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“Les Contemplations,” but one great tragic story-say any one you please, the temptation to decry or denounce him by comparison would have been less; for with the tribe of Barkilphedro the strength of this temptation grows with the growth of the benefit conferred. And very potent is that tribe in the world of men and of letters.
As for me, I am not careful to praise or dispraise by comparison at all. I am not curious to enquire what of apparent or of actual truth there may be in any charge brought against the doer of the greatest things done, the giver of the greatest gifts given among men in our times. Goethe found his way of work mechanical and theatrical ; Milton also lived to make oblique recantation of his early praise of Shakespeare ; we may, and should, wish this otherwise : yet none the less are they all great men. It may be there is perceptible in Victor Hugo something too much of positive intention, of prepense application, of composition and forethought : what if there were ? One question stands forth first and last; is the work done good work and great, or not? A lesser question is this; these that we find to be faults, are they qualities separable from the man's nature? could we have his work without them? If not, and if his work be great, what will it profit us to blame them or to regret? First, at all events, let us have the sense to enjoy it and the grace to give thanks. What for example if there be in this book we have spoken of errors of language, errors historical or social? Has it not throughout a mighty hold upon men and things, the godlike strength of grasp which only a great man can have of them? And for quiet power of hand, for scornful sureness of satiric truth, what can exceed his study of the
queen of England (Anne) ? Has it not been steeped in the tears and the fire of live emotion ? If the style be overcharged and overshining with bright sharp strokes and points, these are no fireworks of any mechanic's fashion : these are the phosphoric flashes of the sea-fire moving on the depth of the limitless and living sea. Enough, that the book is great and heroic, tender and strong; full from end to end of divine and passionate love, of holy and ardent pity for men that suffer wrong at the hands of men ; full, not less, of lyric loveliness and lyric force ; and I for one am content to be simply glad and grateful : content in that simplicity of spirit to accept it as one more benefit at the hands of the supreme singer now living among us the beautiful and lofty life of one loving the race of men he serves, and of them in all time to be beloved.
VICTOR HUGO: L'ANNÉE TERRIBLE.
The man who takes upon himself the task of commentary on a book of this rank feels something of the same hesitation and reluctance come upon him which fell upon the writer at starting. He cannot at once be sure whether he does right to go forward or not. It is not that he too feels the rising tide of the bitter waters of shame ; it is not that he too sees a “star grow lesser in heaven.” It is, if I may take up the poet's metaphor, that he sees the crowning star of a long night now dilated to a sun through the thunderclouds of the morning. He knows that this fire in heaven is indeed the fire of day; but he finds no fitting words of welcome or thanksgiving to salute so terrible a sunrise. Once more we receive from the hands of our supreme poet a book full of light and music ; but a book written in tears and blood and characters of flame. We cannot but rejoice that it has been written, and grieve that ever it could have been. The child brought forth is visibly of divine birih, and his blood of the immortals; but he was brought forth with heartbreak and the pangs of “a terrible childbed.” The delight we take in the majesty and beauty of this “mighty line ” has been dearly purchased by the bitter occasion which evoked it. Yet, it cannot but be with delight that we receive so great a gift as this from the chief poet of an age, and of an age
so full of light and storm, of high action and high passion, as is ours. For his hand has never been firmer, his note more clear than now;
έτι γαρ θεόθεν καταπνείει
αλκά ξύμφυτος αιών: and in these bitter and tragic pages there is a sweetness surpassing that of love-songs or songs of wine, a sweetness as of the roll of the book spread before Ezekiel, that was written within and without, “and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.—Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.”
It would be well that all students of this book should read together with it, as complement at once and commentary, the memorable collection, “Actes et Paroles, 1870—1871-1872." By the light of that precious record, and by this light alone, can it be properly read. There all who will may see by what right even beyond the right of genius the greatest poet of his great nation speaks now to us as a prophet to his people : by what right of labour, by what right of sorrow, by what right of pity and of scorn, by what right of indignation and of love. None of those disciples who most honoured him in his time of banishment could have anticipated for their master a higher honour or a heavier suffering than those nineteen years of exile ; but in his own country there was reserved for him a brighter crown of honour, with a deeper draught of suffering. To defend Paris against Versailles and against itself, and to behold it wasted on the one hand with fire which was quenched on the other hand in blood : to cast from him the obloquy of men who refused to hear his
defence of Garibaldi for the offence of coming to their aid, and to pass at once from the clamour of the Assembly to the silence of sudden death, beside the corpse of a beloved son ; to offer shelter to his enemies, and to be hunted from that shelter himself : these were things he had yet to do and to endure.
The poem opens with a prelude at once prophetic and satiric, tender and wise and full of noble scorn and nobler pity; the verse which sets a crown on the head of the people and a brand on the face of the mob is such as it is given but to one man in an age to write, and that by no means in every age. Then, for the first and fatal month of August 1870, we have a poem terrible as the occasion which called it forth, fit alike to serve as prologue to the poems of the months which follow or as an epilogue to the “Châtiments” which went before. That nothing after Sedan might be wanting to the fugitive assassin once elect of the party of Barabbas, the scourge of imperishable verse is added to the branding-iron of historic fact.
The poems of the siege at once demand and defy commentary; they should be studied in their order as parts of one tragic symphony. From the overture which tells of the old glory of Germany before turning to France with a cry of inarticulate love, to the sad majestic epilogue which seals up the sorrowful record of the days of capitulation, the various and continuous harmony flows forward through light and shadow, with bursts of thunder and tempest and interludes of sunshine and sweet air. In that last poem for February we see as it were the agony of faith; before the sight of evil inseparable from