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His Critics.

To many Hugo was of the race of AEschylus and Shakespeare, a world-poet in the sense that Dante was, an artist supreme alike in genius and in accomplishment. To others he was but a great master of words and cadences, with a gift of lyric utterance and inspiration rarely surpassed but with a personality so vigorous and excessive as to reduce its literary expression in epic, drama, fiction, satire and ode and song to the level of work essentially subjective, in sentiment as in form, in intention as in effect. The debate is one in which the only possible arbiter is Time; and to Time the final judgment may be committed. What is certain is that there is one point on which both dissidents and devout the heretics who deny with Matthew Arnold and the orthodox who worship with Mr. Swinburne and M. de Banville are absolutely agreed. Plainly Hugo was the greatest man of letters of his day. It has been given to few or none to live a life so full of effort and achievement, so rich in honour and success and fame. Born almost with the century, he was a writer at fifteen, and at his death he was writing still; so that the record of his career embraces a period of more than sixty years. There is hardly a department of art to a foremost place in which he did not prove his right. From first to last; from the time of Chateaubriand to the time of Zola, he was a leader of men; and with his departure from the scene the undivided sovereignty of literature became a thing of the past like Alexander’s empire.

Some Causes and Effects.

In 1826, in a second set of Odes et Ballades, he announced his vocation in unmistakeable terms. He was a lyric poet and the captain of a new emprise. His genius was too large and energetic to move at ease in the narrow garment prescribed as the poet’s wear by the dullards and the pedants who had followed Boileau. He began to repeat the rhythms of Ronsard and the Pleiad; to deal in the richest rhymes and in words and verses tricked with new-spangled ore; to be curious in cadences, careless of stereotyped rules, prodigal of invention and experiment, defiant of much long recognised as good sense, contemptuous of much till then applauded as good taste. In a word, he was the Hugo of the hundred volumes we know: an artist, that is, endowed with a technical imagination of the highest quality, the very genius of style, and a sense of the plastic quality of words unequalled, perhaps, since Milton. The time was ripe for him: within France and without it was big with revolution. In verse there were the examples of Andre Chenier and Lamartine; in prose the work of Rousseau and Diderot, of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and Chateaubriand; in war and politics the tremendous tradition of Napoleon. Goethe and Schiller had recreated romance and established the foundations of a new palace of art; their theory and practice had been popularised in the novels of Walter Scott; and in the life and work of Byron the race had such an example of revolt, such an incitement to liberty and change, such a passionate and persuasive argument against authority and convention, as had never before been felt in art. Hugo like all great artists was essentially a child of his age: ’Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.’ In 1827 he published his Cromwell, and came forth as a rebel confessed and unashamed. It is an unapproachable production, tedious in the closet, impossible upon the stage; and to compare it to such work as that which at some and twenty Keats had given to the world Hyperion, for instance, or the Eve of St. Agnes is to glory in the name of Briton. But it had its value then, and as an historical document it has its value now. The preface was at once a profession of faith and a proclamation of war. It is crude, it is limited, it is mistaken, in places it is even absurd. But from the moment of its appearance the old order was practically closed. It prepared the way for Albertus and for Antony, for Rolla and the Tour de Nesle; and it was also the ‘fiat lux’ in deference to which the world has accepted with more or less of resignation the partial eclipse of art and morals effected in Salammbo and l’Education sentimentale and the Egyptian darkness achieved in work like la Terre and une Vie and les Blasphemes. In its ringing periods, its plangent antithèses and aesthetic epigrams, it preluded and vindicated the excesses of whatsoever manifestations of romanticism mankind and the arts have since been called upon to consider and endure: from the humours of Petrus Borel to the experiments of Claude Monet and the ‘discoveries’ of Richard Wagner.


It is too often forgotten that from the first Hugo was associated with men of pretensions and capacities not greatly inferior to his own, and that in no direction was victory the work of his single arm. In painting the initiative had been taken years before the publication of the Cromwell manifesto by Gericault with the famous Radeau de la Méduse, and by Delacroix with the Dante et Virgile (1822) and the Massacre de Scio (1823). In music Berlioz, at this time a student in the Conservatoire, was fighting hard against Cherubini and the bewigged ones for liberty of expression and leave to admire and imitate the audacities of Weber and Beethoven, and three years hence, in the year of Hernani, was to set his mark upon the art with the Symphonie fantastique. On the stage as early as 1824 Frederick and Firmin had realised in the personages of Macaire and Bertrand the grotesque ideal, the combination of humour and terror, of which the character of Cromwell was put forward as the earliest expression, and had realised it so completely that their work has taken rank with the greater and the more lasting results of the movement. In the literature of drama the old order was ruined and the victory won on all essential points not in 1830 with Hernani but in 1829 with Henri Trois et sa Cour, the first of the innumerable successes of Alexandre Dumas, who determined at a single stroke the fundamental qualities of structure and form and material, and left his chief no question to solve save that of diction and style. Musset’s earlier poems date from 1828, the year of les Orientales, Gautier’s from 1830; and these are also the dates of Balzac’s Chouans and la Peau de Chagrin. Moreover, among the intimates of the young leader were men like Sainte-Beuve, who was two years his junior, and the brothers Deschamps: whose influence was doubtless exerted more frequently to encourage than to repress. Towards the end we lost sight of all this, and saw in Victor Hugo not so much the most glorious survival of romanticism as romanticism itself, the movement in flesh and blood, the revolution in general ‘summed up and closed’ in a single figure. This agreeable view of things was Hugo’s own. From the beginning he took himself with perfect seriousness, and his followers, however enthusiastic in admiration, had excellent warrant from above. ‘Il trone trop,’ says Berlioz of him somewhere; and M. Maxime du Camp has given an edifying account of the means he was wont to use to make himself beloved and honoured by the youth who came to him for counsel and encouragement. How perfectly he succeeded in this the political part of his function is matter of history. Gautier’s first visit to him was that of a devotee to his divinity; and years afterwards the good poet confessed that not even in pitch darkness and in a cellar fathoms under ground should he dare to whisper to himself that a verse of the Master’s was bad. So far as devotion went there were innumerable Gautiers. Sainte-Beuve was not long a pillar of orthodoxy; Dumas was always conscious of his own pre-eminence in certain qualities, and made light of Hugo’s dramas as candidly as he made much of the style in which they are written; and when some creature of unwisdom saluted Delacroix as ‘the Hugo of painting,’ the artist of the Marino Faliero and the Barque de Don Juan resented the compliment with bitterness. But these were exceptions. The youth of 1830 were Hugolaters almost to a man.

Equipment and Achievement.

Their enthusiasm was not all irrational. Hugo’s supremacy was not that he was the greatest artist in essentials, for here Dumas was immeasurably his superior. It was not that he knew best the heart of man, or had apprehended most thoroughly the conditions of life; for Balzac so far surpassed him in these sciences that comparison was impossible. It was not that he sang the truest song or uttered the deepest word, for Musset is the poet of Rolla and the Nuits in verse and the poet of Fantasio and Lorenzaccio and Carmosine in prose. But the epoch Hugo represented was interested in the manner rather than the substance of things: the revolution at whose front he had been set and whose most shining figure he became was largely a revolution of externals. With an immense amount of enthusiasm there was, as Sainte-Beuve confessed, an incredible amount of ignorance so that Cromwell was supposed to be historical; and with a passionate delight in form there co-existed a strangely imperfect understanding of material so that Hernani was supposed to be Shakespearean. To this ignorance and to this imperfect understanding Hugo owed a certain part of his authority; the other and greater he got from his unrivalled mastery of style, from his extraordinary skill as an artist in words. To the opposing faction his innovations were horrible: his verse was poison, his example an outrage, his prosody a violation of all laws, his rhymes and tropes and metaphors so many offences against Heaven and the Muse. But to the ardent youngsters who fought beneath his banner it was his to give a something priceless and unique a something glorious to France and never before exampled in her literature. For the distichs of Boileau ’strong, heavy, useful, like pairs of tongs,’ he found them alexandrines with the leap and sparkle of sea waves and the sound of clashing swords and the colours of sunset and the dawn. They were tired of whitewash and cold distemper; and he gave them hangings of brocade and tapestries of price and tissues stiff with gold and glowing with new dyes. He flung them handfuls of jewels where his rivals scattered handfuls of marbles. And they paid him for his gifts with an intemperance of worship, a fury of belief, a rapture of admiration, such as no other man has known. The substance was striking, was peculiar, was novel and full of charm; but the manner was all this and something besides was magnificent, was intoxicating, was irresistible; and Victor Hugo by virtue of it became the foremost man of literary France. The great battle of Hernani was merely a battle of style. From Dumas the artist of Henri Trois and Antony, the language of Boileau was safe enough; and his triumph, all-important and significant as it was, seemed neither fatal nor abominable. It was another matter with Hernani. Its success meant ruin for the Academy and destruction for the idiom of Delille and M. de Jouy; and the classicists mustered in force, and did their utmost to stay the coming wrath and arrest the impending doom. They failed of course; for they fought with a vague yet limited apprehension of the question at issue, they had nothing to give in place of the thing they hated. And Victor Hugo was made captain of the victorious host, while the men who might have been in a certain sort his rivals took service as lieutenants, and accepted his ensign for their own.

His Diary.

All his life long he was addicted to attitude; all his life long he was a poseur of the purest water. He seems to have considered the affectation of superiority an essential quality in art; for just as the cock in Mrs. Poyser’s apothegm believed that the sun got up to hear him crow, so to the poet of the Légende and the Contemplations it must have seemed as if the human race existed but to consider the use he made of his ‘oracular tongue.’ How tremendous his utterances sometimes were informed with what majesty yet with what brilliance is one of the things that every schoolboy knows. One no more needs to insist upon the merits of his best manner than to emphasise the faults of his worst. At his best as at his worst, however, he was always an artist in his way. His speech was nothing if not artificial in the good sense of the word sometimes and sometimes in the bad. Simplicity (it seemed) was impossible to him. In the quest of expression, the cult of antithesis, the pursuit of effect, he sacrificed directness and plainness with not less consistency than complacency. In that tissue of ’apocalyptic epigram’ which to him was style there was no room for truth and soberness. His Patmos was a place of mirrors, and before them he draped himself in his phrases like Frederick in the mantle of Ruy Blas. That this grandiosity was unnatural and unreal was proved by the publication of Choses Vues. When Hugo wrote for himself he wrote almost as simply and straightforwardly as Dumas. The effect is disconcerting. You rub your eyes in amazement. It is evidently Hugo. But Hugo plain, sober, direct? Hugo without rhetoric? Hugo declining antithesis and content to be no gaudier than his neighbours? Hugo expressing himself in the fearless old fashion of pre-romantic ages? A page of commonplace from Mr. Meredith, a book for boarding-schools by M. Zola, were not more startling.

For and Against.

Some primary qualities of his genius are pretty evenly balanced by some primary faults. Thus, for breadth and brilliance of conception, for energy and sweep of imagination, for the power of dealing as a master with the greater forces of nature, he is unsurpassed among modern men. But the conception is too often found to be empty as well as spacious; the imagination is too often tainted with insincerity; in his dramas of the elements there are too many such falsehoods as abound in his dramas of the emotions. Again, he is sometimes grand and often grandiose; but he has a trick of affecting the grandiose and the grand which is constant and intolerable. He had the genius of style in such fulness as entitles him to rank with the great artists in words of all time. His sense of verbal colour and verbal music is beyond criticism; his rhythmical capacity is something prodigious. He so revived and renewed the language of France that in his hands it became an instrument not unworthy to compete with Shakespeare’s English and the German of Goethe and Heine; and in the structure and capacity of all manner of French metrical forms he effected such a change that he may fairly be said to have received the orchestra of Rameau from his predecessors and to have bequeathed his heirs the orchestra of Berlioz. On the other hand; in much of his later work his mannerisms in prose and in verse are discomfortably glaring; the outcome of his unsurpassable literary faculty is often no more than a parade or triumph of the vocables; there were times when his brain appears to have become a mere machine for the production of antithèses and sterile conceits. What is perhaps more damning than all, his work is saturate in his own remarkable personality, and is objective only here and there. His dramas are but five-act lyrics, his epics the romance of an egoist, his history is confession, his criticism the opinions of Victor Hugo. Even his lyrics, the ‘fine flower’ of his genius, the loveliest expression of the language, have not escaped reproach as a ‘Psalter of Subjectivity.’ Even his essays in prose romance a form of art on which he has stamped his image and superscription in a manner all his own, the work by which he is best known to humanity at large are vitiated by the same defect. For one that believes in Bishop Myriel as Bishop Myriel there are a hundred who see in him only a pose of Victor Hugo; it is the same with Ursel and Javert, with Cimourdain and Lantenac and Josiane; the very pieuvre of les Travailleurs is a Hugolater at heart. It is a proof of his commanding personality, that in spite of these objections he held in enchantment the hearts and minds of men for over sixty years. He is almost a literature in himself; and if it be true that his work is as wholly lacking in the radiant sanity of Shakespeare’s as it is in the exquisite good sense of Voltaire’s, it is also true that he left the world far richer than he found it.

What Lives of Him.

To select an anthology from his work were surely the pleasantest of tasks. One richer in grace and passion and sweetness might he chosen out of Musset; one wrought more truly of the finer stuff of humanity as well as more bountifully touched with tact and dignity and temper from the work of Tennyson. But the Hugo selection would combine the rarest technical merits with a set of interests all its own. It would give, for instance, the Stella of the Châtiments and the Pauvres Gens of the Légende. On one page would be found that admirable Souvenir de la Nuit du Quatre, which is at once the impeachment and the condemnation of the Coup d’Etat; and on another the little epic of Eviradnus, with its immortal serenade, a culmination of youth and romance and love:

’Si tu veux, faisons un rêve.
Montóns sur deux palefrois.
Tu m’emmenes, je t’enleve.
L’oiseau chante dans les bois.

. . . . .

Allons-nous-en par l’Autriche!
Nous aurons l’aube a nos fronts.
Je serai grand et toi riche,
Puisque nous nous aimerons.

. . . . .

Tu serás dame et moi comte.
Viens, mon oeeur s’épanouit.
Viens, nous conterons ce conte
Aux étoiles de la nuit.’

Here, a summary of all the interests of romanticism, would be the complaint of Gastibelza:

’Un jour d’ete, où tout était lumiere,
Vie et douceur,
Elle s’en vint jouer dans la rivière
Avec sa soeur.
Je vis lé pied de sa jeune compagne
Et son genou . . .
Le vent qui vient a travers la montagne
Me rendra fou!’

here the adorable Vieille Chanson du Jeune Temps:

’Rose, droite sur ses hanches,
Leva son beau bras tremblant
Pour prendre une mure aux branches:
Je ne vis pas son bras blanc.

Une eau courait, fraîche et creuse,
Sur les mousses de velours;
Et la nature amoureuse
Dormait dans les grands bois sourds.’

and here, not unworthy to be remembered with Proud Maisie, that wonderful harmony of legend and superstition and the facts and dreams of common life, the death-song of Fantine:

’Nous acheterons de bien belles choses,
En nous promenant lé long de faubourgs.

La Vierge-Marie auprès de mon poêle
Est venue hier, en manteau brode,
Et m’a dit: Voici, cache sous mon voile,
Le petit qu’un jour tu m’as demande.
Courez a la ville; ayez de la toile,
Achetez du fil, achetez un de.

Les bluets sont bleus, les roses sont roses,
Les bluets sont bleus, j’aime mes amours.’

And from this masterpiece of simple and direct emotion, which to me has always seemed the high-water mark of Hugo’s lyrical achievement as well as the most human of his utterances, one might pass on to masterpieces of another inspiration: to the luxurious and charming graces of Sara la Baigneuse; to the superb crescendo and diminuendo of les Djinns; to ‘Si vous n’avez rien a me dire,’ that daintiest of songlets; to the ringing rhymes and gallant spirit of the Pas d’Armes du Roi Jean:

’Sus, ma bête,
De façon
Que je fête
Ce grison!
Je te baille
Pour ripaille
Plus de paille,
Plus de son,

Qu’un gros frère,
Gai, friand,
Ne peut faire,
Par les places
Ou tu passes,
De grimaces
En priant!’

to the melodious tenderness of ‘Si tu voulais, Madelaine’; to the gay music of the Stances a Jeanne:

’Je ne me mets pas en peine
Du clocher ni du beffroi.
Je ne saïs rien de la reine,
Et je ne saïs rien du roi.’

to the admirable song of the wind of the sea:

’Quels sont les bruits sourds?
Ecoutez vers l’ondé
Cette voix profonde
Qui pleure toujours,
Et qui toujours gronde,

Quoiqu’un son plus claire
Parfois l’interrompe . . .
Le vent de la mer
Souffle dans sa trompe.’

to the Romance Mauresque, to the barbaric fury of les Reîtres, to the magnificent rodomontade of the Romancero du Cid. ’J’en passe, et des meilleurs,’ as Ruy Gomez observes of his ancestors. Here at any rate are jewels enough to furnish forth a casket that should be one of the richest of its kind! The worst is, they are most of them not necessaries but luxuries. It is impossible to conceive of life without Shakespeare and Burns, without Paradise Lost and the Intimations ode and the immortal pageant of the Canterbury Tales; but (the technical question apart) to imagine it wanting Hugo’s lyrics is easy enough. The largesse of which he was so prodigal has but an arbitrary and conventional value. Like the magician’s money much has changed, almost in the act of distribution, into withered leaves; and such of it as seems minted of good metal is not for general circulation.