Victor Hugo

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Date: May 30, 1885
From: The Saturday Review(Vol. 59, Issue 1544)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,179 words

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No recent illness of any Frenchman has excited anything like the feeling which [Hugo's fatal illness] has called forth, and all parties have united in a manner, unfortunately less common in France than elsewhere, to mourn the greatest of living Frenchmen, the last very great man whom France has to boast....

What we have to do here is to estimate briefly, but as sufficiently as possible, the literary value of a career not often paralleled as regards acknowledged literary supremacy and mixture of literary with practical influence. (p. 708)

No one that we ever heard of in France or England, except Mr. Swinburne, took Victor Hugo very seriously as a politician; no one could be perverted or even scandalized by his peculiar form of theistic free thought in religion, except very feeble persons; no one, except persons still feebler, was likely to go to him as an authority on fact, an arbiter of criticism, or a witness to be taken unreservedly on points of private likes and dislikes. He was a poet, and nothing but a poet, whether he wrote verse or prose.

It is much more the proper appreciation of his poetical merits than the proper discarding or minimizing of his defects which ought to be urged on English readers. Victor Hugo's prose was remarkable, his drama more remarkable, his poetry proper most remarkable of all. But it is very much to be doubted whether the average English reader has ever appreciated the point of view from which these three great bodies of literature, in an ascending order, challenge and deserve the admiration of critics. It is even to be doubted whether in these days of glib talking about literature, and French literature especially, many critics even are quite in case to appreciate.... The Alexandrine of Victor Hugo is not more beautiful than his lyrical measures; but it is probably safe to say that no one who does not appreciate it can appreciate them. What Victor Hugo did before all as a poet (putting aside for the moment his innovation of subjects, stage arrangements, and the like) was to rediscover the secret of crashing sound in French verse. Since the death of Corneille French poetry had rippled; Victor Hugo taught it once more the movement and the music of the wave. In his lyrical pieces, the limitation which even he was not able quite to destroy of French metre to the iambus made his earlier verse to some uninstructed ears perhaps approach the verse of Lamartine or of Chénier. Only a complete ignorance of the very rudiments of the matter could confuse his Alexandrines with theirs or with any Alexandrines of any poet from Racine downwards. Victor Hugo is not to be scanned by couplets; he is to be scanned by verse paragraphs or tirades of irregular length, where the rhymes simply mark the breaking of each wave, each successive wave, till the paragraph finishes with the fluctus decumanus. Until some little initiation in this has been gone through, the admiration of even reasonable Hugolâtres for Hugo must always seem a mystery and an affectation. The Englishman who founds his knowledge of French on a few yellow novels, a translation or two, some second-hand stories about Gautier's waistcoat and Cyrano de Bergerac's nose, the faculty of wading through a column of faits divers and nouvelles à la main without always missing the point, and perhaps a little more of the same kind, will never understand Hugo all his life long.... We forget who it was who first spoke of the ivresse de Victor Hugo [the critic perhaps refers to the excerpt above by George Saintsbury], but no other phrase properly expresses the effect of his work when it is once comprehended, and, unlike most intoxications, it does not bring about any subsequent disgust.

It is, no doubt, a result of the peculiarities which bring about this strange and unique effect (for no other writer that we can think of produces exactly or nearly the same complete forgetfulness of anything but the music and the swing of the verse, the rush and sweep of the language) that Victor Hugo has, independently of the personal faults and the faults of matter alluded to and dismissed above, some purely literary weaknesses which mar his work. No prose book of his, with the possible exception of the Travailleurs de la mer, can be said to have the solid plan and the complete working out necessary to perfect prose. They are rhapsodies like, in different ways, Han d'Islande and William Shakespeare, chronicles like Notre Dame de Paris, congeries of beauties and defects like nearly all the later novels. In the same way his warmest admirers admit that his plays show a singular inability or unwillingness on the part of so fertile and poetical a genius to submit to the not very difficult or recondite laws of dramatic presentation, a constant contempt of the simplest arts of the playwright, an invincible confusion of the epic and the drama, the poem and the play. Even his poems proper do not escape a just as well as an unjust censure. The common cant that the later volumes are unfit to rank with the earlier is foolish enough, for as a matter of fact much of the matter of the later dates from the time of the earlier, the earlier themselves contain much inequality, and nothing that the author has ever written excels the finest part of Les quatre vents de l'esprit and some of the other recent issues. But it has never been Victor Hugo's strong point to introduce the law of measure into his work; to be conscious of what there is not to say, to practise economy and reserve. His poetical quality is of quite another sort, and the wise go and will go to him for it, just as they go to the other great poets each for his own secret. That he is, on the whole, the greatest poet of France we make no doubt whatever. That he is, also, among the great poets of the world, we hesitate no more to pronounce. And the denial of such a place to him can only come from the old and undying blunder of asking from a man something which is not his to give, but some one else's. It is Victor Hugo's function to transport—at one time by pathos, at another by terròr, at a third by mere splendour and glory of verse and of language which excites no ideas and appeals to no feelings but simple and unmixed admiration. The man who compares him with Shakspeare is absurd, for to the two great qualities of universality and unerringness which distinguished Shakspeare he has less claim than many smaller men. It is scarcely less absurd to compare him with others. But Victor Hugo is Victor Hugo (the formula, if not the application, comes from no mean critic), and whoso cannot taste Victor Hugo is shut out from one of the fullest and most intense of literary pleasures. (pp. 708-09)

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420014872