Victor Hugo is a giant in French poetry. Why we do not have, in English, some kind of collected edition of his poems (in many volumes) I do not understand, except that almost no one wants to read poetry, even fewer old poetry, even fewer translated old poetry, etc. Other than all of those reasons, I don’t understand it.
But last year translator R. G. Skinner and Swan Isle Press filled approximately half of a major gap in that imaginary shelf of books with the release of God and the End of Satan – Dieu et La Fin de Satan: Selections: In a Bilingual Edition, which contains – what a title – about of each of Hugo’s two huge unfinished posthumous poems, The End of Satan (1886) and God (1891), the latter somehow the most Hugolian of all possible titles. Victor Hugo thought big.
Today, Dieu is often considered Hugo’s single finest achievement. There is nothing quite like it in our language. Its first English readers compared it to the strange late poems of Blake; and that is possibly still the closest analogy. (Foreword, p. xi, E.H. and A.M. Blackmore, themselves translators of Hugo’s poems)
Exactly how often, I would like to ask. I will also note that the “first English readers” were the Algernon Swinburne and his circle, the poets and critics who had rediscovered Blake’s cosmic poems. I am not sure the fit with Blake is that good. But then we are left with nothing.
The End of Satan is about the fall of Lucifer and – hey, wait a minute, maybe we do have something like this in English! It is pretty strange reading this episode in an English so flat, even though as a translation it is fine. But it’s not Milton:
The fall of the damned one began once again – Terrifying,
Overcast, and pierced with luminous holes like a sieve,
The sky full of suns vanished, the light
Trembled, and into the night this giant plummeted headlong,
Naked , sinister, and dragged down by the weight of his crimes;
And like a wedge, his head opened the abyss. (Beyond the Earth I, And Then There Was Night, II, ll.29 – 34, p. 165)
No complaints about the imagery, or Hugo’s since of scale, especially his conceit that Satan’s fall is sin some way part of creation, that he creates the abyss and hell as he falls.
The original is in rhyming couplets, which, to my poor understanding, sound dignified and suitable for declaiming by a good actor:
Nu, sinistre, et tiré par le poids de son crime,
Tombait, et, comme un coin, sa tête ouvrait l’abîme.
Hugo works his way through the Bible, how thoroughly I do not know. The abridgment includes the story of Noah but omits Adam and Eve, for example. It includes a long part of Christ’s crucifixion, but how much of his earlier life I cannot say. Noah is included, I assume, because the imagery is so strong:
And since Man had filled his squalid soul
With abysses, God could say to the abyss: Fill the world.
The urn of the abyss tilted, day fled;
And all that lived and walked became night,
While lifeless Eve trembled in her deep grave. (The first page I, The Entry into Darkness, I, ll. 49-53, p. 185)
The world is deluged not with rain, but something worse, whatever dark matter fills the abyss Satan created. Hugo is doing something new, bringing his own coherence and imagery to the old stories, which is a bit like Blake. Later Chaos and The Flood argue about the meaning of the destruction of mankind. “I already have dragons,” says Chaos. “I have no wish for men.” In this big, mythic setting Hugo does not always sound like Hugo to me, but that sure does.