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VICTOR HUGO: L'HOMME QUI RIT.
Once only in my life I have seen the likeness of Victor Hugo's genius. Crossing over when a boy from Ostend, I had the fortune to be caught in midchannel by a thunderstorm strong enough to delay the packet some three good hours over the due time. About midnight the thundercloud was right overhead, fall of incessant sound and fire, lightening and darkening so rapidly that it seemed to have life, and a delight in its life. At the same hour the sky was clear to the west, and all along the sea-line there sprang and sank as to music a restless dance or chase of summer lightnings across the lower sky: a race and riot of lights, beautiful and rapid as a course of shining Oceanides along the tremulous floor of the sea. Eastward at the same moment the space of clear sky was higher and wider, a splendid semicircle of too intense purity to be called blue ; it was of no colour nameable by man ; and midway in it between the storm and the sea hung the motionless full moon ; Artemis watching with a serene splendour of scorn the battle of Titans and the revel of nymphs, from her stainless and Olympian summit of divine indifferent light. Underneath and about us the sea was paved with flame; the whole water trembled and hissed with phosphoric fire; even through the wind and thunder I could hear the crackling and sputtering of the water-sparks. In the same heaven and in the same hour there shone at once the three contrasted glories, golden and fiery and white, of moonlight and of the double lightnings, forked and sheet; and under all this miraculous heaven lay a flaming floor of water.
That, in a most close and exact symbol, is the best possible definition I can give of Victor Hugo's genius. And the impression of that hour was upon me the impression of his mind; physical, as it touched the nerves with a more vivid passion of pleasure than music or wine; spiritual, as it exalted the spirit with the senses and above them to the very summit of vision and delight. It is no fantastic similitude, but an accurate likeness of two causes working to the same effect. There is nothing but that delight like the delight given by some of his work. And it is because his recent book has not seldom given it me again, that I have anything here to say of it.
It is a book to be rightly read, not by the lamplight of realism, but by the sunlight of his imagination reflected upon ours. Only so shall we see it as it is, much less understand it. The beauty it has, and the meaning, are ideal ; and therefore cannot be impaired by any want of realism. Error and violation of likelihood or fact which would damn a work of Balzac's or of Thackeray's cannot
even lower or lessen the rank and value of a work like this. To put it away because it has not the great and precious qualities of their school, but those of a school quite different, is just as wise as it would be on the other hand to assault the fame of Bacon on the ground that he has not written in the manner of Shakespeare ; or Newton's, because he has not written like Milton. This premised, I shall leave the dissection of names and the anatomy of probabilities to the things of chatter and chuckle so well and scientifically defined long since by Mr. Charles Reade as “anonymuncules who go scribbling about ;” there is never any lack of them; and it will not greatly hurt the master poet of an age that they should shriek and titter, cackle and hoot inaudibly behind his heel. It is not every demigod who is vulnerable there.
This book has in it, so to say, a certain elemental quality. It is great because it deals greatly with great emotions. It is a play played out not by human characters only; wind and sea, thunder and moonlight, have their parts too to fill. Nor is this all ; for it is itself a thing like these things, living as it were an elemental life. It pierces and shakes the very roots of passion. It catches and bends the spirit as Pallas caught Achilles and bent him by the hair. Were it not so, this would be no child of the master's ; but so, as always, it is. Here too the birth-mark of the great race is visible.
It is not, whatever it may seem, a novel or a study, historical or social. What touches on life or manners we see to be accidental byplay as soon as we see what the book is indeed ; the story of the battle of a human spirit, first with Fate, then with the old three subordinate enemies : the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. And here I will say where the flaw, as I think, lies; for, like other great things, a great book may have a flaw. The Flesh and the Devil, Josiane and Barkilphedro, are perfect; the World is drawn wrong. And the reason is not far to seek. We all brush daily against the Flesh and the Devil, we must all rub shoulders and shake hands with them, and they are always much the same at root, only stronger and weaker with this man than with that; therefore it needs only the hand of a great poet to paint them greatly, after their true and very likeness. But the World is multiform. To paint one aright of its many faces, you must have come close enough on that side to breathe the breath of its mouth and see by the light of its eyes. No accumulation of fact upon fact gleaned and laid up never so carefully will avail you instead. Titian himself cannot paint without colours. Here we have canvass and easel duly made ready, but the colours are not to be had. In other words, here are many curious and accurate details painfully studied and stored up for use, but unhappily it is not seldom for misuse. Here are many social facts rightly retailed and duly laid out side by side, but no likeness of social life. Here are the Mohocks of the day, for example, much as we find them in Swift; here is often visible even a vexatious excess of labour in the research of small things ; useless, because the collector of them has never applied his spirit to the spirit of the time in which these small things played in passing their small parts. He cannot, because that time has no attraction for him on any one side to temper the repulsion he feels from another side of it. Pure hate and