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Victor Hugo: His Life and Works By G. Barnett Smith Characters: 24642

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Victor Hugo, though simple in nature, was many-sided in intellect. As I approach the conclusion of my task, I feel how truly great the sum of this man's work was, notwithstanding the flaws which disfigured it. And in proportion to its greatness is the difficulty of appraising, or even of approximately appraising, its value. This task belongs to a writer or writers yet unborn; for neither in his own nor even in the next generation does such a man of genius as Hugo-an author sui generis, one utterly unlike all others-assume his distinctive niche in the Walhalla of literature. But there are some suggestions of a general character which may be offered respecting his work, and these will naturally fall under four headings-political, social, moral or religious, and literary.

It has been said that Hugo failed in politics; but as he never posed for being a practical politician, the charge does not possess the significance that would have attached to it had he come forward as a political saviour-of whom France has had so many. For the sinuosities and compromises of party politics, however wise and necessary at times, he had no aptitude. He had no political creed; or, if he had, it might be summed up in one article. He individualized humanity, and declared it to be miserable. The whole of his creed, therefore, consisted in the destruction of monopolies and abuses, and the uplifting of the masses. But he was certainly unfitted for the debates of such a body as the French Chamber, and it was probably one of the best things he ever did in his life when he shook the dust from under his feet, and bade the Assembly an indignant farewell. Yet he was more successful than scores of other politicians who have set up a claim to superior political wisdom. The French Chamber has been too frequently suggestive of a maison d'aliénés. The modern Gallic politician is about the most impulsive creature of which we have any knowledge. He lacks the phlegmatic nature of the German and the logical hardheadedness of the Briton. He is hypersensitive and emotional, not argumentative and judicial. He only knows that he has ideas, and that every man who opposes those ideas is an enemy of the human species, and must be put out of the way. This was proved again and again in that terrible year of Revolution, 1793, when the friends of Reason sent each other to the block as they successively gained the upper hand. One would think that this was a sufficient baptism of blood; but it was not so; the tale has been renewed at intervals, and the communistic horrors of 1871 added another fearful page to the grim catalogue. French politics are a succession of storms; the lightning breaks, the thunder rolls, and the deluge follows; then, for a time, the sky clears and the sun shines brilliantly: but the clouds return after the rain; the barometer becomes demoralized; and electrical disturbance is once more the order of the day.

But in the intervals of sanity in the French political world-I use the word 'sanity' in its larger sense-great and noble work is done, work worthy of the world's admiration. When the French mind conceives projects of amelioration, it conceives them with boldness and generosity. In this lies the safety-valve of the people, and also the best hope for the future of the race. Men like Hugo are the men to suggest and to push forward these great conceptions for the national welfare. They may have few political principles as such, but the political sympathies of such a man as Victor Hugo have more force and weight than the most orthodox and irreproachable doctrines of a hundred smaller men. While politicians may be struggling for unimportant details, men of great sympathies are mighty to the moving of mountains. As a practical politician, then, let it be frankly admitted that Hugo was a failure; that in his speeches he was frequently rhapsodical; and that he could take no initiative in practical legislation. All these are matters in which lesser intellects might, could, should, would, and do succeed. But in that higher region where the eternal principles of justice come into play, where sublime benevolence holds her seat, where by a quick and living sympathy universal humanity is made to feel a universal brotherhood, then Victor Hugo had a political illumination to which none other of his contemporaries could lay claim.

From the political to the social is but a step, and that a natural one. It cannot be said of Hugo that he was liberal in his social theories and aristocratic in his practice. He had a courteousness of nature that made him equally esteemed, and had in reverence, by such an one as a king or an emperor, and the meanest of his compatriots who called upon him for advice or aid. If he endeavoured to teach the higher social life to others, he at least led the way by setting before himself only such aims as were noble and humane. He was the very soul of truth in all his relations, and if he were not the equal of Rousseau as a great social teacher, he far transcended the author of the Contrat Social in his irreproachable life and his deep personal sympathies. One writer has said that 'Victor Hugo's own strongest influence is but a breath of the influence of Rousseau.' This is a deliverance as unhappy as it is dogmatic. There is neither necessity nor appositeness in placing the two writers in such juxtaposition. France before Rousseau was not the France of Victor Hugo; the former had work of an originative character to do in the social sphere, as Victor Hugo had in that of literature. But while Hugo was not the creator of a new social system, one of the primary causes of his influence was of a social character. His intense and genuine sympathy with the humble and the poor and the suffering gave him a place in the affection of thousands who knew little of social theories. The key, indeed, to Hugo's personal character and influence, as distinguished from the literary, was that human sympathy which led to his untiring efforts to protect the weak against the strong. He would have no parleying with oppression and violence, and notwithstanding his passionateness he really exercised a salutary and calming influence in the main, and one which told for goodness. To him the orphan's rags, the shame of woman, and the anguish of the toiler never appealed in vain. I can imagine him doing what sturdy old Samuel Johnson did when he rescued the outcast woman in the Strand, and himself bore her away to a place of safety. Hugo had a clear enough insight into those social reforms which are still a necessity even in this enlightened age. He did not believe in the perfection of the poor, though he did believe in the absolute imperfection of kings and priests. By setting the latter in the full blaze of publicity, he believed he was doing a great social work, and helping on that golden age of happiness for which he laboured. In his earnestness and enthusiasm, he might commit, and doubtless did commit, errors of judgment; but then without these very qualities of earnestness and enthusiasm all the great things associated with his name could have had no birth. Where we gain much, we can easily forgive a little. Victor Hugo had a conscience, and as a man amongst men, pleading for men, he threw it all into his social work. In Jean Valjean he will never cease to plead, though he himself is dead. He has given to the sufferings of humanity a voice which will continue to speak in tones of pathos and of sadness until the last of those sufferings and social wrongs shall have passed away. Of many devastating spirits has the world been called upon to say that they made a solitude and called it peace; but of Victor Hugo we may say that he found humanity a bleak and cheerless wilderness, and endeavoured to make it blossom as the rose.

Yet loving the world and humanity as he did, and feeling that the earth was 'bound by gold chains about the feet of God,' Hugo, as I have before said, has been claimed by some as an unbeliever. As though any great poet who had come to years of discretion could be a materialist or an infidel. So far from seeing no God in the universe, the poet as a rule is God-intoxicated. I shall be reminded, perhaps, of Lucretius and Shelley, but even these, as the exceptions, would only serve to prove the rule. The Roman, however, was philosopher first, and poet afterwards; while as for the atheism of Shelley, it was a spasmodic experience due to a revolt against authority-not a deep-settled conviction-and an experience out of which he was rapidly growing at the time of his death. No poet of the first order has ever been an atheist, and Victor Hugo was no exception to the rule. While discarding religious systems, he was, in fact, profoundly religious. He never swerved in this matter from the position he held in 1850, and which he thus explained at the close of a speech on public instruction, 'God will be found at the end of all. Let us not forget Him; and let us teach Him to all. There would otherwise be no dignity in living, and it would be better to die entirely. What soothes suffering, what sanctifies labour, what makes man good, strong, wise, patient, benevolent, just, and at the same time humble and great, worthy of liberty, is to have before him the perpetual vision of a better world throwing its rays through the darkness of this life. As regards myself, I believe profoundly in this better world, and I declare it in this place to be the supreme certainty of my soul. I wish, then, sincerely, or, to speak more strongly, I wish ardently for religious instruction.' There is surely nothing vague or nebulous about this. No man could express himself more clearly or emphatically if directly questioned upon the great and momentous topics of God and immortality. As a religious teacher, then, Hugo may be justly claimed; for the whole weight of his name and influence was thrown upon the side of those profound religious convictions which have been the consolation of the human race, and which have knit man in indissoluble bonds to the Divine.

What shall I say of Victor Hugo from the literary point of view? His true glory is that he revivified French literature-created it afresh, as it were-and was himself the best representative of its new excellences. But this subject is so great that I scarcely dare venture upon it. The poet carried out in his own person and work the advice he once gave to some younger spirits, 'Act so that your conscience will approve, and your works praise you; and, like those great unknown, you will leave the world better than you found it; while, in virtue of the justice which I believe to be the law of the universe, you will rise high elsewhere in the scale of creation. A man is splendidly praised when he is praised by his works.' Of course, he had his detractors-such men as Charles Maurice, who believed himself to be a greater writer than Victor Hugo, and who only perceived in Hernani the effects of 'an intolerable system of style destructive of all poesy.' The world has since regulated this matter adversely to Maurice. Then there were others not so unjust as this writer, but men who were so strongly impressed by the defects of Hugo that they scarcely gave him due credit for his manifest powers of literary expression. Heine and Amiel may be taken to represent this type. To set against these are the Hugolatres, as Théophile Gautier called them. In England the most enthusiastic admirer of the poet is undoubtedly Mr. Swinburne, and from his numerous tributes I may select one passage that is a kind of triumphant summary of the rest. It is the last stanza from his New-Year Ode to Hugo, in the Midsummer Holiday, and other Poems:

'Life, everlasting while the worlds endure,

Death, self-abased before a power more high,

Shall bear one witness, and their word stand sure,

That not till time be dead shall this man die.

Love, like a bird, comes loyal to his lure;

Fame flies before him, wingless else to fly.

A child's heart toward his kind is not more pure,

An eagle's toward the sun no lordlier eye.

Awe sweet as love and proud

As fame, though hushed and bowed,

Yearns toward him silent as his face goes by;

All crowns before his crown

Triumphantly bow down,

For pride that one mo

re great than all draws nigh:

All souls applaud, all hearts acclaim,

One heart benign, one soul supreme, one conquering name.'

Making allowance for the fervour which a peculiarly fervid singer throws into his admiration, there is much truth in this metrical tribute to the literary and personal worth of the great poet. Substantially the same high view of Hugo is held by Lord Tennyson and other literary men in this country. But, with regard to criticism in particular, the writer from whom I have just quoted was even happier still in his prose comparisons. He remarked in his essay on La Légende des Siècles that 'Hugo, for all his dramatic and narrative mastery of effect, will always probably remind men rather of such poets as Dante or Isaiah than of such poets as Sophocles or Shakspeare. We cannot, of course, imagine the Florentine or the Hebrew endowed with his infinite variety of sympathies, of interests, and of powers; but as little can we imagine in the Athenian such height and depth of passion, in the Englishman such unquenchable and sleepless fire of moral and prophetic faith. And hardly in any one of these, though Shakspeare perhaps may be excepted, can we recognise the same buoyant and childlike exultation in such things as are the delight of a high-hearted child-in free glory of adventure and ideal daring, in the triumph and rapture of reinless imagination, which gives now and then some excess of godlike empire and superhuman kinship to their hands whom his hands have created, and the lips whose life is breathed into them from his own.' And again, 'In his love of light and freedom, reason and justice, he not of Jerusalem, but of Athens; but in the bent of his imagination, in the form and colour of his dreams, in the scope and sweep of his wide-winged spiritual flight, he is nearer akin to the great insurgent prophets of deliverance and restoration than to any poet of Athens, except only their kinsman ?schylus.' Even the most superficial reading of Hugo must leave an impression of magnificent powers, of powers which in given circumstances might have produced many and different forms of greatness. He had that exaltation of the intellect and imagination, that lofty range of mental force, which moulds centuries and moves the world.

But there are special literary qualities in Hugo which should be noticed. First among them is his extreme conscientiousness. His natural eloquence has sometimes been regarded as a snare to him, and yet in all the details of his work he was rigidly exact, so far as the most minute search could enable him to be. This was apparent in Notre-Dame, and especially so in Les Misérables, where he devoted a volume to a description of the battle of Waterloo, or Mont St. Jean, as the French designate it. Before writing on this, he lived for some time in the vicinity of the scene, and closely noted every item in connection with the fight on that great battlefield. He wrote to a correspondent, 'I have studied Waterloo profoundly; I am the only historian who has passed two months on the field of battle.' This same feeling of conscientiousness he also carried into other matters.

Another point which must be borne in mind in endeavouring to get at the source of Victor Hugo's influence upon literature is the extent and flexibility of his vocabulary. 'No one,' wrote M. Edmond About, shortly after the appearance of Quatre-Vingt-Treize, 'can fail to recognise the power of Hugo's invention, the wealth of his ideas, the grandeur of his oratorical flights, and that sublimity which is the mark of a man of genius; but it is not known in Europe, nor even in France, that Victor Hugo is the most learned of men of letters. He possesses an enormous vocabulary. Out of the 27,000 words which the dictionary of the Academy contains, and 6,000 of which have an individuality of their own, the language of common life employs at most about a thousand. I could mention illustrious publicists, popular dramatists, novelists, whose books are much read and much liked, none of whom has more than 1,500 words at his disposal. Théophile Gautier, a studious man and a dilettante, used to boast to his friends of possessing 3,000. "But," he used to add, "I might toil to the last day of my life without attaining to the vocabulary of Hugo." Genius apart, merely by his knowledge and use of his mother-tongue, Hugo is the Rabelais of modern days. This is the minor side of his glory, I allow; but critics ought not to neglect it, or they will lead people to form false ideas.'

As to Hugo's human passion, it agonizes in almost every page of his writings. He is nothing if not intensely human. And his weird and powerful effects are heightened by that undertone, that minor chord of music which he touches more often than the more jubilant major notes. 'The still sad music of humanity' is for ever beating in his ear, and he translates its moving pathos into words. A mind of this stamp feels that it can rarely turn to the humorous, and accordingly it is objected that he has no sense of humour. The charge is true in the main, for the grim humour of some of his situations may be better expressed by the epithet of grotesque. He lacked just this saving sense of humour to place him on a level with the greatest writers-or rather with those writers who are greatest in the delineation of human nature and its passions; for we have great writers, such as Dante and Milton, who are equal strangers with Hugo to the humour which plays about the pages of Shakspeare.

But Hugo is pre-eminent in other qualities. He is firmly and uncompromisingly veracious. No special correspondent who ever described a battlefield could be more vivid and telling in his reminiscences. There is the stamp of reality and truthfulness upon all that he has written. With a gloomy magnificence of imagery he has described scenes and events that are now immortal in literature. There is a grand spontaneity in his utterances-an eloquence that springs from the heart as much as from the head; while over all his poems and romances a noble halo has been thrown which is the reflex of the innate nobility of the man.

M. émile Montégut has observed that Hugo is master of all that is colossal and fearful. His imagination prefers sublime and terrible spectacles: war, shipwreck, death, and primitive civilizations, with their babels and convulsions-these attract him. How well, also, can he imitate the plaintive cries of the ocean under the tempest which torments it! Let him but paint a feudal ruin and you will be made to feel all its imposing horrors; or a palace of Babylon, and you will realize its massive splendours. He knows the secrets of the Sphinx, and of the monstrous idols; he is familiar with the burning deserts of Africa, and the horrors of hyperborean countries. In the domain of the weird he is sovereign king, and no one will dispute with him. In other fields he may have rivals, but in the region where the fantastic mingles with the superhuman he has no equal.

But there is yet another side to Hugo which English critics have been just to note-it is that concerned with his human creations. While he may revel in the scenes which M. Montégut depicts, his heart is mostly in his human creations. And with regard to his treatment of these, it has been observed that the spectator is put outside the scene, and can do nothing but look on breathless, while amid mist and cloud, with illuminations fiery or genial, as the case may be, the great picture rises before him, each actor detached and separate, some in boldest relief, with a force which is often tremendous, and always forcibly dramatic. The giant and the child are treated with equal care and conscientiousness. Though first in massive effects, in deep broad lines, Hugo is also first in the most delicate shades of tenderness. 'The babes are as distinct as the heroes, every pearly curve of them tender and sweet as rose-leaves, yet complete creatures, nowhere blurred or indefinite, even in the most delicious softness of execution.' I quote from a writer in Blackwood, who had the candour (not always displayed by critics) to acknowledge that neither in France nor upon our own side of the Channel is there a contemporary writer who can with any show of justice be placed by the side of Victor Hugo. 'His genius is too national, his workmanship too characteristic, to be contrasted with the calmer inspiration of any Englishman.... His subject, the character he is unfolding, possesses the writer: he throws himself upon it with a glow and fervour of knowledge, with a certainty of delineation which is not the mere exercise of practised powers, but with that something indescribable, something indefinable, added to it, swelling in every line, and transforming every paragraph. The workmanship is often wonderful; but it is not the workmanship which strikes us most-it is the abundant, often wild, sometimes unguided and undisciplined touch of genius which inspires and expands and exaggerates and dilates the words it is constrained to make use of-almost forcing a new meaning upon them by way of fiery compulsion, to blazon its own meaning upon brain and sense, whether they will or not. We know no literary work of the age-we had almost said no intellectual work of any kind-so possessed and quivering with this indescribable but extraordinary power.'

Hugo's works are undoubtedly in parts eccentric, and all too frequently extravagant; but this is the nodding of Homer. His conceptions are gigantic, and his figures truly dramatic; and these are the chief things with which we have to do. In his superb excellences he stands alone-he is unique. His table is weighted with intellectual sustenance; so great is his abundance that a myriad writers could be fed from the crumbs which fall from his table. From the literary point of view we must not forget his chief distinction-that he effected the most brilliant and complete revolution that has been witnessed in the history of French literature. He changed the whole face of art in French poetry, and destroyed for ever the poetry of conventionality. He has endowed his native language with new nerve and sensibility; he has given it a fresh and vital force, and the effects of his influence upon the nation and literature of which he was the brightest ornament must be radical and abiding.

One quality only, or so it seems to me, Hugo lacked to place him on a level with the few great master spirits of the world. He wanted the universality of Homer and Shakspeare. Whenever the Iliad is read, the power of that mighty story is felt, and methinks that had I been born of any other than that English nationality of which I can boast, there is still something in Shakspeare which would have moved me as no other writer does. It is that secret power which draws all hearts to him-'that touch of nature which makes the whole world kin,' and unites all men in admiration of his singular genius. Hugo is great also, but he has not that Shakspearean greatness which compels the tribute of all other peoples, as it receives the willing homage of his own. His noble poems and romances, with their sonorous eloquence, their rapid changes, their varied effects, remind me of Nature on an autumn day. The gloomy cloud gathers in the heavens, the lurid lightning darts from its bosom, the thunder rolls and reverberates in the mountains; but anon the tempest passes, the heavens open, and the glorious and beneficent sun once more smiles upon the world. So Hugo is a mixture of thunder and sunshine; of smiles and tears. No man had ever a greater heart-Shakspeare, and few others only, a more expansive intellect. He lacks the grand impartiality and the majestic calm of the author of Hamlet; but his soul is filled with the same love of his species, and it is large enough to embrace all the sons of humanity. His is a name which any nation, might well hold in everlasting honour. Though his life be ended, the splendour of his fame has but just begun; for the works infused and moulded by his genius, and into which he threw so much of passionate energy, of a noble idealism, of radiant hope, of moral fervour, and of human sympathy, will assuredly confer upon him glory and immortality.

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