To present VICTOR HUGO in a few pages is to carve a colossus on a cherry-stone. His work dominates half a century. In the years of exile he began a new and greater career. During the closing ten years his powers had waned, but still they were extraordinary. Even with death he did not retire; posthumous publications astonished and perhaps fatigued the world.
Victor-Marie Hugo was born at Besançon on February 26, 1802, son of a distinguished military officer—
"Mon père vieux soldat, ma mère Vendéenne."
Mother and children followed Commandant Hugo to Italy in 1807; in Spain they halted at Ernani and at Torquemada—names remembered by the poet; at Madrid a Spanish Quasimodo, their school servant, alarmed the brothers Eugène and Victor. A schoolboy in Paris, Victor Hugo rhymed his chivalric epic, his tragedy, his melodrama—"les bétises que je faisais avant ma naissance." In 1816 he wrote in his manuscript book the words, "I wish to be Chateaubriand or nothing." At fifteen he was the laureate of the Jeux Floraux, the "enfant sublime" of Chateaubriand's or of Soumet's praise.
Founder, with his brothers, of the Conservateur Littéraire, he entered into the society of those young aspirants who hoped to renew the literature of France. In 1822 he published his Odes et Poésies Diverses, and, obtaining a pension from Louis XVIII., he married his early playfellow Adèle Foucher. Romances, lyrics, dramas followed in swift succession. Hugo, by virtue of his genius, his domineering temper, his incessant activity, became the acknowledged leader of the romantic school. In 1841 he was a member of the Academy; four years later he was created a peer. Elected deputy of Paris in 1848, the year of revolution, he sat on the Right in the Constituant, on the Left in the Legislative Assembly, tending more and more towards socialistic democracy. The Empire drove him into exile—exile first at Brussels, then in Jersey, finally in Guernsey, where Hugo, in his own imagination, was the martyred but unsubdued demi-god on his sea-beaten rock. In 1870, on the fall of the Empire, he returned to Paris, witnessed the siege, was elected to the National Assembly, urged a continuance of the war, spoke in favour of recognising Garibaldi's election, and being tumultuously interrupted by the Right, sent in his resignation. Occupied at Brussels in the interests of his orphaned grandchildren, he was requested to leave, on the ground of his zeal on behalf of the fallen Communists; he returned to Paris, and pleaded in the Rappel for amnesty. In 1875 he was elected a senator. His eightieth birthday was celebrated with enthusiasm. Three years later, on May 23, 1885, Victor Hugo died. His funeral pomps were such that one might suppose the genius of France itself was about to be received at the Panthéon.
In Victor Hugo an enormous imagination and a vast force of will operated amid inferior faculties. His character was less eminent than his genius. If it is vanity to take a magnified Brocken-shadow for one's self and to admire its superb gestures upon the mist, never was vanity more complete or more completely satisfied than his. He was to himself the hero of a Hugo legend, and did not perceive when the sublime became the ridiculous. Generous to those beneath him, charitable to universal humanity, he was capable of passionate vindictiveness against individuals who had wounded his self-esteem; and, since whatever opposed him was necessarily an embodiment of the power of evil, the contest rose into one of Ormuzd against Ahriman. His intellect, the lesser faculty, was absorbed by his imagination. Vacuous generalities, clothed in magnificent rhetoric, could pass with him for ideas; but his visions are sometimes thoughts in images. The voice of his passions was leonine, but his moral sensibility wanted delicacy. His laughter was rather boisterous than fine. He is a poet who seldom achieved a faultless rendering of the subtle psychology of lovers' hearts; there was in him a vein of robust sensuality. Children were dear to him, and he knew their pretty ways; a cynical critic might allege that he exploited overmuch the tender domesticities. His eye seized every form, vast or minute, defined or vague; his feeling for colour was rather strong than delicate; his vision was obsessed by the antithesis of light and shade; his ear was awake to every utterance of wind or wave; phantoms of sound attacked his imagination; he lent the vibrations of his nerves, his own sentiments, to material objects; he took and gave back the soul of things. Words for him were living powers; language was a moving mass of significant myths, from which he chose and which he aggrandised; sensations created images and words, and images and words created ideas. He was a master of all harmonies of verse; now a solitary breather through pipe or flute; more often the conductor of an orchestra.
To say that Hugo was the greatest lyric poet of France is to say too little; the claim that he was the greatest lyric poet of all literature might be urged. The power and magnitude of his song result from the fact that in it what is personal and what is impersonal are fused in one; his soul echoed orchestrally the orchestrations of nature and of humanity—
|"Son âme aux mille voix, que le Dieu qu'il adore
Mit au centre de tout comme un écho sonore."
And thus if his poetry is not great by virtue of his own ideas, it becomes great as a reverberation of the sensations, the passions, and the thoughts of the world. He did not soar tranquilly aloft and alone; he was always a combatant in the world and wave of men, or borne joyously upon the flood. The evolution of his genius was a long process. The Odes of 1822 and 1824, the Odes et Ballades of 1826, Catholic and royalist in their feeling, show in their form a struggling originality oppressed by the literary methods of his predecessors—J.-B. Rousseau, Lebrun, Casimir Delavigne. This originality asserts itself chiefly in the Ballades. His early prose romances, Han d'Islande (1823) and Bug-Jargal (1826)—the one a tale of the seventeenth-century man-beast of Norway, the other a tale of the generous St. Domingo slave—are challenges of youthful and extravagant romanticism. Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné (1829) is a prose study in the pathology of passion. The same year which saw the publication of the last of these is also the year of Les Orientales. These poems are also studies—amazing studies in colour, in form, in all the secrets of poetic art. The East was popular—Hugo was ever passionate for popularity—and Spain, which he had seen, is half-Oriental. But of what concern is the East? he had seen a sunset last summer, and the fancy took him; the East becomes an occasion for marvellous combinations of harmony and lustrous tinctures; art for its own sake is precious.
From 1827, when Cromwell appeared, to 1843, when the epic in drama Les Burgraves failed, Hugo was a writer for the stage, diverting tragedy from its true direction towards lyrical melodrama.1 In the operatic libretto La Esmeralda (1836) his lyrical virtuosity was free to display itself in an appropriate dramatic form. The libretto was founded on his own romance Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), an evocation, more imaginative than historical, of the old city of the fifteenth century, its tragic passions, its strangeness, its horrors, and its beauty; it is a marvellous series of fantasies in black and white; things live in it more truly than persons; the cathedral, by its tyrannous power and intenser life, seems to overshadow the other actors. The tale is a juxtaposition of violent contrasts, an antithesis of darkness and light. Through Quasimodo afflicted humanity appeals for pity.
1 See section VII, this chapter.
In the volume of verse which followed Les Orientales after an interval of two years, Les Feuilles d'Automne (1831), Hugo is a master of his instrument, and does not need to display his miracles of skill; he is freer from faults than in the poetry of later years, but not therefore more to be admired. His noblest triumphs were almost inevitably accompanied by the excesses of his audacity. Here the lyrism is that of memory and of the heart—intimate, tender, grave, with a feeling for the hearth and home, a sensibility to the tranquillising influences of nature, a charity for human-kind, a faith in God, a hope of immortality. Now and again, as in the epilogue, the spirit of public indignation breaks forth—
"Et j'ajoute à ma lyre une corde d'airain."
The spirit of the Chants du Créspuscule (1835) is one of doubt, trouble, almost of gloom. Hugo's faith in the bourgeois monarchy is already waning; he is a satirist of the present; he sees two things that are majestic—the figure of Napoleon in the past, the popular flood-tide in the future which rises to threaten the thrones of kings. But this tide is discerned, as it were, through a dimness of weltering mist. Les Voix Intérieures (1837) resumes the tendencies of the two preceding volumes; the dead Charles X. is reverently saluted; the legendary Napoleon is magnified; the faith in the people grows clearer; the inner whispers of the soul are caught with heedful ear; the voice of the sea now enters into Hugo's poetry; Nature, in the symbolic La Vache, is the mother and the exuberant nurse of all living things. In Les Rayons et les Ombres (1840), Nature is not only the nurse, but the instructress and inspirer of the soul, mingling spirit with spirit. Lamartine's Le Lac and Musset's Souvenir find a companion, not more pure, but of fuller harmonies, in the Tristesse d'Olympio; reminiscences of childhood are magically preserved in the poem of the Feuillantines.
From 1840 to 1853 Hugo as a lyrical poet was silent. Like Lamartine, he had concerned himself with politics. A private grief oppressed his spirits. In 1843 his daughter Léopoldine and her husband of a few short months were drowned. In 1852 the poet who had done so much to magnify the first Napoleon in the popular imagination was the exile who launched his prose invective Napoléon le Petit. A year later appeared Les Châtiments, in which satire, with some loss of critical discernment, is infused with a passionate lyrical quality, unsurpassed in literature, and is touched at times with epic grandeur. The Empire, if it severed Hugo from the soil of France, restored him to himself with all his superb power and all his violences and errors of genius.
The volumes of Les Contemplations (1856) mark the culmination of Hugo's powers as a lyrical poet. The earlier pieces are of the past, from 1830 to 1843, and resemble the poems of the past. A group of poems, sacred to the memory of his daughter, follow, in which beauty and pathos are interpenetrated by a consoling faith in humanity, in nature, and in God. The concluding pieces are in a greater manner. The visionary Hugo lives and moves amid a drama of darkness and of light; gloom is smitten by splendour, splendour collapses into gloom; and darkness and light seem to have become vocal in song.
But a further development lay before him. The great lyric poet was to carry all his lyric passion into an epic presentation, in detached scenes, of the life of humanity. The first part of La Légende des Siècles was published in 1859 (later series, 1877, 1883). From the birth of Eve to the trumpet of judgment the vast cycle of ages and events unrolls before us; gracious episodes relieve the gloom; beauty and sublimity go hand in hand; in the shadow the great criminals are pursued by the great avengers. The spirit of Les Châtiments is conveyed into a view of universal history; if kings are tyrants and priests are knaves, the people is a noble epic hero. This poem is the epopee of democratic passions.
The same spirit of democratic idealism inspires Hugo's romance Les Misérables (1862). The subject now is modern; the book is rather the chaos of a prose epic than a novel; the hero is the high-souled outcast of society; everything presses into the pages; they are turn by turn historical, narrative, descriptive, philosophical (with such philosophy as Hugo has to offer), humanitarian, lyrical, dramatic, at times realistic; a vast invention, beautiful, incredible, sublime, absurd, absorbing in its interest, a nightmare in its tedium.
We have passed beyond the mid-century, but Hugo is not to be presented as a torso. In the tale Les Travailleurs de la Mer (1866) the choral voices of the sea cover the thinness and strain of the human voices; if the writer's genius is present in L'Homme qui Rit (1869), it often chooses to display its most preposterous attitudes; the better scenes of Quatre-vingt Treize (1874) beguile our judgment into the generous concessions necessary to secure an undisturbed delight. These are Hugo's later poems in prose. In verse he revived the feelings of youth with a difference, and performed happy caprices of style in the Chansons des Rues et des Bois (1865); sang the incidents and emotions of his country's sorrow and glory in L'Année Terrible (1872), and—strange contrast—the poetry of babyland in L'Art d'être Grandpère (1877). Volume still followed volume—Le Pape, La Pitié Suprême, Religions et Religion, L'Âne, Les Quatre Vents de l'Esprit, the drama Torquemada. The best pages in these volumes are perhaps equal to the best in any of their author's writings; the pages which force antithesis, pile up synonyms, develop commonplaces in endless variations, the pages which are hieratic, prophetic, apocalyptic, put a strain upon the loyalty of our admiration. The last legend of Hugo's imagination was the Hugo legend: if theism was his faith, autotheism was his superstition. Yet it is easy to restore our loyalty, and to rediscover the greatest lyric poet, the greatest master of poetic counterpoint that France has known.