Prophetic Chattiness

Patrick McGuinness

  • The Distance, The Shadows: Selected Poems by Victor Hugo, translated by Harry Guest
    Anvil, 250 pp, £12.95, November 2002, ISBN 0 85646 345 0
  • Selected Poetry by Victor Hugo, translated by Steven Monte
    Carcanet, 305 pp, £12.95, September 2001, ISBN 1 85754 539 7
  • Selected Poems of Victor Hugo: A Bilingual Edition edited by E.H. Blackmore and A.M. Blackmore
    Chicago, 631 pp, £24.50, April 2001, ISBN 0 226 35980 8

The size and variety of Victor Hugo’s oeuvre – around 200,000 lines of verse, plus dozens of novels, plays and critical works – makes it difficult to get an overview, let alone make a selection. In his Hugoliade, Ionesco suggested that Hugo’s best chance of survival lay in the impossibility of reading everything he’d written. But no other French poet has had such influence: unlike Baudelaire and Mallarmé, Hugo affected more or less every poet who came after him. He threw out so many novelties he could hardly keep up with himself. A reader of any of the new selections will not only discover a way into 19th-century poetry, but also into poetic Modernism. There is the Hugo of André Breton, a proto-Surrealist drawn to the irrational and dark; the politically engaged visionary revealed in Louis Aragon’s classic 1952 selection; the Hugo who ‘was poetry’, as Mallarmé claimed in Crise de vers; while Rimbaud’s version is a voyant, a ‘seer’, although one who didn’t see far enough, or not for long enough. Hugo saw everything he wrote as an experiment, and was, more than any other great poet of his century, aware of the provisionality of every position, every thought, every work of art. He was fond of saying that he corrected one work in the next one, that there were no contradictions, just stages of thought. No subject was too low or too high, too new or too old, too hackneyed or too erudite. Any selection of his poetry is not just a summation of the romantic mind at its most potent and protean, but a compendium of foretastes of the poetry that followed.

Despite all this, praise for Hugo has often been grudging. Asked who the greatest French writer was, Gide famously replied, ‘Victor Hugo – hélas,’ while Cocteau, whose critical insights are so graceful they are often mistakenly thought lightweight, described Hugo as ‘a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo’. It is true that Hugo was never more himself than when absorbed in his own myth. ‘And all of ‘89 broke out,’ he exults in ‘Reply to an Act of Accusation’, and compares himself to the Revolution’s leaders: ‘Yes, I am that Danton, I am that Robespierre!’ Who would have guessed (or remembered) in 1856, when this poem appeared, that Hugo had started out as a royalist, editing a conservative paper and enjoying the patronage of a reactionary establishment?

I yelled: ‘There’ll be no words where the idea’s flight
Can’t land, moistened by the azure and the light!’
Syllepsis, hypallage, litotes, stood alone
And trembled; I stood on Aristotle’s milestone,
And declared the words equal, free, and of age.

(Monte’s translation)

Hugo had an eccentric theory of genius (best seen in the visionary barminess of his book on Shakespeare), but he also knew how to appeal to the ordinary. He understood the symbolic dimension of politics, and made good use of it: the man who could see an H in the towers of Notre Dame also asked for a pauper’s hearse, and despite being a millionaire left an exiguous sum to the poor, knowing that rumour and hearsay would transform it into a fortune. He spoke out against the death penalty and opposed the defeated Communards in 1871 even as he appealed for clemency for them. He knew how to play the people, and two million of them turned out for his funeral in 1885. He was an artful politician in his verse, as in ‘Au Peuple’, which figures the people as an ocean:

It resembles you. It is awe-inspiring and at peace.
Its wrinkled plain dazzles and reflects infinities.
It possesses movement and depth; it is immense.
Softened by a sunbeam, ruffled by a breeze,
It is harmony sometimes, and sometimes dissonance.


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[*] A Puzzling Harvest: Collected Poems 1955-2000 (Anvil, 384 pp., £18, October 2002, 0 85646 354 x).