victor hugoIntroduction

Victor Hugo (1882-1885), poet, dramatist and novelist, led the Romantic rebellion in France and took a contentious part in its national life. Born the son of an army general, Hugo transferred to Paris when his parents separated. He started writing while attending lycée in Paris, and his first collection of poems brought a royal pension from Louis XVIII.

Wider fame came with the play Hernani in 1830 and the novel Notre-Dame de Paris in 1831. He married Adèle Foucher in 1822 but the lyric poetry was inspired by various liaisons, particularly that with Juliette Drouet, the actress with whom Hugo shared a lasting ménage à trois. A man of towering vanity, and often criticised for his influence on lesser mortals, Hugo remains the greatest French writer of his century with a hold even today on the affections of his countrymen.

Victor Hugo's achievement was to vastly extend the range and authority of poetry. Those who speak French indifferently will find Hugo's work much easier to appreciate than Racine's, though there are certainly problems. A far-ranging imagery, that verges on the melodramatic in its attempt to put life into shadowy abstractions. Torrents of symbols in surging rhythms that can too often end in bombast. Visionary poetry that passed itself off as the oracle of wisdom. None of these make the man or his poetry easy to accept today, but Hugo brought a new sense of the beauty of words, extended the lyrical resources of French verse, and invigorated the alexandrine with striking enjambments and placings of the caesura. The output was vast, and its diversity even more astonishing.

Contemporary French poetry, like that of contemporary English poetry, draws its themes and styles from the nineteenth-century poets who reacted against the excesses of Romanticism — from Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé. In other French poets has to be found what is often missing from Hugo — tender passion (Musset), unsentimental pathos (Fargue), natural simplicity (Jammes), mystical love (Éluard). Nonetheless, the poetry of Claudel and St. John Perse is unthinkable without Hugo's example, as is the concept, so dear to the French heart, of writer as man of ideas. Hugo's style is the man, and the wholehearted force of his personality has to be taken with the work.

Reading French poetry French verse readily achieves what is difficult in English — extended prose poems, idiomatic expression that still 'obeys the rules', catchy nightclub numbers that are undeniably poetry. But to appreciate these matters, you need an ear for quantitative verse and a knowledge of French prosody. Try On Reading French Verse by R. Lewis (1982) or French Verse-Art A Study by C. Scott (1980). And, above all, listen to French verse being read properly, by native speakers or on tape and CD.

Suggestion: Cambridge Introduction to French Poetry C.U.P. 2003: $22.99

Covers all you reasonably need to know when reading French verse — with chapters on verse technicalities, genres, and the larger issues that concern past literature. Warmly recommended as a solid introduction to students and those presenting courses at school and university.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.