The internet research hub for Victor Hugo enthusiasts
ONCE only in my life I have seen the likeness of Victor Hugo's genius. Crossing over when a boy from Ostend, I had the fortune to be caught in mid-channel by a thunder-storm, strong enough to delay the packet some three good hours over the due time. About midnight the thunder-cloud was right overhead, full of incessant sound and fire, lightening and darkening so rapidly that it seemed to have life, and a delight in its life. At the same hour the sky was clear to the west, and all along the sea-line there sprang and sank a straying or restless dance or chase of summer lightnings across the lower sky: a race and riot of lights, beautiful and rapid as a course of shining Oceanides, along the tremulous floor of the sea. Eastward, at the same moment, the space of clear sky was higher and wider, a splendid semicircle of too intense purity to be called blue; it was of no color namable by man; and midway in it, between the storm and the sea, hung the motionless full moon-Artemis, watching with a serene splendor of scorn the battle of Titans and the revel of nymphs, from her stainless and Olympian summit of divine indifferent light. Underneath and about us the sea was paved with flame; the whole water trembled and hissed with phosphoric fire; even through the wind and thunder I could hear the crackling and sputtering of the water-sparks. In the same heaven and in the same hour there shone at once the three contrasted glories, golden and fiery and white, of morn-light, and of the double lightnings, forked and sheet; and under all this miraculous heaven lay a flaming floor of water.
That, in a most close and exact symbol, is the best possible definition I can give of Victor Hugo's genius. And the impression of that hour was upon me the impression of his mind-physical, as it touched the nerves with a more vivid passion of pleasure than music or wine; spiritual, as it exalted the spirit with the senses, and, above them, to the very summit of vision and delight. It is no fantastic similitude, but an accurate likeness of two causes working to the same effect. There is nothing but that delight like the delight given by some of his works. And it is because his recent book has not seldom given it me again that I have any thing here to say of it.
It is a book to be rightly read-not by the lamplight of realism, but by the sunlight of his imagination reflected upon ours. Only so shall we see it as it is, much less understand it. The beauty it has, and the meaning, are ideal; and therefore cannot be impaired by any want of realism. Error, and violation of likelihood, or fact, which would damn a work of Balzac's or of Thackeray's, cannot ever lower or lessen the rank and value of a work like this. To put it away because it has not the great and precious qualities of their school, but those of a school quite different, is just as wise as it would be, on the other hand, to assault the fame of Bacon on the ground that he has not written in the manner of Shakespeare; or Newton's, because he has not written like Milton. This premised, I shall leave the dissection of names and the anatomy of probabilities to the things of chatter and chuckle, so well and scientifically defined long since by Mr. Charles Reade as "anonymmiculae who go scribbling about; " there is never any lack of them; and it will not greatly hurt the master poet of an age that they should shriek and titter, cackle and tread inaudibly behind his heels. It is not every demigod who is vulnerable there.
This book has in it, so to say, a certain elemental quality. It is great because it deals greatly with great emotion. It is a play played out not by human characters only-wind and sea, thunder and moonlight, have their parts too to fill. Nor is this all; for it is itself a thing like these things, living, as it were, an elemental life. It pierces and shakes the very roots of passion. It catches and bends the spirit as Pallas caught Achilles and bent him by the hair. Were it not so, this would be no child of the master's; but so, as always, it is. Here, too, the birth-mark of the great race is visible.
It is not, whatever it may seem, a novel or a study, historical or social. What touches on life or manners, we see to be accidental byplay as soon as we see what the book is indeed-the story of the battle of a human spirit, first with Fate, then with the old three subordinate enemies, the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. And here I will say where the flaw, as I think, lies; for, like other great things, a great book must have a flaw. The Flesh and the Devil, Josiane and Barkilphedro, are perfect; the World is drawn wrong. And the reason is not far to seek. We all brush daily against the Flesh and the Devil, we must all rub shoulders and shake hands with them, and they are always much the same at root, only stronger and weaker with this man than with that; therefore it needs only the hand of a great poet to paint them greatly, after their true and very likeness. But the World is multiform. To paint one aright of its many faces, you must have come close enough on that side to breathe the breath of its mouth and see by the light of its eyes. No accumulation of fact upon fact, gleaned and laid up never so carefully, will avail you instead. Titian himself cannot paint without colors. Here we have canvas and easel duly made ready, but the colors are not to be had. In other words, there are many curious and accurate details painfully studied and stored up for use; but, alas! it is only for misuse. Here are many social facts rightly retailed and duly laid out side by side, but no likeness of social life. Here are the Mohocks of the day, for example, much as we find them in Swift; here is often visible even a vexatious excess of labor in the research of small things; useless, because the collector of them has never applied his spirit to the spirit of the time in which these small things played, in passing, their small parts. He cannot, because that time has no attraction for him on any one side to temper the repulsion he feels from another side of it. Pure hate and scorn of an age or a people destroy the faculty of observation, much more of description, even in the historic mind; what, then, will they do in the poetic? Doubtless there has been, as doubtless there is now, much that is hateful and contemptible in social matters, English or other; much also, as certainly, that is admirable and thankworthy. Doubtless, too, at one time and another there has been more visible of evil and shameful than of noble and good. But there can never have been a time of unmixed good or evil; and he only who has felt the pulse of an age can tell us how fast or slow its heart really beat toward evil or toward good. A man who writes of a nation, or a time, however bad and base in the main, without any love for it, cannot write of it well. A great English poetess has admirably said that a poet's heart may be large enough to hold two nations. Victor Hugo's, apart from his heroic love of man, a love matchless except by Shelley's, holds two nations especially close, two of the greatest. It has often been said he is French and Spanish; that is, he loves France and Spain, the spirit of them attracts his spirit; but he does not love England. There are great Englishmen whom no man has praised more nobly than he; but the spirit of historic England has no attraction for his. Hence, far more important than any passing errors of grotesque nomenclature or misplaced detail, the spiritual and ingrained error of the book, seen only from its social or historic side. We catch nowhere for a moment the mode of English life in the reign of Anne. Those for whom I write will know, and will see, that I do not write as a special pleader for a country or a class, as one who will see no spot in England or nobility. But, indeed, it is an abuse of words to say that England is governed or misgoverned by her aristocracy. A republican, studying where to strike, should read better the blazon on his enemy's shield. "England," I have heard it said, "is not' a despotism tempered by epigrams,' but a plutocracy modified by accidents."
Enough now of the flaws and failures in this work; "enough, with over-measure." We have yet before us the splendor of its depths and heights. Entering the depths first, we come upon the evil spirit of the place. Barkilphedro, who plays here the part of devil, is a bastard offspring of Iago and Madame de Mortmil: having something of both, but diminished and degraded; combining, for instance, the deep demoniac calm of the lifelong patience. He has too much inward heat of discontent, too much fever and fire, to know their perfect peace of spirit, the equable element of their souls, the quiet of mind in which they live and work out their work at leisure. He does not sin at rest: there is somewhat of fume and fret in his wickedness. Theirs is the peace of the devil, which passeth all understanding. He, though like them sinning for sin's sake, and hating for the love of hate, has yet a too distinct and positive quality of definable evil. He is actually ungrateful, envious, false. Of them we cannot say that they are thus or thus; in them there is a purity and simplicity of sin, which has no sensible components; which cannot be resolved by analysis into this evil quality and that. Barkilphedro, as his maker says with profound humor, "has his faults." We fear that a sufficient bribe might even tempt him into virtue for a moment, seduce him to soil, by a passing slip, the virginity of vice. Nevertheless, as the evil spirit of envy rather than the devil absolute, he is a strong spirit and worth study. The few chapters full of fiery eloquence and a passion bitter as blood, in which his evil soul is stripped and submitted to vivisection, contain if read aright, the best commentary ever written on Iago. We see now at last, what no scholiast on Shakespeare shows us, how the seed may be sown and watered which in season shall bring forth so black a blossom, a poison-so acrid and so sure.
In this poem, as in the old pictures, we see the serpent writhing, not fangless, under the foot of an angel, and in act of bruising, as of old, the heel that bruises his head. Only this time it is hardly an angel of light. Unconscious of her office as another St. Michael, the Angel of the Flesh treads under the unconquerable devil. Seen but once in full, the naked glory of the Titaness irradiates all one side of the poem with excess and superfluity of splendor.
Among the fields and gardens,.the mountain heights and hollows, of Victor Hugo's vast poetic kingdom, there are strange superb inmates, bird and beast of various fur and feather, but as yet there was nothing like this. Balzac, working with other means, might have given us, by dint of anxious anatomy, some picture of the virgin harlot. A marvellous study we should have had, one to burn into the brain and brand the memory for ever; but rather a thing to admire than desire. The magnetism of beauty, the effluence of attraction, he would not have given us. But now we have her from the hands of a poet as well as student, new-blown and actual as a gathered flower, in warm bloom of blood and breath, clothed with live color, fair with significant flesh, passionately palpable. This we see first and feel, and after this the spirit. It is a strange beast that hides in this den of roses. Such have been, however, and must be. "We are all a little mad, beginning with Venus." Her maker's definition is complete; "a possible Astarte latent in an actual Diana." She is not morally spotless in body; she is perverse, not unclean. There is nothing of foulness in the mystic rage of her desire. She is indeed "stainless and shameless;" to be unclean is common, and her "divine depravity" will touch nothing common or unclean. She has seven devils in her, and upon her not a fleck of filth. She has no more in common with the lewd low hirelings of the baser school of realism, than a creature of the brothel and the street has in common with the Thaenads who rent in sunder the living limbs of Orpheus. We seem to hear about ever the beat and clash of the terrible timbrels-the music that.Eschylus set to verse, the music that made mad, the upper notes of the psalm, shrill and strong as a sea-wind, the "bull-voiced" bellowing under-song of these dread choristers from somewhere out of sight, the tempest of tambourines giving back thunder to the thunder, the fury of divine lust that thickened with human blood the hill-streams of Cithreron.
A great poet can perfect his picture with strangely few touches. We see Virgilia as clearly as Imogen; we see Dea as clearly as Esmeralda. Yet Imogen pervades the action of Cymbeline, Virgilia hardly speaks in crossing the stage of Coriolanus. It is not easy to write at all about the last chapters of the book; something divine is there, impalpable and indefinable. I must steal the word I want; they are "written as in tears and star-fire." Or, to take Shakespeare's words after Carlyle's, they are "most dearly sweet and bitter." The pathos of.Aeschylus is no more like Dante's, Dante's no more like Shakespeare's, than any of these is like Hugo's. Every master of pathos has a key of his own to unlock the source of tears, or of that passionate and piteous pleasure which lies above and under the region of tears. Some, like Dante, condense the whole agony of a life into one exquisite and bitter drop of distilled pain. Others, like Shakespeare, translate it pang by pang into a complete cadence and sym phony of suffering. Between Lear and Ugolino the balance can never be struck. Charles Lamb, we may remember, spent hours on the debate with a friend who upheld Dante's way of work against Shakespeare's. On which side we are to range the greatest poet of our own age, there can be no moment of question. I am not sure that he has ever touched the keys of sorrow with surer hand or deeper music than here. There is nothing in his work of a more heavenly kind; yet, or it may be because, every word has in it the vibration of earthly emotion; but through it rather than above, there grows and pierces a note of divine tenderness, the very passion of pity that before this has made wise men mad. Even more than the pathos of this close, its purity and exaltation are to be noted; nothing of common is there, nothing of theatrical. And indeed it needed the supreme sweetness of Dea's reappearance, a figure translucent with divine death, a form of flesh that the light of heaven shines through more and more as the bodily veil wears thinner and consumes, to close with music and the luminous vision of a last comfort, a book so full of the sound and shine of storm. With the clamor and horror yet in our ears of that raging eloquence in which the sufferer flings into the faces of prosper ous men the very flame and hell-fire of his suffering, it needed no less than this to leave the mind exalted and reconciled. But this dew of heaven is enough to quench or allay the flames of any hell. There are words of a sweetness unsurpassable, as these: "Tout cela s'en va, et il n'y aura plus de charbon." And upon all these dwells the measureless and nameless peace of night upon a still sea. To this quiet we have been led through all the thunder and tumult of things fatal, from the tempestuous overture of storm and whirlwind; from sea again to sea. There is a divine and terrible harmony in this chorus of the play, secretly and strangely sustained, yet so that on a full reading we feel it, though at first sight or hearing it must be missed.
Of the master's unequalled power upon natural things, upon the elements we call inanimate, knowing even less the laws of their life than of ours, there is happily no need, as surely there are no words, to speak. Part of this power we may recognize as due to the subtle and deep admixture of moral emotion and of human sentiment with the mysterious motion and passion of Nature. Thus, in "Les Travailleurs de la Mer," the wind and the sea gain strength and depth from the human figure set to fight them; from the depth and strength of the incarnate spirit so doing and suffering. Thus in this book there is a new sense and a new sublimity added to the tempest by the remorse of men sinking at once under sin and storm, drowned under a double weight of deeds and waves.
Not even in that other book is the supreme mastery of Nature, the lordship of the forces of things, more admirable and wonderful than throughout the first part of this. He who could think to describe might think to rival it. But of one point I cannot but take note; there is nothing, even at the height of tragic horror, repellant, ugly, hateful. It has been said there is, and will be said again; for how should there not be distorted and envious tongues in the world? Indeed a monster is no pleasant playfellow, the "tree of man's making" bears a fearful fruit; the monstrous maidenhood of Josiane is no sister to the starry virginity of Dea; but how has the great poet handled these things? The mutilation of a child's face is a thing unbearable for thought to rest on, but have we not seen first the face of an heroic soul? Far elsewhere than in the work of our sovereign poet must we look for the horror which art will have none of, which Nature flings back with loathing in the bringer's face. If not, we of this time, who love and serve his art, should indeed be in a bad case. But upon this matter we cannot permit the blind and nameless leaders of the nameless blind to decide for us. Let the serious and candid student look again for himself and see. That "fight of the dead with the dark," that swinging of carrion-birds with the swing of the gibbeted carrion, might have been so done into words as to beget in us mere loathing; but how is it done here? The mighty manner of Victor Hugo has given to this ghastly matter something even of a horrible charm-a shocking splendor of effect. The rhythmic horror of the thing penetrates us not with loathing, but with a tragic awe and terror as at a real piece of the wind's work, an actual caprice of the night's, a portion of the tempest of things. So it is always; handle what he may, the touch of a great poet will leave upon it a spell to consume and transmute whatever a weaker touch would leave in it of repulsion.
Whether or not we are now speaking of a great poet, of a name imperishable, is not a question which can be gravely deliberated. I have only to record my own poor conviction, based on some study and comparison of the men, that precisely as we now think of those judges who put Fletcher above Shakespeare, Cowley above Milton, the paid poets of Richelieu beside Corneille, and I know not whom beside Moliere, will the future think of those judges who would place any poet of his age by the side of Victor Hugo. Nor has his age proved poor-it has rather been singularly rich-in men and in poets really and greatly admirable. But even had another done as well once and again as the master himself, who has done so well as his master? Had he done but half, had he done but a tenth of his actual work, his supremacy, being less incontestable, would no doubt have been less contested. A parsimonious poet calculates well for his own time. Had Victor Hugo granted us but one great play say "Marion de Lorme," but one great lyric work, say "Les Con templations," but one great tragic play, say any one you please-the temptation to decry and denounce him by comparison would have been less; for with the tribe of Barkilphedro the strength of this temptation grows with the growth of the benefit conferred. And very potent is that tribe in the world of men and of letters. As for me, I am not careful to praise or dispraise by comparison at all. I am not curious to inquire what of apparent or of actual truth there may be in any charge brought against the doer of the greatest things done, the giver of the greatest gifts given among men in our time. Goethe found his way of work mechanical and theatrical; Milton also lived to make oblique recantation of his early praise of Shake speare; we may and should wish this otherwise: yet none the less are they all great men. It may be there is perceptible in Victor Hugo something too much of positive intention, of prepense application, of composition and forethought: what if there were-? One question stands forth first and last-Is the work done good work and great, or not? A lesser question is this-these that we find to be faults, are they qualities separable from the man's nature? Could we have his work without them? If not, and if his work be great, what will it profit us to blame them or to regret? First, at all events, let us have the sense to enjoy it, and the grace to give thanks. What, for ex ample, if there be in this book we have spoken of errors of language, errors historical or social? Has it not throughout a mighty hold upon men and things, the godlike strength to grasp which only a great man can have of them? And for quiet power of hand, for scornful sureness of satiric truth, what can exceed his study of the queen of England (Anne)? Has it not been steeped in the tears and the fire of live emo tion? If the style be overcharged and overshining with bright sharp strokes and points, these are no fireworks of any mechanic's fashion: these are the phosphoric flashes of the sea-fire running on the depth of the limitless and living sea. Enough, that the book is great and heroic, tender and strong; full from end to end of divine and passionate love, of holy and ardent pity for men that suffer wrong at the hands of men; full, not less, of lyric loveliness and lyric force; and I for one am content to be simply glad and grateful: content in that simplicity of spirit to accept it as one more benefit at the hands of the supreme singer now living among us the beautiful and lofty life of one loving the race of men he serves, and of them in all time to be beloved.