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Victor Hugo

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

A hundred years and more have passed since Victor Hugo was born. It is but a small space of time when we consider the number of centuries through which the rich and various literature of France has flourished. Yet it has been long enough for this one man, by his own power or as the representative of the spirit of his time, to arouse the most conflicting judgments concerning his achievement. He has been the supreme poet of France, the adored idol of the men of letters of his day. His fame has filled France and the world. At his funeral ten thousand troops were needed to hold back the multitudes who crowded around. He is still almost the most popular author in France among the crowd, though for men of letters he has become “that abominable rhetorician whom we have made our national glory.” “Of all the nineteenth-century poets,” declares a fairly typical French author of today, “it is Victor Hugo of whom we least think.” Or if they think of him, it is with crushing condescension: “We must not despise Hugo,” says a critic of today. “True, he had no human vocal cords, but consider how superbly he played on the saxophone”! “Hugo intoxicated my childhood,” a distinguished writer of today, Abel Bonnard, said to an interviewer. “When I first read ‘Les Ori-entales’ I seemed to open a casket full of jewels and every sort of marvelous fruit.” But today, no longer a child, Bonnard’s favourite poet is at the opposite pole, Paul Valery.

This conflict of opinion may, or may not, show the futility of literary criticism. There is, however, another way of estimating the calibre of a literary personality. We may, for the moment, ignore his literary output altogether, in order to consider the man himself who was the primary source and origin of that output. What the man was, that, we may be sure, his work, with blurred outline or added glamour, also was. There are few writers whose personality is so obscured in their work as that of Hugo; he himself wrote, as early as 1835 (in the preface to “Chants du Crepuscule”), and with more truth than an author always shows in self-analysis, that his personality was only faintly indicated in his books. In gauging that personality, therefore, we only follow the indication he has himself given when we throw aside his books altogether.

In estimating Victor Hugo’s achievement and place in the world, we have, indeed, to follow the same course as has been found desirable in the case of an even greater figure of the nineteenth century, Napoleon. We no longer study Napoleon by accepting the opinions of friends or foes, or by gazing at the map of Europe he changed so profoundly; we gather together all the illuminating facts we can find concerning the man, and so at last are learning to reach a reliable estimate of Napoleon’s place in the world. And if we are to reach a reliable estimate of Hugo’s achievement in literature we must likewise cast aside the empty and conflicting discussions of critics, and even for a time close his books, to come to the man himself.

The initial fact, that Hugo’s work furnishes singularly little self-revelation of the more obvious kind, is itself, one may note, significant. A profound and almost instinctive secretive-ness is everywhere characteristic of the peasant, and nowhere more so than in France, a fact which Balzac in “Les Pay-sans” and Zola in “La Terre” have powerfully illustrated. It is not difficult to account for. Sincerity marks the aristocrat, and secretiveness marks the plebeian, simply because force—which need not be secretive—is the traditional weapon of the lord, and cunning—which must be secretive—is the traditional weapon of the peasant. Now Hugo belonged to a race of peasants. He could never have performed his special work in the world if, underneath all other elements in his nature, there had not been ineradicably rooted the solid and primitive qualities of the French peasant. His grandfather sprang from people who, so far as is known, all cultivated the soil in Lorraine. (In 1631, Claude Hugo, a grave-digger, who belonged to Damvillier, the home of the poet’s family, and was probably an ancestor, is referred to in official documents as “the Dutchman,” and this perhaps indicates the origin of the family.) This grandfather, however, took an upward step in the world: he became a joiner, and married a governess, and that he eminently represented the solid virtues of the French artisan we may judge by the fact that he was “couronne” on the Fete des Epoux in 1797. All the relations at this time, one notes, were becoming artisans, craftsmen, small tradesmen—bakers, hairdressers, bootmakers, and so on. With Victor’s mother, indeed, we are not among the peasants, but among the middle class; but the stolid bourgeois virtues of these pious Breton maternal ancestors could only serve to emphasise the paternal traditions.

We see at once the primary source of that plebeian self-concealment which is so marked in Victor Hugo’s work. To call it insincerity is to misunderstand it, for so fundamental an instinct is a massive and solid quality, more allied to a virtue than a vice, and without it we should certainly have had no Victor Hugo. Whenever we look below the surface of his work or his life we come on this solid rock of ancestral peasant and bourgeois nature. When M. Claretie called on Hugo in his old age he saw Le Petit Journal lying about, and tells us that he was surprised, adding—sagaciously enough—that he could not tell why. The great poet might speak after the manner of Homer and Aeschylus for others’ pleasure; for his own pleasure he shared with the humblest of his countrymen a devotion to Le Petit Journal. In the same manner this enthusiastic patriot cautiously invested the large fortune he ultimately amassed in foreign stocks. For Victor Hugo poetry was not an everlasting self-revelation.

This descendant of cultivators and craftsmen cultivated the great craft of poetry with the same honest, stolid, fundamentally impersonal spirit in which his forefathers had followed the craft of carpentering, bootmaking, or hairdressing. Circumstances sometimes forced him to take up what on the surface seemed a revolutionary attitude, but his ideals always remained the same. Even in 1831, when still a young man, he wrote that his poems were “those of an honest, simple, serious man, who desires liberty, betterment, and progress, but at the same time with all due precautions and due moderation”; and one seems to be listening to the immortal Homais. He displayed the moderation and domesticity of the bourgeois Frenchman even in his liaisons; he was not faithful to his wife, but his devotion (which was really a marriage) to his mistress endured for half a century, though he never allowed that devotion to disturb his friendly rela-tions with his legal wife. A genuinely romantic and aristocratic figure, such a person as Villiers de l’lsle Adam, inheriting the blood and the temper of Crusaders and Templars, could never have played Victor Hugo’s part in the world of literature or have wielded his influence. For that was needed all the shrewd caution, the stolid impenetrability, of the essential peasant.

So far I have said nothing of Hugo’s father. It is obvious that when we have made clear in the poet’s character the part played by the peasant, the craftsman, the bourgeois, we have only begun the analysis of his personality; we have only set down one of its elements, fundamental as that element may be. Hugo’s father brings us to a further stage in his making. In this generation the Hugos seem to have abandoned their village associations; nearly all joined the army, and Joseph-Leopold-Sigisbert Hugo—his name alone indicates the swelling ambitions of the Hugo family, for he was the son of a simple Joseph Hugo—became a soldier at the age of fourteen, on the eve of the epoch-making year of 1789. He was sensitive to the influences of the eventful days in which his youth was passed; at one time he changed his name Leopold to Brutus. He became a lieutenant-general under Napoleon, when generals were springing up from the ranks in all directions, and having written Memoires, in which his own virtues were emphasised, not without some violence to the actual facts, he died at the age of fifty-five.

He was a good soldier, with some fine feats of arms to his credit, and fairly won his title of Comte. His life has been well written, in the light of freshly discovered documents, in Louis Barthou’s “Le General Hugo.” The poet had impudently asserted that his father was of aristocratic family and had inherited from the Middle Ages (and passed on to himself) the title of Baron. As a matter of fact, he had simply been made a Spanish Count by Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain, and he never used this foreign title officially, as it was not recognised in France; in any case it was personal and not hereditary, though his son liked to describe himself as “Vicomte” and to assume that he was of ancient lineage. If not a man of genius, Hugo’s father was clearly an exceptional man; with him the Hugo family stepped outside the narrow parochial limit of those homely vocations and virtues in which its energies had during long ages been slowly built up, and took part in the life of the world, realising the existence of ideas. Thus he leads us directly up to his famous son.

It was during the Brutus episode, when he was stationed at Nantes, that Captain Hugo met his future wife. Her name was Sophie Trebuchet, and she was the daughter of a Breton ship’s captain, who appears to have gained wealth in the slave trade, and was able to marry the daughter of an important local personage, a judge; they were Royalist people and religious, some of the feminine members of the family being Ursuline nuns. Sophie, though not religious, shared the Royalist feelings of the family, but does not seem to have regarded this as any obstacle to her marriage with “Brutus.” She is described as petite and mignonne, with hands and feet like a child’s; she had no pleasure in Nature nor any inquisitive desire for knowledge; yet was not without a certain individuality of her own, as shown not only by her freethinking tendencies, but also by the rather active part she played—on both sides, it seems—when the Terror came to Nantes. She later acquired a certain virile authority as a result of her husband’s long absences, which eventually culminated in a separation. Through her also came an element of nervous weakness which was by no means without significance. She is, again, significant from the fact of the difference of race; the more or less Germanic people of Lorraine and the more or less Celtic people of Brittany represent the two most opposed elements in the population of France. Victor Hugo’s mother brought to him the racial instincts of a poetry-loving and sea-faring people, which may well have served to give direction to the more active and fundamental elements furnished on the paternal side.

Moreover, the mere fact of marked difference of race, of a, kind of cross-breeding, is itself a source of the variational tendency, and cannot be passed over as a probable factor in the constitution of Victor Hugo’s genius.

There was, further, an absence of congeniality, as well as a difference of race. It is not quite clear why Sophie, who was two years older, was attracted to Captain Hugo, the sans-culotte Brutus, who was in social origin her inferior, and at the time living with a mistress who figured as his wife. Possibly the absence of a dowry made her more complacent. In any case, not long after the marriage, she met a man, Colonel La Hoirie, who not only was at least her social equal, but shared her Royalist sympathies, and was in every way so congenial that she became his devoted mistress, aided him, and sheltered him when necessary, until for his part in a conspiracy he was court-martialled and shot. This domestic infelicity, the frequent absences from her husband, and the final separation, had their repercussion on the child Victor, who at one time was much devoted to his mother. The life of Sophie Hugo, with the poet’s misstatements corrected, has been written by Louis Guimbaud, in “La Mere de Victor Hugo.”

Two children, both sons, were the first born of this marriage, and both were large and robust infants. Seventeen months after the birth of the second, on the 26th of February, 1802, at Besancon, was born the third child, Victor. At this time his father was twenty-nine years of age and his mother thirty-one. For some time before the birth of the child his mother, we are told, was singulierement genee. Unlike his brothers, however, he was a small, delicate, puny child, and the doctor declared that he would never live; small and ugly, his mother described him, “no longer than a knife.” This weakly tendency persisted through childhood, and was certainly an influence of the first order in turning the young Hugo’s activities into imaginative rather than active channels. He was melancholy and languid, frequently found in corners crying, for no cause in particular. At school he was the smallest child there, and special care had to be taken of him; he was under the care of the schoolmaster’s daughter, and almost his earliest recollections were of being taken in the mornings into her bedroom and placed on the bed, where he watched her put on her stockings and dress. This physical delicacy and languor was, however, only one aspect, though a significant aspect, of the silent, gentle, fragile child. On the other side he was reflective and intelligent, learning to read even before he was taught. His brain had gained through the inhibited activities of his body.

Yet it was Hugo’s good fortune not to be permanently hampered by delicate health either of mind or body. On the contrary, when his early feebleness had performed its function by leading the shy and sensitive child into the path from which henceforth he could not retreat, eventually he acquired, and retained to the end, all the coarse robust vigour of his peasant ancestors. Rodin has remarked that there was much of the Hercules about Hugo (Sainte-Beuve said Cyclops), and in every description of his physical appearance and habits the strength and vigour of his constitution and appetites are emphasised. Germain See, who examined him at the age of seventy-six, declared that he had the body and organs of a man of forty. Until his last illness, when over eighty years of age, his health was always perfect. He slept like a child; he rose at six and was able to begin work at once, and it was no fatigue to him to write standing. He “ate like an ogre,” enormously, miscellaneously, and rapidly, yet he never suffered from indigestion; his teeth could crush peach stones. His beard, said the barber, was three times tougher than anyone else’s and destroyed all the razors. His eyesight was so keen that he could recognise friends from the top of Notre Dame, and that he never required glasses even in old age. His good-humour, it need scarcely be added, was perfect, his gaiety colossal, and of Rabelaisian character. Dalou, the eminent sculptor, possessed a carefully made cast of Hugo’s face, head, and neck, taken shortly after death, which has been studied by a well-known anatomist, Papillault. Hugo was of full medium height, solid and thickset, but so far as can be judged from the measurements of the head his brain was by no means above the average in size; his face was unduly large and broad as compared to the head, and gave an impression of developed animality; there were many signs of lack of facial symmetry, and the lips and nose were thick, the eyes small. The poet was evidently conscious of the animality of his face, and in his portraits was always accustomed to bend his head forward so that the forehead caught the light and looked very large, although in reality its dimensions were by no means remarkable.

At an early age Victor Hugo began to see the world. He was scarcely six weeks old when he was taken by his parents to Corsica, Elba, and neighbouring places; a few years later he was in Rome. A more important journey, indeed one of the decisive influences of his life, took place at the age of nine, when he accompanied his mother to Bayonne (here for the first time falling in love with a girl a little older than himself), and on to Spain. He was now just old enough to obtain impressions which, while not precise or accurate, were yet strong to affect his childish imagination, and acted as a powerful ferment, developing with energy of their own and emerging later to give life to his work. Thirty years afterwards, when he saw once more the Spanish places he had known as a child, they seemed to him dull and commonplace.

Spain is not dull or commonplace even today, but Victor Hugo’s experience was none the less significant. It was no accident that Spain, rather than France or Italy, should thus have exerted a definite influence on his childish imagination and on the sha,pe and colour of his future work. Spain is the one European land in which, until yesterday, the spirit of mediaevalism still lived, in which the atmosphere of old romance might still be breathed. Whether or not—as Mabil-leau, one of his most penetrating critics, believes—Hugo had a real affinity with the Spanish temperament, it was certainly the direct influence of Spain on this sensitive, moping child which moulded the romantic and mediaeval movement in which Victor Hugo was the great protagonist.

The world of books soon began to open before the eyes of this eager receptive child. His rather Voltairian mother was not among those who think that books are dangerous, so the young Hugo was free to devour Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, “Faublas,” Restif de la Bretonne; and at the same time that irresistible pushing ambition, which in other forms had stirred in the immediately preceding generations of the Hugo family, began to make itself felt. It was characteristic that Chateaubriand, with his rhetoric, his sentiment, and his exotic colour, was young Hugo’s first idol. “I will be Chateaubriand or nothing,” he said at fourteen, and at the same time gave himself up, as far as possible, to writing prose and verse stories, translations, odes, tragedies, epistles, elegies, idylls, epigrams. An accident which confined him to bed for some time served to foster the fever of poetic production, and at fifteen he was a laureate of the Academy.

These early years, from the age of puberty, when he first began to write, to the completion of adolescence, were of immense and permanent importance in their effects on Hugo’s art. This child of a, race of peasants and craftsmen, of laborious and impersonal workers, though circumstances had led him into a totally different field, still remained a craftsman, laborious and impersonal. The whole of his early work is in substance purely conventional; it reveals no personal emotion; even in his enthusiasm for Chateaubriand he feels nothing of the breath of personal emotion in Chateaubriand; it is the exotic decor which attracts him. Young Hugo had instinctively made poetry his craft, and he treated it strictly in the spirit of the craftsman. Even when, after adolescence was over—and possibly under the stress of his mother’s death and of his love for Adele Foucher, who afterwards became his wife—his work really grew more emotional, this element always remained a little bald, a little thin. Behind the magnificent products of his poetic craft, the artist himself was content to possess a simple and modest stock of personal emotions, which the humblest of his fellow citizens could share, and to which, as in “L’Ant d’etre Grandpere,” he has sometimes given exquisite expression. In 1930 Victor Hugo was still, after Zola, according to the booksellers’ sales, the most popular author in France. Nothing, it has been said, is more fascinating to the mob than truisms uttered in the language of the gods.

We have to bear this in mind when we are tempted to charge Victor Hugo with insincerity. There have been some poets who have concentrated in their works the quintessence of their personal emotion, who have cast the most intimate experiences of their lives to be crushed as grapes in the winepress of their art. With such poets Victor Hugo had no sort of affinity. It was not merely that he was far too shrewd, at bottom far too stolidly self-possessed, to be anxious to subject himself to any such violently disintegrating process. Not only was the impulse absent, but it may be said, the necessity for it was also absent. Hugo had acquired so splendid a mastery of his craft that a very small modicum of personal emotion was amply sufficient to set the craftsman at work, and the emotion was transformed into objective art, vast and exuberant, long before it could attain—even if it had the capacity to attain—any high or specialised degree of intensity. Thus it was that while at the periphery of his immense activities he fascinated his admirers by a splendour of utterance that seemed to them to rival Homer and Aeschylus, in the centre the possessor of this ame aux mille voix was seated in Olympian calm with Le Petit Journal beside him. To describe such an attitude as insincere is to misunderstand it altogether.

On the intellectual side Hugo was equally limited and equally sincere. He accepted with great seriousness his own mission as a thinker and a moralist, and with an easy and offhand manner he flung about jargon terms from metaphysics or science and the names of remote historical personages. But at every step he plunges into absurdity, and an intelligent schoolgirl can see through his science and his erudition. Probably no poet of equal eminence has ever been so far below the higher level of his day in intellectual equipment. Renouvier, the distinguished philosopher, who was an enthusiastic admirer, at the same time devotes a chapter of his book on Victor Hugo le Poete to his “Ignorance et Absurdite.” It is to the limited character of his emotions and his small intellectual equipment—combined with immense self -confidence—that we must attribute that sentiment de faux which Renouvier, again, notes as marked in Hugo’s work. The soul at the centre of the great embodied voice is quite inadequate to the vast constructions it called into being, so that in all his work there is a certain unreality, a certain lack of correspondence to the actual facts. Yet these limitations were the necessary conditions for the attainment of the special qualities which Hugo’s work displayed in so high a degree. The primitive and myth-making character of his imagination, the tendency to regard metaphors as real, and to accept them as the basis of his mental constructions and doctrines, these tendencies, which Hugo shared with the savage, are dependent on rudimentary emotions and a high degree of ignorance regarding the precise relationship of things. Hugo’s defects were an essential element of his qualities.

Every poet must have a mind that is predominantly auditive. Hugo was certainly indifferent to music, and could not sing a single note correctly. But an ear for music and an ear for verse are two quite distinct forms of the auditory mind, and the absence of one in no degree interferes with a high development of the other. Every poet must have developed an ear, Whatever sense may come next in development. To be a poet at all argues a predominant delight in verbal melody, and this Hugo possessed in the highest degree; he was very careful of sonority and consonance, of syllabic harmonies, a master of rhythm and cadence; for notwithstanding that at certain points he broke through his rules of classic verse, he retained a horror of licence and was a strict upholder of law in verse as in grammar.

In Hugo’s case vision was unquestionably the sense that came second, so closely following his ear in importance that some have declared it must be put first. That can scarcely be confirmed, but certainly vision modified and moulded the whole of Hugo’s art. In his early formative years this vision was purely verbal and without any basis in actual observation, but during 1826 and 1827, after his tour in Switzerland, and when he had acquired the habit of going out in the evenings to study the sunset effects around Paris, the vision quality of his imagination began to become precise and self-conscious, and it developed with increasing years. It was during 1826 and 1827 that he wrote “Les Orientales,” and the idea of that volume came to him while gazing at a sunset. When later an exile in Guernsey (as I was told when there by an old inhabitant then occupying the Hugo country house), the poet would drive over the island in a pony carriage and at some attractive spot would say to his driver, “Stop now, Peter,” and begin writing.

If we examine the special qualities of Hugo’s vision we find that it is above all a sensibility to light and shade, whiteness and blackness, the opposition of sunshine and obscurity. It would seem that even the love of antithesis, which became eventually a marked and one might almost say morbid defect of his style, was really based on this sensory delight in the opposition of light and shade. There are no signs of any delicate sensibility to colour in his work. Although colour is by no means absent, it is not finely seen colour, but usually a delight in violent contrast, and really, one may say, a special case of antithetic opposition of light and shade. The extreme predominance of white and black in Hugo’s work is brought out by an analysis of his colour words. I have made such an analysis in the case of a large number of poems from “Les Orientales,” the “Feuilles d’Automne” and the “Chants du Crepuscule.” In the order of decreasing frequency the chief colour words are found to be white (including “argent”) and black, both equally frequent to within one unit; then follow red (including a considerable variety of words), golden (and yellow), blue (and azure), green, finally at some distance purple, and lastly grey. So numerous are those colour words which really indicate the simple opposition of light and shade, that if we separate out the white, black and golden groups we find that they considerably outnumber all the other colour words taken together. Such a result throws a significant light on Hugo’s psychology, and is absolutely different from that which we obtain when examining the work of the French poets who have followed Hugo. In Baudelaire, indeed, there is the same abnormal predominance of black, but in his case it is an index of temperament and less a seen black than a felt darkness, nor is it accompanied by any antithetic whiteness; while in Verlaine, the poet of nuance, both blackness and whiteness sink into the background and grey becomes predominant.

Hugo’s tendency always to visualise his imagery precisely is easy to trace through his work. As one of his critics has pointed out, even sounds are sometimes in his hands described in terms of vision. The intense reality of vision, of the image, of the metaphor, lay at the foundation of all his mental constructions. For Hugo, as for the savage, the image evoked the idea, and was regarded as a sufficiently adequate cause of the idea. That, indeed, is the source of the primitive power and charm of Hugo’s work. But it could only have arisen in a mind that was at once very acutely affected by vision and very deficient in the reserve of intellectual ideas which in the ordinary educated civilised man controls and modifies the impressions furnished by sight.

An indication of Hugo’s tendency to regard the world as a vision is seen in his spontaneous and late-evolved love of sketching, which we may study in the fascinating and instructive Victor Hugo Museum in the Place des Vosges. Those amateurish drawings which he loved to execute— mostly fantastic old-world dreams of architecture—clearly illustrate his delight in white and black, in light and shade, and may well be described by two of the favourite adjectives which he often abused, “sombre” and “mysterieux.” Even more significantly, perhaps, we find his visual sense illustrated by his handwriting. Nearly all his manuscripts are in the Bibliotheque Nationale, and they have been carefully studied by Paul and Victor Glachant. At first his handwriting was slight and small, seeming to betray a sort of physical timidity, but during the course of his career it swells and rises, becomes almost hieratic; to a writer of the first order, he seems to say to himself, must belong writing of the first order, and to do justice to this writing he latterly always used thick blue paper of vast folio form.

This gradual expansion of Hugo’s handwriting is significant, not only of the gradual expansion of his own self-conscious personality, but, one may indeed say, of the whole history of the Hugo family. Beginning very humbly as peasant cultivators of the soil, the Hugos went on rising and swelling in their upward ambition through three generations to reach the inevitable goal of insanity. We seem to trace already a faint indication of coming mental disequilibrium in the pompous baptismal name of Hugo’s father (such names, it is well recognised, being very significant of a tendency to mental unbalance), and the career of “Brutus” Hugo himself also shows such traces. Actual insanity seems first to appear, however, in Victor Hugo’s own generation; his elder brother, Eugene (the brother nearest in age to himself) , who was warmly attached to him, sharing all his tastes but not his genius, went mad on the very day of Victor’s wedding, and remained in an asylum until his death some years later. Victor Hugo’s own daughter, Adele, was ultimately consigned to an asylum, and others of his children showed signs of mental anomaly. Victor Hugo himself remained unquestionably sane. But he showed a degree of megalomania going far beyond the bounds of vanity. There was no claim for himself that he was not willing to make or to allow others to make. He regarded himself as the real successor of Napoleon (Did he know that his early idol Chateaubriand had also regarded his own career as parallel to Napoleon’s?) and, coming to believe in metempsychosis, he held that in previous incarnations he had been numerous heroes of mankind. Details of Victor Hugo’s arrogant megalomania are given by Cabanes in an essay on “Victor Hugo Megalomane et Spirite,” in “Grands Nevropathes.” He seems to have found a safe anchorage, partly in the immense and acquired pride of his own apostolic mission, and partly in the congenital inheritance of peasant stolidity which was so liberally bestowed on him. He was completely unable to tolerate or to comprehend any rival figure greater than himself. Sir Sidney Colvin tells that once in Hugo’s presence the conversation turned on Goethe. Hugo rose from his seat, placed his hand on his heart, and said: “For my part, I look upon Goethe as Joan of Arc would have looked on Messalina.” His pride was indeed abnormal and almost morbid. It forced him to be at every moment, as he himself put it, “a torch” to humanity, to deny himself the pleasures of friendship, since friendship could only be between equals, to become impervious to ridicule, to develop into a great master of reclame. But at the same time, it may well be, this pride served to give him serenity and equipoise, to balance the tendencies of his poetic temperament and so to guard him from that fate to which his brother succumbed. A curious proof of the beneficial effect which his pride had is still extant. Like many others who live on the borderland of the abnormal, Hugo could write verse automatically, as he discovered at the age of fifty, by means of a spirit-rapping table. To some unbalanced persons this discovery would have been fatal; not so to Hugo; he never even published any of these verses, partly, as he said, out of respect for the mystery —for he took the phenomenon very seriously, being always credulous where the supernatural was concerned—but partly, as he added, out of respect for his own inspiration. Not only by his pride was he safeguarded, but also, it must be repeated, by that large share of peasant and bourgeois temperament which on both sides he had inherited in such peculiarly large measure. He was always, one might almost say by hereditary instinct, a great craftsman rather than a great artist. “If we take a higher idea of the artist and his art,” remarked Hugo’s enthusiastic admirer, Renouvier, “than that which attaches to skill of execution, we must say that Victor Hugo is not a pure artist.” The philosopher’s observation is true and subtle. We have but to think of the English lyric poet who was drowned in the Mediterranean within a few days of the publication of the “Odes et Ballades” to realise the difference between the artist whose whole personality was fused into his work and the craftsman who, indeed, developed his craft on a scale of magnificence never before achieved in poetry, but yet remained a craftsman, strictly outside the high-strung rhetoric he produced, finding his own personal comfort and support in Le Petit Journal. Sainte-Beuve, the great critic who was Hugo’s contemporary and friend, accepted in public the public estimate of Hugo whom at the outset he genuinely admired. But he wrote at last in his private “Cahiers”: “Is Hugo of the true great family of poets? Yes, and no.” And an even more penetrating critic than Sainte-Beuve, Baudelaire, remarks in a letter that Victor Hugo is a proof that a man may possess a special genius and yet be a fool.

At the outset I alluded to Napoleon. When we survey the career of Victor Hugo and the various factors which, as we have seen, went to the constitution of his genius, it is difficult not to be reminded (as he was himself) of Napoleon’s career and genius. Both were great conquerors in the fields they had chosen for the display of their energies, both made a great stir in the world, and both, having left their own mark on it, saw their direct influence speedily swept away by their successors. They were alike in being men who fought their own way unaided; they were alike in their pride and ambition, the overweening sense of their own mission; they were both great forces rather than lovable personalities; they both lived on the verge of insanity, and perhaps both were saved from falling over by that element of commonplace vulgarity which both alike possessed.

An examination of Victor Hugo, such as that here attempted, thus reveals an underlying affinity between the two greatest craftsmen, the two supreme figures, of modern France. But when we think of the supreme figures of European literature, as of Dante and Shakespeare and Goethe, we are left with a profound dissatisfaction. We can sympathise with the sentiment of Andre Gide, who is above all a penetrating critic. When asked who is the greatest French poet, it is reported, he replied: “Victor Hugo—malheu-reusment”


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