration for Hugo’s Les Miserables, in Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris. Image from the collection of Pierre Ferrand.

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