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Victor Hugo: His Life and Works By G. Barnett Smith Characters: 21823

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Victor Hugo was not quite thirteen when he wrote his first poetical essay, which had for its subject Roland and Chivalry. This was followed in the same year, 1815, by an intensely Royalist poem, and one breathing indignation against the Emperor, after the disaster of Waterloo. The poet had been thrown constantly into the midst of Royalist influences and surroundings; not only his mother, but General Lahorie and M. Foucher, her most intimate friends, were enemies of the Empire, and the youth consequently imbibed at the same time hatred of the Empire and love of the Bourbons.

His first tragedy, Irtamène, was written in honour of Louis XVIII., and though professedly dealing with Egyptian themes, it was really a defence of the French King. There is a usurper in it, who meets with condign chastisement, and the play ends with the coronation of the legitimate monarch. 'Those who hate tyrants should love kings,' said the writer, to whom at that time the restoration of the Bourbons meant liberty. But these things must not be made too much of. The poet was at that nebulous stage when the fact of writing poetry was more to him than the subject-matter of his exercises. He read voluminously, but he had not as yet begun to separate, to weigh, and to discriminate.

A course of the Théatre de Voltaire led him to begin a new tragedy, Athéli; or, the Scandinavians, all in dramatic order, with its five acts, and its due regard to narrative, scenery, etc. Before he had completed it, however, he turned to a comic opera, A Quelque Chose Hasard est Bon. Then he reverted to the drama, and wrote a play in three acts, with two interludes, entitled Inez de Castro. From the point of view of literary art, little is to be said of these things; but there are many scattered passages in them which reveal remarkable insight on the part of one so young. In the year 1817 he first sought publicity for his compositions, competing for the poetical prize annually offered by the French Academy. The subject chosen was, The Advantages of Study in every situation of Life, and amongst the competitors were Lebrun, Delavigne, Saintine, and Loyson, who all on this occasion made their poetical debut. The first prize was divided between Saintine and Lebrun, and Hugo received honourable mention; but when the poems came to be declaimed in public, the warmest applause followed that by Victor Hugo. The Academy judges were considerably puzzled by Master Hugo's exercise. In one place he wrote as though he had arrived at years of discretion and comparative maturity, and then demolished this idea by the lines-

'I, who have ever fled from courts and cities,

Scarce three short lustres have accomplished yet.'

The judges came to the conclusion that the young poet was playing with them, and in their report accordingly threw doubt upon his statement that he was only fifteen years old. The production of his birth certificate set this question at rest, and Victor's name now became prominent in the newspapers. M. Raynouard, the cultured Secretary of the Academy, finding that the 'most potent, grave, and reverend signors' had not been deceived, expressed the great pleasure he had in making the youthful competitor's acquaintance. Other distinguished men followed suit, and Hugo was described as 'the sublime child,' either by Chateaubriand or Soumet. The evidence points to the latter having first made use of this phrase, but its origin matters little, for Chateaubriand fully adopted it, remarking that anyone might naturally have used the words, they expressed so decided a truth. Hugo was taken by a friend to see the author of Atala, and the impression made upon his mind by this man of genius found utterance in the exclamation, 'I would be Chateaubriand or nothing.'

In 1818 Victor's brother Eugène was awarded a prize at the floral games of Toulouse. The younger brother's ambition was touched, and in the following year he secured two prizes from the same Academy for his poems on The Statue of Henry IV., and The Virgins of Verdun. The former poem gained the golden lily, and the latter the golden amaranth. It seems that just as the writer was about to set to work on the first-named poem, Madame Hugo was seized with inflammation of the chest. She lamented that her son would be unable to complete his poem in time; but he set to work, wrote it in a single night, and it was despatched next morning in time to compete for the prize. The President of the Toulouse Academy admitted that it was an enigma for one so young to exhibit such remarkable talents in literature.

A poem, Moses on the Nile, gained him a third prize at Toulouse, and this constituted him Master of the Floral Games, so that at the age of eighteen he became a provincial academician. He was still Royalist in his opinions, and on the few occasions when he was in the company of his father, the latter did not attempt to change his views, feeling that it would be useless to attempt to set the arguments of a few hours against a daily and hourly influence. But he had a true apprehension of his son's character, and on one occasion, when Victor had expressed himself warmly in favour of the Vendeans, General Hugo turned to General Lucotte, and said: 'Let us leave all to time. The child shares his mother's views; the man will have the opinions of his father.'

Victor Hugo was now the subject of conflicting claims. There was the law, which he had chosen as a profession, with its demands upon him, and there was literature, which he loved too much to surrender; while at the same time love and politics also claimed their share in him. He determined to throw himself ardently into literature. Separated from the object of his youthful affections, he wrote his Han d'Islande, in which, while there are many crimes and horrors, there are also passages of tenderness, wherein he sought to embalm and reveal his feelings of love. His courage sustained him through many trials, but at last he was called upon to bear one that made a profound impression upon his heart. Madame Hugo, who was now living in the Rue Mézières, was seized with serious illness after working in her garden, which was her favourite occupation. For some time she struggled successfully with the disease, but it had obtained too firm a hold upon her, and she died suddenly on the 27th of June, 1821. On the evening of the funeral, Adèle Foucher, unconscious of what had occurred, was dancing at a party given in celebration of her birthday. Next morning Victor called upon her, and the lovers, mingling their tears together, mutually renewed their old vows of attachment. Victor, to whom life had seemed without an object on the death of his mother, speedily found another after his betrothal to Adèle. Her parents no longer actively opposed the union, but stipulated for its postponement until Victor could provide a home.

In conjunction with several friends, Hugo had already founded the Conservateur Littéraire, to which he contributed articles on Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Moore, etc., and a number of political satires. He had a sum of seven hundred francs, upon which he subsisted for a year, and the method by which he did it will be found related in the experiences of Marius in Les Misérables. Translations from Lucan and Virgil, which appeared under the name of D'Auverney, and the Epistles from Aristides to Brutus on Thou and You, emanated from his pen. He also wrote a very noticeable article on Lamartine's Méditations Poétiques, which had just appeared. Then came the first instalment of his own Odes et Ballades, a work in which his genius began to attain a fuller freedom and a richer expression. The volume was received with very wide favour, and though, as M. Barbou has observed, it presents many ideas that would find no approval now, the poet, nevertheless, declared that he could proudly and conscientiously place the work side by side with the democratical books and poems of his matured manhood. This, he said, he should be prepared to do, because in 'the fierce strife against early prejudices imbibed with a mother's milk, and in the slow rough ascent from the false to the true, which to a certain extent makes up the substance of every man's life, and causes the development of his conscience to be the type of human progress in general; each step so taken represents some material sacrifice to moral advancement, some interest abandoned, some vanity eschewed, some worldly benefit renounced-nay, perhaps, some risk of home or even life incurred.' This justification may fairly be accepted, but from another aspect also these Odes are worthy of attention. They were the first noble efforts of the poet to emancipate French poetry from the trammels which had too long governed it, and which had rendered it almost dead, and effete alike in spirit and in form. At length imagination was to resume its rightful sway, and exhibit some return to its pristine vigour.

The Odes not only brought the author friends like émile Deschamps and Alfred de Vigny, but they were pecuniarily successful. The first edition yielded him a profit of seven hundred francs, and a second quickly followed. The attention of the King was called to the poems, and the interest his Majesty took in them, together with a romantic incident in connection with the Saumur plot, led to a pension of 1,000 francs being conferred upon the poet from the King's privy purse. He now thought he was entitled to press the question of his marriage. His father, who had married again, offered no opposition; the Fouchers also gave way, and bestowed the hand of their daughter Adèle upon the young and now successful poet. Victor Hugo had shortly before this made the acquaintance of the celebrated priest Lamennais, and it was from his hands that he received the certificate of confession required before he could get married. 'I trust with all my heart,' wrote the priest, 'that God will bless this happy union, which He appears Himself to have prepared by implanting in you a long and unchanged affection, and a mutual love as pure as it is sweet.'

The Saumur plot, to which I have referred, took place in 1822, and amongst those implicated in it was a young man named Delon, who had been an intimate friend of Victor Hugo in his childhood. On hearing of Delon's danger, Hugo wrote to the conspirator's mother, offering an asylum for her son in his own house, and remarking that as the writer was well known for his devotion to the Bourbons, he would never be sought in such a retreat. This letter fell into the hands of the King, but instead of its prejudicing him against Victor Hugo, he generously said, 'That young man has a good heart as well as great genius; he is an honourable fellow; I shall take care he has the next pension that falls vacant.' This was the origin of the poet's pension, which was in nowise due to an expressed wish or desi

re on his own part.

Hans of Iceland, the first published romance of Victor Hugo, appeared anonymously in 1823. The work at once attracted attention by reason of its graphic power and the startling nature of its contrasts. It combines horror with tenderness, the deepest gloom with flashes of the purest light. The author himself had a great affection for it, on the personal ground already mentioned. But its chief features are of a different order. In this northern romance, as one critic has observed, the youthful novelist has turned to great account the savage wilds, gloomy lakes, stormy seas, pathless caves, and ruined fortresses of Scandinavia. 'A being savage as the scenery around him-human in his birth, but more akin to the brute in his nature; diminutive, but with a giant's strength; whose pastime is assassination, who lives literally as well as metaphorically on blood-is the hero; and round this monster are grouped some of the strangest, ghastliest, and yet not wholly unnatural beings which it is possible for the imagination to conceive-Spiagudry, the keeper of the dead-house, or morgue, of Drontheim, and Orugex, the State executioner-while gentler forms, the noble and persecuted Schumacker, and the devoted and innocent Ethel, relieve the monotony of crime and horror.' M. Charles Nodier, one of the ablest of French contemporary critics, in a review of the work in the Quotidienne, remarked upon the fact that there were men of a certain organization, to whom glory and distinction were temptations, just as happiness and pleasure tempted other men. 'Precocious intellects and deep sensibility do not take the future into consideration-they devour their future. The passions of a young and powerful mind know no to-morrow; they look to satiate their ambition and their hopes with the reputation and excitement of the present moment. Han d'Islande has been the result of this kind of combination, if indeed one can describe as a combination that which is only the thoughtless instinct of an original genius, who obeys, without being aware of it, an impulse at variance with his true interests, but whose fine and wide career may not improbably justify this promise of excellence, and may hereafter redeem all the anxiety he has caused by the excusable error he committed when he first launched himself upon the world.' M. Nodier then discussed with much freedom, and yet with almost as much fairness, the peculiar features of the romance, its close and painful search into the morbidities of life, its pictures of the scaffold and the morgue, etc., as well as its strong local colouring, its historical truth, its learning, its wit, and its vigorous and picturesque style.

The author and his critic became personally acquainted. The latter called upon Victor Hugo, who, after other changes of abode, had now established himself in the Rue de Vaugirard. A second pension of 2,000 francs had been awarded him by the King; hence his migration into comparatively sumptuous quarters. Other literary friendships besides that with M. Nodier were formed as the result of Victor Hugo's first romance.

At this period he wrote an ode on the Arc de Triomphe de l'étoile, and there were many indications that his early Royalist opinions were in process of abandonment. He visited his father at Blois, and the General was not slow to observe the changes taking place in his son's views. While he could not admire Napoleon personally, he began to do justice to those who had planted the French standard in all the capitals of Europe. But it seemed as though the King was resolved to retain him by favours, for there was now conferred upon him the coveted badge of the Legion of Honour. He attended the coronation of Charles X. at Rheims, and from thence went to pay a visit to Lamartine. A project was formed and a treaty signed with a publisher, by which M. Lamartine, Victor Hugo, M. Charles Nodier, and M. Taylor engaged to prepare a work detailing a poetical and picturesque trip to Mont Blanc and the Valley of Chamouni. For four meditations Lamartine was to receive 2,000 francs, Hugo 2,000 for four odes, Taylor 2,000 for eight drawings, and Nodier 2,250 for all the text. The travellers set out, Hugo being accompanied by his wife and child. On reaching Geneva-after a temporary arrest of Hugo, some time before, on account of the delay of his passport in its journey from Paris-the visitors found the police regulations very annoying. Each hotel possessed a register, in which every traveller was bound to write his name, his age, his profession, the place from whence he came, and his object in travelling. M. Nodier was so exasperated that in reply to the last query he wrote, 'Come to upset your Government.' For a few moments the hotel-keeper was not unnaturally electrified. The travellers got their jaunt, but owing to the insolvency of the publisher with whom they had arranged, the literary scheme was never carried out.

In ascending the Alps to the Mer de Glace, Victor Hugo had a narrow escape. His guide, who was new to the business, took the wrong path, and landed the visitor upon a dangerous tongue of ice. From this he was rescued with great difficulty, and for several moments, which seemed like hours, he was suspended over a terrible abyss. Victor Hugo wrote a description of the journey from Sallenches to Chamouni, which was translated by Madame Hugo, and published in her sketch of the poet.

Bug Jargal, the second romance by Victor Hugo, but the earliest in point of time, was published in 1826. It had been originally written for the Conservateur Littéraire; but after its appearance there, it was almost entirely remodelled and rewritten. It is a tale of the insurrection in St. Domingo. The essential improbability of such a character as Bug Jargal (by what means did the author get such an uncouth name?), a negro of the noblest moral and intellectual character, passionately in love with a white woman, has been unfavourably commented upon. The hero is represented as not only tempering the wildest passion with the deepest respect, but he even sacrifices life itself at last in behalf of the woman of his love, and of her husband. It was objected that this was too violent a call upon the imagination, but knowledge of the negro character would tend to prove that such a devotion as Bug Jargal's is by no means impossible. In any case, as the novelist is allowed great license, this objection cannot be regarded as fatal to the romance. Notwithstanding its alleged defects of plot, however, this story has many enthralling passages. No reader is likely to forget 'the scenes in the camp of the insurgent chief Biassou, or the death-struggle between Habihrah and d'Auverney on the brink of the cataract. The latter, in particular, is drawn with such intense force, that the reader seems almost to be a witness of the changing fortunes of the fight, and can hardly breathe freely till he comes to the close.' Whatever else these early romances demonstrated, or failed to demonstrate, they were at least inspired by enthusiasm, and tinged with aspirations of a noble order.

The genius of the author had drawn towards him the admiration, and very speedily the friendship, of such men as M. Méry, the journalist; M. Rabbe, author of the 'History of the Popes;' M. Achille Devéria and M. Louis Boulanger, the eminent artists; M. Sainte-Beuve, one of the most incisive of critics, and others whose names have since occupied considerable space in the roll of fame. Hugo was indefatigable in his literary efforts. La Revue Fran?aise, a periodical which unfortunately had but a brief existence, bore testimony to this, as well as his poetical miscellany entitled La Muse Fran?aise. He also wrote a criticism upon Voltaire, which was afterwards reprinted in his Mélanges de Littérature; but this estimate did not reveal the breadth of view which the writer manifested in later years, when he passed an eloquent eulogium upon the philosopher of Ferney.

For a new edition of the Odes issued in 1826, and now separated from the Ballades, the author wrote an introduction in which he distinctly unfolded his principles of liberty in the realm of literature. He expressed his belief that 'in a literary production the bolder the conception the more irreproachable should be the execution;' and he added that liberty need not result in disorder. It was the first occasion on which the claims of what was called, for want of a better word, romanticism were formally promulgated by a writer eminent in that school. We shall shortly see how Victor Hugo translated these ideas into a concrete form in his works. Meantime, in February, 1827, an incident occurred which led to a stirring poem by Hugo, and one which made him friends in a new quarter, while it lost them in an old one.

It appears that at a ball given by the Austrian Ambassador in Paris, the distinguished French marshals who attended were deliberately shorn of their legitimate titles. Thus, the Duke of Taranto was announced as Marshal Macdonald; the Duke of Dalmatia as Marshal Soult; the Duke of Treviso as Marshal Mortier, and so on. The insult was studied and deliberate on the part of the Ambassador; 'Austria, humiliated by titles which recalled its defeats, publicly denied them. The marshals had been invited in order to show contempt for their victories, and the Empire was insulted in their persons. They immediately quitted the Embassy in a body.' Victor Hugo's blood was stirred by this incident, and, without counting the cost, he took his revenge. Throwing all the weight of his indignation into the Ode à la Colonne, he hurled that effusion at the enemies of France. He was now only anxious to show that he was a Frenchman first, and a Vendéan afterwards.

The Ode made a great sensation, but it had a wider effect than its author anticipated. The Opposition welcomed him as one of themselves, for in celebrating the marshals had not the poet celebrated the Empire? The Royalists, on the other hand, seeing this bitter attack upon the Austrians, who were the most powerful friends of the Bourbons, naturally thought that Victor Hugo had abandoned the Royalist cause. Neither side could quite understand how such a burst of invective as that witnessed in the Ode might be due alone to the outraged feelings of a Frenchman, without being intended in the least to partake of the nature of a political manifesto. To these fierce partisans, party was everything; to Victor Hugo it was the nation that was everything. But his rupture with the Royalists is naturally enough traced to this period. He and they could never be the same again to each other. The poet passed now from his admiration of the Bourbons to an acknowledgment of the glory and prowess of the Empire, as at a later period he pressed still further forward, and hailed the fuller liberty of Republican France.

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