Victor Hugo (February 26, 1802 - May 22, 1885)
The third son of a French Army major, Victor Hugo traveled to Italy and Spain as a young child, as his family was blown by the turbulent political winds of the times. He was schooled in the trades as well as Latin and Greek, and showed great literary promise early on. He published a magazine with his brothers in 1819-21, Le Conservateur Litteraire for which he authored 112 articles and 22 poems in 16 months. He soon found popular acceptance with his Odes et Ballades (1828) and other writings.
Hugo was a member of "Le Club des Hashishins," a group founded in 1844 by Theophile Gautier, but he seems to have discovered Oriental delights years earlier. In 1829 Hugo published a book of poems titled Les Orientales wherein is found the poem "Ecstasy":
Mes yeux plongeaient plus loin que le monde reel (My eyes were plunged beyond the real world)
Et les bois, et les morts, et toute la nature (And the woods, the mountains, and all of nature)
Semlaient interroger dans un confus murmure (Seemed to interrogate in a confused murmur)
Les flots des mers, les deux du ciel (The waves of the sea, and the fires of the sky)
Et les etailes d'or, legions infinites (And golden stars in infinite galaxies)
A voix haute, a voix basse, avec mille harmonies, (Sang high and low with a thousand harmonies)
Disaient. . .C'est le Seigneur, le Seigneur Dieu! (This is the Lord, the Lord God!)
In the Preface to the book Hugo wrote, "Art's concern is not to burden itself with leading-strings, handcuffs and gags; it says 'Go!' and looses you into the great garden of poetry where there is no forbidden fruit." The book secured Hugo's leadership of his generation's artists, who revered him and praised his work. "Victor Hugo," said Baudelaire, "was the one man to whom everybody turned for the watchword of the day." (L'Art Romantique XIX) Jules Janin said, "One might search in vain through all Europe before finding a prince, a king, a military leader more deserving of envy, or happier, than the author of Les Orientales." Hugo's wife Adele, who was busy bearing and caring for five children during this time, failed to appreciate the sensual verses of the "drunken treader of the grapes."
One month after Les Orientales, Hugo published Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamne (The Last Day of a Condemned Man), about a prisoner facing the death penalty, saying it was "to silence those who had reproached him on grounds of insolent virtuosity." Hugo's mother was a Voltarian, and her son was doubtlessly familiar with Voltaire's fate. While finding spirituality everywhere in nature, Hugo took on organized religion as directly as Voltaire had, staring, "We carry in our hearts a rotting corpse--the corpse of that religion which was a living presence in the lives of our fathers."
Adele's "drunken treader" was a flurry of productive activity in 1829, writing a successful play, Hernani, in six week's time and bringing to production a play based on Walter Scott's Kenilworth, which when read caused Alexandre Dumas to shout, "we will carry you to glory!" while lifting Hugo off his feet. These plays and other works stirred condemnation as well as praise, at a time when Shakespearean plays were booed in French theatres for being too English, the Church exerted moral codes and the State, political ones. When his play Le roi s'amuse (The King Amuses Himself) was banned for satirizing nobility in 1832, Hugo wrote Lucrece Borgia in 14 days, a play about the illegitimate daughter of a Pope whose name came to represent innocence corrupted.
The death of his daughter and other difficulties of life sobered Hugo in later years, but not enough to prevent him from taking off with his mistress or becoming even more famous for Notre Dame de Paris ("The Hunchback of Notre-Dame"). In 1851, Hugo took to the streets during another uprising, and escaped to Brussels where he finished the enduring novel Les Miserables, which has seen huge stage success as the modern Les Miz. When the new guard of a factionated France decried Hugo's works because of his politics, Theophile Gautier replied, "say what you will, he remains the great Hugo, the poet of mists and clouds and sea."
On May 22, 1885 Hugo uttered his last words: "Je vois de la lumiere noire" (I see the black light"). At his last breath, a storm of thunder and hail passed over Paris, the Senate and the Chamber adjourned in respect. He left his manuscripts, writings and drawings to the Biblitoteque national of Paris, "which will, one day, be the Library of the United States of Europe." Besides 40,000 francs given to the poor, he left most of his money to his two grandchildren, for whom he had written The Art of Being a Grandfather. On May 31, the whole city came to a vigil at the Arc de Triomphe, and two million Frenchmen walked in the funeral procession to the Pantheon. It was the first time a poet was honored in the manner of a military hero.