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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

The Odes et Ballades of 1826


character was less eminent

than his genius. If it is vanity to take a magnified Brocken-shadow for one's self and to admire its superb gestures upon the mist, never was vanity more complete or more completely satisfied than his. He was to himself the hero of a Hugo legend, and did not perceive when the sublime became the ridiculous. Generous to those beneath him, charitable to universal humanity, he was capable of passionate vindictiveness against individuals who had wounded his self-esteem; and, since whatever opposed him was necessarily an embodiment of the power of evil, the contest rose into one of Ormuzd against Ahriman. His intellect, the lesser faculty, was absorbed by his imagination. Vacuous generalities, clothed in magnificent rhetoric, could pass with him for ideas; but his visions are sometimes thoughts in images. The voice of his passions was leonine, but his moral sensibility wanted delicacy. His laughter was rather boisterous than fine. He is a poet who seldom achieved a faultless rendering of the subtle psychology of lovers' hearts; there was in him a vein of robust sensuality. Children were dear to him, and he knew their pretty ways; a cynical critic might allege that he exploited overmuch the tender domesticities. His eye seized every form, vast or minute, defined or vague; his feeling for colour was rather strong than delicate; his vision was obsessed by the antithesis of light and shade; his ear was awake to every utterance of wind or wave; phantoms of sound attacked his imagination;
he lent the vibrations of his nerves, his own sentiments, to material objects; he took and gave back the soul of things. Words for him were living powers; language was a moving mass of significant myths, from which he chose and which he aggrandised; sensations created images and words, and images and words created ideas. He was a master of all harmonies of verse; now a solitary breather through pipe or flute; more often the conductor of an orchestra.

To say that Hugo was the greatest lyric poet of France is to say too little; the claim that he was the greatest lyric poet of all literature might be urged. The power and magnitude of his song result from the fact that in it what is personal and what is impersonal are fused in one; his soul echoed orchestrally the orchestrations of nature and of humanity--

"_Son ame aux mille voix, que le Dieu qu'il adore Mit au centre de tout comme un echo sonore._"

And thus if his poetry is not great by virtue of his own ideas, it becomes great as a reverberation of the sensations, the passions, and the thoughts of the world. He did not soar tranquilly aloft and alone; he was always a combatant in the world and wave of men, or borne joyously upon the flood. The evolution of his genius was a long process. The _Odes_ of 1822 and 1824, the _Odes et Ballades_ of 1826, Catholic and royalist in their feeling, show in their form a struggling originality oppressed by the literary methods of his predecessors--J.-B. Rousseau, Lebrun, Casimir Delavigne. This originality asserts itself chiefly in the _Ballades_. His early prose romances, _Han d'Islande_ (1823) and _Bug-Jargal_ (1826)--the one a tale of the seventeenth-century man-beast of Norway, the other a tale of the generous St. Domingo slave--are challenges of youthful and extravagant romanticism. _Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamne_ (1829) is a prose study in the pathology of passion. The same year which saw the publication of the last of these is also the year of _Les Orientales_. These poems are also studies--amazing studies in colour, in form, in all the secrets of poetic art. The East was popular--Hugo was ever passionate for popularity--and Spain, which he had seen, is half-Oriental. But of what concern is the East? he had seen a sunset last summer, and the fancy took him; the East becomes an occasion for marvellous combinations of harmony and lustrous tinctures; art for its own sake is precious.


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