The Distance, The Shadows: Selected Poems 
by Victor Hugo, translated by Harry Guest.
Anvil, 250 pp., £12.95, November 2002, 0 85646 345 0
Show More
Selected Poetry 
by Victor Hugo, translated by Steven Monte.
Carcanet, 305 pp., £12.95, September 2001, 1 85754 539 7
Show More
Selected Poems of Victor Hugo: A Bilingual Edition 
edited by E.H. Blackmore and A.M. Blackmore.
Chicago, 631 pp., £24.50, April 2001, 0 226 35980 8
Show More
Show More

The size and variety of Victor Hugo’s oeuvre – around 200,000 lines of verse, plus dozens of novels, plays and critical works – makes it difficult to get an overview, let alone make a selection. In his Hugoliade, Ionesco suggested that Hugo’s best chance of survival lay in the impossibility of reading everything he’d written. But no other French poet has had such influence: unlike Baudelaire and Mallarmé, Hugo affected more or less every poet who came after him. He threw out so many novelties he could hardly keep up with himself. A reader of any of the new selections will not only discover a way into 19th-century poetry, but also into poetic Modernism. There is the Hugo of André Breton, a proto-Surrealist drawn to the irrational and dark; the politically engaged visionary revealed in Louis Aragon’s classic 1952 selection; the Hugo who ‘was poetry’, as Mallarmé claimed in Crise de vers; while Rimbaud’s version is a voyant, a ‘seer’, although one who didn’t see far enough, or not for long enough. Hugo saw everything he wrote as an experiment, and was, more than any other great poet of his century, aware of the provisionality of every position, every thought, every work of art. He was fond of saying that he corrected one work in the next one, that there were no contradictions, just stages of thought. No subject was too low or too high, too new or too old, too hackneyed or too erudite. Any selection of his poetry is not just a summation of the romantic mind at its most potent and protean, but a compendium of foretastes of the poetry that followed.

Despite all this, praise for Hugo has often been grudging. Asked who the greatest French writer was, Gide famously replied, ‘Victor Hugo – hélas,’ while Cocteau, whose critical insights are so graceful they are often mistakenly thought lightweight, described Hugo as ‘a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo’. It is true that Hugo was never more himself than when absorbed in his own myth. ‘And all of ‘89 broke out,’ he exults in ‘Reply to an Act of Accusation’, and compares himself to the Revolution’s leaders: ‘Yes, I am that Danton, I am that Robespierre!’ Who would have guessed (or remembered) in 1856, when this poem appeared, that Hugo had started out as a royalist, editing a conservative paper and enjoying the patronage of a reactionary establishment?

I yelled: ‘There’ll be no words where the idea’s flight
Can’t land, moistened by the azure and the light!’
Syllepsis, hypallage, litotes, stood alone
And trembled; I stood on Aristotle’s milestone,
And declared the words equal, free, and of age.

(Monte’s translation)

Hugo had an eccentric theory of genius (best seen in the visionary barminess of his book on Shakespeare), but he also knew how to appeal to the ordinary. He understood the symbolic dimension of politics, and made good use of it: the man who could see an H in the towers of Notre Dame also asked for a pauper’s hearse, and despite being a millionaire left an exiguous sum to the poor, knowing that rumour and hearsay would transform it into a fortune. He spoke out against the death penalty and opposed the defeated Communards in 1871 even as he appealed for clemency for them. He knew how to play the people, and two million of them turned out for his funeral in 1885. He was an artful politician in his verse, as in ‘Au Peuple’, which figures the people as an ocean:

It resembles you. It is awe-inspiring and at peace.
Its wrinkled plain dazzles and reflects infinities.
It possesses movement and depth; it is immense.
Softened by a sunbeam, ruffled by a breeze,
It is harmony sometimes, and sometimes dissonance.


Aragon’s selection gave voice to what he called the ‘powerful harmonies of our history yesterday, today and tomorrow’. Mallarmé claimed that the future was only ‘the bursting forth of what should have happened earlier, or near the origin’, but Hugo believed in moral, economic and scientific progress. The difference is evident in Mallarmé’s use of syntax to defer and interrupt the forward flow of reading, compared with Hugo’s use of syntax, new images and verbs to drive the verse forward. Valéry said that Hugo introduced into ‘each distych new and heterogeneous elements, indispensable for the advancement of the poem’s effect’. Benjamin wrote in the Arcades Project that it was as if ‘some law of his poetic nature’ made Hugo ‘stamp every thought with the form of an apotheosis’. His poems, especially the ones conceived on an epic scale, such as Les Contemplations and La Légende des siècles, seem to believe in progress and to attempt a coherent if mysterious unfolding of revelations. For Hugo, history was like a poem, with syntax driving ahead, and rhymes throwing up reflections and correspondences across time.

Hugo’s mother was a Vendéenne (loyalist, monarchist); his father came from Lorraine and was a Napoleonic general. Hugo would not have seen his own move from royalism to republicanism, conservatism to progressive politics, as an about-turn, but would have made it part of some grand narrative of invigorating antitheses. While his visionary poetry suggests that there is a level of perception at which opposites unite, his autobiographical verse finds this resolution in himself. He saw himself as the incarnation, but also the spectacular fusion, of his country’s and his century’s dualities:

This century was two years old. By now
Rome replaced Sparta; the imperial brow
Burst through the consul’s narrow mask – the start
Of the Napoleon inside Bonaparte!
In Besançon, that ancient town of Spain,
Tossed to the ever-flowing breeze like grain,
Was born a child both Breton and Lorraine,
A child with neither hue nor sight nor sound,
Wraithlike and weak – and everyone around,
Except his mother, left him to his doom;
Seeing his neck sway like a fragile plume
Of grass, beside his cot they placed his tomb.
This child whom life was wiping from its page
(Not one day would be added to his age)
Was myself.

‘Ce siècle avait deux ans’ (the Blackmores’ translation)

Hugo makes himself a measure of the century’s age, a notion Aragon endorsed: ‘Hugo was born on the eve of Empire,’ he wrote, ‘and died two years after Karl Marx.’

After my songs, I meditate; I raise
The fallen emperor a shrine; I praise
Liberty for its fruits, the crown and king
For its due honour and its suffering –
True to my parents’ blood in every way,
He from the army, she from the Vendée.

Hugo rhymes his birth with the moment Bonaparte becomes Napoleon. In Choses vues, a posthumous four-volume prose miscellany, he describes the 1848 Revolution as a ‘parody’ of 1793 in which the guillotine ‘plagiarised’ its former self; the Revolution of 1793, acted out by men, was mimicked in 1848 by monkeys. Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire draws on similar metaphors of repetition and parody, though Marx had little time for Hugo’s Châtiments because ‘Hugo contents himself with bitterly witty invective against the author responsible for the coup d’état. The event itself appears to him like a flash of lightning in a calm sky.’ If Hugo could not find satisfactory correspondences he simply made them up. Graham Robb’s Life lists some of his inventions: that Notre-Dame de Paris appeared the very day a mob ransacked the Archbishop’s Palace, that his daughter Adèle was born on the second day of the July Revolution, and so on. These adjustments are attempts to see poetic sense and necessity in an individual’s relationship with his time.

Valéry felt that Hugo ‘took big words but manipulated them without effort, with such ease that they give the impression of being empty’. All these translators are aware of the problem of grandiloquence, and try to acclimatise us. In his lucid and intelligent introduction Steven Monte claims that ‘those infamously vague and repeated words . . . were more precise than reputation had led me to suppose, and . . . accrued suggestive sense through repetition.’ Hugo’s favourite effect, in thought as well as art, was what he called surnaturalisme, an excessive and visionary truthfulness; prefixes of superlativeness and excess abound in his work.

His favourite tone is a prophetic chattiness. This is the voice in which he conducts dialogues with other poets, or with deities, or with history. We see it in ‘To André Chénier’:

Yes, my verses can, without marrying below,
Take on some familiar accents of prose.
It’s true, I sometimes laugh on the lyre and reed.

Chénier was a lasting figure in Hugo’s pantheon, even turning up for a few séances in Jersey, where Hugo went into exile after Louis-Napoléon took power. One of the most entertaining adjuncts to Hugo’s collected works is the posthumously published Les Tables tournantes de Jersey, in which Racine, Byron and Shakespeare figure among the writers who come and shoot the breeze with Hugo (Shakespeare admits that English is inferior to French). One discussion begins with Hugo asking Chénier:

– Is something bothering you? (silence)
– Are you still there, Chénier?
– No.
– Who says ‘No’.
– The lion of Androcles.
– Speak.
– The mane is the hair of a sovereign forehead. The lion is the poet of solitudes. The lion is upright when the sun rises. The lion forgives, the lion dreams. The lion is the groaning of the wind, the silence of the desert. My mane when I raise it is the living lyre of the storm. My tail when I raise it is the whip of air . . . The lion is the power that makes man great and the pity that makes man good. I am that lion. Salute me.
– We salute you. Are you coming back?
– Yes.
– What day?
– Tuesday, nine o’clock.
– Tell André Chénier we’d like him to come back and finish his poem . . .
– Yes.

In the preface to Les Contemplations, perhaps his greatest work, Hugo wrote: ‘The author has allowed this book to be formed in him, so to speak. Life, filtering drop by drop through events and sufferings, has placed it in his heart. Those who look into it will see their own image in this deep sad water which has slowly gathered there, in the depths of a soul.’ Hugo was fascinated by the ability of a work of art to cut loose from its creator. His belief in genius had a passive as well as an active dimension; in the heavily gendered idiom of the time, he saw himself as an oceanic ‘womb’. He experimented with ink drawings, splashing ink onto paper and folding it, or allowing the ink to run and find its own forms: bodies, heads, monsters, hieroglyphs. With Hugo, Romantic clichés of inspiration give way to something darker, almost occult. The self, he wrote in Promontorium somnii, was ‘a vertiginous spiral’, and in ‘The Slope of Reverie’ (from Les Feuilles d’automne, 1831) the vertical axis of Romanticism is invoked to plumb the depths, not scale the heights, of consciousness:

My friends, don’t delve into your favourite reveries,
Don’t burrow through your soil growing flowers and trees,
And when your vision conjures sleeping seas with hidden floors,
Swim across their surfaces or play along their shores.
Because thought is sombre! An invisible ravine
Descends from the real world to the sphere that can’t be seen.
The spiralling is deep and, when one is in its throes,
Extends without pausing and increases as one goes,
And, having sensed some great enigma one brushed past,
One often comes back from the voyage there aghast!

(Monte’s translation)

Hugo had demonstrated a prodigious gift for rhyme in his earliest work: in such virtuoso pieces as ‘Les Djinns’ (from Les Orientales, 1829), for example. The poem – only Monte translates it – is composed of 15 eight-line stanzas, rising incrementally from two to eight syllables as the Djinns approach, then to ten when they arrive, before decreasing at the same rate back to two syllables. The final stanza is:

On doute
La nuit . . .
J’écoute: –
Tout fuit,
Tout passe;
Le bruit.

This anticipates some of the poetic effects of Verlaine and the Symbolists and is almost impossible to translate. Here is Monte’s version – resourceful, but unable to catch the economy or rich sounds of the original:

Of night,
I pause . . .
The round
World fades,
And space
The sound.

Also characteristic of Hugo are poems of such ordinary tone and diction that one can hardly pinpoint where they change into affecting pieces of pathos. ‘Demain, dès l’aube’ is one of the most anthologised:

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Monte has:

Tomorrow, at dawn, when the fields bleach in the sun,
I will set out. I know it’s me you’re waiting for.
I’ll pass through the forest and pass by the mountains:
I can’t be separated from you any more.

The Blackmores:

At dawn tomorrow, when the plains grow bright,
I’ll go. You wait for me, I know you do.
I’ll cross the woods, I’ll cross the mountain-height.
No longer can I keep away from you.

Harry Guest:

At dawn, tomorrow, when the landscape’s whitening,
I shall set off. You are expecting me.
I’ll take the forest road, the upland road.
I can’t go on living so far from you.

There are telling differences here. Monte and Guest have echoed the striking ‘blanchit’ with the nicely troubling ‘bleach’ and ‘whiten’, where the Blackmores’ ‘bright’ smoothes out the slight proleptic jolt in the original. None of them translates ‘vois-tu’, which is a pity since the address to the as yet unknown woman depends on its immediacy. In the last stanza, it becomes clear that this is not a romantic assignation but a visit to a grave (that of Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine, who drowned in 1843):

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.

I won’t look at the gold of evening as it falls,
Nor the sails in the distance descending on Harfleur,
And when I arrive, I’ll put flowers on your tomb,
A bouquet of holly and some heather that’s in bloom.


I’ll see neither the gold of evening gloom
Nor the sails off to Harfleur far away;
And when I come, I’ll place upon your tomb
Some flowering heather and a holly spray.


I shall not watch the gold as evening falls
nor distant sails downstream towards Harfleur
and on arrival I’ll place on your grave
a wreath of holly twined with heather flowers.


In the original ‘tombe’ arrives first as a verb, then as a noun (Hugo had used this device before, in ‘L’Expiation’, to describe Napoleon listening to his resonating fame from his grave). In this poem ‘fleur’ and ‘Harfleur’ close the stanza’s homonymic lid.

The Blackmores tend to go for obvious rhymes like ‘gloom/tomb’ and ‘bright/ mountain-height’, making Hugo sound like an English-language contemporary of himself. This approach works better in the grand poems than in the more modulated, intimate or tonally varied ones. Most successful, and an achievement not just of translation but of selection, is their inclusion of La Fin de Satan and Dieu in versions which do justice to Hugo’s riotous epic imagination. In Dieu, certain sections open with two rows of dots, ellipses which have the effect of fading the work in and out:



I could see, far above my head, a black speck.

It came and went, like a fly on the ceiling.
The darkness was sublime.

Man, when he thinks
Is winged; and the abyss was drawing me
Into its night.

Monte and Guest, on the other hand, have tried to retain something of Hugo’s strangeness. This makes their translations more muscular and modern-sounding. Monte doesn’t shirk from difficulty, as with ‘Les Djinns’, while Guest seems to focus on what can be brought into English without undue violation or compensatory rhetoric. In ‘Night on the Ocean’ (‘Oceano Nox’), Guest creates a sense of danger and disjunction by replicating in spacing Hugo’s dramatic displacement of the traditional caesura:

Captains seamen how many
leaving light-hearted on distant cruises
vanished beyond the bleak horizon
how many have gone confronting their fate
one fathomless sea one moonless night
buried for ever beneath a blind ocean

Guest is one of the most distinguished contemporary poet-translators (this is a reprint of a 1978 edition), and the simultaneous publication of his Collected Poems makes available his versions of Mallarmé, Rimbaud and Nerval, as well as translations from several other languages.* Where Guest tends to choose largely what will work in English, Monte brings over something of what usually gets lost in translation. His versions have an alluring unfamiliarity; they retain foreignness without sounding foreign.

Hugo’s death in 1885 had little effect on his publishing career, though it marked the start of a long period of critical neglect. The Symbolists, perhaps unaware of how much they owed him, preferred to invoke Gautier and Baudelaire. There remained enough unpublished poems to keep new books by Hugo appearing for the next fifty years. Toute la lyre is the portmanteau name given to the volumes that came out between 1888 and 1897, the period when Symbolism was the dominant poetic school. Many critics, including Valéry, saw these as containing Hugo’s greatest work. In his elegy to Gautier, which begins ‘Friend, poet, spirit, you are fleeing from our night./You are leaving our uproar to enter the light,’ Hugo recalls the romantic battles he and Gautier fought together; but having twined their lives around the age, Hugo – unable to write about anyone else for very long – neatly twines his own projected death around Gautier’s actual one (this is Monte’s translation):

Here comes the hour when I too must go away.
My life’s thread quivers as if waiting for the blow;
The wind that carried you off lifts me up also . . .
It’s my turn; and the night fills up my troubled eye
Which sees the fate of doves in the future that looms,
And weeps on the cradles and smiles at the tombs.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences