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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Victor Hugo rhymed his chivalric epic


IV

To present VICTOR HUGO in a few pages is to carve a colossus on a cherry-stone. His work dominates half a century. In the years of exile he began a new and greater career. During the closing ten years his powers had waned, but still they were extraordinary. Even with death he did not retire; posthumous publications astonished and perhaps fatigued the world.

Victor-Marie Hugo was born at Besancon on February 26, 1802, son of a distinguished military officer--

"_Mon pere vieux soldat, ma mere Vendeenne._"

Mother and children followed Commandant Hugo to Italy in 1807; in Spain they halted at Ernani and at Torquemada--names remembered by the poet; at Madrid a Spanish Quasimodo, their school servant, alarmed the brothers Eugene and Victor. A schoolboy in Paris, Victor Hugo rhymed his chivalric epic, his tragedy, his melodrama--"les betises que je faisais avant ma naissance." In 1816 he wrote in his manuscript book the words, "I wish to be Chateaubriand or nothing." At fifteen he was the laureate of the Jeux Floraux, the "enfant sublime" of Chateaubriand's or of Soumet's praise.

Founder, with his brothers, of the _Conservateur Litteraire_, he entered into the society of those young aspirants who hoped to renew the literature of France. In 1822 he published his _Odes et Poesies Diverses_, and, obtaining a

pension from Louis XVIII., he married his early playfellow Adele Foucher. Romances, lyrics, dramas followed in swift succession. Hugo, by virtue of his genius, his domineering temper, his incessant activity, became the acknowledged leader of the romantic school. In 1841 he was a member of the Academy; four years later he was created a peer. Elected deputy of Paris in 1848, the year of revolution, he sat on the Right in the Constituant, on the Left in the Legislative Assembly, tending more and more towards socialistic democracy. The Empire drove him into exile--exile first at Brussels, then in Jersey, finally in Guernsey, where Hugo, in his own imagination, was the martyred but unsubdued demi-god on his sea-beaten rock. In 1870, on the fall of the Empire, he returned to Paris, witnessed the siege, was elected to the National Assembly, urged a continuance of the war, spoke in favour of recognising Garibaldi's election, and being tumultuously interrupted by the Right, sent in his resignation. Occupied at Brussels in the interests of his orphaned grandchildren, he was requested to leave, on the ground of his zeal on behalf of the fallen Communists; he returned to Paris, and pleaded in the _Rappel_ for amnesty. In 1875 he was elected a senator. His eightieth birthday was celebrated with enthusiasm. Three years later, on May 23, 1885, Victor Hugo died. His funeral pomps were such that one might suppose the genius of France itself was about to be received at the Pantheon.

In Victor Hugo an enormous imagination and a vast force of will operated amid inferior faculties. His


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