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Available for download now. Only 1 left in stock - order soon. Only 10 left in stock - order soon. Out of Print--Limited Availability. Provide feedback about this page. There's a problem loading this menu right now. Get fast, free shipping with Amazon Prime. Get to Know Us. People will not look up references; and yet the work of bringing out the essential qualities of a poet can no more be done in the case of a poet without his verses than it can in the case of an artist without his pictures.
Quotation, and liberal quotation, is therefore a necessity as well as a pleasure. And the necessity can seldom be greater than it is with a poet who covers so much ground as Hugo. We have already seen something of his work in one particular field, that of the love lyric. Let us now look at something quite different.
Let us see his imagination working, as it were, in repose. What an amazing painter of pictures he is, pictures of all sorts, portraits, groups, but above all, landscapes! He sees everything when he chooses as a painter sees it. His almost unique eye for form gives him an astonishing mastery of outline and colour, and fills him with an unrivalled storehouse of metaphors and similes.
But he is never a realist: So that even when he is giving us such 'choses vues' as the studies of clouds in Toute la Lyre there is a suggestion if nothing else of more than the eye can see. Here is one passage where we get the strange lights which sometimes accompany a thundercloud, passing in and out of the blackness: There is the simple picture, seen and painted, with little more than metaphor and suggestion to heighten it.
We will not stay to discuss its beauty, but go on to another still more beautiful, where we feel as well as see. What have not poets done to show us the wonder of the night which we care so little to go out to see? And who has done more than Hugo in his lovely Nuits de Juin? Can one ever be out on a summer night again with out recalling that last wonderful line? The little poem is a landscape by Corot: It is the sower, using the last hour of daylight: How the poet has seen it, not with the eye only, that geste auguste du semeur!
He abounds in single lines which call up a whole picture, too often overwhelmed in the complete poem by his profuse exuberance! What a tremendous effect, for instance, is produced, in the great picture of the sea slowly and calmly rising over the doomed primeval city, by that wonderful line,. Comme un grave ouvrier qui sait qu'il a le temps;. One draws one's breath with awe to watch for the end. The poem itself, 'La Ville Disparue,' is a fine thing, one of many which show with what majestic ease the imagination of Hugo moved among the remote beginnings of the world.
Of the same kind is the great 'Feu du Ciel' of Les Orientales , a thing of amazing force and fiery energy. The cloud of sulphur, on its errand of doom, passes over the sea, and the happy cities of the sea, and over Egypt, and over the desert, and over the towers of Babel, and at each it asks if its task lies there, and at each is told to go further, till at last it reaches the two cities of the plain. There they lie in their monstrous splendour: We see all their barbaric glory as the cloud is poised above them: There they were, a stain on the earth, with their hideous gods and monstrous vices: If there is any one who does not feel the beauty of these verses, French poetry, or that large part of it which is written in the great French metre, is a closed book to him.
There have scarcely been a dozen poets in the history of the world who have united the imaginative power that conceives such a scene as this with the power of expression that paints it to such perfection that the reader sees it too! But even this is not the loveliest picture in Hugo's gallery. He has challenged and rivalled-- if romantic poet can ever rival classical--the great scenes of Milton's Eden, the ' bowery loneliness, The brooks of Eden mazily murmuring ' which Tennyson loved even better than the scenes in Hell. Let us take the great dawn in Paradise, with which the Legende des Siecles opens: You can never bring the classical and romantic poet to the same measure, any more than you can a man and a woman.
Those who love the great manner, its calm, its self-possession, the poet's clear views and perfect mastery of his subject, will never quite feel that they have any compensation for their absence in all this ecstasy of words. They will have a sense that for them the poet is a little lost in the enthusiasm of his own eloquence and in this be wildering exuberance of detail.
They will regret the severe concentration of the classics. Milton knows and chooses every step of his stately way: You could change many in Hugo: But what a rare thing ecstasy is, and what a rare ecstasy is this! Has there ever been any other poet, except Shelley, who could have mingled in such mystical union the the Paradise of nature and the Paradise of spirit? Or take another picture: If it is part of the business of poetry, as I was saying, to make us see things new and old, our mother earth, our common humanity, in a light of strange and unforgettable beauty, who has per formed it better than Hugo here?
Where better than here can we see, as in a picture, the silent and indifferent splendours of Nature in their eternal con trast with the sorrows of humanity? But Hugo is far from being, like the poets of the school of Leconte de Lisle, a mere painter of pictures. His imagination can see the world in action as well as the world in repose.
And the whole is carried through with an unflagging energy which only belongs to the giants, and executed in spite of the grave faults, diffuseness, rhetoric, want of dignity, want of the sense of proportion with an energy, a picturesque ness, a mastery of language and of verse, which are a veritable triumph, silencing everything else in amazed admiration. And the most striking thing in it as a whole is the range of interest and imagina tion. It slides off, no doubt, far too easily into the poet's besetting sin of vague declamation about things in general: It is only a fragment of Hugo's.
Let us take two things from it to illustrate the immense energy with which he can throw himself into phases of life the very opposite of those dreaming pictures I am quoting just now. Take, for instance, the tale of Canute the parricide. Whether it has any historical foundation I cannot discover, and it does not greatly matter: Canute secretly kills his father, becomes king, reigns in unequalled prosperity, dies, and is buried, and his priests declare they see him seated as a saint at the right hand of God.
But their canonising voices have scarcely ceased when the ghostly king rises from his tomb, takes his sword and, gates and walls being no bars to spirits, goes forth to the mountains: And so he goes out, clothed in his shroud of snow,. He advances, calls aloud, reassured by his white robe, but receives no answer. Still he advances, and suddenly is conscious of something like a black star appearing close by him: He starts in horror, but once more presses forward. But a second drop, and a third, falls: How many visions of Judgment are more awful than this?
There is in it an almost Hebraic convic tion of sin, a note scarcely heard in France since the days of the old Huguenot poet Agrippa d'Aubigne. And one is astonished to see how Racine's Alex andrine can adapt itself to become the voice of that stern prophet of humanity and justice who was Hugo. But his Vision de Dante is a still more tremendous effort of the imagination.
Dante comes to him and tells him he had been called from his grave and told he was now to finish his great poem, and that he had had a vision in which he seemed to find himself in the empty, silent, motionless abyss, where behind the darkness there was a strange flame like a lighted torch behind a black curtain: And he said within himself: And the horrors of the eternal descent through the abyss seized on him: And he sees a great angel with Justice written on his brow, who calls the dead, and they rise in a great multitude, rolling past the poet like a cloud or a wave: And the angel asks who their murderers were: And then appears another mighty multitude, an army of horsemen and footmen, and they start at the light and bow their heads in fear for.
And the first multitude cries for vengeance: And the captains are summoned: Nous n'etions que le bras, ils dtaient la pensee. And they too disappear: And they come each alone on a throne, each throne set on a chariot, and a sword went before each, a sword looking like a cross turned upside down, and no man held the sword, and it seemed a living thing.
And the groans of their victims sounded all round them as they came. And the last was the ugliest of all: The kings, quickly humbled after a proud opening, shift their crimes on the Pope. It is he who has put hell in our hearts in place of heaven. Let him pay the penalty.
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Un vieillard blanc et pale apparut dans la nuit. It is Pius IX. And all the thousands of voices, murderers and murdered, judges and captains and kings, call aloud: And the angel calls on the Pope for his answer: And the angel asks him whether he has any above him on whom he can cast his sin: Je n'ai que vous, mon Dieu! It is characteristic of Hugo's uncertainty of taste that he cannot end on that great note, but adds four lines on an altogether lower level.
It is by accumu lation, by exuberance of imagination and expression, never by distinction or selection, that he achieves his great effects: The one thing that never fails is the eye. It is impossible to forget such vivid and pregnant touches as that of the Pope growing suddenly old before Dante's eyes, or the kings who loomed so large in the distance and when they had come near were seen to be dwarfs, or the swords carried before them which the poet, with the awful precision of these great moments, sees to be crosses, only crosses reversed and turned upside down.
And it is not only in the Legende that such things occur. But, great as he is, and not only, though so often, grandiose, in these high tragic worlds of human deed and destiny, it is in quite other fields that he is greatest of all. The essential, ultimate, unforgettable Hugo is not the one who blows loud notes through the trumpet of history, not so much at least as the one who whispers through the babbling of children, the notes of birds, the voices of clouds and trees and flowers.
The prayer that all the fair things in the garden of his childhood made to his mother, 'Laisse- nous cet enfant,' as he tells it in his charming poem, 'Ce qui se passait aux Feuillantines,' was not left unanswered. Indeed it was answered in a wider way and to a wider world than garden walls can dream of.
The child who dreamed and played in that old garden, and for whom the trees and flowers pleaded so persuasively, never was quite taken away from them either by the schoolmaster or by the world. What a world away we are from the Vision de Dante! But, great as that Victor Hugo is, this one is even greater. Les grandes pensees viennent du coeur. It was so with Hugo. The things written in the child's heart were never erased. They suffered strange transformations: But they were still there, written so well once for all that the world may read them there for ever.
A Short History of French Literature / George Saintsbury
The old priest's lesson remained to keep him, through all wanderings of creed, always a believer that there is an Invisible behind the visible, and that the human can never be explained except by the Divine. The garden voices whis pered to him all his life, kept him from being wholly swallowed up in politics or the world or even in that deeper gulf, himself: And his mother made him the greatest, perhaps the only great, poet France has known of the love which is not passion. More and more all through his life Hugo hated priests and was hated by them.
Yet, if priests could look at essentials and not at externals, they might have seen that in the biggest fight of all Hugo was not against them but with them. It is something that, just in the two generations when physical science was half persuading the world that there were no problems it could not solve, the greatest poet of the race that most moves other races was not a materialist but a believer in spirit.
A thinker he was not: He would often have gone as far as that great saying of Tennyson's: And his answer, when he gives it, is always the Tennysonian answer: Faith, in his eyes, is the act of great souls and minds, not of little. There is a credulity in spiritual things which it is good to avoid. But even with that it is true, as Aubrey de Vere profoundly said, that 'the crowd escapes it not by being above it, but by being below it. So, at least, thought Hugo. We are too small, all but a few of us, to hold more than a little of the truth: Le vase est trop petit pour la contenir toute;.
For Hugo the secret is not so easy, and the end is not yet. But he is sure that the sense of a secret which will be made plain when the fit time comes is no ghastly illusion but the truest thing we can cling to. And meanwhile he can wait in serene assurance: Sometimes he will put his creed into a reasoned statement, and make poetry argue for faith.
He uses the argument of the ascending scale of being, for instance, in a manner which reminds one curi ously of Browning: Of course Browning would give the argument a more Christian turn; but of Browning's Christianity there is nothing in Hugo. All the things that play such a great part in Browning's work, the definite Yes or No of a definite creed, the Person of Christ, what He was, and whether His life is a thing of merely historical interest or of eternal import, faith burnt into the tissue of daily life, a sense of sin, you will not find any of these in Hugo, at least when he is speaking for himself.
Once, and once only, does he show a trace of feeling, in his own person, what that last means. It is in the remarkable poem 'A Louis B. And he will, now and then, cry out in such phrases as that in Les Voix Interieures: But, more often, his faith is a rather airy optimism. Still he shared a deeper mood with Browning. Both felt that love was the final word of the world, rising clear above all contradictions. Love here must mean love also There. And so, when the great sorrow of his life came, and the daughter died, who was perhaps what he loved best in all the world, and her young husband died with her in the attempt to save her, the noble outburst of Elegy, which fills the fourth book of Les Contemplations , is never a cry of bitterness, never a cry of despair: One hardly dares take fragments of this wonderful series out of their place, any more than one would move the grass on a grave.
But it is impossible entirely to pass over the greatest moment in the poet's life. He makes no pretence that faith and hope can swallow up grief: That grief, just because it is more than grief, will not die but live. It has become one with things greater than itself. But neither resignation, nor even faith, can forbid tears. Indeed, the grief which cannot weep is of another sort altogether, the sort which is hard because it is hopeless. Je viens a vous, Seigneur, pere auquel il faut croire; that is the substance of what remains at the end to Victor Hugo of all the teaching of the old priest: Such a creed as this, the creed of Hugo's most spiritual moments, would no doubt have appeared to the old priest a sorry remnant of his lessons.
But, whatever view be taken of it, no reader of the poet's works will doubt that it was a real creed, the faith of all that was most genuine and serious in the man. The teaching of the second of the masters of his childhood had a very different destiny. If the priest would have wondered later on at what his pupil had forgotten, the garden would equally have wondered at what he had learnt.
It had given him an alphabet, and he had made of it a new and splendid language. The child listened, the man remembered, and the poet created; and Victor Hugo became one of the greatest of all the inter preters of Nature to man. There is not one of her moods which he does not give: It was not by a know ledge of details that he came so close to her, but by a communion of spirit. He knew her, not as we know the things we have learnt, but as we know the beings whom we love. Here, as elsewhere, it is the sense of beauty that comes first: The beginning of the poetry of Nature is the Wordsworthian ' wise passiveness.
And she will not speak to every one. She is ungrateful enough, for instance, to prefer those who wander idly in gardens to those who busily lay them out and plant them.
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And even the idlers must be choice spirits. The grocer hears no voices on Derwent water, not because Derwentwater is only a lake, but because the grocer is only a grocer. Words worth hears what he hears because he is what he is.
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And so with Hugo. What things he hears! A whole study might be given to his nature work alone. All that can be done here is to give a few specimens of its range and its depth. It rests not on exact or detailed knowledge, but on sympathetic penetration. A tree or a flower, a lake or the sea, in passing through Hugo's temperament is transformed from an object known by sight or touch or hearing, to a being, to a living presence, dimly yet most powerfully appre hended by senses rarer, more august, and more authoritative than those plain ones of daily use. This is true, of course, to some extent of all great poets who touch nature: They are the witness of great poets, which means the witness of the greatest of all thinkers, to that faith in a mysterious and ultimate unity underlying all crea tion which, darkly and differently understood, has come down through the ages from the Psalmists and Plato and Virgil to Wordsworth and Tennyson and Victor Hugo.
Take it in its very simplest form, so elementary as to escape notice, till you put this welcome to spring beside such things as even the spring odes of Horace and see how, in its presence, for all their beauty, they seem narrow and limited, with a note that hardly rises above that of rejoicing at the escape from wintry discomfort: Or take it again, in this charming piece, the most beautiful of compliments, and so much more: Is there any parallel to these exquisite lines except Shelley's still more exquisite 'With a Guitar.
No doubt Shelley, most divinely absorbed of poets, gets deeper into the heart of things than Hugo, who covers so much ground that he can hardly stay to explore it; for it is only Shakspeare who has the secret of touching all themes of human interest, and showing in each the sovereign intimacy of those who touch but one.
But let us follow Hugo a little further. This inti mate sympathy, which with him as with Wordsworth makes man in the presence of nature take the place not of an observer from outside but of an interpreter from within, is carried into all moods. Indeed there is more in it even than that; Hugo, like Words worth, found that man never wins his own secret so well as at the moment when he is listening for nature to reveal hers. Only those to whom Nature means most can do these quiet things with her, which whisper so much that no loud verses can say.
One only regrets the forced antithesis of the last line, which is rather like that which spoils the end of Words worth's 'Skylark. But nature is not always in this mood of soothing gentleness. There is the night of Macbeth as well as the night of Lorenzo and Jessica: Again and again he returns to this mystery of a darkness which can be felt: The business of poetry is to say for us what we cannot say for ourselves. Who does not realise, when he reads such verses as these, how much he had felt of this dark terror of the night, though the experience had slumbered in him, subconscious, never rising to the surface of his acknowledged personality?
But here it is, become conscious by the genius of a poet; the imagination has been made consciously alive to one more aspect of the vast possibilities which surround us, but are always being hidden from our eyes by a crowd of insignifi cant actualities. We are larger beings for the power of feeling nature in all her moods, which, if you like, are ours, but are yet somehow, we shall believe, more than ours.
It is good to turn from one to another. Here is one, for instance, in which an evening walk suggests. Where are four lines that give more of evening sounds and sights and sense than these? They recall the simplicity and power of Gray's Elegy. Even Victor Hugo has never got on to the paper more of the great things that float in the imaginative air than in this verse and those which follow it: And here is another, full of mystery too, but of a mystery which has nothing dark or sinister about it: Vois le soir qui descend calme et silencieux.
But it is in the presence of the sea, which has meant more, perhaps, to Hugo and his disciple Swinburne than to any other poets that have ever lived, that we get the final word combining both moods: We have seen what came of the teaching of the priest and the garden. But what of that of the third of his teachers, his mother? Well, there were a great many things in Victor Hugo's life, public and private, which were not what his mother meant them to be.
But the greatest gift a man receives from his mother is his heart: All his fierce interest in politics never hardened his heart. He loved liberty, and democ racy, no doubt, as the watchwords of a political creed: It is no small part of his poetic strength that he always kept his hold on the great primal joys and sorrows which are the only noble emotions that can come into the majority of human lives. There is no subtlety in his treatment of them: Hear him sending his daughter to her new home and her husband: There is a bookishness about the antitheses which one wishes away; but, except for that, it is almost as quiet as the tenderest things in the Greek anthology.
One comes from it prepared for the solemn simplicity of his grief, four years later: One of the most wonderful things in Tolstoy's wonderful Anna Karenine is the picture of Levine on the morning after his engagement. A child smiles, a pigeon's wings shine in the sun, the smell of the good cake comes through the window; and these trifles are so big to him that he laughs aloud in his happiness.
It is always so when we touch reality. We are conscious of being in possession of the secret, and everything we see must take its colour. Only there are two secrets. Whoever could be at the same time in perfect possession of both would have solved the eternal problem of humanity. As it is, many men never touch either; and the few, who touch both, have for the most part forgotten the one before they feel the other.
So it was with Hugo. Perhaps he never felt the secret of life as Levine felt it: And when the secret of death takes possession of him it over whelms all the rest. All the pleasant colours of life look trivial in its tremendous shadow, all life's hurrying activities look as unbelievably small from its height as farms and roads and houses look when seen from a mountain. And so, in a remarkable little poem, he can accumulate them, pile them up one upon another through nineteen lines, well know ing that there is a last line in reserve which will in a moment reduce them all to insignificance.
It is easy to criticise the feeble obviousness of such a commonplace as 'bonheur qui manque aux rois'; or the ridiculous mixture of the smug citizen and the self-conscious genius in some of the other verses: At any rate the solemn boom of that great last line could not have hushed us as it does without the contrast with the tinkling trivialities that precede it.
And note how the effect is further heightened by the breathlessness which is kept up till the last line, without a pause any where, with scarcely a line that flows unbroken and none that finds rest. And then comes the great escape of the last line, the escape into reality; and all the chattering voices are gone out of the world in a moment, like a treeful of starlings at the report of a gun.
But death is, after all, the one universal source of tenderness. There is no one who is not moved at death. But there is more in Hugo than that. All the primary facts of life find in him their poet. Of childhood, particularly, he has a unique mastery. There has never, perhaps, been a poet to whom children meant so much. They are everywhere in his poetry. A whole volume is dedicated to them in L'Art d'etre Grand-pere , and if the grandfather and his vanity fill too much space in it, it is still the greatest book of verse which children have ever inspired.