MoboReader > Literature > Victor Hugo: His Life and Works


Victor Hugo: His Life and Works By G. Barnett Smith Characters: 17796

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The war between the two great schools of French poetry, the classic and the romantic, passed into an acute stage shortly before the publication of Victor Hugo's Cromwell. Romanticism meant more than was implied in the definition of Madame de Sta?l, viz., the transference to French literature of 'the poetry originating in the songs of the troubadours, the offspring of chivalry and Christianity.' Victor Hugo, and men of a kindred if not an equal genius, were engaged in a struggle for the very life and soul of poetry. Poetic genius in France was wrapped in the grave-clothes of classicism; it was a corpse that needed galvanizing into life; and it was practically Victor Hugo who rose and said, 'Loose her, and let her go.'

Goethe had already fought the battle of literary freedom from old superstitions in Germany, and Byron had done the same in England. It was now the turn of France to feel the new gush of life, and to gather strength and lustre in the revival. As M. Asselineau has observed of the French romanticists, 'to their sincerity, their detestation of tediousness, their sympathy with life and joy and freshness, as well as to their youthful audacity, that was not abashed either by ridicule or insult, belongs the honour of securing to the nineteenth century the triumph of liberty, invaluable for its preciousness in the world of art.' And in enumerating the leaders of the movement, he cites as the most prominent and influential, Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo, Madame de Sta?l, Lamartine, Dumas, Alfred de Vigny, Balzac, George Sand, Théophile Gautier, Mérimée, Philarète Chasles, Alfred de Musset, and Jules Janin. Certainly the influence that developed the talents of such a galaxy of genius, so far from being despised, should be acclaimed as a force worthy of all admiration. It was one, in fact, that practically saved French literature from expiring of inanition.

But the romantics were fiercely assailed; so fiercely that Victor Hugo said, if they had been thieves, murderers, and monsters of crime, they could not have been exposed to severer condemnation. Duvergier de Hauranne treated romanticism as a brain disease, and recommended a careful diagnosis of those suffering from it, in order to recover for them gradually their lost senses. But pleasantries such as these were not likely to affect a man in severe earnest. The literary revolutionaries of the Cénacle Club, whose leading spirit was Victor Hugo, laughed at the denunciations hurled against them, knowing that their opportunity had come. There was only one writer who, having put his hand to the plough, turned backward. This was Sainte-Beuve. The temper of his mind was critical, and after the first burst of enthusiasm with which he hailed the new school, and under whose influence he for a time joined it, had spent itself, he threw off his allegiance to the movement, and vowed that he had never really belonged to the reforming band.

Victor Hugo soon gave a pledge, though not in some respects a successful one, of the sincerity of his own convictions. M. Taylor, Commissaire Royal at the Comédie Fran?aise, and afterwards widely known in the world of art, asked the poet on one occasion why he never wrote for the theatre. Hugo replied that he was thinking of doing so, and had already commenced a drama on the subject of Cromwell. 'A Cromwell of your writing should only be acted by Talma,' said Taylor; and he forthwith arranged a meeting between the famous tragedian and the dramatist. Talma was at that time greatly depressed, taking gloomy views of the stage, and asserting that his own career had been a failure-had never fulfilled its ends. No one knew what he might have been, he confided to Hugo, but now he expected to die without having really acted once. Nevertheless, from the genius of Hugo he did look for something original, and he had always longed to act Cromwell. In response, the author explained his intentions with regard to the proposed play, and also his views upon the drama generally. These views he afterwards enlarged upon in the preface to the play. He asserted that there were three epochs in poetry, each corresponding to an era in society; and these were the ode, the epic, and the drama. 'Primitive ages are the lyric, ancient times the heroic, and modern times the dramatic. The ode sings of eternity, the epic records history, the drama depicts life.... The characters of the ode are colossal-Adam, Cain, Noah; those of the epic are gigantic-Achilles, Atreus, Orestes; those of the drama are human-Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth. The ode contemplates the ideal; the epic, the sublime; the drama, the real. And, to sum up the whole, this poetical triad emanates from three fountain-heads-the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare.'

In Cromwell, urged Hugo, he intended to substitute a drama for a tragedy, a real man for an ideal personage, reality for conventionalism; the piece was to pass from the heroic to the positive; the style was to include all varieties, epic, lyric, satiric, grave, comic; and there were to be no verses for effect. The author repeated his first line, 'Demain, vingt-cinq juin, mil six cent cinquante-sept,' which was certainly ludicrously matter-of-fact. Talma was delighted with the whole idea, and begged the poet to complete his work at once. Unfortunately the actor died soon afterwards, and the dramatist now went leisurely on with his play. While engaged upon the preface he saw some Shakespearean dramas performed in English at the Odéon, and the representations affected him deeply, and tinged his dramatic views. At the close of 1827 Cromwell was published, and great indeed was the controversy to which it gave rise. The period dealt with was not what would be considered one of the most dramatic in the career of the Protector. It was that 'when his ambition made him eager to realize the benefits of the King's death,' when, having attained what any other man would have reckoned the summit of fortune, being not only master of England, but by his army, his navy, and his diplomacy, master of Europe too, he was urged onwards to fulfil the visions of his youth, and to make himself a king. Cromwell's final relinquishment of the kingly idea, with the preliminary stages which led up to his resolution, were delineated with subtle power and psychological skill.

But it was not the play so much as its preface-which the author put forward as the manifesto of himself and his literary friends-that stirred the gall of the critics. A writer in the Gazette de France, referring to Hugo's avowed aim to break 'all those threads of spiders' web with which the army of Liliput have undertaken to chain the drama whilst slumbering,' reminded him that in this liliputian army there were some dwarfs to be found not so despicable after all; and amongst others stood out those men who had written for the stage from Le Cid down to Cromwell. 'But what would these men be worth in the eyes of him who calls Shakespeare the god of the Theatre? It is necessary to possess some strength to venture to attack giants; and when one undertakes to dethrone writers whom whole generations have united in admiring, it would be advisable to fight them with weapons which, if not equal to theirs, are at least so constructed as to have some chance.' M. de Rémusat in Le Globe endeavoured to hold the scales of justice between the contending parties, while the famous Preface acted as a rallying-cry for the supporters of the new principles. M. Soumet, Hugo's old friend, wrote concerning the drama: 'It seems to me full of new and daring beauties; and although in your preface you spoke mercilessly of mosses and climbing ivy, I cannot do less than acknowledge your admirable talent, and I shall speak of your work-grand in the style of Michael Angelo-as I formerly spoke of your odes.'

About the time of the publication of Cromwell, Victor Hugo was severely visited in his domestic relations. Madame Foucher, his wife's mother, and a woman of many and great virtues, passed away; and on the 28th of January, 1828, the poet's father died suddenly of apoplexy. The General and his second wife had been quite reconciled to Victor and his brothers, and the Government had once more recognised the title of the old soldier as General of Division. He was happy in the affection of his sons, his daughter-in-law, and Victor Hugo's two children-Léopoldine and Charles. On the evening of his death he had spent several happy hours with the poet, but in the night the apoplexy struck him with the rapidity of a shot, and he immediately expired. The incident, as may be imagined, profoundly affected the sensitive and impressionable spirit of Victor Hugo.

Some years before these events, Victor Hugo had, in conjunction with M. Soumet, written a play entitled Amy Robsart, founded upon Scott's Kenilworth. Not being able to agree as to the value of each ot

her's contributions, the two authors separated, each bearing away his own dramatic goods. Hugo afterwards handed over his play to his brother-in-law, Paul Foucher, who produced the piece in his own name at the Odéon. It was loudly hissed. There were passages in it that unmistakably bore the impress of Victor Hugo, and the latter chivalrously wrote to the newspapers to say that those parts which had been hissed were his own work. This acknowledgment drew a number of young men to the theatre, who were as loud in their applause as a large portion of the audience were in their condemnation. Altogether, matters became so lively that the Government interfered, and, to allay the tumult, interdicted the play.

In the Rue Notre-Dame des Champs there were some rare meetings of poets and wits, when Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset would recite poems composed during the day, and Mérimée and Sainte-Beuve would engage in arguments. M. Henri Beyle, M. Louis Boulanger, and M. Eugène Delacroix were also to be seen there; and once the venerable Benjamin Constant was a guest. When Béranger was condemned to three months' imprisonment for one of his songs, Victor Hugo visited him in his cell. He found that the French Burns, though obnoxious to the authorities, was the idol of the populace. His cell was generally full of visitors, and he was inundated with patés, game, fruit, and wine.

Another great stride in romanticism was made by the publication of Victor Hugo's Orientales, which appeared in 1828. These lyrical poems were full of energy and inspiration, and it was clear that the very antithesis of the classical style had now been reached. They enhanced the reputation of the writer, while they charmed all readers by their freshness, simplicity, and vigour.

In July, 1829, a brilliant company assembled at Hugo's house to listen to the reading of a new play by the poet, the famous Marion de Lorme, originally called A Duel under Richelieu. The writer, it was soon seen, had avoided the faults which marked the construction of Cromwell, and had produced a real drama, and one well adapted for stage representation. The company present at the reading included Balzac, Delacroix, Alfred de Musset, Mérimée, Sainte-Beuve, Alfred de Vigny, Dumas, Deschamps, and Taylor. Dumas, with the generous frankness which always characterized him, afterwards wrote respecting the play: 'I listened with admiration the most intense, but yet an admiration that was tinged with sadness, for I felt that I could never attain to such a powerful style. I congratulated Hugo very heartily, telling him that I, deficient in style as I was, had been quite overwhelmed by the magnificence of his.' But there was one point upon which Dumas, supported by Sainte-Beuve and Mérimée, pleaded, and pleaded successfully. Not feeling satisfied that Didier should meet his death without forgiving Marion, Hugo yielded to the pressure put upon him, and altered the drama accordingly. The news of a new play by Victor Hugo brought forward the managers at once, but it had already been promised to M. Taylor for the Théatre Fran?ais. However, there was the ordeal of the censors yet to pass through, and fears were entertained as to the fourth act, in which Louis XIII. was described as a hunter, and represented as governed by a priest-points in which everybody would see a resemblance to Charles X. Permission to perform the play was refused. Victor Hugo appealed to the King, who removed from office the Minister of the Interior (M. de Martignac), the dramatist's chief enemy, and promised to read the offending act himself. Having done so, his Majesty declined to give his sanction to the representation of the drama, but by way of a solatium granted the poet a fresh pension of 4,000 francs. Hugo was indignant, and at once wrote declining the pension, upon which the Constitutionnel remarked, 'Youth is less easily corrupted than the Ministers think.' With regard to the drama itself, it has been well remarked that 'had Marion, in spite of her heroism and her repentance, been adequately chastised for her lapse from virtue, probably much of the sentimentality would have been avoided, which, although now exploded, at the time caused a great depravity of taste, and invested the "Dames aux Camellias" and the "Mimis" of Bohemian life with an interest that they did not deserve.'

Undismayed by what had occurred, Victor Hugo now devoted himself to the composition of another drama, and his Hernani was shortly in the hands of M. Taylor for production. The censors again interfered, and in the course of a very impertinent report, observed that the play was 'a tissue of extravagances, generally trivial, and often coarse, to which the author has failed to give anything of an elevated character. Yet while we animadvert upon its flagrant faults, we are of opinion that not only is there no harm in sanctioning the representation of the piece, but that it would be inadvisable to curtail it by a single word. It will be for the benefit of the public to see to what extremes the human mind will go, when freed from all restraint.' These literary censors did, however, require the alteration or removal of certain passages in which the kingly state and dignity were handled with too much freedom; and they forbade the name of Jesus to be used throughout the piece.

The supporters of the classical drama strenuously exerted themselves to prevent the play from being produced, but in vain. Of course, this creation of a new style meant the decline of the old one. The play went into rehearsal, and the author had a passage of arms with Mademoiselle Mars, who took the part of Do?a Sol. This lady, whose power had made her imperious, found her master in Hugo, and when threatened with the loss of her part, she consented to deliver a disputed phrase as written. The time for production came, and when the author was asked to name his systematic applauders, according to custom, he declined to do so, stating that there would be no systematic applause. The play excited the liveliest curiosity. Benjamin Constant was amongst those who earnestly begged for seats, and M. Thiers wrote personally to the author for a box. The literary friends of Victor Hugo attended in great numbers, including Gautier, Borel, and Balzac. The theatre was crowded, and the feeling of all parties intense. As the play progressed from act to act, nevertheless, it gained in its hold upon the audience. When the fourth act closed, M. Maine, a publisher, sought out Victor Hugo, and offered him 6,000 francs for the play, but the matter, he said, must be decided at once. The author protested, remarking that the success of the piece might be less complete at the end. 'Ah, that's true, but it may be much greater,' replied the publisher. 'At the second act I thought of offering 2,000 francs; at the third act I got up to 4,000; I now at the fourth act offer 6,000; and after the fifth I am afraid I should have to offer 10,000.' Hugo laughingly concluded the bargain for 6,000 francs, and went with the eager publisher into a tobacco shop to sign a roughly improvised agreement. The play concluded brilliantly, Mademoiselle Mars securing a great triumph in the last act. The whole house applauded vociferously, and the triumph of romanticism was complete.

The literary war which ensued was very fierce. In the provinces, as in Paris, it divided the public into hostile camps, and so deep were the feelings which it excited that in Toulouse a duel was fought over the play, and one of the antagonists was killed. Armand Carrel was especially bitter in his assaults upon Hernani, but Hugo was more than consoled for this and other attacks by the following letter from Chateaubriand: 'I was present, sir, at the first representation of Hernani. You know how much I admire you. My vanity attaches itself to your lyre, and you know the reason. I am going-you are coming. I commend myself to the remembrance of your muse. A pious glory ought to pray for the dead.' As an amusing pendant to this, it may be mentioned in connection with the poet and Hernani, that a provincial Frenchman (in making his will) ordered the following inscription to be placed on his tombstone: 'Here lies one who believed in Victor Hugo.'

In spite of the attacks in the press, also of personal threats and of the deliberate and almost unparalleled attempts to stifle the play in the theatre itself, Hernani held its own, and continued to be played with great pecuniary success until the enforced absence of Mademoiselle Mars, when it was withdrawn from the stage, and not acted again for some years. But the play had practically established the new drama. It was the herald of the renaissance, and for this reason must continue to occupy a conspicuous position whenever an attempt is made to estimate the dramatic work and influence of Victor Hugo.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top