The following essay is reprinted from The Claims of French Poetry: Nine Studies in the Greater French Poets. John C. Bailey. London: Archibald Constable and Company, 1907.
Perhaps no name in French literature stands for so much as that of Victor Hugo. He had a long life and a large personality. Born less than ten years after the Terror, he lived fourteen years after the Commune. A Royalist in his youth, both by inheritance and by temperament, he lived to be the voice, almost the incarnation, of the spirit of democracy. He knew the taste of exile, the bitterest cup of all that must be drained by the defeated politician, and he survived it to know in turn that of popular adulation, the most intoxicating and the most dangerous. He began life as a literary rebel, and died an accepted classic.
All these things, and the fact that he touched life so long and from so many sides, make him an embarrassingly large subject to attempt to treat in an essay. Yet no one writing on French poetry, whatever else he may be obliged to leave untouched, can dare to turn away from the most splendid figure of all. And perhaps the time has begun to come, now that he has been more than twenty years in the grave to which he was carried with such ostentatious simplicity, when we may try to set our hands to the work of posterity, and begin to strip him of what was ephemeral and unessential, and look only at the vital and immortal part by which he has his place among the undying glories of France. And this simplification of the problem of Hugo is at once an easier and a more necessary task in the case of us who are not Frenchmen. Neither the political nor the literary quarrels of the French matter very greatly to us. We at least shall not go to French poets for instruction in our political duty. And the other point is still more important. Half the pages that Frenchmen have written about Victor Hugo are not unnaturally given to the breach he made in the fortress of the French classical tradition. But a foreigner, unless he writes for specialists, ought to aim at a wider point of view. The most daring enjambement in the world, the most startlingly placed césure, even though they once robbed academicians of their sleep, will not interest posterity, and need not detain us. The fame of Sophocles and Euripides does not now depend on the innovations they made in the theatre of Athens. Schoolmasters and even scholars may occupy themselves with such matters: but for those who read the Greek tragedies as great poetry, it is other matters altogether that fill the mind. They are studying things of a very different order of importance to any questions of the technical development of the Attic stage. And so, if Hugo is to be read permanently by those who are not Frenchmen, his claims must be based on something altogether wider than any such achievements as the liberation of the Alexandrine verse from its ancient trammels, or the enrichment of the store of French rhymes. Foreigners will never be perfectly competent to judge with authority in these purely national questions, and they have the right as well as the duty of setting them aside. For, however interesting the answer to them may be, it is no answer to the question which is the only one urgently asked by the foreign lover of poetry: what is Victor Hugo's contribution to the poetic utterance of the heart and mind of the world?
Few poets have ever been so prodigal of verse as Hugo. The Edition Définitive of his works includes twenty-five volumes of poetry, over and above his plays. It will be a large enough task for us here if, putting aside the prose works and the dramas, we try to arrive at some notion of what it is in those many volumes of verse that has the final seal of greatness on it. The mere reading of so much is no light business. And of course the poet pays the penalty of this prodigious volubility. There is nothing which his amazing facility cannot turn into verse. His energy is inexhaustible. Never once, perhaps, in all the twenty-five volumes does he exhibit a trace of weariness. He often irritates by his violence, by his verbose declamation, by his lack of humour, by his colossal and immeasurable vanity: but by the flat dulness, born of those moments, which so few artists escape, when they have lost faith in themselves and delight in their work, never once, I think, in all his life. 'French of the French' as Tennyson called him, he has a great deal in him that is very uncongenial to Englishmen. We have all been Puritans, either in our own persons or those of our ancestors, and Hugo's lack of seriousness in the presence of the most serious things is profoundly distasteful to us. He is a sincere and passionate enemy of materialism and, in his own way, a sincere and passionate believer in God. But of the fear of God, of the awe and the sense of human littleness and sinfulness which we generally associate with those to whom belief in God has meant most, there is not in Hugo a single trace. The word 'Dieu' is everywhere in his poems, but every recurrence of it makes us more sure that, if it had meant more to him, it would have been less often on his page. Again and again it seems to be brought in only as a kind of rhetorical flourish to clench his argument, or silence his orthodox enemies. And even this rhetorical use of the holiest names is less distasteful to most people with English traditions than the familiar and free and easy use of them, which is also common with Hugo. Such a passage as this from the Chansons des Rues et des Bois shows that in France the blood of Voltaire runs a little even in the most unlikely veins. It is written during an illness with the possibility of death before him:
- Mon ame se change en prunelle:
- Ma raison sonde Dieu voile;
- Je tate la porte eternelle,
- Et j'essaie a la nuit ma cle.
- C'est Dieu que le fossoyeur creuse:
- Mourir c'est 1'heure de savoir;
- Je dis a la mort: Vieille ouvreuse,
- Je viens voir le spectacle noir.
What is an ouvreuse? An old woman who shows you to your seat at a French theatre. Well, to be able to speak in that way, at that moment, of God and death is not a strength at all in our eyes: it is a weakness. And it is not merely a question of character or seriousness. It is a question of art. There is no principle of art more fundamental than that great words, except in deliberate comedy, ought only to be greatly used. It is one of which Victor Hugo knew nothing, as may be seen by such a passage as this as well as by his frequent use of the simile which degrades, which lowers the vitality of the subject he wishes to illustrate instead of heightening it.
And he is 'French of the French' also in a more natural and pardonable way. But still it is a way that is a drawback for us. We cannot be expected to think of France as the one nation that has really counted in the world since Greece and Rome, nor of Paris as occupying in the map of Europe the place of the sun in the solar system. Still less can we see in the universal brigandage of Napoleon a generous gift for which the peoples of Europe are for ever to love the generosity of the people of France. And not all the passionate eloquence of L'Annee Terrible will make the best lover of France amongst us feel that there was any new, unheard of, uniquely abominable, wickedness in the victorious Germans doing in 1871 what the French had done often before and would most assuredly have been doing then if they had been the victors and not the vanquished. Arnica Francia; magis amica--non Germania sed--veritas. French spectacles are pretty wear for a Frenchman, perhaps, but they sit uncomfortably on English noses, and the verses which cannot be read without them will never be read very willingly here.
One other word and the task of clearing the ground will be done. Matthew Arnold used to complain of French worship of the goddess Aselgeia; and many English people, because they are hypocrites, as Frenchmen often think, or, as is nearer the truth, because that goddess does not appear to them either a beautiful or an edifying object of worship, do not care for books in which they are likely to meet with her praises. Well, let it be said at once for those who know little of Hugo, that this fear need not frighten them. In all his thousands of poems there are few indeed that could not be placed in the hands of a girl of sixteen. It is not the least of Hugo's praises that, in an age and country where the most unlikely writers set decency at defiance, he kept the pages of its greatest poet pure.
And now to get back to our question: what is Hugo's contribution to the poetic utterance of the heart and mind of the world ? What is the English reader, bewildered by the prospect of the twenty-five volumes, to look for in particular? Why should he go to Hugo and what will he find? Such questions might meet with many different answers: specialists in language, students of metre, students of the French character, and so on, might all give one of their own: but the answer I am trying to get at here is that of no specialist at all, but of the plain lover of literature and especially of poetry, of those who find in poetry at once the most delightful of human arts, and the least imperfect utterance man has achieved of what he has in him at his greatest moments.
Well, man is never greater, we shall all agree, than when the whole world shines for his eyes in a sunlight of love. And songs of love which are among the very oldest of man's makings are still to-day among the most delightful. And who has given us more exquisite songs than Victor Hugo? Let him answer for himself, with the two wonderful songs from the Chants du Crépuscule:
- S'il est un charmant gazon
- Que le ciel arrose,
- Ou brille en toute saison
- Quelque fleur eclose,
- Ou Ton cueille a pleine main
- Lys, chevrefeuille et jasmin,
- J'en veux faire le chemin
- Ou ton pied se pose!
- S'il est un sein bien aimant
- Dont l'honneur dispose,
- Dont le ferme devouement
- N'ait rien de morose,
- Si toujours ce noble sein
- Bat pour un digne dessein
- J'en veux faire le coussin
- Ou ton front se pose!
- S'il est un reve d'amour
- Parfume de rose,
- Ou Ton trouve chaque jour
- Quelque douce chose,
- Un reve que Dieu benit,
- Ou l'ame a Tame s'unit,
- Oh ! j'en veux faire le nid
- Ou ton coeur se pose!
How it sings, every word of it, sets itself to music, and dances to its own tune! There are deeper songs in the world of poetry, songs whose time is beaten for them by the droppings of human tears, and some of them come from Victor Hugo: but where shall we find one in which the delightfulness of love's assurance gets more gracious utterance? Unless indeed it be this which follows it:
- L'aube nait et ta porte est close.
- Ma belle, pourquoi sommeiller?
- A l'heure ou s'eveille la rose
- Ne vas-tu pas te reveiller?
- O ma charmante,
- Ecoute ici
- L'amant qui chante
- Et pleure aussi!
- Tout frappe a ta porte benie.
- L'aurore dit: je suis le jour!
- L'oiseau dit: je suis l'harmonie!
- Et mon cceur dit: je suis l'amour!
- O ma charmante
- Ecoute ici
- L'amant qui chante
- Et pleure aussi!
- Je t'adore ange et t'aime femme.
- Dieu qui par toi m'a complete
- A fait mon amour pour ton ame
- Et mon regard pour ta beaute.
- O ma charmante,
- Ecoute ici
- L'amant qui chante
- Et pleure aussi!
Is not the poise and balance of that refrain, as it seems to hang in the air, lingering to enjoy its own delightfulness, one of the greatest triumphs which the art of making music out of human speech has ever achieved? As for the thought in either of the songs, it is of course simple and obvious enough. And indeed those who search for the untrodden ways of the human intellect must not walk with Hugo. Strangeness of word or phrase, and especially of names and places, and strangeness of fancy, especially in the days of Les Orientales they will find in him in abundance: but strangeness of thought seldom or never. He walks in the great highway of human thought and feeling, and rarely quits it. But as Wordsworth, himself the discoverer of a new world of poetry, once said: 'New thoughts, however deep, are not the staple of poetry, but old thoughts, presented with immortal freshness, and a kind of inspired felicity of diction.' And, in any case, wherever else adventurous ingenuity of thought may be wanted, it is not here in such songs as these. All curious thinking would be out of harmony with the primal simplicity of these divine moments: when they are upon us we do not ask to think, but to unite our voices to the paean of joy which then seems to us to be the world's universal song. We rejoice in the gladness of the world, and all living things rejoice in ours, so that, as he says in another poem, birds and butterflies are full of our happiness.
- L'oiseau, que les hivers desolent,
- Le frais papillon rajetmi,
- Toutes les choses qui s'envolent,
- En murmurent dans l'infini.
That is a poet's fancy, perhaps: but there is no true poet in whom fancy is not close akin to faith. And Hugo never wavered in his faith that love was the greatest thing in all the world, the key to all mysteries, the cure of all ills, a king whose greatest conquests were yet before him, a discoverer who, if we would but let him set sail, had a whole new world to find for us. The dream of a mysterious unity lying behind the varied manifestations which the eye sees and the hand handles, the dream to which the brooding spirit of Virgil first gave poetic utterance, and of which our own Wordsworth was the inspired prophet, was also for Hugo, in his vaguer way, an inextinguishable faith. It is not merely the exhilaration of a great artist in splendid verse that rings through such things as his Mugitus-que Bourn: it is the ecstasy of those who see further and deeper and higher than the rest of us, those who are the prophet eyes of humanity seeing for us what we cannot see for ourselves. He stands listening as the darkness comes on, and what he seems to hear is such voices as these:
- Vivez! croissez! semez le grain a l'aventure!
- Ou'on sente frissonner dans toute la nature,
- Sous la feuille des nids, au seuil blanc des maisons,
- Dans l'obscur tremblement des profonds horizons,
- Un vaste emportement d'aimer, dans l'herbe verte,
- Dans l'antre, dans l'etang, dans la clairiere ouverte,
- D'aimer sans fin, d'aimer toujours, d'aimer encor,
- Sous la serenite des sombres astres d'or!
- Faites tressaillir l'air, le riot, Paile, la bouche,
- O palpitations du grand amour farouche!
- Ou'on sente le baiser de l'etre illimite!
- Et paix, vertu, bonheur, esperance, bonte,
- O fruits divins, tombez des branches eternelles!
- Ainsi vous parliez, voix, grandes voix solennelies:
- Et Virgile ecoutait comme j'ecoute, et l'eau
- Voyait passer le cygne auguste, et le bouleau,
- Le vent, et le rocher, Pecume, et le ciel sombre.
- L'homme. . . . O nature! abime! immensite de l'ombre!
It is the business of the poet to give new life to life itself. If he has the right voice and we are the right hearers, all that we do and feel takes an added, heightened, glorified vitality while we listen. And not only does the old become new, and the ordinary extraordinary, but the non-existent finds existence, and all that was not is. All that we felt vaguely and half unconsciously, we now feel with ecstatic clearness: all that we did not feel finds strange and sudden birth in us, all that we did not see bursts in magical freshness upon our opened and astonished eyes. That is an ideal, only accomplished in perfection when the poet is at his very highest moment of speech, and we at our fittest of hearing. But is there not more than a partial realisation of it in such things as I have quoted? Will any but the dullest fail to feel some dance of love in him as he listens to those songs: will any but the blindest fail to see some of the magic that unites old and new, memory and discovery, together in what the poet saw as he watched
Dans l'obscur tremblement des profonds horizons?
And will any that have ever learnt to make poetic ventures fail to go their part of the way with him as he draws the great conclusion in which he scarcely wavered even in his saddest hours?
- O splendeur! o douceur! l'etendue infinie
- Est un balancement d'amour et d'harmonie.
- Contemplons a genoux.
- Une voix sort du ciel et dans nos fibres passe;
- De Ià nos chants profonds: le rythme est dans l'espace,
- Et la lyre est en nous.
There is a sentiment here which is rather French than English: but what an ardour of ecstasy shines through it! We may miss, perhaps, the Tennysonian gruffness of conviction that, if there were not Love behind Nature, life would be intolerable and suicide the only solution: but if Hugo will not be quite sure that life has no good things in it even without a key to its mysteries, he is most abundantly sure that it gains a thousandfold on every side when that key is in the hand. And, for poets and those who believe in poetry, that is a long way towards conviction of its truth. For, in the fine phrase of Maeterlinck, 'le moment ou l'objet nous parait le plus admirable est celui ou nous avons le plus de chance d'apercevoir sa vérité.'
But, whatever the philosophic truth of these high dreamings may be, the poetic point is that we have them, all of us, or all of us who are likely to touch poetry. And therefore to express them with the power and beauty, and moving ecstasy, of Victor Hugo is precisely, in the words of our own definition, to vivify life itself, and to make a real contribution to the poetic utterance of the heart and mind of the world.
In fact Victor Hugo's great claim lies just there: that he is a kind of spokesman of humanity, and in particular that he more than any one else is the poetic voice of the whole nineteenth century. It is the characteristic of the great Epic poets that they have gathered up the whole of their age into a single poem. All the various activities of the earliest Greek civilisation find their place in Homer: the whole of Virgil's age, the dying Republic, the young Empire, the new instinct of universal humanity, the sympathies and yearnings that were making the way straight for the march of Christianity, all are in the twelve books of the Æneid and in the Divina Commedia there is scarcely any virtue or vice, any art or activity, any religious dream or political aspiration of the Middle Age on which Dante does not somewhere throw the awful light of Heaven and Hell. Victor Hugo wrote no Epic Poem. But he came nearer to doing the work of the great Epic poets than any one else in his day. And that in two ways. He gave us in his vast and wonderful novel Les Misérables what is more like a great Epic than any other single work printed in the nineteenth century. And in a different way he achieved something of the same universal and representative kind by the amazing variety of his poetical productions. He is perhaps the most universal poet the world has known since Shakespeare. Many poets have utterly surpassed him in particular fields: none, I think, has touched so many and failed nowhere. Most of the rest, if we may say it with due reverence, have such obvious limitations. Milton does not care for love, nor Goethe for politics: Leopardi, for all his grave beauty, has hardly more than a single note, that of despair; Wordsworth knows man only, as it were, in his elemental moments, Byron knows him only, or chiefly, in his worst: Shelley, unique master of the world of spirit, sees clouds in place of solid earth and ideal abstractions instead of men and women. Tennyson seemed at times hardly to know that poetry was a thing of passion, or Browning that it was a mystery brooding over a mystery, or Arnold that it was a trumpet song of faith and power. And in Hugo's own country no fallen angel like De Musset, no Eastern dreamer like Leconte de Lisle, no painter of gorgeous pictures, as motionless as they are beautiful, like Heredia, can compare with him as the spokesman of a varied century. No doubt that does not prove that Hugo is greater than these men. Indeed Milton unquestionably, and Goethe and Wordsworth, in spite of their limitations, almost certainly, are greater men than he. It is not the bulk but the quality of a poet's work that gives him his final rank: and no one can yet say whether one or other, named or unnamed, of the rest who covered so much less ground than Hugo, but covered it so much more completely, may not have grown flowers that will ultimately outlive the vast product of Hugo's multitudinous energies. But that is not the point. The claim that Hugo is the most universal poet since Shakespeare is not a claim that he is greater than any other, but that he touches life on more sides, and has more varied poetic gifts. He has, in a greater or less degree, the special gift of each: and then he has so many other things beside. To make the comparison, for instance, with two only of the long line, Milton and Tennyson. The two great gifts of Milton were his assured possession of the most unfailingly majestic utterance that has come from the lips of men since the fall of the ancient world, and the soaring sublimity of an imagination that ranged at ease from Heaven to Hell. Well, of course Hugo is not in the same world with Milton as a master of godlike speech: but then who is? And if Hugo is not an artist in language after the order of Milton, he is still the greatest his race has produced. If Milton could touch nothing without leaving on it a stamp of greatness, Hugo, who touched everything, never once perhaps failed to call forth some music of verse, even out of the silence of the darkest and deadest things. And if he cannot rise to Heaven on such wings as those of Milton's 'sphere-born harmonious sisters,' his Vision de Dante, even if it stood alone, is enough to show that hardly Dante or Milton can go deeper into Hell. He takes, then, his humbler place in Milton's own glorious world. But what of the worlds Milton never entered? The landscapes of Milton are among the noblest in poetry: but where in them all is that sense of the mystery of Nature, of the voice that knows the secret and can whisper it through the silence but can never tell it plain, which Hugo gives us again and again with such sympathy of imagination, with such murmuring beauty of verse? Where indeed are any of the things that poetry could not learn till Christianity, or at least till Virgil, came to reveal them? The mystery that hangs over human life, the lacrima rerum, is as alien to Milton's page as the mystery that hangs over the dying or the dawning light. And each alike is woven into the very stuff of Hugo. Where again in Milton is Hugo's wondering delight in the innocence and beauty, the joy and mystery for it is mystery once more that poetry can never again fail to see in the face of a child? Where is the tender universal sympathy, not with heroes alone or saints, but with the weak, the obscure, the poor, with the whole of our failing and suffering humanity? Where is Milton's drama? He wrote, indeed, in the form of drama, a poem incomparably greater than any play of Hugo's, but it has almost all great qualities in it except the dramatic, and it is not, nor ever was meant to be, a work for the stage. In Gastibelza Hugo created one of the most magical ballads in the world: where in Milton is, not its equal, but any fragment or fraction of its equal? Where, above all, are Milton's lyrics of love, and where are they not in Hugo!
- Puisqu' ici-bas toute ame
- Donne a quelqu'un
- Sa musique, sa flamme,
- Ou son parfum;
- Puisqu' avril donne aux chenes
- Un bruit charmant;
- Que la nuit donne aux peines
- L'oubli dormant;
- Puisque lorsqu'elle arrive
- S'y reposer,
- L'onde amere a la rive
- Donne un baiser;
- Je te donne, a cette heure,
- Penche sur toi,
- La chose la meilleure
- Que j'aie en moi!
- Regois mes voeux sans nombre,
- O mes amours!
- Regois la flamme ou l'ombre
- De tous mes jours!
- Ma muse, que les heures
- Bercent revant,
- Qui, pleurant quand tu pleures,
- Pleure souvent!
- Reçois, mon bien celeste,
- ma beauté,
- Mon coeur, dont rien ne reste
- L'amour oté!
How wide a world away such stanzas as these are, with their exquisite grace of fancy and movement and form, from anything Milton has left us! Well, it is the measure of Hugo's universality that such a poem as this, with the very spirit of love and airy lightness in it, is by the same author as the Vision de Dante, as the great ode on Napoleon in Les Feuilles d'Automne as the tremendous series of the Legende des Siecles, as the solemn and beautiful elegies with which the death of his daughter filled the second volume of Les Contemplations.
To press the comparison further would be tedious. As it is, an Englishman with a tithe of the reverence he ought to feel in the presence of Milton must have a guilty sense, after drawing such a parallel, of having laid rude hands on his father Parmenides. But Milton's greatness is of an order so high and splendid that he of all men suffers least from the acknowledgment that it is not universal.
It would of course be still easier to demonstrate the same thing in the case of Tennyson. Hugo is a journalist by his side in such a matter as the curiosa felicitas in which Tennyson came near to rivalling Horace. He had neither the patience nor the artistic conscience, nor the stern self-restraint which goes to building up such things as Ulysses or The Lotos- Eaters, or the lyrics in Maud and The Princess or the lines to Virgil. He is fond of talking of Horace, but never two poets were less alike. The Horatian felicity will not be married to such facility as that of Hugo. And in all that order of things, as well as in manliness and a kind of greatness of soul, Tennyson leaves him far behind. But where in Tennyson is Hugo's inexhaustible abundance of poetic speech and fancy, where except once or twice in Maud and some early lyrics is Hugo's airy grace and lightness as of a leaf dancing in the air or a boat on the waves, where in his Olympian wisdom is Hugo's passionate outpouring of love and sympathy, when shall we connect children, or the sea, or the suffering and surging heart of the people, with Tennyson as they are for ever inseparably connected with Hugo? Where does Tennyson give us the sense, as Hugo does so often, of a torrent in flood, sweeping all barriers before it, and compelling all who find themselves there to follow in its triumphant flow?
It is unnecessary to pursue the comparison. Milton is one of the acknowledged giants of poetry. Tennyson is, perhaps, the only poet among the contemporaries of Hugo's manhood who rivalled him in immediate and visible popularity. If the French poet can in this particular point more than hold his own against such men as these two, there can be no doubt that he has an exceptionally wide range of interest. The object of the remainder of this essay will be to try to illustrate this in some detail, and for that purpose I shall not hesitate to quote freely. For that I make no apology. Few people possessing any large acquaintance with critical studies will deny that in the long run the critic who will not quote is a mere beater of the air. 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: the imagination is always at work as well as the eye: the bare fact he knows to belong to the man of science, not to the poet: and he gives it to us not bare and naked but richly clothed, new coloured, new formed, new created, heightened to glory or darkened to gloom, touched and transformed to fit the imaginative purpose he has in hand. 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:
- Comme si, sous le souffle de Dieu,
- De grands poissons de flamme aux ecailles de feu,
- Vastes formes dans l'ombre au hasard remuées,
- En ce sombre ocean de brume et de nuées
- Nageaient, et dans les flots du lourd nuage noir
- Se laissaient par instants vaguement entrevoir.
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?
- L'ete, lorsque le jour a fui, de fleurs couverte
- La plaine verse au loin un parfum enivrant:
- Les yeux fermes, Poreille aux rumeurs entr'ouverte,
- On ne dort qu'a demi d'un sommeil transparent.
- Les astres sont plus purs, Pombre parait meilleure;
- Un vague demi-jour teint le dome eternel:
- Et l'aube douce et pale, en attendant son heure,
- Semble toute la nuit errer au bas du ciel.
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: and this, with its more definite outline, and its tender sympathy not now with the poetic dreamer, but with the man who works and believes, will bring up at once the thought of Francois Millet. It is the sower, using the last hour of daylight:
- Sa haute silhouette noire
- Domine les profonds labours.
- On sent a quel point il doit croire
- A la fuite utile des jours.
- II marche dans la plaine immense,
- Va, vient, lance la graine au loin,
- Rouvre sa main, et recommence,
- Et je medite, obscur temoin,
- Pendant que, deployant ses voiles,
- L'ombre, ou se mele une rumeur,
- Semble elargir jusqu'aux etoiles
- Le geste auguste du semeur.
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;
what a Shakespearian touch it is! 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:
- dormant dans la brume des nuits,
- Avec leurs dieux, leur peuple, et leurs chars, et leurs bruits.
We see all their barbaric glory as the cloud is poised above them:
- Des jardins suspendus, pleins de fleurs et d'arcades
- Et d'arbres noirs penches sur de vastes cascades;
- Des plafonds d'un seul bloc couvrant de vastes salles,
- Ou, sans jamais lever leurs tetes colossales,
- Veillaient, assis en cercle, et se regardant tous,
- Des dieux d'airain, posant leurs mains sur leurs genoux.
There they were, a stain on the earth, with their hideous gods and monstrous vices: and yet,
- Tout dormait cependant : au front des deux cites,
- A peine encore glissaient quelques pales clartes,
- Lampes de la debauche, en naissant disparues,
- Derniers feux des festins oublies dans les rues.
- De grands angles de mur, par la lune blanchis,
- Coupaient Pombre, ou tremblaient dans une eau reflechis.
- Peut-etre on entendait vaguement dans les plaines
- S'etouffer des baisers, se meler des haleines,
- Et les deux villes sceurs, lasses des feux du jour,
- Murmurer mollement d'une etreinte d'amour;
- Et le vent, soupirant sous le frais sycomore,
- Allait tout parfumd de Sodome a Gomorrhe.
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:
- L'aurore apparaissait; quelle aurore? Un abime
- D'eblouissement, vaste, insondable, sublime;
- Une ardente lueur de paix et de bonte.
- C'etait aux premiers temps du globe; et la clarté
- Brillait sereine au front du ciel inaccessible,
- Etant tout ce que Dieu peut avoir de visible;
- Tout s'illuminait, l'ombre et le brouillard obscur;
- Des avalanches d'or s'ecroulaient dans l'azur;
- Le jour en flamme, au fond de la terre ravie,
- Embrasait les lointains splendides de la vie;
- Les horizons, pleins d'ombre et de rocs chevelus
- Et d'arbres effrayants que rhomme ne voit plus,
- Luisaient, comme le songe et comme le vertige,
- Dans une profondeur d'eclair et de prodige:
- L'Eden pudique et nu s'eveillait mollement;
- Les oiseaux gazouillaient un hymne si charmant,
- Si frais, si gracieux, si suave et si tendre,
- Que les anges distraits se penchaient pour l'entendre;
- La priere semblait à la clarté melée:
- Et sur cette nature encore immaculée
- Qui du verbe éternel avait garde l'accent,
- Sur ce monde celeste, angelique, innocent,
- Le matin, murmurant une sainte parole,
- Souriait, et l'aurore etait une aureole.
- Les vents et les rayons semaient de tels delires
- Que les forets vibraient comme de grandes lyres;
- De l'ombre a la clarte, de la base au sommet,
- Une fraternite venerable germait;
- Une harmonic égale a la clarté, versant
- Une extase divine au globe adolescent,
- Semblait sortir du cceur mysterieux du monde;
- L'herbe en etait emue, et le nuage, et l'onde,
- Et meme le rocher qui songe et qui se tait;
- L'arbre, tout penetre de lumiere, chantait;
- Chaque fleur, echangeant son souffle et sa pensée
- Avec le ciel serein d'ou tombe la rosée,
- Recevait une perle et donnait un parfum;
- L'Etre resplendissait, Un dans Tout, Tout dans Un;
- Le paradis brillait sous les sombres ramures
- De la vie ivre d'ombre et pleine de murmures,
- Et la lumiere etait faite de verite;
- Et tout avait la grace, ayant la purete.
- Tout etait flamme, hymen, bonheur, douceur, clemence,
- Tant ces immenses jours avaient une aube immense!
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 bewildering exuberance of detail. They will regret the severe concentration of the classics. Milton knows and chooses every step of his stately way: and you cannot change a word of his poem without loss. You could change many in Hugo: the eager ecstasy cannot stay to adjust its robes. 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: no longer from La Legende, but still of Eve, a little later, taking her place now with Adam among Les Malheureux:--
- Ils venaient tous les deux s'asseoir sur une pierre,
- En presence des monts fauves et soucieux,
- Et de I'eternite formidable des cieux.
- Leur ceil triste rendait la nature farouche.
- Et la, sans qu'il sortit un souffle de leur bouche.
- Les mains sur leurs genoux, et se tournant le dos,
- Accables comme ceux qui portent des fardeaux,
- Sans autre mouvement de vie exterieure
- Que de baisser plus bas la tete d'heure en heure,
- Dans une stupeur morne et fatale absorbes,
- Froids, livides, hagards, ils regardaient, courbes
- Sous Petre illimite sans figure et sans nombre,
- L'un decroitre le jour, et Pautre, grandir l'ombre.
- Et, tandis que montaient les constellations,
- Et que la premiere onde aux premiers alcyons
- Donnait sous 1'infini le long baiser nocturne,
- Et qu'ainsi que des fleurs tombant a flots d'une urne
- Les astres fourmillants emplissaient le ciel noir,
- Ils songeaient et, reveurs, sans entendre, sans voir,
- Sourds aux rumeurs des mers d'ou l'ouragan s'elance,
- Toute la nuit, dans Fombre, ils pleuraient en silence,
- Ils pleuraient tous les deux, aieux du genre humain,
- Le pere sur Abel, la mere sur Cain.
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 performed 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 contrast 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. The whole Légende des Siecles, for instance, is not only the greatest attempt made by a poet in the nineteenth century to bring the whole of humanity--dead and living--to his judgment as Dante brought it in the Commedia: it is also an amazing series of scenes from the life of man in all the multifarious forms his activity has taken from the innocence of Eden to the crimes of Pio Nono and Napoleon III. 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 picturesqueness, 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 imagination. It slides off, no doubt, far too easily into the poet's besetting sin of vague declamation about things in general: but a book containing such things of beauty as the Eden scenes I have quoted, the wonderful sea-piece in Le Phare, or again 'les Jardins de Babylone' in Les Sept Merveilles du Monde, such things of terror as the tale of Canute and the Vision de Dante, such tales mingled of terror and beauty as Eviradnus, such ballads as La Chanson des Aventuriers de la Mer, such idylls as La Rose de I'Infante, an idyll which is so much else too, such a lyric as that tremendous song of annihilation, L'Epopée du Ver, is an achievement which might well have been the whole production of a very fertile and varied genius. 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: what matters is the imaginative power with which it is told. 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: for the thing he lacks in his stately grave is a shroud of snow:
- II alia droit au mont Savo que le temps ronge,
- Et Kanut s'approcha de ce farouche aieul,
- Et lui dit: Laisse-moi, pour m'en faire un linceul,
- O montagne Savo que la tourmente assiege,
- Me couper un morceau de ton manteau de neige.
- Le mont le reconnut et n'osa refuser.
- Kanut prit son epee impossible a briser,
- Et sur le mont, tremblant devant ce belluaire,
- II coupa de la neige et s'en fit un suaire:
- Puis il cria: Vieux mont, la mort eclaire peu;
- De quel cote faut-il aller pour trouver Dieu?
- Le mont, au flanc difforme, aux gorges obstruees,
- Noir, triste dans le vol eternel des nuees
- Lui dit: Je ne sais pas, spectre, je suis ici.
And so he goes out, clothed in his shroud of snow,
- Seul, dans le grand silence et dans la grande nuit:
- La pas d'astre: et pourtant on ne sait quel regard
- Tombe de ce chaos immobile et hagard:
this is the place of death, he thinks: beyond, there will be God. 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: and it grows closer and bigger: and then he sees a drop of blood has fallen on his shroud. He starts in horror, but once more presses forward. But a second drop, and a third, falls: he turns out of his path to left and to right, but still they fall on him: he would go back to his grave, but he cannot: he stands still and would pray, but his prayer is silenced by another drop of blood.
- II voyait, plus tremblant qu'au vent le peuplier,
- Les taches s'elargir et se multiplier:
- Une autre, une autre, une autre, une autre, o cieux funebres!
- Leur passage rayait vaguement les tenebres:
- Ces gouttes dans les plis du linceul, finissant
- Par se meler, faisaient des nuages de sang:
- II marchait, il marchait: de l'insondable voute
- Le sang continuait a pleuvoir goutte a goutte,
- Toujours, sans fin, sans bruit et comme s'il tombait
- De ces pieds noirs qu'on voit la nuit pendre au gibet.
- Enfin, marchant toujours comme en une fumee,
- II arriva devant une porte fermee
- Sous laquelle passait un jour mysterieux;
- Alors sur son linceul il abaissa les yeux:
- C'etait l'endroit sacre, c'etait l'endroit terrible:
- On ne sait quel rayon de Dieu semble visible:
- De derriere la porte on entend l'hosanna.
- Le linceul etait rouge et Kanut frissonna.
- Et c'est pourquoi Kanut, fuyant devant l'aurore,
- Et reculant, n'a pas ose paraitre encore
- Devant le juge au front duquel le soleil luit:
- C'est pourquoi ce roi sombre est reste dans la nuit,
- Et, sans pouvoir rentrer dans sa blancheur premiere,
- Sentant, a chaque pas qu'il fait vers la lumiere,
- Une goutte de sang sur sa tete pleuvoir,
- Rode eternellement sous l'enorme ciel noir.
How many visions of Judgment are more awful than this? There is in it an almost Hebraic conviction 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 Alexandrine 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 behind the light it seemed was one who was rapt in thought. And he said within himself: it is the face of the Judge: and he was afraid. And the horrors of the eternal descent through the abyss seized on him: the abyss in which, as one falls,
- on songe a la vie, au soleil, aux amours,
- Et Ton pense toujours, et Ton tombe toujours!
- Et le froid du neant lentement vous penetre!
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 some bear the marks of the sword, and some of the gibbet, and some of the torture: and they cry aloud, as they approach the great Brightness, for justice, justice at last, and vengeance from God. And the angel asks who their murderers were: and they say the soldiers. 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
- Us avaient ce front has des betes enchainees
- Quand, le loup etant pris au piege et garrotté,
- L'air terrible fait place a l'air epouvante.
And the first multitude cries for vengeance: but the soldiers say the guilt is not theirs: it is on their officers and not on them that punishment should fall. And the captains are summoned: and they pass the guilt on to the judges:
Nous n'etions que le bras, ils dtaient la pensee.
And they too disappear: and the judges come: but they say the priests have always told them the kings were the images of God, and it is they who gave the orders which the judges have obeyed.
- L'ange dit. Amenez les images de Dieu.
- Des etres monstrueux parurent.
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:
- Le dernier qui venait, horrible au milieu d'eux,
- Etait a chaque marche encombre de squelettes
- Et de cadavres froids aux bouches violettes,
- Et le plancher rougi fumait, de sang baigne;
- Le char qui le portait dans l'ombre etait traine
- Par un hibou tenant dans sa griffe une hache.
- Un etre aux yeux de loup, homme par la moustache,
- Au sommet de ce char s'agitait etonne,
- Et se courbait furtif, livide et couronne.
- Pas un de ces Cesars a Pallure guerriere
- Ne regardait cet homme. A l'ecart, et derriere,
- Vetu d'un noir manteau qui semblait un linceul,
- Espece de lepreux du trone, il venait seul;
- II posait les deux mains sur sa face morose
- Comme pour empecher qu'on y vit quelque chose;
- Quand parfois il otait ses mains en se baissant
- En lettres qui semblaient faites avec du sang
- On lisait sur son front ces trois mots: Je le jure.
- Quoiqu'ils fussent encore au fond de l'ombre obscure,
- Hommes hideux, de traits et d'age differents,
- Je les distinguais tous, car ils etaient tres grands.
- Je crus voir les titans de l'antique nature.
- Mais ces geants brumeux decroissaient a mesure
- Qu'ils s'eloignaient du point dont ils etaient partis,
- Et, plus ils approchaient, plus ils etaient petits.
- Ils entraient par degres dans la stature humaine;
- La clarte les fondait ainsi qu'une ombre vaine:
- Eux que j'avais crus hauts plus que les Apennins,
- Quand ils furent tout pres de moi, c'etaient des nains.
- Et l'ange, se dressant dans la brume indecise,
- Était penche sur eux comme la tour de Pise.
The kings, quickly humbled after a proud opening, shift their crimes on the Pope. ' To him we have been taught to listen as thine own Voice: he himself has told us, "in me ye behold Jesus Christ Himself." And it is he who, when we have struck down justice and liberty, has urged us on, and, when we hesitated to kill, has redoubled our blows. It is he who has put hell in our hearts in place of heaven. Let him pay the penalty.' And then, last of all,
Un vieillard blanc et pale apparut dans la nuit.
It is Pius IX.
- Debout, morne, il tremblait comme un homme qui fuit,
- Et des mains le tenaient au collet dans la brume.
- Vetu de lin plus blanc qu'un encensoir qui fume,
- II avait, spectre bleme aux idoles pareil,
- Les baisers de la foule empreints sur son orteil,
- Dans sa droite un baton comme l'antique archonte,
- Sur son front la tiare et dans ses yeux la honte.
- De son cou descendait un long manteau dore,
- Et dans son poignet gauche il tenait, effare,
- Comme un voleur surpris par celui qu'il derobe,
- Des clefs qu'il essayait de cacher sous sa robe.
And all the thousands of voices, murderers and murdered, judges and captains and kings, call aloud: 'C'est lui'; and Louis Napoleon adds his special word:
- Et I'homme-loup, debout sur les cadavres pales
- Dont le sang tiede encor tombait dans Pinfini,
- Cria d'une voix rauque et sourde: II m'a beni!
And the angel calls on the Pope for his answer: and then, says Dante,
- je vis le spectacle horrible et surprenant
- D'un homme qui vieillit pendant qu'on le regarde.
- L'agonie eteignit sa prunelle hagarde,
- Sa bouche begaya, son jarret se rompit,
- Ses cheveux blanchissaient sur son front decrepit,
- Ses tempes se ridaient comme si les annees
- S'etaient subitement sur sa face acharnees,
- Ses yeux pleuraient, ses dents claquaient comme au gibet
- Les genoux d'un squelette, et sa peau se plombait,
- Et, stupide, il baissait, a chaque instant plus pale,
- Sa tete qu'ecrasait la tiare papale.
- L'ange dit:
- Comprends-tu, vieillard, ce que tu vois?
- II frappa sa poitrine et demeura sans voix,
- Et je vis, O terreur! qu'il vieillissait encore.
And the angel asks him whether he has any above him on whom he can cast his sin: and he answers,
Je n'ai que vous, mon Dieu!
and a Light shines, and a great Voice speaks out of the clouds, and calls on Pius to answer how he has fulfilled his awful trust: and then, in the silence,
- L'homme resta beant, et sans cri, sans priere,
- Et sans souffle, il tomba les deux mains en arriere,
- Comme s'il cut ete pousse par la clarte.
- Je sentis tressaillir l'obscure eternite.
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 accumulation, by exuberance of imagination and expression, never by distinction or selection, that he achieves his great effects: it is by the same exuberance, and by the lack of the sense that demands distinction, that he so often ruins them. 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. The best passages in Les Châtiments, and in L'Année Terrible, would have burnt themselves into every memory if they had stood alone: as it is, one is dulled before reaching them, and deadened after, by the fatiguing boom of the poet's big drums of declamation.
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. To the very end of his life the better part of him never forgot the lessons of the three masters of his childhood, un jardin, un vieux prétre, et ma mère.
- J'eus, dans ma blonde enfance, he'las! trop ephemere,
- Trois maitres; un jardin, un vieux pretre, et ma mere.
- Le jardin etait grand, profond, mysterieux,
- Ferme par de hauts murs aux regards curieux,
- Sem de fleurs s'ouvrant ainsi que les paupieres,
- Et d'insectes vermeils qui couraient sur les pierres,
- Plein de bourdonnements et de confuses voix:
- Au milieu, presque un champ, dans le fond, presque un bois.
- Le pretre, tout nourri de Tacite et d'Homere,
- Etait un doux vieillard. Ma mere etait ma mere!
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: they were buried in rhetoric: they were lost in egoism, in pose, in vanity, in violence. But they were still there, written so well once for all that the world may read them there for ever. 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 whispered to him all his life, kept him from being wholly swallowed up in politics or the world or even in that deeper gulf, himself: were his joy in his good days and his consolation in his bad: above all, gave him the key which interpreted for him greater voices than theirs, and made him the poet of clouds and storms and sea. 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 could not have made the reasoned contributions of Tennyson or Browning to a spiritual interpretation of the world: but he was as passionately convinced as either that man is more than a body and life more than a journey to the grave. He would often have gone as far as that great saying of Tennyson's: 'Nothing worthy of proving can be proven.' The Tennysonian question is always in his mouth
- Quelle est la fin de tout ? la vie ou bien la tombe?
- Est-ce l'onde ou Ton flotte? est-ce l'onde ou Ton tombe?
or again, still more exactly, in the great 'Pleurs dans la Nuit,' after his daughter's death:
- Qu'importe la lumiere, et l'aurore, et les astres,
- Fleurs des chapiteaux bleus, diamants des pilastres
- Du profond firmament,
- Et mai qui nous caresse, et l'enfant qui nous charme,
- Si tout n'est qu'un soupir, si tout n'est qu'une larme,
- Si tout n'est qu'un moment!
And his answer, when he gives it, is always the Tennysonian answer:
- Je veux etre ici-bas libre, ailleurs responsable,
- Je suis plus qu'un brin d'herbe, et plus qu'un grain de sable;
- Je me sens a jamais pensif, aile, vivant.
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.' And how much more true is that of anything that can be called faith! 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;
and so, feeble creatures as we are, we fall back upon negation:
- Aussi repousser Rome, et rejeter Sion,
- Rire, et conclure tout par la negation,
- Comme c'est plus aise, c'est ce que font les hommes.
- Le peu que nous croyons tient au peu que nous sommes.
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:
- Et, tachant d'etre bon, je laisse, o mon ami,
- Passer Tun apres l'autre, en cette ombre ou nous sommes,
- Tous les faux lendemains de la terre et des hommes,
- Sur de ce lendemain immense du ciel bleu
- Qu'on appelle la mort et que j'appelle Dieu.
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 curiously of Browning:
- L'echelle que tu vois, crois-tu qu'elle se rompe?
- Crois-tu, toi dont les sens d'en haut sont eclaires,
- Oue la creation qui, lente et par degres,
- S'eleve a la lumiere, et dans sa marche entiere,
- Fait de plus de clarte luire moins de matiere
- Et mele plus d'instinct au monstre decroissant,
- Crois-tu que cette vie enorme, remplissant
- De souffles le feuillage et de lueurs la tete,
- Qui va du roc a 1'arbre et de l'arbre a la bete,
- Et de la pierre a toi monte insensiblement,
- S'arrete sur 1'abime a Phomme, escarpement?
- Non, elle continue invincible, admirable,
- Entre dans 1'invisible et dans l'imponderable,
- Y disparait pour toi, chair vile, emplit l'azur
- D'un monde eblouissant, miroir du monde obscur,
- D'etres voisins de I'homme et d'autres qui s'eloignent,
- D'esprits purs, de voyants dont les splendeurs temoignent,
- D'anges faits de rayons, comme I'homme d'instincts;
- Elle plonge a travers les cieux jamais eteints,
- Sublime ascension d'echelles etoilees,
- Des demons enchaine's monte aux ames ailées,
- Relie, en traversant des millions de lieues,
- Les groupes constelles et les legions bleues,
- Peuple le haut, le bas, les bords et le milieu,
- Et dans les profondeurs s'evanouit en Dieu!
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.' in Les Chants du Crepuscule, where, in one of his finest flights of metaphor, he compares his soul to the great Church bell, each with the name of God graven on it at the beginning, each scrawled over with the base scribblings of alien intruders from the world outside, so that in each alike the holy name, which was the first it received, is illegible and ruined. And he will, now and then, cry out in such phrases as that in Les Voix Interieures:
- Mais parmi ces progres dont notre age se vante,
- Dans tout ce grand eclat d'un siecle eblouissant,
- Une chose, o Jesus, en secret m'epouvante,
- C'est l'echo de ta voix qui va s'affaiblissant.
But, more often, his faith is a rather airy optimism. Such sayings as,
- Un petit oiseau, sous les feuilles,
- Chantant, suffit a prouver Dieu,
have none of the note of personal experience and conviction that rings so clear in Browning's
- God's in his heaven,
- All 's right with the world.
Still he shared a deeper mood with Browning. Both felt that love was the final word of the world, rising clear above all contradictions. And more: both saw in human love the key to the great mystery. Love here must mean love also There.
- L'amour, qu'il vienne tot ou tard,
- Prouve Dieu dans notre ame sombre.
- II faut bien un corps quelquepart
- Pour que le miroir ait une ombre.
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: the last words are words of resignation, of peace, even of hope. 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: 'I must also feel it as a man' is his last word: but it is never said so movingly as after the calm of resignation has come back. That grief, just because it is more than grief, will not die but live. It has become one with things greater than itself.
- Maintenant que Paris, ses paves et ses marbres,
- Et sa brume et ses toits, sont bien loin de mes yeux;
- Maintenant que je suis sous les branches des arbres,
- Et que je puis songer a la beaute des cieux;
- Maintenant que du deuil qui m'a fait Tame obscure
- Je sors, pale et vainqueur,
- Et que je sens la paix de la grande nature
- Qui m'entre dans le cceur:
- Maintenant que je puis, assis au bord des ondes,
- Emu par ce superbe et tranquille horizon,
- Examiner en moi les verites profondes
- Et regarder les fleurs qui sont dans le gazon;
- Maintenant, o mon Dieu! que j'ai ce calme sombre
- De pouvoir desormais
- Voir de mes yeux la pierre ou je sais que dans l'ombre
- Elle dort pour jamais;
- Maintenant qu'attendri par ces divins spectacles,
- Plaines, forets, rochers, vallons, fleuve argenté,
- Voyant ma petitesse et voyant vos miracles,
- Je reprends ma raison devant I'immensite;
- Je viens a vous, Seigneur, pere auquel il faut croire;
- Je vous porte, apaise,
- Les morceaux de ce cceur tout plein de votre gloire
- Que vous avez brise;
- Je viens a vous, Seigneur! confessant que vous etes
- Bon, clement, indulgent et doux, o Dieu vivant!
- Je conviens que vous seul savez ce que vous faites,
- Et que l'homme n'est rien qu'un jonc qui tremble au vent;
- Je ne resiste plus a tout ce qui m'arrive
- Par votre volonte.
- L'ame de deuils en deuils, Phomme de rive en rive,
- Roule a I'eternité.
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.
- Seigneur, je reconnais que l'homme est en delire
- S'il ose murmurer;
- Je cesse d'accuser, je cesse de maudire,
- Mais laissez-moi pleurer!
- Helas! laissez les pleurs couler de ma paupiere,
- Puisque vous avez fait les hommes pour cela!
- Laissez-moi me pencher sur cette froide pierre
- Et dire a mon enfant: Sens-tu que je suis la?
- Ne vous irritez pas! fronts que le deuil reclame,
- Mortels sujets aux pleurs,
- II nous est malaise de retirer notre ame
- De ces grandes douleurs.
- Voyez-vous, nos enfants nous sont bien necessaires,
- Seigneur; quand on a vu dans sa vie, un matin,
- Au milieu des ennuis, des peines, des miseres,
- Et de l'ombre que fait sur nous notre destin,
- Apparaitre un enfant, tete chere et sacree,
- Petit etre joyeux,
- Si beau qu'on a cru voir s'ouvrir a son entree
- Une porte des cieux;
- Quand on a vu, seize ans, de cet autre soi-meme
- Croitre la grace aimable et la douce raison,
- Lorsqu'on a reconnu que cet enfant qu'on aime
- Fait le jour dans notre ame, et dans notre maison;
- Que c'est la seule joie ici-bas qui persiste
- De tout ce qu'on reva,
- Considerez que c'est une chose bien triste
- De le voir qui s'en va!
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: submission to a Power which is visible, faith that behind that visible Power is invisible Fatherhood, and, as the next stanza shows, living personality of Love. 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 interpreters of Nature to man. There is not one of her moods which he does not give: her gaiety often, her gloom not less often, her angelic innocence sometimes, rarely her cruelty, her soothing sympathy almost constantly. It was not by a knowledge 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: then the love that is born of it: then the overpowering, over-awing sense of mystery which comes when love has revealed how much more there is in beauty than can ever be said or seen.
The beginning of the poetry of Nature is the Wordsworthian ' wise passiveness.' The poet must listen and let Nature speak. 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. And even the idlers must be choice spirits. 'O Tiger Lily,' says Alice in Lewis Carroll's immortal fairy-tale, 'I wish you could talk!' 'We can,' said the Tiger Lily, 'when there 's anybody worth talking to.' There is the whole philosophy of nature poetry. The grocer hears no voices on Derwentwater, not because Derwentwater is only a lake, but because the grocer is only a grocer. Wordsworth hears what he hears because he is what he is. 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. 'Nature seen through a temperament' is not the worst definition of art, and there is no art which it fits better than that of Hugo. 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 apprehended 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: and only those to whom the greatest things in poetry are closed will think that such transformations are pretty fancies, or metaphors, or mere literary traditions. 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 creation 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:
- Louis, voici le temps de respirer les roses,
- Et d'ouvrir bruyamment les vitres longtemps closes;
- Le temps d'admirer en revant
- Tout ce que la nature a de beautes divines
- Qui flottent sur les monts, les bois et les ravines,
- Avec l'onde, Pombre et le vent.
- Louis, voici le temps de reposer son ame
- Dans ce calme sourire empreint de vague flamme
- Qui rayonne au front du ciel pur:
- De dilater son coeur ainsi qu'une eau qui fume,
- Et d'en faire envoler la nuee et la brume
- A travers le limpide azur.
- O Dieu! que les amants sous les vertes feuillees
- S'en aillent, par Phiver pauvres ailes mouille'es!
- Qu'ils errent, joyeux et vainqueurs!
- Cue le rossignol chante, oiseau dont la voix tendre
- Contient de l'harmonie assez pour en repandre
- Sur tout 1'amour qui sort des coeurs!
- Ou'on songe aux deuils passes en se disant: qu'etait-ce?
- Que rien sous le soleil ne garde de tristesse!
- Qu'un nid chante sur les vieux troncs!
- Nous, tandis que de joie au loin tout vibre et tremble,
- Allons dans la foret, et la, marchant ensemble,
- Si vous voulez, nous songerons,
- Nous songerons tous deux a cette belle fille
- Qui dort la-bas sous l'herbe ou le bouton d'or brille,
- Ou l'oiseau cherche un grain de mil,
- Et qui voulait avoir, et qui, triste chimere!
- S'etait fait cet hiver promettre par sa mere
- Une robe verte en avril.
Or take it again, in this charming piece, the most beautiful of compliments, and so much more :
- Voyez-vous, un parfum eveille la pensee.
- Repliez, belle enfant par Paube caressee,
- Cet eventail aile, pourpre, or et vermilion
- Qui tremble dans vos mains comme un grand papillon,
- Et puis ecoutez-moi. Dieu fait Podeur des roses
- Comme il fait un abime, avec autant de choses.
- Celle-ci, qui se meurt sur votre sein charmant,
- N'aurait pas ce parfum qui monte doucement
- Comme un encens divin vers votre beaute pure,
- Si sa tige, parmi Peau, Pair, et la verdure,
- Dans la creation prenant sa part de tout,
- N'avait profondement plonge par quelque bout,
- Pauvre et fragile fleur pour tous les vents beante,
- Au sein mysterieux de la terre geante.
- La, par un lent travail que Dieu lui seul connait,
- Fraicheur du flot qui court, blancheur du jour qui nait,
- Souffle de ce qui coule, ou vegete, ou se traine,
- L'esprit de ce qui vit dans la nuit souterraine,
- Fumee, onde, vapeur, de loin comme de pres,
- Non sans faire avec tout des echanges secrets,
- Elle a derobe tout, son calme a l'antre sombre,
- Au diamant sa flamme, a la foret son ombre,
- Et peut-etre, qui sait? sur l'aile du matin,
- Ouelque ineffable haleine a l'ocean lointain.
- Et, vivant alambic que Dieu lui-meme forme,
- Ou filtre et se repand la terre, vase enorme,
- Avec les bois, les champs, les nuages, les eaux,
- Et Pair tout penetre des chansons des oiseaux,
- La racine, humble, obscure, au travail resignee,
- Pour la superbe fleur par le soleil baignee,
- A, sans en rien garder, fait ce parfum si doux
- Qui vient si mollement de la nature a vous,
- Oui vous charme, et se mele a votre esprit, madame,
- Car Tame d'une fleur parle au coeur d'une femme.
- Encore un mot, et puis je vous laisse rever.
- Pour qu'atteignant au but ou tout doit s'elever,
- Chaque chose ici-bas prenne un attrait supreme,
- Pour que la fleur embaume, et pour que la vierge aime,
- Pour que, puisant la vie au grand centre commun,
- La corolle ait une ame et la femme un parfum,
- Sous le soleil qui luit, sous 1'amour qui fascine,
- II faut, fleur de beaute, tenir par la racine,
- L'une au monde ideal, 1'autre au monde reel,
- Les roses a la terre et les femmes au ciel.
Is there any parallel to these exquisite lines except Shelley's still more exquisite 'With a Guitar. To Jane'? the guitar that
- had learnt all harmonies
- Of the plains and of the skies,
- Of the forests and the mountains,
- And the many-voiced fountains,
- The clearest echoes of the hills,
- The softest notes of falling rills,
- The melodies of birds and bees,
- The murmuring of summer seas,
- And pattering rain, and breathing dew,
- And airs of evening : and it knew
- That seldom heard mysterious sound
- Which, driven on its diurnal round,
- As it floats through boundless day,
- Our world enkindles on its way
- All this it knows----
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 intimate 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 Wordsworth, found that man never wins his own secret so well as at the moment when he is listening for nature to reveal hers.
- Je ne vois pas pourquoi je ferais autre chose
- Que de rever sous l'arbre ou le ramier se pose;
- Les chars passent, j'entends grincer les durs essieux;
- Quand les filles s'en vont laver a la fontaine,
- Elles pretent l'oreille a ma chanson lointaine:
- Et moi je reste au fond des bois mysterieux,
- Parce que le hallier m'offre des fleurs sans nombre,
- Parce qu'il me suffit de voir voler dans Pombre
- Mon chant vers les esprits et l'oiseau vers les cieux.
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 Wordsworth's 'Skylark.' Here is another piece, with a little more open confession of itself: a voice of that ecstasy of evening of which we are all dimly conscious once or twice at least in our lives:
- Quand la lune apparait dans la brume des plaines,
- Quand l'ombre emue a l'air de retrouver la voix,
- Lorsque le soir emplit de frissons et d'haleine
- Les pales tenebres des bois,
- Nous parlerons tout bas des choses infinies.
- Tout est grand, tout est doux, quoique tout soit obscur.
- Nous ouvrirons nos coeurs aux sombres harmonies
- Qui tombent du profond azur.
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:
- Seul au fond d'un desert, avez-vous quelque fois
- Entendu des eclats de rire dans les bois?
- Avez-vous fui, baigné d'une sueur glacee?
- Et, plongeant a demi l'ceil de votre pensee
- Dans ce monde inconnu d'ou sort la vision,
- Avez-vous medite' sur la creation
- Pleine, en ses profondeurs etranges et terribles,
- Du noir fourmillement des choses invisibles?
Again and again he returns to this mystery of a darkness which can be felt:
- Oh! la nuit muette et livide
- Fait vibrer quelque chose en nous!
- Pourquoi cherche-t-on dans le vide?
- Pourquoi tombe-t-on a genoux?
- Quelle est cette secrete fibre?
- D'oii vient que, sous ce morne effroi,
- Le moineau ne se sent plus libre,
- Le lion ne se sent plus roi?
- Questions dans l'ombre enfouies!
- Au fond du ciel de deuil couvert,
- Dans ces profondeurs inouies,
- Ou I'ame plonge, ou l'ceil se perd,
- Que se passe-t-il de terrible
- Qui fait que l'homme, esprit banni,
- A peur de votre calme horrible,
- O tenebres de l'infini?
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 insignificant 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
- Le ciel sinistre et metallique
- A travers des arbres hideux;
- Des etres rodent sur les rives:
- Le nenuphar nocturne eclot;
- Des agitations furtives
- Courbent Fherbe, rident le flot;
and when, as the walker goes on his way,
- Au loin, une cloche, une enclume,
- Jettent dans Pair leurs faibles coups.
- A ses pieds flotte dans la brume
- Le paysage immense et doux.
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:
- Tout s'eteint. L'horizon recule.
- II regarde en ce lointain noir
- Se former dans le crepuscule
- Les vagues figures du soir.
- La plaine, qu'une brise effleure,
- Ajoute, ouverte au vent des nuits,
- A la solennite de l'heure
- L'apaisement de tous les bruits.
- A peine, ténébreux murmures,
- Entend-on, dans l'espace mort,
- Les palpitations obscures
- De ce qui veille quand tout dort.
- Les broussailles, les gres, les ormes,
- Le vieux saule, le pan de mur,
- Deviennent les contours difformes
- De je ne sais quel monde obscur.
- L'insecte aux nocturnes elytres
- Imite le cri des sabbats.
- Les dtangs sont comme des vitres
- Par ou Ton voit le ciel d'en bas.
- Par degres, monts, forets, cieux, terre,
- Tout prend l'aspect terrible et grand
- D'un monde entrant dans un mystere,
- D'un navire dans l'ombre entrant.
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.
- Trainant quelque branchage obscur et convulsif,
- Le bucheron convoite en son esprit passif
- La marmite chauffant au feu son large ventre,
- Kit, et presse le pas: l'oiseau dort, le boeuf rentre,
- Les anes chevelus passent portant leurs bats;
- Puis tout bruit cesse aux champs, et Ton entend tout has
- Jaser la folle avoine et le pied d'alouette.
- Tandis que l'horizon se change en silhouette
- Et que les halliers noirs au souffle de la nuit
- Tressaillent, par endroits l'eau dans l'ombre reluit,
- Et les blancs nenuphars, fleurs ou vivent des fees,
- Les bleus myosotis, les iris, les nymphees,
- Penches et frissonnants, mirent leurs sombres yeux
- Dans de vagues miroirs, clairs et mysterieux.
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:
- Le couchant flamboyait a travers les bruines
- Comme le fronton d'or d'un vieux temple en mines.
- L'arbre avait un frisson.
- La mer au loin semblait, en ondes recourbee,
- Une colonne torse en marbre vert, tombee
- Sur Penorme horizon.
- La vague, roue errante, et Pecume, cavale,
- S'en fuyaient: je voyais luire par intervalle
- Les cieux pleins de regards:
- Les riots allaient, venaient, couraient sans fin, sans nombre,
- Et j'ecoutais, penche sur le cirque de l'ombre,
- Le bruit de tous ces chars.
- Lugubre immensite! profondeurs redoute'es!
- Tous sont la, les Satans comme les Promethées,
- Tenébreux oceans!
- Cieux, vous etes l'abime ou tombent les genies,
- Oh! combien Pceil au fond des brumes infinies
- Aperçoit de geants!
- O vie, enigme, sphinx, nuit, sois la bienvenue!
- Car je me sens d'accord avec Tame inconnue.
- Je souffre, mais je crois.
- J'habite l'absolu, patrie obscure et sombre,
- Pas plus intimide dans tous ces gouffres d'ombre
- Que l'oiseau dans les bois.
- Je songe, Poeil fixe sur l'incompre'hensible.
- Le zenith est ferine. Les justes sont la cible
- Du mensonge effronte:
- Le bien, qui semble aveugle, a le mal pour ministre.
- Mais rassure, je vois sous la porte sinistre
- La fente de clarte.
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: and that gift Hugo kept all his life unchanged, or changing only to grow greater. All his fierce interest in politics never hardened his heart. He loved liberty, and democracy, no doubt, as the watchwords of a political creed: but he never made the common mistake of forgetting on their account the individual human beings without which they are mere names echoing idly in the air. 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: but there is often a greater thing than subtlety, a kind of elemental and childlike simplicity. Hear him sending his daughter to her new home and her husband:
- Aime celui qui t'aime, et sois heureuse en lui.
- --Adieu ! Sois son tresor, o toi qui fus le notre!
- Va, mon enfant beni, d'une famille a l'autre.
- Emporte le bonheur et laisse nous l'ennui.
- Ici l'on te retient, la-bas on te desire.
- Fille, epouse, ange, enfant, fais ton double devoir.
- Donne-nous un regret, donne-leur un espoir.
- Sors avec une larme ! entre avec un sourire!
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:
- Pendant que le marin, qui calcule et qui doute,
- Demande son chemin aux constellations;
- Pendant que le berger, Trail plein de visions,
- Cherche au milieu des bois son etoile et sa route;
- Pendant que l'astronome, inonde de rayons,
- Pese un globe a travers des millions de lieues,
- Moi je cherche autre chose en ce ciel vaste et pur.
- Mais que ce saphir sombre est un abime obscur!
- On ne peut distinguer, la nuit, les robes bleues
- Des anges frissonnants qui glissent dans Pazur.
One of the most wonderful things in Tolstoy's wonderful Anna Karenine is the picture of Levine on the morning after his engagement. 'What he saw that day he never saw again.' The children on their way to school; the pigeons flying in the air: the little cakes that some one was arranging in a shop-window: all seemed extraordinary things to him. 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: if he did he never managed to get it so vividly told as it is told in those pages of Tolstoy's. And when the secret of death takes possession of him it overwhelms 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 knowing that there is a last line in reserve which will in a moment reduce them all to insignificance.
- On vit, on parle, on a le ciel et les nuages
- Sur la tete; on se plait aux livres des vieux sages;
- On lit Virgile et Dante; on va joyeusement
- En voiture publique a quelque endroit charmant,
- En riant aux eclats de l'auberge et du gite;
- Le regard d'une femme en passant vous agite;
- On aime, on est aime, bonheur qui manque aux rois!
- On ecoute le chant des oiseaux dans les bois;
- Le matin, on s'eveille, et toute une famille
- Vous embrasse, une mere, une sceur, une fille!
- On ddjeune en lisant son journal: tout le jour
- On mele a sa pensee espoir, travail, amour;
- La vie arrive avec ses passions troublees;
- On jette sa parole aux sombres assemblies;
- Devant le but qu'on veut et le sort qui vous prend,
- On se sent faible et fort, on est petit et grand;
- On est flot dans la foule, ame dans la tempete
- Tout vient et passe ; on est en deuil, on est en fete;
- On arrive, on recule, on lutte avec effort . . .
- Puis, le vaste et profond silence de la mort!
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: but perhaps Hugo was happy here in being no critic and, above all, constitutionally incapable of associating banality with anything that came from his own pen. 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 anywhere, with scarcely a line that flows unbroken and none that finds rest. Nothing is finished: nothing is a whole that we can accept and be quiet in: the unsatisfied hurry of life continues throughout. 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. Hugo would not have been Hugo if he had not been very pleased with himself in the role of grandfather; but, after all, if his delight in Jeanne and Georges is a little self-conscious, was ever anything more radiant, more gracious, more delicate? 'Devenir ai'eul,' as he says, 'c'est rentrer dans l'aurore.' It was so with him. The fingers of the dawn are not softer than his touch when he handles a child.
- Jeanne parle; elle dit des choses qu'elle ignore;
- Elle envoie a la mer qui gronde, au bois sonore,
- A la nuee, aux fleurs, aux nids, au firmament,
- A Pimmense nature un doux gazouillement,
- Tout un discours, profond peut-etre, qu; elle achieve
- Par un sourire ou flotte une ame, ou tremble un reve,
- Murmure indistinct, vague, obscur, confus, brouille.
- Dieu, le bon vieux grand-pere, ecoute emerveillé.
He returns again and again to that kinship between the wise innocence of childhood and the inarticulate profundity of Nature. It inspires him with some of his most charming verses:
- La rosde inondait les fleurs a peine ecloses;
- Elles jouaient, riant de leur rire sans fiel.
- Deux choses ici-bas vont bien avec les roses,
- Le rire des enfants et les larmes du ciel;
and often, also, with some of his most mystically beautiful, like the lines to his daughter Adele in Les Quatre Vents de l'Esprit:
- Tout enfant, tu dormais pres de moi, rose et fraiche
- Comme im petit Jesus assoupi dans sa creche;
- Ton pur sommeil etait si calme et si charmant
- Oue tu n'entendais pas Poiseau chanter dans l'ombre;
- Moi, pensif, j'aspirais toute la douceur sombre
- Du mysterieux firmament.
- Et j'dcoutais voler sur ta tete les anges;
- Et je te regardais dormir; et sur tes langes
- J'effeuillais des jasmins et des oeillets sans bruit;
- Et je priais, veillant sur tes paupieres closes;
- Et mes yeux se mouillaient de pleurs, songeant aux choses
- Qui nous attendent dans la nuit.
- Un jour mon tour viendra de dormir; et ma couche,
- Faite d'ombre, sera si morne et si farouche
- Oue je n'entendrai pas non plus chanter l'oiseau;
- Et la nuit sera noire ; alors, o ma colombe,
- Larmes, priere et fleurs, tu rendras a ma tombe
- Ce que j'ai fait pour ton berceau.
'Therefore let thy words be few.' Childhood is almost the only thing great enough in Hugo's eyes to be able to say that to him. Again and again it compels him to this noble brevity. The sight of a child asleep can almost always do it:
- Le regard de l'aube la couvre;
- Rien n'est auguste et triomphant
- Comme cet ceil de Dieu qui s'ouvre
- Sur les yeux fermes de l'enfant.
So it is time after time, as, for instance, in the beautiful 'Jeanne Endormie' of L'Art d'etre Grand-pere. This 'gentleness of heaven' comes to all of us a little at sight of the mystery that fills a cradle: but to Hugo it came supremely, the most uniquely great perhaps of all the gifts of his genius. The child Cosette is perhaps the most moving figure in the most wonderful of novels. And it is the same thing in his poetry. Never does the poet take such complete possession of us as when he has a child for his theme. How vividly happy are the pictures of the grandchildren at play in the Grand-pere: how charming the verses 'A des Oiseaux Envoles,' in which he calls them back after they had been exiled from his study for burning his papers: how lovely the portrait of the little Spanish Princess in that 'Rose de l'Infante which is one of the very finest things in the Légende!
- La rose e'panouie et toute grande ouverte,
- Sortant du frais bouton comme d'une urne ouverte,
- Charge la petitesse exquise de sa main;
- Quand l'enfant, allongeant ses levres de carmin,
- Fronce, en la respirant, sa riante narine,
- La magnifique fleur, royale et purpurine,
- Cache plus qu'a demi ce visage charmant,
- Si bien que Pceil hesite, et qu'on ne sait comment
- Distinguer de la fleur ce bel enfant qui joue,
- Et si Ton voit la rose ou si l'on voit la joue.
- Ses yeux bleus sont plus beaux sous son pur sourcil brun.
- En elle tout est joie, enchantement, parfum;
- Quel doux regard, l'azur! et quel doux nom, Marie!
- Tout est rayon; son ceil dclaire, et son nom prie.
- Pourtant, devant la vie et sous le firmament,
- Pauvre etre! elle se sent trs grande vaguement;
- Elle assiste au printemps, a la lumiere, a l'ombre,
- Au grand soleil couchant horizontal et sombre,
- A la magnificence eclatante du soir,
- Aux ruisseaux murmurants qu'on entend sans les voir,
- Aux champs, a la nature eternelle et sereine,
- Avec la gravite d'une petite reine.
But, lovely as this and fifty other pictures of radiant childhood are, they are still not the things one remembers longest of all. The pathos in a child's face meant even more to Hugo than its beauty. Even here the exquisite little Infanta is set against a background of the doomed Armada, as the lovely girl whose step made music in the streets of Paris is set against the hideous beldam with her 'Monsieur, veut-il de cette fille?' Nothing in L'Année Terrible is so sad as its children: and nothing so beautiful as the exquisite lines to his granddaughter, 'A l'Enfant Malade Pendant le Siege.'
- Si vous continuez d'etre ainsi toute pale
- Dans notre air etouffant,
- Si je vous vois entrer dans mon ombre fatale,
- Moi vieillard, vous enfant;
- Si je vois de nos jours se confondre la chaine,
- Moi qui sur mes genoux
- Vous contemple, et qui veux la mort pour moi prochaine
- Et lointaine pour vous;
- Si vos mains sont toujours diaphanes et freles,
- Si dans votre berceau,
- Tremblante, vous avez l'air d'attendre des ailes
- Comme un petit oiseau;
- Si vous ne semblez pas prendre sur notre terre
- Racine pour longtemps,
- Si vous laissez errer, Jeanne, en notre mystere
- Vos doux yeux mecontents;
- Si je ne vous vois pas gaie et rose et tres forte,
- Si, triste, vous revez,
- Si vous ne fermez pas derriere vous la porte
- Par ou vous arrivez;
- Si je ne vous vois pas comme une belle femme
- Marcher, vous bien porter,
- Rire, et si vous semblez etre une petite ame
- Qui ne veut pas rester,
- Je croirai qu'en ce monde ou le suaire au lange
- Parfois peut confmer,
- Vous venez pour partir, et que vous etes l'ange
- Charge de m'emmener.
There is no praise equal to such a thing as this: and yet there is one other poem of even more astonishing power, the five stanzas about the children of the poor, which Mr. Swinburne's incomparable rendering has made familiar to all lovers of English poetry. Perhaps the translator has even surpassed his original, treachery as he would hold it that we should say so: still, in any case the ineffable tenderness of the poem is not his, but Hugo's. There is nothing quite like it so far as I know in all poetry.
- Prenez garde a ce petit etre;
- II est bien grand, il contient Dieu.
- Les enfants sont, avant de naitre,
- Des lumieres dans le ciel bleu.
- Dieu nous les offre en sa largesse;
- Us viennent: Dieu nous en fait don.
- Dans leur rire il met sa sagesse
- Et dans leur baiser son pardon.
- Leur douce clarte nous effleure.
- Helas, le bonheur est leur droit.
- S'ils ont faim, le paradis pleure,
- Et le ciel tremble, s'ils ont froid.
- La misere de l'innocence
- Accuse l'homme vicieux.
- L'homme tient l'ange en sa puissance.
- Oh! quel tonnerre au fond des cieux,
- Quand Dieu, cherchant ces etres freles
- Que dans l'ombre ou nous sommeillons
- II nous envoie avec des ailes
- Les retrouve avec des haillons!
In this region Hugo is supreme. William Blake may perhaps have anticipated him once or twice: but Blake, as a whole, is as far below Hugo in poetry as he is above him in spiritual power. The only other poet whose name could be mentioned with Hugo's in this connection is his disciple, the translator of this poem, Mr. Swinburne.
There must at last be an end of quotation. It is hard not to be able to find space for the beautiful stanzas in Les Rayons et Les Ombres, which end with that fine praise of tears:
- Toute larme, enfant,
- Lave quelque chose;
or for those on the tomb of a child which immediately precede them: or for those 'A la Mere de l'Enfant Mort' in Les Contemplations: or for those addressed to Jeanne in the second volume of Toute la Lyre, where the old man tells all the shame and sorrow of the world to his grandchild, and then comforts himself in her uncomprehending infancy:
- Certes, si je pensais que j'assombris ton ame,
- Je ne te dirais point toutes ces choses-la;
- Mais, vois-tu, bien qu'avril dore a sa pure flamme
- Ton front, que Dieu pour moi tout expres etoila,
- Quoi que le ciel ait 1'aube et mon creur ton sourire,
- Jeanne, la vie est morne, et 1'on gemit parfois;
- Puisque tu n'as qu'un an, je puis bien tout te dire,
- Tu comprends seulement la douceur de ma voix.
And it would be easy to show the poet's tenderness stretching out its hands not only over childhood, but over all the innocence and weakness of humanity, and his sympathy going out to meet every natural joy and sorrow of mankind. But I must leave the children to speak for all the rest. Only it may be fair to add one word of explanation. It is 'the sense of tears in human things' that calls forth Hugo's greatest poetry. But he must not be supposed to see only the sad side of life. Far from that. He is even a poet of inextinguishable faith in the future: and, for the present, his ears catch a note of music in everything that moves in all the world. There is a poem in Les Contemplations of which it has been remarked that it strangely recalls the work of André Chénier. And so it does, in a kind of Alexandrian suavity of form and utterance. But there is a democratic sympathy in it, a large humanity, a mystic universalism, which were out of the reach of Chénier's century. And with the poets who were the real descendants of Chénier's impeccable graciousness of form the contrast is even greater than with Chénier himself. In the hands of Leconte de Lisle the poem would have been a lament for a music of the universe which passed away with Paganism. In Hugo's it is the rejoicing echo of a music which can never pass away so long as earth is earth and man is man.
- Ecrit stir la Flint he dhm Bas-relief Antique.
- La musique est dans tout. Un hymne sort du monde.
- Rumeur de la galere aux flancs lavds par Ponde,
- Bruits des villes, pitie de la soeur pour la soeur,
- Passion des amants jeunes et beaux, douceur
- Des vieux epoux uses ensemble par la vie,
- Fanfare de la plaine emaillee et ravie,
- Mots echange's le soir sur les seuils fraternels,
- Sombre tressaillement des chenes eternels,
- Vous etes l'harmonie et la musique meme!
- Vous etes les soupirs qui font le chant supreme!
- Pour notre ame, les jours, la vie et les saisons,
- Les songes de nos coeurs, les plis des horizons,
- L'aube et ses pleurs, le soir et ses grands incendies,
- Flottent dans un reseau de vagues melodies.
- Une voix dans les champs nous parle, une autre voix
- Dit a l'homme autre chose et chante dans les bois.
- Par moment, un troupeau bele, une cloche tinte.
- Quand par l'ombre, la nuit, la colline est atteinte,
- De toutes parts on voit danser et resplendir,
- Dans le ciel etoile du zenith au nadir,
- Dans la voix des oiseaux, dans le cri des cigales,
- Le groupe eblouissant des notes inegales.
- Toujours avec notre ame un doux bruit s'accoupla;
- La nature nous dit: Chante! Et c'est pour cela
- Qu'un statuaire ancien sculpta sur cette pierre
- Un patre sur sa flute abaissant sa paupière.
There, then, is Hugo. I have tried to let him speak for himself. That, indeed, seemed the only way in which an essay could attempt to give an idea of his immense range, his exuberant power, his universal sympathy. More might have been said of his limitations: of the speculative poverty which is almost as conspicuous as his pictorial wealth: of the childish vanity which makes all his world a stage, and himself the only actor before its footlights: of the flimsy superficiality masquerading as omniscience which made him a lifelong journalist in all but anonymity: of his perpetual declamation, as violent often as that of the Revolution, often as empty as that of the monarchy of July: of his shallow optimism, his unreasoned faith, his entire lack of critical distinction, his political, moral, and intellectual obviousness. These are grave defects: it is too early yet to say that there is no chance of their proving fatal. But at any rate I have preferred to try to bring out the positive qualities which, on the whole, as it seems to me, greatly overbalance them. We are often and justly severe on rhetoric. Yet it is fair to remember that rhetoric involves in its very essence a certain quality of largeness. No man can be a great rhetorician without realising, what ordinary men do not realise, the greatness of the great commonplaces of life. Other people accept them: the rhetorician must, to a greater or less degree, feel them. And then his work cannot be done with the petty and insignificant. He has to use ideas that have some element of greatness, true or false, in them. Without the appearance, at least, of large conceptions he cannot produce the effect at which he aims. So it becomes as much a part of his temperament to seek after great or grandiose ideas as it is a part of the temperament of the practical man to avoid them. That results, of course, in the empty stuff that fills the waste-paper baskets both of poetry and of politics. It results in the echoing hollowness that reverberates through so many pages of such men as Bossuet or Rousseau or Byron. But if these great men suffer by it, it is fair to admit that they also gain. It was precisely that very rhetorical cast of mind, demanding great things at any cost, that made Bossuet the founder of the great conception of the unity of history, and enabled him, in his stately funeral sermons, to make of nothingness itself the most majestic of realities. It was that temperament that made Rousseau, and not Voltaire, the voice that prepared the way of the French Revolution. It was that temperament that made of Byron the first English poet whom all Europe united to acclaim. And so with Hugo. The rhetorician in him was forever leading him away into a wilderness of verbiage. But the same temperament that made him a rhetorician had also something to do with making him the greatest poet of his day. To begin with, it decided the most important event in his literary life by carrying him into the Romantic movement in which eloquence played such a large part. There he found, in such accepted heroes of Romanticism as Ossian and Chateaubriand, Scott and Byron, a love of colour and action, and an interest in the Middle Age, which were all to his taste; and in its school were developed some of the best things he had in him: his gift of dreaming, his sense of the intimacy of things, his intuition of the mystic unity of the world towards which Plato might draw his solitary bow at a venture but which only Romanticism, trained by centuries of Christianity, could fully attain. There also he found the natural home of his unique mastery of the shapes of things. He became the very centre of the Romantic reaction against the eighteenth-century habit of generalising away all shapes and colours into an indefinable something, supposed to be sublime in proportion to its vagueness. To no other poet has the outward form of things been so vividly present. Whatever the eye can see he has seen. His bewildering wealth of metaphor is largely due to a visual memory which retained the shape of everything that had ever come within reach of his eye. The extent of this power and the use he made of it are so remarkable that a distinguished student of Hugo's work has lately devoted a whole book to them. Another side, again, of Romanticism which he found congenial was its Byronic tendency to rebel against established authority. All genius begins with the instinctive assertion of liberty, though it often ends in a convinced acceptance of law. That second stage Hugo never reached. He passed from opposition to opposition. From a literary free-lance he went on to be a political and social rebel. The democrat who was in him almost from the first played a continually larger and larger part. Indeed, as we look back now, there is perhaps no single word that is the key to so much in his many-sided personality. He is a democrat, the voice and incarnation of a people, speaking to the people in the only two manners the people understand, at one moment as grandiose as a scene-painter, at another as simple as a child. He cannot think. The moment he aims at thought he becomes, not a child, as Goethe said of Byron, but a declaiming schoolboy. But he can feel. In that world he is at home. Whatever can be felt he feels as a child feels it, as bare humanity feels it. Here, above all, his noble universality comes out. His is always a human and popular voice, never the voice of a coterie. And that perhaps is the very last word; for it gives the two sides of him. His is a popular voice, for evil and for good: for evil in its carelessness, its lack of humour and distinction, its incapacity for difficult thought, its loud and ridiculous vanity, its violence, its prejudice, its liability to cheat itself with windy and meaningless phrases: for good, in its breadth of utterance, in its tenderness of feeling, in its invincible faith in the primal relations of life, wife and husband, mother and son, the beauty of childhood, the dignity of age; in its sure and unfailing instinct for the large universal things both of heart and head of which no questionings of philosophy will ever deprive the people.
There, I think, lies his surest hold on ultimate fame. He said of himself in his old age:
- Mon coeur est sans frontiere, et je n'ai pas d'endroit
- Ou finisse l'amour des petits, et le droit
- Des faibles, et Pappui qu'on doit aux miserables;
and he spoke only the truth. There has never been a nobler voice of that human brotherliness which is the soul of all that is best in democracy. And it is that side of all that he was which those who have loved him best have wished to think of last and longest. So at least it seems to have been with the greatest and most generous of them all. Mr. Swinburne has found a thousand things to praise in his master; but when it came to the very end and Victor Hugo was being carried to the grave, it was neither to the lord of language, nor to the interpreter of nature, nor even to the prophet of justice, that he paid the final tribute of his In Time of Mourning: it was to the poet whose finger had felt every beat of the heart of humanity, the giver and healer of human tears.
- 'Return,' we dare not as we fain
- Would cry from hearts that yearn:
- Love dares not bid our dead again
- O hearts that strain and burn
- As fires fast fettered burn and strain!
- Bow down, lie still, and learn.
- The heart that healed all hearts of pain
- No funeral rites inurn:
- Its echoes, while the stars remain,
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