Victor Hugo Central
The internet research hub for Victor Hugo enthusiasts

How to support this site

Cafe Press

William Shakespeare

by Victor Hugo

Part I -- Book 3: Art and Science
Chapter 5

Poetry cannot grow less. Why? Because it cannot grow greater.

These words, so often used, even by the lettered, "decline," "revival," show to what extent the essence of art is ignored. Superficial intellects, easily becoming pedantic, take for revival and decline some effects of juxtaposition, some optical mirages, some exigincies of language, some ebb and flow of ideas, all the vast movement of creation and thought, the result of which is universal art. This movement is the very work of the infinite passing through the human brain.

Phenomena are only seen from the culminating point; and seen from the culminating point, poetry is immovable. There is neither rise nor decline in art. Human genius is always at its full; all the rain of heaven adds not a drop of water to the ocean. A tide is an illusion; water falls on one shore only to rise on another. You take oscillations for diminutions. To say, "There will be no more poets," is to say, "There will be no more ebbing."

Poetry is element. It is irreducible, incorruptible, and refractory. Like the sea, it says each time all it has to say; that it re-begins with a tranquil majesty, and with the inexhaustible variety which belongs only to unity. This diversity in what seems monotonous is the marvel of immensity.

Wave upon wave, billow after billow, foam behind foam, movement and again movement: the Iliad is moving away, the Romancero comes; the Bible sinks, the Koran surges up; after the aquilon Pindar comes the hurricane Dante. Does everlasting poetry repeat itself? No. It is the same and it is different. Same breath, another sound.

Do you take the Cid for an imitation of Ajax? Do you take Charlemagne for a plagiary of Agamemnon? "There is nothing new under the sun." "Your novelty is the reptition of the old," etc. Oh, the strange process of criticism! Then art is but a series of counterfeits! Thersites has a thief, Falstaff. Orestes has an imitator, Hamlet. The Hippogriff is the jay of Pegasus. All these poets! A crew of cheats! They pillage each other, voilà tout! Inspiration and swindling compounded. Cervantes plunders Apuleius; Alcestes cheats Timon of Athens. The smynthean wood is the forest of Bondy. Out of which pocket comes the hand of Shakespeare? Out of the pocekt of Æschylus.

No! neither decline, nor revival, nor plagiary, nor repetition, nor imitation: identity of heart, difference of mind,-- that is all. Each great artist (we have said so already) appropriates; stamps art anew after his own image. Hamlet is Orestes after the effigy of Shakespeare. Figaro is Scapin, with the effigy of Beaumarchais. Granggousier is Silenus, after the effigy of Rabelais.

Everything re-begins with the new poet, and at the same time nothing is interrupted. Each new genius is abyss, yet there is tradition. Tradition from abyss to abyss,-- such is, in art as in the firmament, the mystery; and men of genius communicate by their effluvia, like the stars. What have they in common? Nothing,-- Everything.

From that pit that is called Ezekiel to that precipice that is called Juvenal, there is no solution of continuity for the thinker. Lean over this anthema, or over that satire, and the same vertigo is whirling around both. The Apocalypse reverberates on the polar sea of ice, and you have that aurora borealis, the Niebulungen. The Edda replies to the Vedas.

Hence this, our starting-point, to which we are returning: are is not perfectible.

No possible decline for poetry; no possible improvement. We lose our time when we say, "Nescio quid majus nascitur Iliade." Art is subject neither to diminution nor enlarging. Art has its seasons, its clouds, its eclipses, even its stains, which are splendours, perhaps its interpositions of sudden opacity for which it is not responsible; but at the end it is always with the same intensity that it brings light into the human soul. It remains the same furnace giving the same brilliancy. Homer does not grow cold.

Let us insist, moreover, on this, inasmuch as the emulation of minds is the life of the beautiful, O poets, the first rank is ever free. Let us remove everything which may disconcert daring minds and break their wings: art is a species of valour. To deny that men of genius yet to come may be peers with men of genius of the past would be to deny the ever-working power of God.

Yes, and often do we return, and shall return again, to this necessary encouragement. Emulation is almost creation. Yes, those men of genius that cannot be surpassed may be equalled.


By being different.

Table of Contents