Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Drunken with ignorance, dazzled with gloom - the grief of Victor Hugo

My Two Daughters

In the cool of the twilight coming on,
One like a dove, the other like a swan -
Both of them happy, and both of them fair,
The sisters, young and old, are sitting there
On the verge of the garden; over them
Carnations, white blooms on a slender stem
Hang in a marble vase stirred by the air,
View them with an immobile living stare,
And quiver in the shadows - seem to be
A flight of butterflies stilled in ecstasy.

Poem I.iii from The Contemplations (1856), translated by E. H. and A. M. Blackmore.

The girls are like birds.  The carnations, like the poet papa, watch them.  The carnations are themselves like butterflies, not quite immobile.  This is a joyful poem.

It appears in a complicated book of Victor Hugo's, an extended poetic response to the 1843 drowning of his daughter Léopoldine, nineteen years old, in a boating accident.  I do not know if she is the dove or the swan in the poem.

Or perhaps the book is not simply a response to the death of his daughter, but to a more complicated loss.  The editors, and the poems, suggest that Hugo's exile from France - and the loss of his annual visit to his daughter's grave - are also important somehow.  Many of the poems are about Hugo's public role, or religious subjects, or the sea.  A rough chronology holds the pieces together.  The first three parts, as above, are about the public and private life of a Hugo-like poet.  Then a line of dots portrays Léopoldine's death, and Hugo moves to sections about grief and death and eternity.  "It's all a tomb.  You climb out, back you fall," he writes in VI.xviii, prefiguring Beckett.

The book ends with the long, extraordinary "To the One Who Stayed in France," directly addressed to Léopoldine, as a child and as something else:

Settle yourself in your bed, raise your eyes, disarrange
The icy cloth that is pleating your angel-brow,
And take this book in you hands:  yes, it is yours.

The "finished book \ Beg[ins] to flutter and breathe and live," but by the end of the stanza Hugo writes:  "I give it to the grave."  That's just the beginning.  The poems ends with a vision of creation, of comets and bronze walls and monstrous chasms, witnessed by a poet "Drunken with ignorance, dazzled with gloom," that is worthy of Milton or Blake.

I should have just written about this poem all week.  And I should point out that despite claiming that the book does this and the book does that, I have not read The Contemplations, but merely the twenty-five poems picked out by the Blackmores, supplemented by a few additional poems chosen by Harry Guest.  My understanding is that the entire book has never been put into English.  I am baffled as to why.


  1. Since you are involved in reading Hugo,the attached may be of special interest to you (re: Les Miserables).

  2. I have not read Les Misérables. It is pencilled in for next year. Lightly pencilled.

    If it does not completely exhaust me, I would like to take a look at the Vargas Llosa book.

  3. The Vargas Llosa book is concise, immensely readable, and not exhausting (which cannot be said about Les Miserables).