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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Hugo (7)

Monday
Feb012016

Hugo, "Hier au soir"

A poem ("Yesterday, in the evening") by this French man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Breathe, evening wind of yesterday's lost truth, 
Which brought us scents of flowers' last bloom phase;
Night fell with birds asleep in shaded maze. 
The fragrant Spring has nothing on your youth;
The stars shone bright, but far less than your gaze. 

My voice kept low.  It was the solemn hour  
When souls their gentlest hymns so love to sing.
As night is pure so are you beauty's power; 
To gilded stars: on night the heavens shower! 
And to your eyes: sweet love upon us bring!

Friday
Oct102014

Hugo, "Crépuscule"

A work ("Twilight") by this French man of letters.  You can read the original here.

A white moiré shroud shakes amidst the woods,
A cryptic pond gleams where the clearing waits;
The trees stretch deep, their branches black like soot;
Did you see Venus there in lightest gait?

Or Venus dancing on the hilly peak?
Are you then lovers, passing through the shades?
As brown paths are with muslin white arrayed,
To sleeping tombs the waking grass will speak.

What says the grass? How then the tomb's reply?
If you live, love!  Beneath the yews we're cold. 
Hare, find your hole!  Love, love!  Soft falls the night;
Be happy while our thoughts retain their mold.

Live! God wants us loved. Make us envy you,
O pairs who pass beneath green hazels' womb. 
All that, when leaving life, lives in the tomb,
We took from love, in prayer so to use.

Our dead ere were so beautiful indeed;
The shaded glowworm strays with torch aloft;
This tomb will shake, by God's will so decreed,  
Amidst the swaths on wind upon a toft.

The reaper's dull tread shall make meadows quake;
A black roof's shape shall trace a cottage bare;
The heavens' star, with flowers' vivid glare,
Shall open splendid freshness in its wake.

Love! 'Tis the month of ripest berry fruit.
And dreamy evening's angel shall embed,
Afloat on wind and darkest wing's pursuit,
The quick's each kiss with prayers of the dead.

Tuesday
May142013

Discours d'ouverture du Congrès littéraire international

A speech ("On the occasion of the opening of the International Literary Congress"), delivered on June 7, 1878, by this man of letters.  You can read the original here.

Gentlemen, what imbues our memorable year with such lofty greatness, above all rumor and clamor, in a majestic interruption of all surprised hostilities, is how it allows civilization to speak.  We may call it a year heeded.  It is doing what it wants to do.  It is replacing the old agenda, war, with the agenda of a new day, progress.  It has triumphed over its doubters.  Threats persist, but the union of peoples smiles upon them.  The work of the year 1878 is complete and indestructible.  Nothing is pending.  In everything we do, we sense a certain something, something definitive.  With the Expo in Paris, this glorious year proclaims the alliance of industries; with Voltaire’s centenary, the alliance of philosophers; with the congress assembled here, the alliance of literatures; a vast federation of works in every possible form; an august edifice to human brotherhood, whose base is composed of farmers and workers and whose crowning achievement, our minds.

Industry seeks the useful; philosophy, the true; literature, the beautiful.  The useful, the true, and the beautiful – here are the three ends of all human efforts.  And the triumph of this sublime effort, gentlemen, is civilization between peoples and peace between men.

It is to observe this triumph that you have come from all points on our civilized globe and assembled here.  You are the brilliant minds which nations love and venerate; you are the celebrated talents, the generous, well-received voices, the souls whose work is in progress.  You are the peaceful combatants.  You have brought here the most radiant reputations.  You are the ambassadors of the human spirit in this great Paris of ours.  Welcome, writers, orators, poets, philosophers, thinkers, fights – France salutes you!

You and we, we are fellow citizens in a universal city.  Hand in hand, all of us affirm our unity and our alliance.  Let us all go now into this great and serene homeland, into the absolute, which is justice, into the ideal, which is truth.

It is not out of personal interest or restraint that you are gathered here.  It is out of universal interest.  What is literature?  The setting into motion of the human spirit.  What is civilization?  The perpetual discovery made at every step by that same human spirit.  Hence comes the word progress.  One may say that literature and civilization are identical.

A people is measured by its literature.  An army of two million men passes through and an Iliad remains.  Xerxes has an army, but he lacks an epic.  Xerxes vanishes.  Greece is small according to its territory and large according to Aeschylus.  Rome is merely a city; but according to Tacitus, Lucretius, Vergil, Horace, and Juvenal, this city fills the world.  If you refer to Spain, Cervantes emerges; if you speak of Italy, Dante appears; if you say England, then Shakespeare is there.   At certain times France has been summarized in a genius, and the splendor of Paris has been confused with the clarity of Voltaire.

Gentlemen, your mission is a steep one.  You are a kind of constituent assembly of literature.  You have the function, if not of voting for laws, then at least of dictating them.  Say just and fair things, promulgate true ideas, and if, by the impossible, you are not heard, well then, you may fault the legislation.

You are going to make a foundation – literary property.  It is already in our legislation and you will introduce it into our codes.  For, as I have stated, it will be composed of your solutions and advice.

You will enlighten those legislators who would like to reduce literature to nothing more than a local phenomenon, that literature is a universal phenomenon.  Literature is the government of the human race by the human spirit.

Literary property is of general utility.  All the old monarchic legislations have denied and continue to deny literary property.  To what end?  To the end of enslavement.  The writer who is an owner is the writer who is free.  To deprive him of property is to deprive him of independence.  We would hope at least.  Hence comes that singular sophism, which would be puerile if it were not so perfidious: thought belongs to everyone, so it cannot be property, and thus literary property does not exist.  Strange confusion, first of all, of the faculty of thinking, which is general, with thought, which is individual.  I am thought.  Thus a confusion of thought, an abstract thing, with a book, something material.  The thought of a writer, as thought, escapes every hand wishing to catch it, it flies from soul to soul; it possesses this gift and this force (virum volitare per ora).  But a book is distinct from thought; as a book, it is catchable, so cat-chable in fact that it is sometimes impounded.  A book, product of a printing press, belongs to that industry and determines in all its forms a vast commercial movement.  It is bought and sold.  It is a property, one of created and not acquired value, a wealth added by the writer to the national wealth, and certainly, from all points of view, the most incontestable of properties.  This inviolable property is violated by despotic government: they confiscate a book with the hope of thus confiscating a writer.  Hence comes the system of royal pensions.  Take everything and give back a little.  Despoliation and subjection of the writer.  He is sold and then he is bought.  A useless effort, in any case.  The writer escapes.  They make him poor, and he remains free.  Who could purchase the superb consciences of Rabelais, of Moliere, of Pascal?  But attempts are nevertheless made, and the result is depressing.  The monarchy is a terrible suction on the vital forces of a nation.  Historiographers bestow upon kings the titles of “fathers of the nation,” and “fathers of literature.”  All of this is contained in the gloomy monarchic ensemble.  Dangeau, that toady, declares this on the one hand; Vauban, that severe critic, declares this on the other.  And for what we call “The Great Century,” for example the way in which kings are fathers of the nation and of literature, abuts against these two sinister facts: people without food to eat, and Corneille without shoes.

What somber elimination of a great kingdom!

Hither is where leads the confiscation of property born from work, be this confiscation a burden on the people or on the writer.

Gentlemen, let us return to our principle: respect for property.  Let us announce literary property but, at the same time, let us create the public domain.  Let us go even further.  Let us make it larger.  May the law give all publishers the right to publish all books following the death of an author, with the only condition being that they pay his direct heirs some meager compensation, something not to exceed five to ten percent of net profit.  This extremely simple system, which reconciles the writer’s incontestable property with the no less incontestable right of the public domain, has already been indicated in the commission of 1836 by the person speaking to you right now.  You may find this solution, with all its details and discussions, in the minutes of the commission, published at that time by the Ministry of the Interior.

Let us not forget, however, that this is a double principle.  The book as a book belongs to the author, but as thought it belongs – the word is not too vast – to the human race.  All minds have a right to it.  If one of these two laws, the right of the author and the right of the human mind, were to be sacrificed, it would most certainly be the right of the author, because the public interest is our sole preoccupation and everyone, I tell you, everyone must come before us.

But, as I have just said, such a sacrifice is not necessary.

O, light, light always, light everywhere!  Everything needs light.  A book contains light.  Open a book wide.  Let it radiate, let it do this.  Whoever wishes to cultivate, vivify, edify, soften, mollify, put books everywhere; teach, show, demonstrate; multiply the number of schools; schools are the luminous points of civilization.          

You are concerned about your cities.  You would like to be secure in your homes.  You are preoccupied with such perils.  You abandon a darkened road.  You think even more about such perils, and you allow the human spirit likewise to become darkened.  Minds are open roads; they are comings and goings; they have visitors, well or badly intentioned; they may have some gloomy passers-by.  A bad thought is identical to a robber in the night; a bad soul identical to a band of criminals.  Make it day everywhere.  Do not leave a human mind in these dark corners where it may fall prey to superstition, where error may lurk, where it may be ambushed by lies.  Ignorance is a twilight; evil is roaming about.  Dream of the lighting of paths, for sure; but also dream, dream most of all of the lighting of minds.

For this, doubtless, we will need a prodigious amount of light.  It is this amount of light that France has been using for the past three centuries.  Gentlemen, permit me a filial word, which in any case is in your hearts just as it is in mine.  Over France nothing will prevail.  France is of public interest.  France rises upon the horizon of all peoples.  Ah, they say, it is daylight, France is there!

We are surprised that there are those who might have objections to France; nevertheless, there are such people: France has enemies.  They are the same enemies of civilization, the enemies of books, the enemies of free thought, the enemies of emancipation, of examination, of deliverance.  Those who see in their dogma an eternal master and in the human race an eternal minor.  But they waste their efforts, the past is past, nations will not return to their vomiting, the blindness has an end, the dimensions of ignorance and of error are limited.

Take your part, men of the past, we do not fear you!  Go, do what you do as we look at you with curiosity!  Try your efforts, insult 1789, dethrone Paris, speak anathemas to the freedom of conscience, to the freedom of the press, to the freedom of opinion, an anathema to progress!  Do not relent!  Dream up, while you are still there, a syllabus big enough for France and a candle extinguisher large enough for the sun!

I do not wish to conclude on a bitter note.  Let us climb and rest upon the unmovable serenity of thought.  We have begun the affirmation of concord and peace; let us continue this haughty and tranquil affirmation. 

I have said it elsewhere, and I repeat: all human wisdom is contained in two words, conciliation and reconciliation.  The conciliation of ideas, and the reconciliation of men.

Gentlemen, we are among philosophers here, so let us take advantage of such an occasion.  Let us not bother ourselves, let us speak the truth.  And so here is one, terrible truth: the human race has a sickness – hatred.  Hatred is the mother of war; the mother may be despicable, but the daughter is horrific.

Let us return the blows!  Hate against hate!  War against war!

Do you what these words of Christ, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” really are?  They are universal disarmament.  They are the cure for the human race.  They are true redemption.  Love one another.  We disarm our enemy far better by offering him our hand than by showing him our fist.  This advice from Jesus is an order from God.  It is good.  We accept it.  We are with Christ, the rest of us!  The writer is with the apostle: those who think are with those who love.

Ah, we scream for civilization!  No, no, no, we do not want warring barbarians or murderous assassins!  We do not want war of people against people, or of man against man.  All murder is not only ferocious and savage, it is also senseless.  The sword is absurd and the dagger is imbecile.  We are the combatants of the spirit, and our task is to prevent material combat.  Our function is always to throw ourselves between the two armies.  The right to life is inviolable.  We do not see crowns, and if there are any, we only see heads.  Showing mercy is what makes peace.  When the gloomy hours sound, we ask kings to spare the lives of peoples, and we ask republics to spare the lives of emperors.    

It is a fine day for the outcast when he begs a nation for a prince and when he tries to use, in the favor of an emperor, this right to mercy which is the right of an exile.

Yes, conciliation and reconciliation.  Such is our mission, the mission for us philosophers.  O, my brothers of science, of poetry, and of art, let us declare the civilizing omnipotence of thought.  For every step that the human race takes towards peace, let us feel the profound joy of truth increase within us.  Let us proudly consent to useful work.  Truth is one and has no divergent rays.  It only has a synonym: justice.  There are no two lights, there is only one: reason.  There are no two ways of being honest, sensible, and true.  The ray that is in the Iliad is identical to the clarity found in the Dictionnaire philosophique.  This incorruptible ray traverses centuries with the straightness of an arrow and the purity of dawn.  This ray will triumph over night, that is to say, over antagonism and hatred.  Here we find the great literary wonder.  There is nothing more beautiful.  Disconcerted and stupefied force before the law, the stopping of war by the mind, this is, O, Voltaire, violence tamed by wisdom!  This is, O, Homer, Achilles taken by the hair by Minerva!

And now as I am going to end, allow me a promise, a promise addressed at the heart of everyone and at no one in particular.

Gentlemen, there is a Roman who is celebrated because of an obsession: Let us destroy Carthage!  I, too, have a thought that obsesses me, and here it is: Let us destroy hate.  If humanities have an aim, it is that: humaniores litterae.  Gentlemen, the best destruction of hatred is done by forgiving.  O, may this great year not end without sustainable peace!  May it end in wisdom and in cordiality, and after it has put out the foreign war, may it have the same effect on our civil conflict.  This is the profound desire of our souls!  France is now showing the world its hospitality; but may it also demonstrate its clemency.  Clemency!  Let us place this crown upon France’s head!  Every celebration is fraternal; a celebration which does not pardon someone is not a celebration.  The logic of public joy is amnesty.  May here be the closure of this admirable solemnity, the universal Expo!  Reconciliation!  Reconciliation!  Certainly, this gathering of all common efforts for the human race, this meeting of marvels of industry and work, this salutation to the masterpieces among them, seeing them and comparing is an august spectacle.  But an even more august spectacle is the exile standing against the horizon and his homeland opening its arms!      

Sunday
Dec232012

Hugo, "Je la revois, après vingt ans, l'île où Décembre"

A work ("Again I see that isle, where two score gone) by this French man of letters, written on August 8, 1872, on returning to this island.  You can read the original here.

Again I see that isle, where two score gone, 
Most foul December sought and cast me out;  
That very isle indeed! Pale shipwrecked lout!  
That isle, a room still undisturbed, anon.  

Yes, this is how it was; this sweet isle seems  
To laugh, while I detect the same bird's flight, 
The same lush flowers trembling through all night, 
The same bright sylvan dawn in its mad beams. 

Again one more mirage, how those fields call, 
The orchards and the ripest fruits untorn; 
And in the firmament looms the same storm, 
The same grass at the foot of every wall. 

The same white roof awaits that loves me still: 
Beyond the scolding stream, eternal flow, 
That vision of my Eden, lost I know 
Down where the selfsame dazzling depths run chill.  

I recognize, 'tis true, this magic shore, 
As it appear'd to me in days more sweet; 
Where Acis and Galatea we seek, 
And yet where Booz and Ruth will linger more.

Because no isle, no mountain, and no beach,
Is better made amidst these bitter depths, 
To hide the rose of idyll in its breast, 
Beneath the tragic horror of the sea. 

O Heaven!  O this Ocean!  An abyss 
Of silence, the same nature, and of noise; 
Who knows what crack unfathomable is poised
Against both night and day in mortal vis.

It was these hamlets, yes, it was these beaches; 
It was the same fleet, volatile regard; 
That acrid scent of savage heath discharged,
Into the tumults of that same wind's reaches.  

Those waves, in silver laces ripp'd out, now show
The ruins whence derived their foamy mast.    
In them one finds the same pale shadows cast 
Upon the same eternal, changing flow.

Because the acrid sea's so full of grief,  
These same ignored, eroded paths lose steam;
Waves which still worry in terrific dreams, 
About the shape of those remaining reefs.

The same immense bird flocks weave here their lines, 
Atop the mounts where God makes thunder loud;
Those same trees' peaks, collected in a crowd, 
Have not stopped trembling, trembling all this time.  

I saw again, atop the humble lea, 
The same breath undulating in the ryes;
Those same stray eagles, those same butterflies,  
Above the ocean's boundless vanity.  

The same tide cloaks this isle of foam retread, 
Just like a horse a snaffle soon makes white; 
'Twas the same blue, 'twas the same mist alight. 
How many then once lived who now are dead!

Thursday
May102012

Hugo, "Printemps"

A work ("Spring") by this French man of letters.  You can read the original here.

In frenzy drift long days of love and light!
March and soft smiling April give us spring
In friendly months: May flowers, June burns bright!
Sweet sleeping brooks to poplars in warmth cling, 

Swept like great palms, they curve in tender pleas;  
Yon in the warm, calm woods, a songbird throbs; 
Old nature laughs alone!  And those green trees,
United, glad, now versify their sobs.

Most fresh and gentle dawn shall crown day's rise;
In evening, love is full; at night, we hear
Knells through thick shadows and the blessed skies, 
Eternal joyous singing of one near.

Sunday
Apr102011

On Lord Byron (part 2)

The conclusion to an essay by this French man of letters on this English poet.  You can read the original here.

And when necessary, this literature does not hesitate to involve itself in public disagreements so as to judge or pacify them.  For we are no longer in the days of bucolic songs, and it is not the muse of the nineteenth century who can say:

I am not agitated by the rods of the populace, but by the purple of kings.

Nevertheless this literature, like all the matters of humanity, presents in its very unity both its somber and its consoling aspects.   In its bosom two schools have been formed which represent the dual situation where our political woes have left, respectively, their spirits, resignation and despair.  Both of them recognize what a philosophy of mockery had denied: namely, the eternity of God, the immortal soul, the primordial truths and the revealed truths.  But one is to be adored and one to be damned.  The first sees to the very top of heaven; the second to the very depths of hell.  The first places in the cradle of man an angel whom he will find again on his deathbed; the second surrounds him with its demon steps, phantoms and sinister apparitions.  The first asks for his trust because he will never be alone; the second scares him by isolating him unceasingly.  Both of them possess the ability to sketch gracious scenes and outline terrible figures; but the first, careful never to break one's heart, provides the most somber pictures with some kind of divine gleam; the second, careful always to sadden, spreads an infernal light into his happiest pictures.  The first, in short, resembles Emmanuel, soft and strong, traversing his kingdom in a chariot of lightning and illumination; the second is proud Satan [2] who bore with him so many stars in his fall when he tumbled from the sky.  These two twin schools, founded upon the same basis, and born, as it were, in the same cradle, seem to us, at least in European literature, to be exemplified by two illustrious geniuses, Chateaubriand and Byron.            

Leaving behind our prodigious revolutions, two political orders were fighting on the same soil.  An old society had just collapsed, and a new society was beginning to develop.  Here were ruins, there were sketches and blueprints.  Lord Byron, in his funereal lamentations, expressed the last convulsions of the dying society; Chateaubriand, with his sublime inspiration, attended to the initial needs of the reanimated society.  The voice of one is like a swan song at the hour of its death; the voice of the other is akin to the call of the phoenix rising in rebirth from the ash. 
 By the sadness of his genius, by the arrogance of his character, by the tempests of his life, Lord Byron's is the type of poetry of which he was the poet.  All his works are profoundly marked by the stamp of his individuality.  It is invariably a somber and haughty figure that the reader sees in each poem as if through a mourning veil.  Subject at times, as are all deep thinkers, to vagueness and obscurity, he has words which probe every corner of one's soul, sighs which recount an entire existence.  It seems that his heart is ajar to every potentially rattling thought like a volcano which spews forth lightning flashes.   Pain, joy, and passion are to him no mysteries at all, and he only allows himself to view real objects through a veil, stripping bare the ideal areas.  One may reproach him for his absolute negligence of order in his poems; a serious flaw, since a poem which lacks order is an edifice without a framework or a painting without perspective.  He also pushes too far the lyrical disdain of his transitions.  And sometimes it would be desirable for this painter so faithful to inner emotions to cast less fantastic lights and less vaporous hues upon his physical descriptions.  Too often his genius resembles a person out on an aimless stroll who dreams as he walks and who, absorbed by his profound intuition, can only relay a confused image of the places he traverses.  Whatever he may be, even in his least beautiful works, this capricious imagination raises him to heights unreachable without wings.  Even though the eagle wishes to keep his eyes focused on the ground, he cannot keep himself from that sublime view whose reach stretches to the sun [3].  It has been thought that the author of Don Juan belonged, in some aspect of his mind, to the school of the author of Candide.  Quite wrong!  There is a profound difference between the laughter of Byron and the laughter of Voltaire: Voltaire did not suffer. 
 Here would be the place to say something about the very tormented life of the noble poet.  But in our uncertainty about the real causes of the domestic woes which had rendered his character sharper and more bitter, we would do better not to say a word, for fear that our pens would stray despite our efforts.  Not knowing Lord Byron apart from through his poems, it comforts us to imagine a life for him in accordance with his soul and his genius.  Like all great men he certainly fell prey to calumny; to that last violence upon him we can attribute the noise that has long since accompanied the name of the poet.  Besides, the person offended by these wrongs was surely the first to forget them in the presence of his death.  We hope that these have been forgiven, for we count ourselves among those who do not think that hate and vengeance have anything to carve on a tombstone.
And for this reason let us forgive him his faults and errors, including the works in which he seemed to have descended from the twin heights of his character and his talent.  Let us forgive him: after all he has died so nobly, falling as a great man!  And in so doing he was much like a warlike emissary of a modern muse in the land of ancient muses.  A generous auxiliary to glory, religion and liberty, he brought his sword and his lyre to the descendents of the first warriors and the first poets, and already the weight of his laurels tipped the balance in favor of the unhappy Hellenes.  We owe him, we in particular, profound acknowledgment.   He proved to Europe that the poets of the new school, however they may no longer adore the gods of pagan Greece, still admire its heroes; and that if they have deserted Olympus, at least they never bid farewell to Thermopyles.   
The death of Byron has been received throughout the continent by signs of universal grief.  The cannon of the Greeks long saluted his remains, and a national period of bereavement was consecrated to the loss of this stranger amidst all the public calamities.  The prideful doors of Westminster opened as if by themselves so that the tomb of the poet may honor the sepulcher of kings.  What will we say to that?  Amidst these glorious marks of general affliction we looked for what kind of solemn expression of enthusiasm Paris, that capital of Europe, rendered to the heroic shadow of Byron, and found only a bauble that insulted his lyre and trestles that blasphemed his coffin [4]!
--------------------------------

[2] : Here a simple reference would not suffice to justify the title of 'Satanic school' by which a talented man once designated the school of Lord Byron.

[3] : At a time where all of Europe is paying stupendous homage to the genius of Lord Byron, declared a great man since the time of his death, the reader may be curious to reread here a few quotes from that remarkable article in which the Edinburgh Review, an accredited newspaper, mentioned the illustrious poet and his first efforts.  Moreover, it is in precisely this tone that certain newspapers entertain us every morning or evening on the subject of the foremost talents of our era:

"The poesy of this young lord belongs to the class which neither God nor man are said to permit .... His effusions are spread over a dead flat, and can no more get above or below the level than if they were so much stagnant water.  As an extenuation of this offence, the noble author is peculiarly forward in pleading minority .... He possibly means to say, 'See how a minor can write!' .... But, alas, we all remember the poetry of Cowley at ten, and Pope at twelve; and, so far from hearing with any degree of surprise that very poor verses were written by a youth from his leaving school to his leaving college inclusive, we really believe this to be the most common of all occurrences;-that it happens in the life of nine men in ten who are educated in England, and that the tenth man writes better verse than Lord Byron.

"In truth, it is this consideration only that induces us to give Lord Byron's poems a place in our Review, besides our desire to counsel him, that he do forthwith abandon poetry, and turn his talents, which are considerable, and his opportunities, which are great, to better account.

""With this view we must beg leave seriously to assure him, that the mere rhyming of the final syllable, even when accompanied by the presence of a certain number of feet; nay, although (which does not always happen) these feet should scan regularly, and have been all counted upon the fingers, is not the whole art of poetry. We would entreat him to believe that a certain portion of liveliness, somewhat of fancy, is necessary to constitute a poem; and that a poem in the present day, to be read, must contain at least one thought, even in a little degree different from the ideas of former writers, or differently expressed.

""Lord Byron should also have a care of attempting what the greatest poets have done before him, for comparisons (as he must have had occasion to see at his writing-master's) are odious.

"As to his Ossian poesy, we are not very good judges; being, in truth, so moderately skilled in that species of composition, that we should, in all probability, be criticising some bit of genuine Macpherson itself, were we to express our opinion of Lord Byron's rhapsodies.... we can so far venture an opinion in their favour, that they look very like Macpherson; and we are positive they are pretty nearly as stupid and tiresome.

"As the author has dedicated so large a part of his volume to immortalize his employments at school and college, we cannot possibly dismiss it without presenting the reader with a specimen of these ingenious effusions [the quote follows].

"But whatever judgment may be passed on the poems of this noble minor, it seems we must take them as we find them, and be content for they are the last we shall ever have from him .... whether it succeeds or not, it is highly improbable, from his situation and pursuits, that he should again condescend to become an author. Therefore, let us take what we get and be thankful. What right have we poor devils to be nice? We are well off to have got so much from a man of this lord's station .... Again we say, let us be thankful; and, with honest Sancho, bid God bless the giver, nor look the gift-horse in the mouth.

Lord Byron would deign to avenge this miserable jumble of platitudes, the perpetual topic endlessly reproduced by envious mediocrity against genius.  The authors of the Edinburgh Review were compelled to recognize his talent beneath the blows of a satiric whip.  The example seems good to follow; nevertheless, we will declare that we would have preferred to see Lord Byron show them the silence of contempt.  If it hadn't been at the behest of his best interest, it could at least have been the advice of his dignity.

[4] : Several days after the news of Lord Byron's death one could still find playing, in some tawdry theater whose name escapes me, a farce of bad tone and taste in which this noble poet is cast as a character with the ridiculous name of Lord Three-Star.

Thursday
Apr072011

On Lord Byron (part 1)

The first part of an essay by this French man of letters on this English poet. You can read the original here.

ON THE OCCASION OF HIS DEATH

We are in June of 1824.  Lord Byron has just died. 

We are asked for our thoughts on Lord Byron, and on Lord Byron dead.  What do our thoughts matter?  What good would they be to write down, unless one thinks it impossible not to say to whomever it may concern a few words worthy of posterity on a poet and an event of such stature?  To believe those ingenious fables of the Orient, a tear will become a pearl as it falls into the sea.     

In this particular existence that has bestowed upon us a taste for literature, in this peaceful region whither we have been led by a love of independence and of poetry, Byron's death must certainly strike us, as it were, as a domestic calamity, one of those woes which touch us to the quick.  The man who has devoted his days to the religion of literature senses the circle of his physical life tightening around him at the same time as the sphere of his intellectual existence expands.  His heart's tender sentiments go out to only a few dear beings, whereas all the poets dead or alive, foreigners and countrymen, seize the affections of his soul.  Nature gave him one family; poetry creates within him a second.  His sympathies, which may summon so few to his side, will then seek out across the turbulence of social relations, beyond time and space itself, a few men whom he understands and deems deserving to understand him.  Whereas in the monotonous rotation of habits and business the indifferent mob will hurt and batter him without rousing his attention; he will establish between himself and those men he has chosen as his peers intimate connections and communications, that is to say, electric.  A soft community of thoughts like an insoluble and invisible bond will attach him to these elite beings isolated in their world just as he is in his own, in such a way that if by chance he finds himself among them, one look will suffice to reveal them to one another, one word for them both to enter into the depths of each other's souls and there to recognize this equilibrium.  And after a few moments these two strangers will be together like two brothers fed on the same milk, like two friends tried by the same misfortune.       

May we be allowed to express to him and, if necessary, to revel in such talk, our sympathy of the kind which we just said steered us to Byron.  It was certainly not the appeal that one genius inspires in another; it was rather a sincere feeling of admiration, enthusiasm and recognition, for we ought to acknowledge those men whose works and actions make the heart beat nobly.  When we were informed of the death of this poet, it seemed like a part of our future had been stolen.  It was only with bitterness that we renounced our plans never to forge with Byron one of those friendships between poets that are so soft and glorious to maintain with the majority of the main figures of our epoch, and to him we addressed this lovely line which a poet of his school employed to address the generous shadow of André Chénier :

So farewell young friend whom I never knew.

Since we just let a word escape about Lord Byron's particular school, it may then not be off the subject to examine here which place it holds in the totality of contemporary literature, which he attacks as if it could have been conquered, and which he calumniates as if it could have been condemned.  False minds, skilled at dodging all the questions, seek to emphasize a rather unusual error in our midst.  They imagined that our present society was expressed in France by two literatures in absolute opposition: that is to say, that the same tree naturally bore two fruits of opposing species and that the same cause produced simultaneously two incompatible effects.

Yet even these enemies of innovation do not realize that they have created thereby an entirely new logic.  Every day they continue to treat the literature they label classic as if it were still alive, and that which they label Romantic as something about to perish.  These learned rhetoricians who unceasingly propose to change what exists to what once existed involuntarily remind us of Ariosto's mad Orlando who so gravely begged a passer-by to take a dead mare in exchange for a live horse.  True enough, Roland accepts that his mare is dead and at the same time adds that this is her only flaw.  But the Orlandos of this alleged classic genre are not yet at this level in either judgment or good faith.   Thus one must wrest from them what they do not wish to give up willingly and tell them that today there is only one literature just like there is one society, and that previous literatures, while bequeathing us immortal monuments, had to vanish and have vanished with the generations whose social habits and political emotions they expressed.  The genius of our era may be just as beautiful as that of the most illustrious eras, but not the same; and it is not incumbent upon contemporary writers to revive a past literature[1] as it is not incumbent upon a gardener to make the leaves of autumn green again upon the branches of spring.        

Let us not be mistaken: it is first and foremost in vain that a small number of petty minds try to shepherd these general ideas towards the distressing literary system of the past century.  This naturally arid terrain has long since dried out.  Moreover, one cannot start over from the madrigals of Dorat after the guillotines of Robespierre; and Voltaire cannot carry into the century of the Corsican.  The real literature of our age in which authors are proscribed from the manner of Aristides, which, repudiated by all our quills, is then adopted by all the lyres; which, despite vast and calculated persecution, witnesses all its talents bloom within its stormy sphere, like those flowers which only grow in places battered by winds; which, finally, condemned by those who make decisions without forethought, is defended by those who think with their souls, judge with their minds and feel with their hearts.  This literature is no way the soft and shameless allure of the muse that sang of Cardinal Dubois, flattered Madame de Pompadour, and outraged our Joan of Arc.  She neither  questions the crucible of the atheist or the scalpel of the materialist.  She does not borrow from the skeptic this combination of lead in which interest alone shatters the equilibrium.  She does not give birth during orgies to songs for massacres.  She does not contain either adulation or injury.  She does not lend herself to the seductions of lying.  She does not relieve illusions of their charm.  Alien to everything which is not her true goal, she draws her poetry from the sources of truth.  Her imagination nourishes itself on faith.  She follows the progress of time but with a heavy and measured step.  Her character is serious, her voice melodious and sonorous.  She is, in a word, what must be the common thoughts of a great nation after great calamities – sad, proud, and religious.       

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[1] : One should not lose sight of the fact that, in reading this, the words 'literature of a century' must be understood not only as the totality of works produced during the century, but also the general order of ideas and sentiments which – more often than not unbeknownst even to the authors themselves – presided over their composition.