Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why old grandmothers must sew up little boys of seven in their shrouds

Another kind of Hugo poem, from the 1853 collection Les Châtiments:

A Recollection of the Night of 4 December 1851

The boy had been shot -
two bullets in the head.
                                   The house
was clean and humble
showing all the signs of peace
and honesty.  There was a palm cross
placed above a portrait.

The grandmother was there in tears.

We undressed the child in silence.

And the poem goes on a bit longer.  The grandmother, tormented, speaks now and then.  Sounds of violence come from outside ("Others were being killed"). The poem ends with a direct attack on Louis Napoleon, by the publication of the book Emperor Napoleon III, the cause of the boy's death:

He'd like to buy Saint-Cloud, a château
thick with roses in summer
where all the mayors and all the prefects
can come and worship him.  And this is why
old grandmothers,
their hands, grey hands, shaken by time,
must sew up little boys of seven
in their shrouds.

Les Châtiments is an angry book, satirical and unforgiving.  Hugo describes Louis Napoleon as, among many other things, a wolf that needs to be hunted down (in "Le chasseur noir"), dangerous vermin.  Hugo wrote the book in exile, in Belgium and Guernsey, and unsurprisingly it was not published in France until the downfall of Louis Napoleon in 1870. 

Unlike The Art of Being a Grandfather, I do not mind not being able to read the whole thing.  I assume that much of it is too topical to make much sense as poetry anymore.  But some of it, as in this poem, or in the extraordiary descriptions of the original Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in "L'expiation, I"*, have the power of the best scenes from Hugo's novels.

This translation of "Souvenir de la nuit du 4" is by Harry Guest, and is from The Distance, the Shadows: Selected Poems.  Guest translates Hugo freely, very freely.  The original poem is in regular rhyming couplets!  Either Guest has destroyed the original, or turned it into something fresh and immediate.

*  A sample, also from Harry Guest:

Each night the challenge, then
the alarm and then attack.  The phantom men
picked up their rifles seeing
appalling horsemen hurtle through the dark,
storm-clouds of fierce assailants shrieking
like birds of prey.  Throughout these hours
of darkness every night a whole
army was being lost.


  1. Wow, that's a pretty powerful and depressing poem. I was wondering about rhyme especially after the Grandfather poems you posted about the other day. Are all of Hugo's poems in rhyme but just aren't translated that way, or are they a mix?

  2. Powerful and depressing - it sure is. Moreso, on both accounts, if you have the whole poem.

    That's a great question about the rhyming. My impression is that Hugo always uses rhymes. Both translations I am reading sometimes use rhyme, with Guest generally freer in meter than the Blackmores.

    As a guess, I would bet that the translators use rhyme if they think they have found a good equivalent to Hugo, and otherwise skip it.

    One could imagine an English, rhyming couplet version of this poem sounding trivial, or repellent, like a bad joke.

    Anyway, there's a lot of good work left for English translators of Hugo!