The French author Victor Marie, Vicomte Hugo (1802-1885), was the supreme poet of French romanticism. He is noted for the breadth of his creation, the versatility that made him as much at ease in the novel as in the short lyric, and the mystical grandeur of his vision.
Victor Hugo had a nomadic and anxious childhood. He was erratically schooled, a fact which accounts in part for the eclectic and unsystematic aspect of his poetic thought. At age 14 he wrote, "I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing." He had begun to write in every poetic genre—odes, satires, elegies, riddles, epics, madrigals—and to receive recognition while still in his adolescence, never having to fact the long years of obscurity and struggle that are the lot of most poets.
In 1822 Hugo married his childhood sweetheart, Adèle Foucher, one and a half years after the death of his mother, who opposed the match. They later had four children, and their apartment, on the rue Cherche-midi in Paris, became the meeting place for the avant-garde of the romantic movement. In 1822 Hugo also published his first signed book, Odes et poésies diverses. In the preface to this book, which contains many poems celebrating his love for Adèle, the poet wrote, "Poetry is the most intimate of all things."
Hugo's work may be roughly divided into three periods. First in time is the intimate lyrical vein typical of the odes. Second is an involved or committed poetry speaking directly to political and social conditions. The epic novel Les Misérables, for example, fits into this group. (But this vein is also present in the very first volume, where a number of poems praise the throne and the altar; Hugo, who was to end as a staunch republican, began as a royalist.) In the last phase of his career Hugo rose to the heights of mysticism and poetic vision, as in La Fin de Satan.
Development of Romanticism
In 1824 some of Hugo's friends founded a review called Muse française which claimed as its contributors Alfred de Musset, Charles Nodier, and Hugo himself. All were young writers who were beginning to break with neoclassicism. After his visit to Alphonse de Lamartine and his discovery of German balladry, in 1826 Hugo published Odes et ballades, in which his rejection of neoclassicism became increasingly clear.
The years 1826 and 1827 were triumphant ones for the Cénacle, the name given to the young romantics who recognized Hugo as their chief and called him the "prince of poets." What Lamartine and the Vicomte de Chateaubriand had begun, Hugo was dedicated to complete. He ceased writing complimentary odes to King Charles X and began praising Napoleon I instead. With critics like Nodier and Charles Sainte-Beuve to advise him and with the support of geniuses such as the painter Eugène Delacroix and the poets Musset and Gerard de Nerval, Hugo formulated the doctrine of romanticism. This doctrine was expressed in the preface to his unproduced play, Cromwell, published in October 1827. Where classics and neoclassics had repudiated the Middle Ages as "barbaric," Hugo saw richness and beauty in this period, and he called for a new poetry inspired by medieval Christianity. He vindicated the ugly and grotesque as elements of the "new beauty." Poetry, he said, should do as nature does, "mixing in its creations yet without confusion shadow with light, the grotesque with the sublime, in other words, the body with the soul, the bestial with the spiritual." The vivifying sources of this new literature were to be the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare.
Convinced that the new vision must prove itself in the theater, Hugo followed Cromwell with a number of other plays. On Feb. 25, 1830, the famous "battle of Hernani" took place, with Hugo's supporters outshouting the neoclassicists and antiromantics who had come to hiss the play. Hernani was performed 45 times (an unusual success for those days) and brought Hugo the friendship of such notable figures as Dumas père and George Sand.
But Hugo did not confine himself to the drama. In 1831 he published his magnificent novel Notre Dame de Paris, the work for which he is best known in the United States. He was originally inspired by Sir Walter Scott, on whom he hoped to improve by adding "sentiment" and "poetry" to the historical novel. In addition, he wished to convey the true spirit of the late Middle Ages through his evocation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame and his characters: Frollo the archdeacon, Quasimodo the hunchback, and Esmeralda the gypsy girl. Hugo wrote the novel nonstop during the fall and early winter of 1830 in order to meet his publisher's deadline. Although some readers were shocked that Frollo (who had taken holy orders) should fall in love with Esmeralda, the tale was an immense success. Théophile Gautier compared it to Homer's Iliad.
Also in 1831 Hugo published one of his most beautiful collections of poetry, Les Feuilles d'automne. Once again, Hugo wrote in the intimate vein: "Poetry speaks to man, to man as a whole…. Revolution changes all things, except the human heart." This volume expressed the sadness of things past as the poet approached his significant thirtieth birthday. The tone was personal and elegiac, sometimes sentimental.
It was not merely the passage of time that accounted for Hugo's melancholy. His wife, tired of bearing children and frustrated by the poet's immense egoism (Ego Hugo was his motto), turned for consolation to the poet's intimate friend, the waspish critic Sainte-Beuve. The sadness of this double betrayal is felt in Feuilles d'automne.
Tormented by his wife's coldness and his own inordinate sexual cravings, Hugo fell in love with the young actress and courtesan Juliette Drouet and took it upon himself to "redeem" her. He paid her debts and forced her to live in poverty, with her whole being focused entirely upon him. For the next 50 years Juliette followed the poet wherever he went. She lived in his shadow, unable to take a step without his permission, confined to a room here, a mere hovel there, but always near the magnificent houses where Hugo settled with his family. She lived henceforth solely for the poet and spent her time writing him letters, of which many thousands are extant.
With the advent of the July Monarchy, which ended the Bourbon succession and brought Louis Philippe of the house of Orléans to power, Hugo achieved wealth and recognition, and for 15 years he was the official poet of France. During this period a host of new works appeared in rapid sequence, including three plays: Le Roi s'amuse (1832), Lucrézia Borgia (1833), and the triumph Ruy Blas (1838).
In 1835 came Chants du crépuscule, which included many love lyrics to Juliette, and in 1837 Les Voix intérieures, an offering to the memory of his father, who had been a Napoleonic general. Les Rayons et les ombres (1840) showed the same variety of inspiration, the same sonorous harmony, the same brilliance of contrasting images. His devotion to Juliette here found its deepest poetic expression in the beautiful poem entitled Tristesse d'Olympio, which directly rivals Lamartine's Le Lac and Alfred de Vigny's Maison du berger. Like these famous poets, Hugo evoked the past, searching for permanence of love; but unlike the pantheistic Lamartine or the skeptical Vigny, Hugo found permanence in memory.
Hugo published no more lyric poetry until 1853. He was now seized with a new ambition: he wished to become a statesman. At first a royalist, then a moderate, Hugo moved steadily toward liberalism. After the July Revolution he wrote in a more stirring vein than he ever had before: "I hate oppression with a profound hatred…. I curse those kings who ride in blood up to the bridle!" Hugo claimed that he had a "crystal soul" that reflected the same evolution as that the French people had gone through: from royalism to opposition to royalism, from the cult of Bonaparte to republicanism.
When Louis Philippe was deposed in the Revolution of 1848, Hugo at first found it hard to identify himself with the provisional government of Lamartine, for he still believed that a constitutional monarchy was the best form of government for France. Nevertheless, he allowed himself to be elected a deputy to the Assembly.
When Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the great man Hugo had always idolized, began to achieve notoriety, Hugo supported him. But his enthusiasm for the new president was short-lived. He wrote: "Upon the barricades I defended order. Before dictatorship I defended liberty." He made a stirring plea for freedom of the press and clemency to the rebel elements; at last, in 1849, he broke with Napoleon III with the words, "Because we have had a Great Napoleon must we now have a Little one?"
Louis Napoleon seized power by a coup d'etat on the night of Dec. 2, 1850, and proclaimed himself emperor. Hugo called for armed resistance and, witnessing the ensuing slaughter, Hugo believed the "Little Napoleon" to be a murderer. At great peril to her own life, Juliette saved the poet, found him shelter, and organized his escape to Brussels. From there he went to the British Channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey.
In November 1853 Hugo's fiercely anti-Napoleonic verse volume, Les Châtiments, was published in Belgium. Two different editions—one published under a false name with rows of dots in place of the individuals attacked, and the other, which was complete, with only "Geneva and New York" in place of the author's name—were culled from the 6,000 verses of the original manuscript. Though banned in France, the books were smuggled in (a favorite trick being to stuff them into hollow busts of the Emperor) and widely circulated.
In Les Châtiments Hugo wrote in the same polemical but exalted vein as did Pierre Ronsard in some of his Discours, Agrippa d'Aubigne in his Les Tragiques, André Chénier in his lambs. Comparisons between the Great and the Little Napoleons recur frequently in the poem, and the poet repeatedly calls on Nature to punish the hideous crime against her. Only the vision of an avenging future can placate the poet's hatred of Little Napoleon. The definitive edition of Les Châtiments, with numerous additions, was published in 1870, when Hugo returned to Paris after the fall of Napoleon III.
During his exile Hugo gave vent to the mystical side of his personality. There were many séances in his home, first on Jersey, then in his splendid Hauteville House overlooking the coast of Guernsey. For Hugo, the supernatural was merely the natural. He had always felt premonitions, always heard premonitory sounds and messages during the night. Now, under the influence of a female voyante, he believed that he was communicating with spirits, among them Dante, Shakespeare, Racine, and even Jesus. But the "visit" that touched him most was that of his favorite daughter, Léopoldine, tragically drowned in the Seine with her young husband in 1843.
Indeed, Hugo's family was stricken with multiple tragedies. While exile refreshed and nourished his poetry, his wife and children languished. They longed for their friends and the familiar surroundings of Paris. His daughter, Adèle, retreated into a fantasy world, till at last she ran away in pursuit of an English officer who was already married. Hugo's wife left him to live in Brussels, where she died in 1868. Only Juliette remained loyal during the 17 years the poet spent in Hauteville House.
Hugo continued his experiments with the supernatural until stopped by the threatened insanity of his son, Charles. He never abandoned, however, the syncretic and magical religious views that he reached at this time. He believed that all matter was in progress toward a higher state of being, and that this progress was achieved through suffering, knowledge, and the love that emanates from God. Evil was not absolute but rather a necessary stage toward the Good. Through suffering and the experience of evil, man made progress toward higher states of being.
In 1856 Hugo published Les Contemplations, a work which he described as follows: "Les Contemplations are the memoirs of a soul; they are life itself beginning with the dawn of the cradle and finishing with the dawn of the tomb, they are a spirit which marches from gleam to gleam through youth, love, work, struggle, sorrow, dreams, hope, and which stops distraught on the brink of the infinite. It begins with a smile, continues with a sob, and ends with a trumpet blast from the abyss."
Many of these poems anticipate Hugo's next major work, the epic cycle La Légende des siècles (1859), conceived as part of an enormous uncompleted work whose mission was to "express humanity." Like his heroes Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and his own contemporary Honoréde Balzac, Hugo dreamed of an all-inclusive cosmic poem. It would show the ascent of the universal soul toward the Good, and the emergence of Spirit from Matter.
In 1862 Hugo published Les Misérables, an immense novel, the work of many years. His guiding interest was similar to that of Charles Dickens, a social and humanitarian concern for the downtrodden. The book was meant to show the "threefold problem of the century": the degradation of proletarian man, the fall of woman through hunger, and the destruction of children. The sympathetic portrayal of the waif, Gavroche, and the escaped convict, Jean Valjean, won a vast readership for Hugo. The book was not merely an adventure story but a love story and a mystery as well. It crystallized Hugo's concern for social injustice and once again astounded the reading public with the scope of his literary powers.
When Victor Hugo died on May 22, 1885, it was as a venerable man, crowned with worldwide glory, still robust and emotionally ardent to the last.
Further Reading on Vicomte Victor Marie Hugo
The best life of Hugo in English is Matthew Josephson, Victor Hugo: A Realistic Biography of the Great Romantic (1942). Elliott M. Grant, The Career of Victor Hugo (1945), amplifies and complements Josephson with additional details on Hugo's publications and literary career. A partial account of the poet is Adèle Hugo, Victor Hugo, by a Witness of His Life, translated by Charles E. Wilbour (1964). Other studies are André Maurois, Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo (1954; trans. 1956), and Richard B. Grant, The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo (1968). A bibliography of works by and about Hugo is Elliott M. Grant, Victor Hugo: A Select and Critical Bibliography (1967). See also Horatio Smith, Masters of French Literature (1937).
Additional Biography Sources
Decaux, Alain, Victor Hugo, Paris: Perrin, 1984.
Ionesco, Eugene, Hugoliad, or, The grotesque and tragic life of Victor Hugo, New York: Grove Press, 1987.
Juin, Hubert, Victor Hugo, Paris: Flammarion, 1980-c1986.
Peyre, Henri, Victor Hugo: philosophy and poetry, University: University of Alabama Press, 1980.
Richardson, Joanna, Victor Hugo, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.
Stevens, Philip, Victor Hugo in Jersey, Shopwyke Hall, Chichester, Sussex: Phillimore, 1985.