Monday, March 22, 2010

Jeanne likes it, I have no defense against her - Victor Hugo takes his grandchildren to the zoo

I want to spend the week, of part of it, with Victor Hugo's poetry, which is amazing in itself but has also been helpful in my reading of the poets of Weird France.  Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Corbière - they are all constantly knocking up against Hugo, parodying him, fighting with him.  Pretending to ignore him.

Hugo was a poet of immense reach and ambition.  He dared not only to write a book-length poem entitled God (1891) but to mean it.  I have no idea what to do with that book, which exceeds my grasp.  More comprehensible are the poems from The Art of Being a Grandfather (1877).  It's about what the title says it's about.  It's about, mostly, Hugo taking his grandchildren to the zoo, created, Hugo thinks, "Just so that Jeanne and her nurse could visit it":

Summer displays some intensity, here in this garden;
June glistens, and flowers gleam, in an Eden of this kind,
Where the bears air their gripes; and Jeanne and Georges take me around it.
Why, it's a small-scale replica of the universe!
I visit these precincts because
Jeanne likes it, I have no defense against her.(IV.i. 18-23)

Come to think of it, this poem is also about God:

Just when we're happily surveying his work,
Giving full credit to his many talents,
Admiring the brindled tigers' gold eyes,
The swans and the blue-eyed antelopes,
The constellations in peacocks' tails -
He unlocks the door of some crazy cage,
And lo and behold, he flings kangaroos in our faces! (IV.i. 60-66)

This is not a book of children's verse - the language and rhetoric is much too complex - but a rarer thing, a book that is genuinely about children, how children see the world, what it means to be a child: 

I'm asked a sou for the poor (let's make it a
Franc); "Thank you, grandpa!" and then the game is resumed;
There's climbing, and dancing, and singing.  And how blue the sky is! (VII. 10-12)

This last bit is from a poem titled "The Immaculate Conception" in which Hugo watches his grandchildren play and ponders the meaning of original sin.  According to "Everything that has authority on this planet," the children are born to sin, "All cribs are black."  But grandpa can't see how these joyful creatures can be sinners.

I wish someone would translate the whole book for me.

Translations by E. H. and A. M. Blackmore, in Selected Poems of Victor Hugo (2001, University of Chicago Press).


  1. I would like Hugo to take me to the zoo as well. You've given me even more fodder for my French lit project which moves at a snail's pace...

  2. This Jeanne likes it too; I've not read Hugo's poetry before.

  3. Hugo was an amazing poet, absolutely amazing. I an only give a taste. I've only had a taste myself.

    I don't want to guarantee every single poem, but, honestly, people who give Hugo a try will love him, which I certainly cannot say about some of the later French lunatics, I mean, poets (Rimbaud and so on).