French Literature Of The 19th Century:
Glance At The Eighteenth Century
Madame De Stael
Classicism And Romanticism
Read More Articles About: French Literature Of The 19th Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
In the land of Romance there are three Kingdoms that of Poetry, of the Drama, of the Novel. Only once has one strong conqueror worn the triple crown, and that was when Victor Hugo was hailed as first in song, first in stagecraft, and first in prose fiction. Time has corrected not a few of the estimates formed by his contemporaries, nevertheless, it cannot be disputed that he had a truly imperial genius, a mind that spanned the wide earth, and touched the heavens above and the depths of misery below. Hugo was the most romantic of poets and the most realistic of romancers.
Victor Marie Hugo, born at Besançon in 1802, passed as a child under powerful influences, traceable in his mature work. His father was an army officer, who flourished and declined with the Bonapartes; his mother was a Catholic and a royalist. With her children she followed her husband to Spain and Italy, when Victor was but five years old. The characters, Hi-rani, Quasimodo, and Triboulet, are taken from incidents of that time. At fifteen he won the prize offered by the Academy for a poem on "The Advantages of Study," though there was at first some doubt whether this attempt of 320 lines could be original. Hugo had already written in his diary : "I wish to be Chateaubriand or nothing," and that great writer, then at the height of his renown, pronounced the boy poet "a sublime child." Other prizes were awarded to the youth at the Floral Games of Toulouse. He lived in Paris with his mother and remained in her faith until her death in 1820. His father, who had been obliged to dwell in seclusion at Blois, on account of his former connection with Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain, survived her eight years. In 1822 Hugo published his first book, "Odes et Ballades." The poems were highly finished, but not according to classical rules; they were in wrong metres, and extravagant in style. Hugo was still a Royalist and had not openly withdrawn from the Classicists. King Louis XVIII, hoping to encourage a new genius in aid of the Bourbons, bestowed on him a pension of 1,500 francs. This was welcome, for Hugo had married his youthful love, Adèle Foucher. In 1823 came his first novel, "Hans d'Islande" (Hans of Iceland), which shows the fondness for the extravagant and grotesque, found in his later works. "Bug Jargal" (1826), the next tale, was praised in the organ of the "Romantics," who were then beginning their war on the Classicists.
The French Academy, always so potent in literature, was at this time decidedly opposed to innovations, and upheld the principles which had dominated the Eighteenth Century. The young writers who had grown up amid the storms of the Revolution and Empire, rebelled against its dictation. Hugo, though deeply filled with the spirit of Romanticism, held aloof for a time, and then entering the new school, passed at once to its head. In the preface to his drama, "Cromwell" (1827), which was not allowed to be acted, he preached the new doctrine. "Amy Robsart," which was based on Scott's "Kenilworth," was not successful. These dramas from English sources showed the direction of the author's thoughts. When "Marion Delorme," which had been approved by the poet's friends, was offered for presentation on the stage, the censor found disloyal allusions in it and prohibited its production. King Charles X, whom Hugo had eulogized in an ode, offered to quadruple his pension if he would withdraw the play, but the poet, who declared that it was not meant to have any political significance, refused to accept the bribe, and wrote at once another drama, "Hernani." The first performance of the new play on Saturday, February 25, 1830, was made a battle between the old and the new, the Classicists, and the "Romantics." The former gathered to hiss, the latter, comprising several who were after-ward notable in literature, decked themselves with red badges and gay apparel, and came to applaud. Young France was victorious in spite of brawls. Though the press, with but one exception, condemned the play, it was repeated for two months. The King had aided the Classicists in the attempts to crush the play and in July he had to fly from Paris. Hugo had been made a power in the state in spite of himself.
The victorious dramatist published a volume of poems, "Les Feuilles d'Automne" (Autumn Leaves), which added to his fame. This was still further increased by his great historical novel, "Notre Dame de Paris" (1831), which fairly presents both his strength and his weakness. It is full of contrasts, guilt and innocence, beauty and deformity, intrigue and simplicity, ferocity and love. The work itself, in spite of its grandeur, is an ill constructed conglomeration. The author was entirely destitute of humor, and therefore liable to pass unconsciously from eloquence to bombast, from the sublime to the ridiculous. And yet this great work has not inaptly been compared to the great cathedral which gives it name an architectural wonder, full of splendid sculpture and ornament, brilliant shows and gloomy recesses, glorious works of religious art and frightful or burlesque gargoyles. The censorship of the stage was relaxed under the new citizen King, Louis Philippe, and when "Marion Delorme" was allowed to appear, it ran for more than two months. The contest between the Classicists and "Romantics" continued at its representation. Then Hugo wrote a new drama, "Le Roi S'amuse" (The King's diversion), a play of the time of Francis I, which was performed amid a tumult. The censor had condemned some passages, and the press pronounced against the whole play as indecent. King Louis Philippe was induced by the Conservatives to forbid its repetition. Hugo defended his play against the charge of immorality and sued in the courts for compensation, but was defeated. Still undaunted, he produced another drama, perhaps still more offensive, "Lucrece Borgia," which was presented at a different theater. So he went on, year after year, writing plays, sometimes in verse, as the foregoing were, according to the old rules, and sometimes in prose, according to the new license. His last successful play was "Ruy Blas," in 1838. Then his popularity as a dramatist passed to younger men, who had been trained by his example. In 1843 he tried to regain favor by "Les Burgraves," but it failed and was withdrawn after a month's presentation. Yet Hugo did not altogether relinquish dramatic writing, as some half dozen examples remain to prove.
In the meantime his poetical activity had continued unabated. In "Les Orientals" (Songs of the Orient) his lyrical power is displayed in richness befitting its title. In "Les Chants du Crépuscule" (Chants of the Twilight) he deals with the realities of modern life, divided between hope and despondency. "Les Voix Intérieures" (The Inner Voices), dedicated to his father, and "Les Rayons et les Ombres" (The Rays and the Shadows), repeat this mingled strain. On these volumes Hugo's fame as a lyrical poet firmly rests; other French poets have equaled him in power or delicacy; he alone combines both in an eminent degree.
Hugo was defeated more than once in seeking a place in the French Academy, but succeeded in 1841, thanks to the goodwill of Balzac, who retired from the competition, and never became an Academician. Four years later Hugo was made a peer. When Louis Philippe was driven into exile by the Revolution of 1848, Hugo supported the Republic, and in the new Assembly he showed his democratic and socialist tendencies. Though taunted with his political changes, he remained firm in his new principles. He so strenuously opposed Louis Napoleon, that when the coup d'état was effected in December, 1851, Hugo's name was put at the head of the proscribed, and a large reward offered for his capture. He was concealed by a Royalist nobleman, escaped to Brussels, and afterward fixed his residence in Guernsey in the English Channel. His exile continued until the fall of the Empire in 187o, and was rich in literary production. In ceaseless diatribes in prose and verse, he continued his war on Napoleon the Little. Among other publications were "Les Contemplations," a poetical record of his own early life; and the first part of a projected epic, "La Légende des Siècles" (Legend of the Ages), which was to embody the history of the human race in pictures of successive epochs. But a grander prose work was to extend his fame over the world. In 1862 appeared "Les Misérables," in which he put forth all his powers as if to eclipse the generation of popular novelists by one mighty effort. It consists of five volumes, and reveals to the gaze of the world the life of the wretched and outcast. The author himself with his love for grand phrases, called it "a sort of planetary system, making the circuit about one giant mind that is the personification of all social evil." It was followed in 1866 by "Les Travailleurs de la Mer" (The Toilers of the Sea), founded on his observation of the fisher-folk of Guernsey. Still another of the same kind was "L'Homme qui Rit" (The Man Who Laughs) (1869), which was less popular. Hugo, though a monarch in literature, was a preacher as well as a poet, and though a peer of France, desired to win the hearts and suffrages of the uncultured multitude. From his island re-treat he often put forth appeals in behalf of those oppressed or in danger of condemnation to death, and called for the abolition of capital punishment, as he had already done when in the Assembly. On the surrender of Napoleon III at Sedan in September, 1870, Hugo returned to Paris, and at once took an active part in public affairs. He was now an extreme Radical, and as such was elected in 1876 a Senator for life. During the last years of his life he was regarded by the people as a national hero. Yet he did not rest from literary labor, but sent forth pamphlets, poems, autobiographic sketches, a drama, and one more powerful novel, "Quatre-vingt-treize, treating of insurrection in Brittany in behalf of the King in 1793. One of his most charming productions is the volume of verse, "L'Art d'être Grand-père" (The Art of Being a Grand-father). He died after a brief illness on the 22d of May, 1885. His state burial at the Pantheon was a memorable spectacle.
Hugo's national popularity may be attributed partly to his longevity. He became the Grand Old Man of France. But his fame was founded on the most substantial work. In lyrical poetry he excelled Lamartine and Alfred de Musset in the amount, the variety, the power, and the delicacy of his odes. In the drama he had no close competi-tor. In fiction he surpassed Balzac, who, though a most laborious workman, never became a real artist. He rivals Dumas in his depiction of adventure, and George Sand in delineation of emotion and idyllic life. Other poets, dramatists, and novelists in various degrees claimed popular attention, but Hugo rose above them in his splendid enthusiasm for humanity and marvelous versatility. He was the typical representative of the Gallic spirit at its best enthusiastic and rhetorical, eloquent in behalf of the oppressed and in denunciation of tyranny, abounding in epigram and prone to exaggeration. No other man of the Century lorded it so superbly over so vast and brilliant a realm as did Hugo, governing with the glad consent of the governed. More than graceful courtesy moved the Laureate of England to lay his wreath on Hugo's coffin, bearing the inscription, "To the World's Greatest Poet."