Victor Marie Hugo (18021885). Notre Dame de Paris.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
III. By G. L. Strachey
FOR throughout his work that wonderful writer expressed in their extreme forms the qualities and the defects of his school. Above all, he was the supreme lord of words. In sheer facility, in sheer abundance of language, Shakespeare alone of all the writers of the world can be reckoned his superior. The bulk of his work is very great, and the nature of it is very various; but every page bears the mark of the same tireless fecundity, the same absolute dominion over the resources of speech. Words flowed from Victor Hugo like light from the sun. Nor was his volubility a mere disordered mass of verbiage; it was controlled, adorned, and inspired by an immense technical power. When one has come under the spell of that great enchanter, one begins to believe that his art is without limits, that with such an instrument and such a science there is no miracle which he cannot perform. He can conjure up the strangest visions of fancy; he can evoke the glamour and the mystery of the past; he can sing with exquisite lightness of the fugitive beauties of Nature; he can pour out, in tenderness or in passion, the melodies of love; he can fill his lines with the fire, the stress, the culminating fury, of prophetic denunciation; he can utter the sad and secret questionings of the human spirit, and give voice to the solemnity of Fate. In the long roll and vast swell of his verse there is something of the oceana moving profundity of power. His sonorous music, with its absolute sureness of purpose, and its contrapuntal art, recalls the vision in Paradise Lost of him who
with volant touch
Fled and pursued transverse the resonant fugue.
What kind of mind, what kind of spirit must that have been, one asks in amazement, which could animate with such a marvellous perfection the enormous organ of that voice?
But perhaps it would be best to leave the question unaskedor at least unanswered. For the more one searches, the clearer it becomes that the intellectual scope and the spiritual quality of Victor Hugo were very far from being equal to his gifts of expression and imagination. He had the powers of a great genius and the soul of an ordinary man. But that was not all. There have been writers of the highest excellenceSaint-Simon was one of themthe value of whose productions have been unaffected, or indeed even increased, by their personal inferiority. They could not have written better, one feels, if they had been ten times as noble and twenty times as wise as they actually were. But unfortunately this is not so with Victor Hugo. His faultshis intellectual weakness, his commonplace outlook, his lack of humour, his vanity, his defective tastecannot be dismissed as irrelevant and unimportant, for they are indissolubly bound up with the very substance of his work. It was not as a mere technician that he wished to be judged; he wrote with a very different intention; it was as a philosopher, as a moralist, as a prophet, as a sublime thinker, as a profound historian, as a sensitive and refined human being. With a poet of such pretensions it is clearly most relevant to inquire whether his poetry does, in fact, reveal the high qualities he lays claim to, or whether, on the contrary, it is characterised by a windy inflation of a sentiment, a showy superficiality of thought, and a ridiculous and petty egoism. These are the unhappy questions which beset the mature and reflective reader of Victor Hugos works. To the young and enthusiastic one the case is different. For him it is easy to forgetor even not to observewhat there may be in that imposing figure that is unsatisfactory and second-rate. He may revel at will in the voluminous harmonies of that resounding voice; by turns thrilling with indignation, dreaming in ecstasy, plunging into abysses, and soaring upon unimaginable heights. Between youth and age who shall judge? Who decide between rapture and reflection, enthusiasm and analysis? To determine the precise place of Victor Hugo in the hierarchy of poets would be difficult indeed. But this much is certain: that at times the splendid utterance does indeed grow transfused with a pure and inward beauty, when the human frailties vanish, and all is subdued and glorified by the high purposes of art. From Landmarks in French Literature (1912).