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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

And to rediscover the greatest lyric poet


The

volumes of _Les Contemplations_ (1856) mark the culmination of Hugo's powers as a lyrical poet. The earlier pieces are of the past, from 1830 to 1843, and resemble the poems of the past. A group of poems, sacred to the memory of his daughter, follow, in which beauty and pathos are interpenetrated by a consoling faith in humanity, in nature, and in God. The concluding pieces are in a greater manner. The visionary Hugo lives and moves amid a drama of darkness and of light; gloom is smitten by splendour, splendour collapses into gloom; and darkness and light seem to have become vocal in song.

But a further development lay before him. The great lyric poet was to carry all his lyric passion into an epic presentation, in detached scenes, of the life of humanity. The first part of _La Legende des Siecles_ was published in 1859 (later series, 1877, 1883). From the birth of Eve to the trumpet of judgment the vast cycle of ages and events unrolls before us; gracious episodes relieve the gloom; beauty and sublimity go hand in hand; in the shadow the great criminals are pursued by the great avengers. The spirit of _Les Chatiments_ is conveyed into a view of universal history; if kings are tyrants and priests are knaves, the people is a noble epic hero. This poem is the epopee of democratic passions.

The same spirit of democratic idealism inspires Hugo's romance _Les Miserables_ (1862). The subject now is modern; the book

is rather the chaos of a prose epic than a novel; the hero is the high-souled outcast of society; everything presses into the pages; they are turn by turn historical, narrative, descriptive, philosophical (with such philosophy as Hugo has to offer), humanitarian, lyrical, dramatic, at times realistic; a vast invention, beautiful, incredible, sublime, absurd, absorbing in its interest, a nightmare in its tedium.

We have passed beyond the mid-century, but Hugo is not to be presented as a torso. In the tale _Les Travailleurs de la Mer_ (1866) the choral voices of the sea cover the thinness and strain of the human voices; if the writer's genius is present in _L'Homme qui Rit_ (1869), it often chooses to display its most preposterous attitudes; the better scenes of _Quatre-vingt Treize_ (1874) beguile our judgment into the generous concessions necessary to secure an undisturbed delight. These are Hugo's later poems in prose. In verse he revived the feelings of youth with a difference, and performed happy caprices of style in the _Chansons des Rues et des Bois_ (1865); sang the incidents and emotions of his country's sorrow and glory in _L'Annee Terrible_ (1872), and--strange contrast--the poetry of babyland in _L'Art d'etre Grandpere_ (1877). Volume still followed volume--_Le Pape_, _La Pitie Supreme_, _Religions et Religion_, _L'Ane_, _Les Quatre Vents de l'Esprit_, the drama _Torquemada_. The best pages in these volumes are perhaps equal to the best in any of their author's writings; the pages which force antithesis, pile up synonyms, develop commonplaces in endless variations, the pages which are hieratic, prophetic, apocalyptic, put a strain upon the loyalty of our admiration. The last legend of Hugo's imagination was the Hugo legend: if theism was his faith, autotheism was his superstition. Yet it is easy to restore our loyalty, and to rediscover the greatest lyric poet, the greatest master of poetic counterpoint that France has known.

V

ALFRED DE MUSSET has been reproached with having isolated himself from the general interests and affairs of his time. He did not isolate himself from youth or love, and the young of two generations were his advocates. Born in 1810, son of the biographer of Rousseau, he was a Parisian, inheriting the sentiment and the scepticism of the eighteenth century. Impressionable, excitable, greedy of sensations, he felt around him the void left by the departed glories of the Empire, the void left by the passing away of religious faiths. One thing was new and living--poetry. Chenier's remains had appeared; Vigny, Hugo, Lamartine had opened the avenues for the imagination; Byron was dead, but Harold and Manfred and Don Juan survived. Musset, born a poet, was ready for imaginative ventures; he had been introduced, while still a boy, to the Cenacle. Spain and Italy were the regions of romance; at nineteen he published his first collection of poems, _Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie_, and--an adolescent Cherubin-Don Juan of song--found himself famous.


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