Thursday, March 25, 2010

this is why the sea has a despairing sound - a Hugo sea poem

Victor Hugo wrote repeatedly about the sea.  In exile in Guernsey, he could view the sea from his house, so a number of his great sea poems, as well as the novel The Toilers of the Sea (1866), which I have not read, but must, date from that period.  Here's the beginning of an earlier sea poem, from 1840:

from Night on the Ocean \ Oceano Nox

Captains seamen     how many
leaving light-hearted     on distant cruises
vanished beyond     the bleak horizon
how many have gone    confronting their fate
one fathomless sea     one moonless night
buried for ever     beneath a blind ocean

The ocean is a destructive force, a killer.  Hugo incessantly links the ocean with death, and identifies it as malevolent, as if it had a will, yet natural, which, of course, it is.  It has some resemblance to Hugo's conception of God.

The poem is more about the dead sailors than the blind ocean.  Their "poor drowned skulls" roll about on the sea-bottom.  Men on shore kiss their fiancées "while the green seaweed     covers you sleeping."  Soon the sailors are forgotten, without even a tombstone or a shipwreck ballad to be "sung by a beggar."  The poem ends:

and this is why the sea     has a despairing sound
at evening when we hear     waves approach the shore!

Does that sound come from the dead men in the sea, or the sea itself?

I'm back to the Harry Guest volume, The Distance, The Shadows.  I love what he does with this poem, which, in the original, rhymes and has ten syllables per line and does not have huge gaps in the middle of each line.  Guest is duplicating or at least emphasizing the caesurae in the poem, the pauses in each line, that are essential to the rhythm of the French poem but are likely to be ignored or rushed by the English reader.  Guest forces them on us.

Hugo's celebrity is based on the crazed pro and con response to his 1830 plat Hernani.  My understanding is that the Classicists began booing and howling the very first line, because the caesura was in the wong place.  Can I possibly have this story right?  It seems nuts.  Anyway, my point is, I like what Guest is doing with the pauses.


  1. Caesure always make me think of Anglo-Saxon poetry, especially you think Hugo was aiming for the appearance of archaism, and if so, to what purpose?

  2. I can say with the easy confidence of the half-informed that Hugo's use of the caesura is not related to archaic French poetry, but is rather a Romantic protest against or expansion of classical French verse, meaning Racine.

    Hugo is not trying to appear archaic, but to be modern.

  3. I have learned this week how astoundingly little I knew about Victor Hugo. I did not know he was exiled to Guernsey; I did not know he wrote poetry. I quite like this poem and now am interested to read that novel.

  4. I did not know he wrote poetry

    Here, hidden in the comments, I will go farther than I did elsewhere - Hugo was the greatest pre-Modernist French poet, rivalled only by Villon.

    That pre-Modernist caveat is there because, from Baudelaire on, the rules changed, and I still don't understand the new rules.

    E.g., in the collection of Jules Laforgue I'm now reading: "Martin Turnell has called Laforgue's last work the most important single volume published in Europe since the seventeenth century." To which I say: ????? It's the book in which Laforgue more or less invents vers libre.