1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hugo, Victor Marie
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Hugo, Victor Marie
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HUGO, VICTOR MARIE (1802-1885), French poet, dramatist and romance-writer, youngest son of General J. L. S. Hugo (1773-1828), a distinguished soldier in Napoleon's service, was born at Besançon on the 26th of February 1802. The all but still-born child was only kept alive and reared by the indefatigable devotion of his mother Sophie Trebuchet (d. 1821), a royalist of La Vendée. Educated first in Spain and afterwards in France, the boy whose infancy had followed the fortunes of the imperial camp grew up a royalist and a Catholic. His first work in poetry and in fiction was devoted to the passionate proclamation of his faith in these principles.
The precocious eloquence and ardour of these early works made him famous before his time. The odes which he published at the age of twenty, admirable for their spontaneous fervour and fluency, might have been merely the work of a marvellous boy; the ballads which followed them two years later revealed him as a great poet, a natural master of lyric and creative song. In 1823, at the age of twenty-one, he married his cousin Adèle Foucher (d. 1868). In the same year his first romance, Han d'Islande, was given to the press; his second, Bug-Jargal, appeared three years later. In 1827 he published the great dramatic poem of Cromwell, a masterpiece at all points except that of fitness for the modern stage. Two years afterwards he published Les Orientales, a volume of poems so various in style, so noble in spirit, so perfect in workmanship, in music and in form, that they might alone suffice for the foundation of an immortal fame. In the course of nine years, from 1831 to 1840, he published Les Feuilles d'automne, Les Chants du crépuscule, Les Voix intérieures and Les Rayons et les ombres.
That their author was one of the greatest elegiac and lyric poets ever born into the world, any one of these volumes would amply suffice to prove. That he was the greatest tragic and dramatic poet born since the age of Shakespeare, the appearance of Hernani in 1830 made evident for ever to all but the meanest and most perverse of dunces and malignants. The earlier and even greater tragedy of Marion de Lorme (1828) had been proscribed on the ground that it was impossible for royalty to tolerate the appearance of a play in which a king was represented as the puppet of a minister. In all the noble and glorious life of the greatest poet of his time there is nothing on record more chivalrous and characteristic than the fact that Victor Hugo refused to allow the play which had been prohibited by the government of Charles X. to be instantly produced under the government of his supersessor. Le Roi s'amuse (1832), the next play which Hugo gave to the stage, was prohibited by order of Louis Philippe after a tumultuous first night — to reappear fifty years later on the very same day of the same month, under the eyes of its author, with atoning acclamation from a wider audience than the first. Terror and pity had never found on the stage word or expression which so exactly realized the ideal aim of tragic poetry among the countrymen of Aeschylus and Sophocles since the time or since the passing of Shakespeare, of Marlowe and of Webster. The tragedy of Lucrèce Borgia, coequal in beauty and power with its three precursors, followed next year in the humbler garb of prose; but the prose of Victor Hugo stands higher on the record of poetry than the verse of any lesser dramatist or poet. Marie Tudor (1833), his next play, was hardly more daring in its Shakespearean defiance of historic fact, and hardly more triumphant in its Shakespearean loyalty to the everlasting truth of human character and passion. Angela, Tyran de Padoue (1835), the last of the tragic triad to which their creator denied the transfiguration of tragic verse, is inferior to neither in power of imagination and of style, in skill of invention and construction, and in mastery over all natural and noble sources of pity and of terror. La Esmeralda, the libretto of an opera founded on his great tragic romance of Notre-Dame de Paris, is a miracle of lyric melody and of skilful adaptation. Ruy Blas (1838) was written in verse, and in such verse as none but he could write. In command and in expression of passion and of pathos, of noble and of evil nature, it equals any other work of this great dramatic poet; in the lifelike fusion of high comedy with deep tragedy it excels them all. Les Burgraves, a tragic poem of transcendent beauty in execution and imaginative audacity in conception, found so little favour on the stage that the author refused to submit his subsequent plays to the verdict of a public audience.
Victor Hugo's first mature work in prose fiction, Le Dernier Jour d'un condamné, has appeared thirteen years earlier (1829). As a tragic monodrama it is incomparable for sustained power and terrible beauty. The story of Claude Gueux, published five years later (1834), another fervent protest against the infliction of capital punishment, was followed by many other eloquent and passionate appeals to the same effect, written or spoken on various occasions which excited the pity or the indignation of the orator or the poet. In 1831 appeared the greatest of all tragic or historic or romantic poems in the form of prose narrative, Notre-Dame de Paris. Three years afterwards the author published, under the title of Littérature et philosophie mêlées, a compilation or selection of notes and essays ranging and varying in date and in style from his earliest effusions of religious royalism to the magnificent essay on Mirabeau which represents at once the historical opinion and the critical capacity of Victor Hugo at the age of thirty-two. Next year he published Le Rhin, a series of letters from Germany, brilliant and vivid beyond all comparison, containing one of the most splendid stories for children ever written, and followed by a political supplement rather pathetically unprophetic in its predictions.
At the age of thirty-eight he honoured the French Academy by taking his place among its members; the speech delivered on the occasion was characteristically generous in its tribute to an undeserving memory, and significantly enthusiastic in its glorification of Napoleon. Idolatry of his father's hero and leader had now superseded the earlier superstition inculcated by his mother. In 1846 his first speech in the chamber of peers — Louis Philippe's House of Lords — was delivered on behalf of Poland; his second, on the subject of coast defence, is memorable for the evidence it bears of careful research and practical suggestion. His pleading on behalf of the exiled family of Bonaparte induced Louis Philippe to cancel the sentence which excluded its members from France. After the fall and flight of the house of Orleans, his parliamentary eloquence was never less generous in aim and always as fervent in its constancy to patriotic and progressive principle. When the conspiring forces of clerical venality and political prostitution had placed a putative Bonaparte in power attained by perjury after perjury, and supported by massacre after massacre, Victor Hugo, in common with all honourable men who had ever taken part in political or public life under the government superseded by force of treason and murder, was driven from his country into an exile of well-nigh twenty years. Next year he published Napoléon le petit; twenty-five years afterwards, Histoire d'un crime. In these two books his experience and his opinion of the tactics which founded the second French empire stand registered for all time. In the deathless volume of Châtiments, which appeared in 1853, his indignation, his genius, and his faith found such utterance and such expression as must recall to the student alternately the lyric inspiration of Coleridge and Shelley, the prophetic inspiration of Dante and Isaiah, the satiric inspiration of Juvenal and Dryden. Three years after Les Châtiments, a book written in lightning, appeared Les Contemplations, a book written in sunlight and starlight. Of the six parts into which it is divided, the first translates into many-sided music the joys and sorrows, the thoughts and fancies, the studies and ardours and speculations of youth; the second, as full of light and colour, grows gradually deeper in tone of thought and music; the third is yet riper and more various in form of melody and in fervour of meditation; the fourth is the noblest of all tributes ever paid by song to sorrow — a series of poems consecrated to the memory of the poet's eldest daughter, who was drowned, together with her husband, by the upsetting of a boat off the coast of Normandy, a few months after their wedding-day, in 1843; the fifth and the sixth books, written during his first four years of exile (all but one noble poem which bears date nine years earlier than its epilogue or postscript), contain more than a few poems unsurpassed and unsurpassable for depth and clarity and trenchancy of thought, for sublimity of inspiration, for intensity of faith, for loyalty in translation from nature, and for tenderness in devotion to truth; crowned and glorified and completed by their matchless dedication to the dead. Three years later again, in 1859, Victor Hugo gave to the world the first instalment of the greatest book published in the 19th century, La Légende des siècles. Opening with a vision of Eve in Paradise which eclipses Milton's in beauty no less than in sublimity — a dream of the mother of mankind at the hour when she knew the first sense of dawning motherhood, it closes with a vision of the trumpet to be sounded on the day of judgment which transcends the imagination of Dante by right of a realized idea which was utterly impossible of conception to a believer in Dante's creed: the idea of real and final equity; the concept of absolute and abstract righteousness. Between this opening and this close the pageant of history and of legend, marshalled and vivified by the will and the hand of the poet, ranges through an infinite variety of action and passion, of light and darkness, of terror and pity, of lyric rapture and of tragic triumph.
After yet another three years' space the author of La Légende des siècles reappeared as the author of Les Misérables, the greatest epic and dramatic work of fiction ever created or conceived: the epic of a soul transfigured and redeemed, purified by heroism and glorified through suffering; the tragedy and the comedy of life at its darkest and its brightest, of humanity at its best and at its worst. Two years afterwards the greatest man born since the death of Shakespeare paid homage to the greatest of his predecessors in a volume of magnificent and discursive eloquence which bore the title of William Shakespeare, and might, as its author admitted and suggested, more properly have been entitled À propos de Shakespeare. It was undertaken with the simple design of furnishing a preface to his younger son's translation of Shakespeare; a monument of perfect scholarship, of indefatigable devotion, and of literary genius, which eclipses even Urquhart's Rabelais — its only possible competitor; and to which the translator's father prefixed a brief and admirable note of introduction in the year after the publication of the volume which had grown under his hand into the bulk and the magnificence of an epic poem in prose. In the same year Les Chansons des rues el des bois gave evidence of new power and fresh variety in the exercise and display of an unequalled skill and a subtle simplicity of metre and of style employed on the everlasting theme of lyric and idyllic fancy, and touched now and then with a fire more sublime than that of youth and love. Next year the exile of Guernsey published his third great romance, Les Travailleurs de la mer, a work unsurpassed even among the works of its author for splendour of imagination and of style, for pathos and sublimity of truth. Three years afterwards the same theme was rehandled with no less magnificent mastery in L'Homme qui rit; the theme of human heroism confronted with the superhuman tyranny of blind and unimaginable chance, overpowered and unbroken, defeated and invincible. Between the dates of these two great books appeared La Voix de Guernesey, a noble and terrible poem on the massacre of Mentana which branded and commemorated for ever the papal and imperial infamy of the colleagues in that crime. In 1872 Victor Hugo published in imperishable verse his record of the year which followed the collapse of the empire, L'Année terrible. All the poet and all the man spoke out and stood evident in the perfervid patriotism, the filial devotion, the fatherly tenderness, the indignation and the pity, which here find alternate expression in passionate and familiar and majestic song. In 1874 he published his last great romance, the tragic and historic poem in prose called Quatrevingt-treize; a work as rich in thought, in tenderness, in wisdom and in humour and in pathos, as ever was cast into the mould of poetry or of fiction.
The introduction to his first volume of Actes et paroles, ranging in date from 1841 to 1851, is dated in June 1875; it is one of his most earnest and most eloquent appeals to the conscience and intelligence of the student. The second volume contains the record of his deeds and words during the years of his exile; like the first and the third, it is headed by a memorable preface, as well worth the reverent study of those who may dissent from some of the writer's views as of those who may assent to all. The third and fourth volumes preserve the register of his deeds and words from 1870 to 1885; they contain, among other things memorable, the nobly reticent and pathetic tribute to the memory of the two sons, Charles (1826-1871) and François (1828-1873), he had lost since their common return from exile. In 1877 appeared the second series of La Légende des siècles; and in the same year the author of that colossal work, treating no less of superhuman than of human things, gave us the loveliest and most various book of song on the loveliest and simplest of subjects ever given to man, L'Art d'être grandpère. Next year he published Le Pape, a vision of the spirit of Christ in appeal against the spirit of Christianity, his ideal follower confronted and contrasted with his nominal vicar; next year again La Pitti suprême, a plea for charity towards tyrants who know not what they do, perverted by omnipotence and degraded by adoration; two years later Religions et religion, a poem which is at once a cry of faith and a protest against the creeds which deform and distort and leave it misshapen and envenomed and defiled; and in the same year L'Ane, a paean of satiric invective against the past follies of learned ignorance, and lyric rapture of confidence in the future wisdom and the final conscience of the world. These four great poems, one in sublimity of spirit and in supremacy of style, were succeeded next year by a fourfold gift of even greater price, Les Quatre Vents de l'esprit: the first book, that of satire, is as full of fiery truth and radiant reason as any of his previous work in that passionate and awful kind; the second or dramatic book is as full of fresh life and living nature, of tragic humour and of mortal pathos, as any other work of the one great modern dramatist's; the third or lyric book would suffice to reveal its author as incomparably and immeasurably the greatest poet of his age, and one great among the greatest of all time; the fourth or epic book is the sublimest and most terrible of historic poems — a visionary pageant of French history from the reign and the revelries of Henry IV. to the reign and the execution of Louis XVI. Next year the great tragic poem of Torquemada came forth to bear witness that the hand which wrote Ruy Blas had lost nothing of its godlike power and its matchless cunning, if the author of Le Roi s'amuse had ceased to care much about coherence of construction from the theatrical point of view as compared with the perfection of a tragedy designed for the devotion of students not unworthy or incapable of the study; that his command of pity and terror, his powers of intuition and invention, had never been more absolute and more sublime; and that his infinite and illimitable charity of imagination could transfigure even the most monstrous historic representative of Christian or Catholic diabolatry into the likeness of a terribly benevolent and a tragically magnificent monomaniac. Two years later Victor Hugo published the third and concluding series of La Légende des siècles.
On the 22nd of May 1885 Victor Hugo died. He was given a magnificent public funeral, and his remains were laid in the Pantheon. The first volume published of his posthumous works was the exquisite and splendid Théâtre en liberté, a sequence if not a symphony of seven poems in dramatic form, tragic or comic or fanciful eclogues, incomparable with the work of any other man but the author of The Tempest and The Winter's Tale in combination and alternation of gayer and of graver harmonies. The unfinished poems, Dieu and La Fin de Satan, are full to overflowing of such magnificent work, such wise simplicity of noble thought, such heroic and pathetic imagination, such reverent and daring faith, as no other poet has ever cast into deathless words and set to deathless music. Les Jumeaux, an unfinished tragedy, would possibly have been the very greatest of his works if it had been completed on the same scale and on the same lines as it was begun and carried forward to the point at which it was cut short for ever. His reminiscences of “Things Seen” in the course of a strangely varied experience, and his notes of travel among the Alps and Pyrenees, in the north of France and in Belgium, in the south of France and in Burgundy, are all recorded by such a pen and registered by such a memory as no other man ever had at the service of his impressions or his thoughts. Toute la lyre, his latest legacy to the world, would be enough, though no other evidence were left, to show that the author was one of the very greatest among poets and among men; unsurpassed in sublimity of spirit, in spontaneity of utterance, in variety of power, and in perfection of workmanship; infinite and profound beyond all reach of praise at once in thought and in sympathy, in perception and in passion; master of all the simplest as of all the subtlest melodies or symphonies of song that ever found expression in a Border ballad or a Pythian ode.
- (Algernon Charles Swinburne)
Bibliography. — Victor Hugo's complete works were published in a definitive edition at Paris in 58 volumes (1885-1902). The critical literature which has grown up round his name is very extensive, from the time of Sainte-Beuve onwards, and only a few of the more important books need here be mentioned for reference on biographical and other details: F. T. Marzials, Life of Hugo, with bibliography (1888); A. C. Swinburne, Study of Hugo (1886); E. Dupuy, Victor Hugo, l'homme et le poète (1886); Paul de Saint Victor, Victor Hugo (1885); F. Brunetière, Victor Hugo (1903); Jules Claretie, Victor Hugo, souvenirs intimes (1902). See also The Bookman for August 1904; Francis Gribble, “The Hugo Legend,” an adverse view, in Fortnightly Review (February 1910); and the article French Literature.