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The Vast and Incomparable Epic Poetry of Victor Hugo

SELECTED POEMS OF VICTOR HUGO A Bilingual Edition By Victor Hugo Translated from the French by E.H. and A.M. Blackmore; University of Chicago Press: 400 pp., $35

May 13, 2001|JOHN HOLLANDER | John Hollander is the author of numerous books, including "Figurehead: And Other Poems," "Selected Poetry," "Tesserae and Other Poems" and the anthology "Committed to Memory." He is Sterling professor of English at Yale University

For 20th century readers of English with even some knowledge of French literature, Victor Hugo's monumental poetic oeuvre comprising well over 155,000 lines--and this aside from the verse of his dramas--has stood like a vast shadowed mountain, unvisited and unclimbed, celebrated and ignored. It became the object of averted gaze in an age of modernism, when the agenda outlined in Marcel Raymond's "From Baudelaire to Sur-realism" became requisite for the assimilation of French literature. A young person starting out to write poetry in English in the 20th century might easily translate Baudelaire as part of a self-imposed apprenticeship, but modernist taste would never point him or her to Hugo. Who was the greatest poet of the 19th century? "Hugo, helas!" allowed Andre Gide in a famous letter to Paul Valery. And young modernists and post-modernists all delighted, if they knew it, in Jean Cocteau's not-quite-Wildean "Victor Hugo was a man who believed himself to be Victor Hugo."

But what they did not know was not only that Hugo was magnificently correct in so thinking but that the "Victor Hugo" in question was, for later French literature, paralyzingly great. Poets as different as Algernon Charles Swinburne (who published a fine little book about Hugo the year after his death as well as addressing a good number of poems to him at various times, as he had to Baudelaire and Whitman) and Valery acknowledged his power, and certainly Hardy (who translated a short poem of Hugo's) knew his work well. But aside from one or two set pieces that one might have learned at school, such as the beautiful "Booz endormi" (Boaz Sleeping), his poetry has been neglected by French literature today, let alone by English translation.

Hugo's body of verse is not only vast but seems to move, after his earlier work, toward comprising one huge epical poem composed of cycles of subcycles of shorter ones. A considerable amount of it was published after his death in 1885. Like "Leaves of Grass," it was a body subjected to additions and revisions. Its analogues in English poetry can be found variously in Blake and Shelley, and--particularly in Hugo's late great "Le Seuil du gouffre" (The Threshold of the Abyss)--in the darker Coleridge of "Ne Plus Ultra."

Born in 1802 and growing up in familial turmoil that took him in childhood from France to Italy to Spain, Hugo showed amazing poetic gifts early on. At 20, his first book of poems was published, and he got married; his beloved elder daughter Leopoldine was born two years later. At 30, he had published five books of verse--some of them involving revisions, even at this early age, of previous material--as well as "Notre Dame de Paris" (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and "Hernani," a historical drama in verse. Its first performance produced a famous brouhaha at the theater, in good part because of its verse, whose misplaced caesuras and excessive enjambment effected what was felt to be a subversion of the neo-classical alexandrine line whose syntactic framing had been in place since Racine.

Hugo's meditative lyrical work continued to fill volume after volume during the years he was writing plays and conducting a lifelong love affair with Juliette Drouet. His daughter Leopoldine drowned shortly after her marriage in 1843, which plunged him into grief, and he wrote no verse for more than three years. He grew more concerned politically after the 1848 revolution. The coup d'etat of 1851 bringing Louis Napoleon to presidential--and then, the next year, to imperial--power, drove him to a monumental satiric enterprise whose rhetorical force verged on the visionary. The 1853 volume called "Les Chatiments" (The Castigations) makes clear in its opening poem, "Nox," his devotion to a new "Muse Indignation," "beloved of Juvenal [the great Roman satirist]," whose brilliance "shone from Dante's fixed glare." Hugo asks this muse to set up, "in this happy and glowing empire," "pillories enough to build an epic with."

She helped him set up a multitude of them--nearly 100 poems, some of considerable length. In many of these, Hugo elaborates what is almost a mytho-poetic--albeit starkly satiric--parallel to Marx's famous opening sentence of "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" qualifying Hegel's observation about history repeating itself by adding that the first time around was tragedy, the second time farce. Marx was addressing the ideological and iconographic trappings of the Second Empire, as, in his thunderous and biting satire and from another kind of political perspective, was Hugo.

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