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Victor Hugo Concerning Shakespeare and Everything

Westralian Worker - 20 December 1918

The author of this piece is thought to have been Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin. Source

If ever there was a remarkable book it is surely the “William Shakespeare” which Victor Hugo has left as a bequest to literature. Written on the island of Jersey while the most versatile of Frenchmen was in exile it covers the whole world of writing. The translator says the book belongs to the literature of power rather than to the literature of knowledge. That reflection probably comes from the fact that in places sundry quotations and references are obviously inaccurate. But what after all is knowledge? Who shall say that the mere orderly presentation of facts is what is demanded in books? Shakespeare will probably endure longer in the world’s literature than, say, even G. H. Knibbs. Yet it is certain that as expositor of recorded and tabulated fact Knibbs is miles in advance of the immortal who spoke to Ann Hathaway beneath the apple tree. Indeed, there are not a few who declare that apple trees have more to do with knowledge, of good and evil, as the old yarn goes, than all the white, red, and other coloured papers ever compiled for the justification of statesman in an age when to be a statesman is to be without justification.

In any case, Victor Hugo’s rhapsody with Shakespeare as a title and universal art as a pulsing major theme is a tremendous example of the use to which a man of genius can put the written word. “Behold” said Ezekiel, “a hand was sent unto me; and lo, a roll of a book was therein. The voice said unto me: ‘Eat this roll.’ Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.” Eating a book is a striking piece of imagery. But all literature that is literature is imagery. It mirrors to each reader the whole geography of philosophy. What the rainbow suggests towards the close of day is only what books that are books picture for the minds of men. To be blind is therefore a misfortune for which the writers of books are not responsible.

One page of the more than three hundred in which Hugo states his ideas concerning the relation of literature to life is enough for any review notice.

He talks of Orpheus, Hermes, Job, Homer, Aeschylus, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hippocrates, Phidias, Socrates, Pluto, Aristotle, Archimedes, Euclid, Pythagoras, Lucretious, Platus, Juvenal, Tacitus, St. Paul, John of Patmos, Tertullian, Pelagius, Dante, Gutenberg, Joan of Arc, Columbus, Luther, Michael Angelo, Copernicus, Galileo, Rabelais, Colderon ,Cervantes, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Kepler, Milton, Moliere, Newton, Descartes, Kant, Pireanesi, Beccari, Diderot, Voltaire, Beethhoven, Fulton, Washington, Wellington, David, Solomon, Euripides, Seneca, Lessing, Dumas, Walter Scott, Burns, Byron, Shelley, Goethe, and so on until our head reels and we march off to where Mr. Lennox provides towels and other impedimenta for wallowing in the long wash of the Indian surge.

Science, art, men of genius are all taken to pieces and put together again. So is nature and God looked at, pondered on, and worshipped. Poetry, printing, and the theatre all come in, and the most subtle of the psychological mysteries interpreted in a phrase which the lightning sharpened and the ocean savored. We are told that the greatest poets are the real creators of human types; that they reproduce all living types, and that God is the exhaustless source of genius. Prometheus is linked to Hamlet, and the pedants and the police castigated as either bores or tyrants. For the soldier, six feet of earth ends everything, while for the poet it but makes a commencement.

This book has no rival. Its intensity and its comprehensiveness; its eloquence and flaming fire – the wonderful short, snapping phrase and the startling revelatory power of its synthesis make it a masterpiece of letters. If it were nothing but a criticism of England’s greatest playwright it would be a remarkable book. As it is the superlatives are too insipid to supply a description.