Thursday, 25 December 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #23: Victor Hugo



If I could see, oh my homeland,
Your almond trees and your lilacs,
And tread upon your verdant grass,
Alas !

If I could, –– but, oh my father,
oh my mother, I cannot, ––
Take for my bed your stone,
Alas !

In the cold coffin which encloses you,
If I could speak softly there,
My brother Abel, my brother Eugène,
Alas !

If I could, oh my dove,
And you, mother, who flew away,
If I could kneel on your tomb,
Alas !

Oh, towards the solitary star,
I would raise these arms of mine!
As I would kiss the earth,
Alas !

Far from you, oh deaths that I cry,
From the black waves I hear the knell;
I would like to flee, but here I remain,
Alas !

Still fate, hidden in the shadows,
Deceives itself if, counting my footsteps,
It believes this gloomy old walker
Is weary of life.

? c. 1855

Translated by BR

The Poet:  Victor Marie Hugo – the writer who, more than any other, would come to embody the republican spirit and political idealism of nineteenth century France was born in the city of Besançon, capital of the eastern Franche-Comté region, on 28 February 1802.  The son of a general who served unsuccessfully as a provincial governor in Italy and Spain under Napoleon I, Hugo grew up largely under the influence of his Catholic and staunchly Royalist mother, with much of his early work reflecting her beliefs in the teachings of the Church and the natural supremacy of France's dethroned Bourbon monarchy.  So great was the influence his mother exerted on Hugo that he waited a full year after she died to marry his 'secret' fiancée, a Parisian neighbor named Adèle Foucher whom he'd known since childhood and who would, in time, go on to bear him five children.  The 1843 death of his eldest daughter, nineteen year old Léopoldine, as the result of a boating accident in Normandy would haunt him for the rest of his life and inspire what are probably his two best-known poems, the elegies Demain dés l'aube [Tomorrow in the Dawn] and À Villequier [At Villequier, the town where his daughter died].

Hugo began his literary career as a poet, publishing his first volume of verse Odes et poésies diverses [Odes and Various Poems] in 1822.  While these early poems were impressive enough to secure their twenty year old author a pension from the newly-restored King Louis XVIII it was not until his fourth collection Odes et Ballades [Odes and Ballads] appeared in 1826 that he truly consolidated his position as the nation's leading lyric poet.  By this time Hugo had also published two novels, neither of which contained the strong political element that would become so evident in the works – Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and Les Misérables (1862) among them – for which he's chiefly remembered today outside France.

It would take the poet's 1841 election to L'Academie Française [The French Academy] to make a recognizable political figure of him, with his subsequent elevation to a peerage by King Louis-Philippe seeing him become an impassioned speaker in the French parliament on issues ranging from child welfare to education reform to the abolition of the death penalty.  Still a conservative monarchist at heart, it would take the December 1851 seizing of power by his one-time political ally Napoleon III to transform him into an anti-monarchist radical.  He called the new self-styled 'Emperor' a traitor to France and fled from Paris to Brussels (with the help of his lover, the renowned actress Juliette Drouet) in the hope of escaping arrest, soon relocating to the British-held island of Jersey when it became apparent that Belgian authorities were reluctant to displease their larger, more powerful neighbor by granting him permanent political asylum.  His stay in Jersey ended in 1856 when he signed his name to an article in an emigré newspaper which poked fun at a visit the reigning British monarch Queen Victoria had recently made to Paris.  After this, Hugo and his family were forced to flee again to the nearby Channel Island of Guernsey –– the island that would remain their home for the next fifteen years.  

It was during Hugo's time on Guernsey that he wrote, completed or published the majority of the works for which he's now chiefly celebrated, including the poetry collections Les Contemplations [Contemplations] (1856), Les Chansons des rues et des bois [Songs of the Streets and the Forests] (1865) and La Legende des siecles [The Legend of the Ages] (1877), the novels Les Misérables (1862), Les Travailleurs de la mer [The Workers of the Sea] (1866), L'Homme qui rit [The Man Who Laughed] (1869) and Quatre-Vingt-Treize [Ninety-Three] (1874) as well as the book-length literary study William Shakespeare (1864).  In addition to his literary work, Hugo also produced many political pamphlets among them the lacerating Napoleon le Petit [Napoleon the Small] (1852) – which continued his fierce criticism of the 'treacherous' behavior of Napoleon III.  These works were smuggled into France and secretly distributed to every city and town, their popularity confirming Hugo's status as the country's most beloved artist and most influential exile –– a status some believe may have prompted the Emperor to grant what became a general amnesty to all political exiles in 1859.  

Hugo, however, did not return to France until Napoleon III was deposed and the French Third Republic was officially proclaimed on 4 September 1870.  Upon his return to Paris, he was instantly elected to serve in the nation's newly-convened National Assembly as well as in its Senate, maintaining his seats in both throughout the ensuing Franco-Prussian War and the widespread hardship caused by Prussia's decision to blockade the capital.  Food became so scarce as the blockade continued that Hugo, along with his fellow citizens, was forced to eat the animals housed in the Paris Zoo and, when these ran out, to dine on what, in his diary, he enigmatically classified as 'the unknown.'  

Famous as he was, Hugo failed to regain his seat in the National Assembly when he stood for reelection to it in 1872.  This disappointment was quickly followed by the institutionalizing of his remaining daughter Adèle (his wife, for whom the girl had been named, had died in 1868) and the deaths of both his sons.  The writer himself lived for another thirteen years and, despite suffering a mild stroke in 1876, even served as a Senator again –– a term that was considered a failure due to his inability to make any serious headway on the issue of introducing practical and permanent social reform.  He died, from pneumonia, on 22 May 1885, his state funeral becoming one of the largest France has ever seen, with an estimated two million people following his casket through the streets of Paris from the Arc de Triomphe to its final resting place in the Panthéon.  

In 1926, the poet was recognized as one of the three 'major saints' of what was then the newly-created Cao Dai religion of Vietnam.

Click HERE to download many works by VICTOR HUGO as free and legal eBooks from the Project Gutenberg website.

You might also enjoy:
POET OF THE MONTH #5: François Villon
POET OF THE MONTH #17: Caasha Lul Mohamud Yusuf


Si je pouvais voir, ô patrie,
Tes amandiers et tes lilas,
Et fouler ton herbe fleurie,
Hélas !

Si je pouvais, - mais, ô mon père,
O ma mère, je ne peux pas, -
Prendre pour chevet votre pierre,
Hélas !

Dans le froid cercueil qui vous gêne,
Si je pouvais vous parler bas,
Mon frère Abel, mon frère Eugène,
Hélas !

Si je pouvais, ô ma colombe,
Et toi, mère, qui t'envolas,
M'agenouiller sur votre tombe,
Hélas !

Oh ! vers l'étoile solitaire,
Comme je lèverais les bras !
Comme je baiserais la terre,
Hélas !

Loin de vous, ô morts que je pleure,
Des flots noirs j'écoute le glas ;
Je voudrais fuir, mais je demeure,
Hélas !

Pourtant le sort, caché dans l'ombre,
Se trompe si, comptant mes pas,
Il croit que le vieux marcheur sombre
Est las.

 ? c. 1855

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