Victor Hugo was born two hundred years ago this year and his countrymen have been trying ever since to contain him. They resorted first to the tried-and-true: ostracism and outrage at his brazen Romanticism followed by acclaim and fervid acceptance. When this failed to muzzle him, they elected him to a position in the Assemblée; the transcripts of his speeches there are punctuated with such exclamations as “great sensation among the audience” and “tumults of applause.” They then accorded him a seat beneath the monumental cupola of the Immortals at the Académie Française.

Hugo, avid if not insatiable, gulped down outrage and prestige equally with the alacrity of a tomcat swallowing minnows. As his fame grew, he continued to overspill all bounds: manuscripts in every genre (as well as drawings and paintings) flowed so copiously from his fluent pen that his publishers fell into permanent backlog; decades after his death new works of his were still being published. Mounting acclaim failed to hobble him. Then, in 1851, his enemies contrived to force him into exile, ostensibly for criticizing Louis Napoleon—Napoleon III after 1852. But hadn’t Hugo always been a bit too exuberantly Promethean, if not downright Shakespearean, to be genuinely French? Installed for eighteen years in comfortable exile on the Channel Island of Guernsey, he not only flourished but achieved his most resounding successes. Undeflectable, standing every morning before a writing lectern that faced the waters of the English Channel while he sipped coffee left over from the previous evening, Hugo composed thousands of lines of verse, most of it wonderful; he wrote novels, all still in print, still read and loved by millions the world over; he wrote plays, manifestos, epics, diatribes. His scattered jottings and observations of a long lifetime—he lived to be eighty-three—fill more than a thousand pages of fine print (collected under the title Choses vues). Returned from exile in 1870, Hugo found himself a national hero, admired by even such truculent younger contemporaries as Flaubert. Desperate, the French had only one recourse left: in 1876 he was made a senator. Even this failed to lull the Titan into complacency. When Hugo died, in 1885, he was given an immense state funeral followed by “Pantheonization”—who but the French could have devised the verb panthéoniser?—a terminal accolade that usually suffices to muffle even the most obstreporous for all eternity. The Hugolian colossus should have lain still; few spirits, marmorealized in la Gloire, ever re-arise, and an oblivious and grateful nation can go about its mundane affairs without disruption.

No such luck. Victor Hugo refuses to lie still.

No such luck. Victor Hugo refuses to lie still. Like some restless, perpetually chattering Dracula he pops up at every turn, draining the anemic veins of his compatriots who prefer less rumbustious fare, say, the desiccated Beckett or the (God help us!) bloodless Paul Auster. To give but a few examples: on a visit to my local Gallimard bookstore in Montreal, I notice that in celebration of the great man’s 200th birthday, one can now obtain Hugo’s complete works in a sprawling set of fifteen overstuffed volumes, totalling 17,500 pages. I am told that the set is selling well. (Needless to say, it isn’t really complete.) Again, on the French website “La Poésie Française,” more poems by Hugo are available than by any other French poet: 357 Hugo texts appear compared to 156 for Baudelaire, 167 for Verlaine, or a measly 127 for La Fontaine, the latter, along with Paul Claudel, his only serious rivals as the greatest of French poets. (There are a number of other websites on Hugo in this bicentennial year, one of the most attractive and interesting being that of the Maison Hugo in the Place des Vosges.)

In a very real sense, of course, Victor Hugo has surpassed even himself, becoming as much a mythic figure as Quasimodo or Jean Valjean; thus, “Victor Hugo” has come to resemble the “Borges” which the “real” Jorge Luis Borges learned to fear and suspect. Hugo’s egomania, his unquenchable amatory gusto, his political battles and debacles, have become as important to the legend as his writing. This phantom-Hugo threatened to overwhelm Hugo the man even during his lifetime, prompting Jean Cocteau’s quip that “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.” But to English readers, sadly enough, Hugo is known almost exclusively as the author of Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Les Misérables, the former in its film versions and the latter in its highly successful musical comedy guise. Even his several other superb novels are closed books to English speakers. In a recent tribute to Hugo in a local newspaper I learned that we should all read him because in addition to his many celebrated gifts, he had a wonderful sense of humor: hadn’t he written The Man Who Laughs? The critic clearly hadn’t read the novel which is about a child who is deliberately mutilated by having a smile carved into his mouth for life to amuse a king; the book illustrates Hugo’s love of the grotesque but it isn’t rich in laughs. Hugo’s great dramas and his even greater poetry remain utterly unknown; music lovers may appreciate the songs based on his verse (Hugo himself refused to allow his poetry to be set to music during his lifetime), especially in the sublime renditions of Dame Felicity Lott, but few Americans have any acquaintance with the poetry, in the original or in translation.

For various reasons, Hugo’s poetry has not so far succeeded in English translation; the verse has suffered the fate of a few other marvelous nineteenth-century poets—one thinks of Goethe or Leopardi—whose lyrics simply do not travel well. This has a lot to do with the intrinsic differences between French and English poetry. In his indispensable survey An Essay on French Verse, Jacques Barzun pointed out that one reason for this is that French is a language of pure vowels whereas English is not. What we do to our poor long-suffering vowels, from stretching them on the rack of the Southern drawl to snapping them out of the eastern air like lizards catching flies, would appall a French speaker for whom the vowels, particularly in poetry, have a sculpted and crystalline integrity. We can appreciate the force of the French vowels in such a line as Hugo’s “L’ombre était nuptiale, auguste et solennelle” (“The dark was nuptial, and august, and solemn,” in Brooks Haxton’s new translation1 and in another new version: “The shade was a deep, nuptial, solemn thing.”2). But we are less likely to swoon at the effect than a native speaker; in fact, we are liable to be wary of such effects as overly sonorous, excessively magniloquent. Our wariness is well founded: Hugo’s poetry almost always strikes a high and sublime note. Though his intonations and accents permeate the work of such successors as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Hugo does not rely on spleen and bitter sarcasm to the same degree as those poets, even if he outdoes them both in sheer vituperation. Hugo is lofty, and this falls with a hollow clangor on our ironic ears. Furthermore, Hugo almost always composed both dramas and poetic sequences in strict forms; he is a supreme technician of rhyme. Should a translator attempt to duplicate his rhymes in English, or rely on blank verse, to convey the sweeping effect of the original?

For various reasons, Hugo’s poetry has not so far succeeded in English translation

Now Hugo’s two-hundredth birthday has inspired several new translations of his poetry, and the results are by and large quite gratifying. The most impressive, and probably the best, is the huge selection lovingly prepared by E. H. and A. M. Blackmore. This pair of translators has had the audacity to translate much of the verse in strict rhyme and meter, and the results are often surprisingly fine. Arranged chronologically and illustrated throughout by Hugo’s own drawings and paintings, their selection for the first time gives the English reader the full range of Hugo’s accomplishment as a poet. Even better, they have prefaced each of Hugo’s collections, from Odes et ballades of 1822 to Océan, published posthumously in 1942, with intelligent and informative prefaces which set each work within a biographical and historical context. Their notes to the poems are succinct but apposite. The Blackmores’ devoted and lavish attention to the nuances and subtleties of Hugo’s verse should prompt a re-evaluation of this poet, one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century and, in fact, a European genius of the stature of Goethe and Pushkin.

Of course, in the end only one question matters: do the translations convince, if not as credible poems in their own right—an almost impossible criterion—but as convincing representations of Hugo’s originals?

One of Hugo’s greatest poems is “Booz endormi” from his vast epic cycle La Légende des siècles. The poem is based on Ruth 3:1-8, in which Ruth the Moabite woman spends the night sleeping at the feet of Boaz, the aged and wealthy Israelite. It is a poem not only about the consequences of this unexpected union, out of which the line from David to Jesus will be established, but about a young woman’s preference for an old man (Hugo was fifty-seven when he wrote the poem). Hugo’s poem has a quiet majesty which steadily builds as the poem progresses; this is in part because he avails himself of simple declarative lines that have a solemn Biblical plainspokenness about them:

Booz s’était couché de fatigue accablé;
Il avait tout le jour travaillé dans son aire;
Puis avait fait son lit à sa place ordinaire;
Booz dormait auprès des boisseaux pleins de blé.

Here is the Blackmores’ version of this opening stanza:

There Boaz lay, overcome and worn out.
All day he’d labored at his threshing floor;
Now, bedded in his usual place once more,
He slept, with grain bagged everywhere about.

Brooks Haxton, in his much slimmer selection, translates the same lines:

Boaz, overcome with weariness, by torchlight
made his pallet on the threshing floor
where all day he had worked, and now he slept
among the bushels of threshed wheat.

Haxton’s version reads well though it is quite far from the original French. Hugo says nothing about “torchlight” nor does he mention a “pallet.” Moreover, Haxton has altered the motion of the lines by linking them together and employing enjambment. The Blackmores, by contrast, succeed at reproducing the rhyme scheme; they even manage to suggest the alexandrine line with its almost obligatory caesura. In the French, there is a pause in the first line before the phrase de fatigue accablé and the Blackmores convey this with their strategically positioned comma after lay. True, like Haxton, they pad a bit (“overcome and worn out”), but theirs is a reasonably measured and finished translation. If it lacks the true Hugolian grandeur, who will blame them when they have otherwise come so close?

The problems with Haxton’s version appear as the poem moves on. He tends to extrapolate, and he changes the original in ways that I for one would not condone. Another effect of which Hugo is a master is to cap a stanza with an aphoristic line. In the fifth stanza, for instance, he writes:

Booz était bon maître et fidèle parent;
Il était généreux, quoiqu’il fût économe;
Les femmes regardaient Booz plus qu’un jeune homme,
Car le jeune homme est beau, mais le vieillard est grand.

One can easily imagine the grizzled older Hugo, no chilly Parnassian, whispering this final maxim into the ears of some young soubrette. Haxton, however, expands the line and abandons its axiomatic flavor:

. . . for youth is handsome,
but to him in his old age came greatness.

The Blackmores get it right: “Young men have beauty, but old men have might.” This is properly pithy, and captures the tone of the French (and “might” excellently suggests the force of grand). Like La Fontaine (whose maxim this could be), Hugo often clinches high-flown sublimity with a tart punch-line. Again, in the final stanza of the first section, Haxton introduces Ruth before Hugo does; he writes: “And though fire burned in young men’s eyes,/ to Ruth the eyes of Boaz shone clear light.” What Hugo actually wrote is this, again in the Blackmores’ version: “In the eyes of the young men there is fire,/ But in the eyes of the old, illumination.” The simple stratagem of translating “light” (lumière) as “illumination” (as opposed to Haxton’s “clear light”) makes Hugo’s intention gently but forcefully transparent.

Towards the end of the poem Hugo wrote: Tout reposait dans Ur et dans Jérimadeth. As the Blackmores have it: “all slumbered in Jerimadeth and Ur.” Now every French schoolkid knows that there is no such place as “Jerimadeth.” Hugo invented the name for the sake of a rhyme and because he liked the sound of the word. This sovereign playfulness amid such solemnity of diction is a masterstroke, but Haxton fluffs it when he writes: “All slept, all, from Ur to Bethlehem.” Perhaps he disapproves of Hugo’s hijinx, perhaps he wishes to make more explicit the lineage culminating in Christ; whatever the reason, he takes too great a liberty here for my taste. The ending of “Boaz Asleep” is one of Hugo’s finest achievements. Here, in the Blackmores’ version, the plain, stately, end-stopped lines, cadenced yet declarative, flower open into a grand but simple vision:

All slumbered in Jerimadeth and Ur;
The stars enameled the deep, somber sky;
Westward a slender crescent shone close by
Those flowers of night, and Ruth, without a stir,
Wondered—with parting eyelids half revealed
Beneath her veils—what stray god, as he cropped
The timeless summer, had so idly dropped
That golden sickle in the starry field.

Even here, Haxton cannot resist meddling. Instead of the simple phrase ouvrant l’oeil à moitié sous ses voiles (“half opening her eye beneath her veils”), he gives poor Ruth a sudden ophthalmic disorder: “eyes half opened,/under the twingeing of their lids.” And the faucille d’or is not a “golden scythe,” as Haxton translates it, but a golden sickle. The rich grains and crops of the opening—Boaz is a farmer, after all—here assume a transcendent form, with the moon acting as a sickle in the “field of stars.”

Both Haxton and the Blackmores also tackle one of Hugo’s finest late poems, the elegy for his old friend Théophile Gautier, who died in 1872. This grand poem had already been rendered partially by Robert Lowell in his Imitations, and it is hard to see how anyone could surpass his version. Lowell imitates the rhyming couplets of the original (which neither Haxton nor the Blackmores attempt) and captures the inmost feeling of the poem:

We die. That is the law. None holds it back,
all leans; and this great age with all its light
glides to the shadow, where we flee— pale, black!
The oaks felled for the pyre of Hercules,
what a harsh roar they make in the red night!
Death’s horses throw their heads, neigh, roll their eyes—
they are joyful, for the shining day now dies
. . . the ancient sea that made us young is dry,
youth has no fountain, age has no more Styx,
and Time moves forward with his heavy blade,
thoughtful, and step by step, to the last ear.
My turn comes round; night fills my troubled eye,
which prophesies the future from the past,
weeps over cribs, and smiles at this new grave.

Without being literal, Lowell remains surprisingly accurate both to the sense and the feeling of the original. The same cannot be said of either Haxton or the Blackmores. The last five lines of the poem, rendered literally, read:

The harsh reaper with his wide blade moves forth,
thoughtful, step by step, towards the remaining wheat;
it’s my turn; and night fills my troubled eye
which guessing—alas!—the future of doves,
weeps over cradles and smiles at tombs.

Haxton seems to me here to capture the cadence of Hugo’s lines rather well, though he mangles the doves:

Lost in thought, the mower with his long blade
moves on step by step into the standing wheat.
My turn has come. My good eye, muddled now
by nightfall, straining to make out the shapes
of doves, weeps over cradles and smiles at tombs.

The magical phrase l’avenir des colombes (which Lowell shrewdly omits) puzzles at first. The Blackmores render this by: “and gloom is filling my/Troubled sight, as I guess what future the doves must face.” Can this be what Hugo meant? That doves, like everything else that lives, must die? But the line is ambiguous and can mean not simply “guessing the future of the doves,” but “divining the future from the doves.” It is, in other words, a supreme flash of hope: at the very moment when darkness fills his eye, the poet augurs the luminous stir of a future life. And it is for this reason that, like some ancient saint, he cries over cradles and smiles at graves: death is discerned as a beginning.

It was, of course, for this very Christian-like attitude, sundered as it was from official Christianity or any formal church, that earned Hugo the undying obloquy of such ferocious Catholics as Paul Claudel who could announce, in one of his Five Grand Odes, that Hugo’s soul was “with the dead dogs.” Claudel mistrusted Hugo’s passion for social justice, in part because of Hugo’s pronounced anti-clericalism. But there was much more, I think, to Hugo’s thirst for justice than mere sloganeering. From an early age he expressed a profound empathy with the outcast, the despised, the rejected. That empathy takes on melodramatic forms in the novels but in the verse, it can pierce the reader with sudden poignancy. Hugo was drawn not solely to galley slaves, prisoners, thieves and vagabonds, but to their analogues in the natural world. One of his deepest poems, from The Contemplations, his magnificent collection of 1856—one year, be it noted, before the publication of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal—begins: “I love the spider and I love the nettle/ Because they are hated.” One of Hugo’s most astute early commentators, the great Austrian poet and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, suggested that this plastic ability of identification developed early in Victor Hugo’s childhood when he haunted the public gardens of Paris. “In the very soil of those gardens,” von Hofmannsthal wrote, “Hugo’s marvelous intimacy with trees and flowers, with birds’ nest and stars, took root and those thousands of lines of verse, with their magisterial abundance and compression, those thousands of metaphors, . . . were also rooted there.” And yet, this is perhaps too easy; for Hugo’s plasticity extended beyond the small and insignificant and despised to other, more daunting exemplars. In Les Misérables, Hugo’s affinity with the implacable policeman Javert is just as striking and just as deep as his sympathy for Jean Valjean. The public Victor Hugo was not a hollow shell within which the private, and authentic, Victor Hugo crouched; rather, the outer man and the inner man existed in a kind of agonized hypostasis. As von Hofmannsthal again put it, with regard to Hugo’s drama Hernani, what is involved is “a world of inner antitheses hurled forth into a world of outer antitheses.” Hugo teemed with antitheses, and it is perhaps this quality that constitutes the indissoluble riddle of his personality: the public man speaks in the most intimate of whispers; the private man thunders anathemas; and yet, somehow, the voice is one and unmistakable.

The ability to assimilate virtually anything—from a lowly spider to a vengeful magistrate to God Himself (a posthumous collection was entitled simply Dieu)—is amazing enough; even more astounding, however, is the countervailing ability to exteriorize and to cast such a profusion of identities into objective form. Hugo pos- sessed both abilities in inexhaustible abundance and it was this perhaps which prompted an admiring Baudelaire to write of him (in his “Reflections on Some of My Contemporaries”) in a strangely negative vein that only accentuates his reverence:

He who is not capable of painting everything—palaces and hovels, emotions both tender and cruel, the circumscribed affections of a family and universal love, the grace of the green world and the marvels of architecture; all that is sweetest and all that is most horrifying, both the inner significance and the outer beauty of every religion, the moral and the physical physiognomy of each nation, in short, everything, from the visible to the invisible, from heaven to hell—that man is no true poet in the widest sense of the word and in the heart of God.

Victor Hugo was such a poet for Baudelaire (whose verse the aging Hugo admired), as for every French poet who has followed after him, even those—especially those—who (like Paul Claudel) have most despised and repudiated him. Everyone probably knows the anecdote in which André Gide is asked who the greatest French poet is and replies, “Victor Hugo, hélas!” But, as the Blackmores recount in their excellent notes, Théophile Gautier put it both more justly and more admirably when he remarked, after Hugo returned from exile in 1870, “talking poetry with Hugo is like talking theology with the Lord God.” Both of these new translations, despite wide variation and the occasional infelicity, give us back something of Hugo’s distinctive accents and in so doing set a vivid ghost free from its pantheon.

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  1.   Victor Hugo: Selected Poems, translated by Brooks Haxton. Penguin, 141 pages, $12.00 (paperback). Go back to the text.
  2.   Selected Poems of Victor Hugo: A Bilingual Edition, translated by E. H. and A. M. Blackmore. University of Chicago Press, 661 pages, $35.00. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 2, on page 23
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