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an essay by John Cowper Powys

My first notions of Victor Hugo were associated with the sea. It was from the old Weymouth harbour that as a child I used to watch those Channel-Island steamers with red funnels setting forth on what seemed to me in those days a wondrous voyage of mystery and peril. I read "The Toilers of the Sea" at my inland school at Mr. Hardy's Sherton Abbas; whither, it may be remembered, poor Giles Winterbourne set off with such trembling anxiety to fetch home his Grace.

I read it in what was probably a very quaint sort of translation. The book was bound in that old-fashioned "yellow back" style which at that time was considered in clergymen's families as a symbol of all that was dissipated and dangerous; and on the outside of the yellow cover was a positively terrifying picture of the monstrous devilfish with which Gellert wrestled in that terrible sea-cavern.

Certain scenes in that romance lodged themselves in my brain with diabolic intensity. That scene, for instance, when the successful scoundrel, swimming in the water, "feels himself seized by one foot," that scene where the man buys the revolver in the little gunsmith's shop; that appalling scene at the end where Gellert drowns himself, watching the ship that bears his love away to happiness in the arms of another—all these held my imagination then, as indeed they hold it still, with the vividness of personal experience.

It was long after this, not more than five or six years ago in fact, that I read "Notre Dame de Paris." This book I secured from the ship's library of some transatlantic liner and the fantastic horrors it contains, carried to a point of almost intolerable melodrama, harmonised well enough with the nightly thud of the engines and the daylong staring at the heaving water.

"Notre Dame" is certainly an amazing book. If it were not for the presence of genius in it, that ineffable all-redeeming quality, it would be one of the most outrageous inventions of flagrant sensationalism ever indulged in by the morbidity of man. But genius pervades it from beginning to end; pervades even its most impossible scenes; and on the whole I think it is a much more arresting tale than, say, "The Count of Monte Cristo," or any of Dumas' works except "The Three Musketeers."

I have never, even as a child, cared greatly for Dumas, and I discern in the attitude of the persons who persist in preferring him to Victor Hugo the presence of a temperamental cult so alien to my own that I am tempted to regard it as no better than an affected pose.

Nowhere is Victor Hugo's genius more evident than in his invention of names. Esmeralda, Quasimodo, Gellert, Cosette, Fantine—they all have that indescribable ring of genuine romance about them which more than anything else restores to us the "long, long thoughts" of youth.

I think that Fantine is the most beautiful and imaginative name ever given to any woman. It is far more suggestive of wild and delicate mysteries than Fragoletta or Dolores or Charmian or Ianthe.

I am inclined to maintain that it is in the sphere of pure poetic imagination that Victor Hugo is greatest; though, like so many other foreigners, I find it difficult to read his formal poetry. It is, I fancy, this poetic imagination of his which makes it possible for him to throw his isolated scenes into such terrific relief that they lodge themselves in one's brain with such crushing force. In all his books it is the separate individual scenes of which one finds oneself thinking as one recalls the progress of this narrative or the other. And when he has struck out with a few vivid lightning-like flashes the original lineaments of one of his superb creations, it is rather in separate and detached scenes that he makes such a person's indelible characteristics gleam forth from the surrounding darkness, than in any continuous psychological process of development.

His psychology is the psychology of a child; but none the worse perhaps for that; for it is remarkable how often the most exhaustive psychological analysis misses the real mystery of human character. Victor Hugo goes to work by illuminating flashes. He carries a flaring torch in his hand; and every now and then he plunges it into the caverns of the human heart, and one is conscious of vast stupendous Shadows, moving from midnight to midnight.

His method is gnomic, laconic, oracular; never persuasive or plausible. It is "Lo—here" and then again "Lo—there!" and we are either with him or not with him. There are no half measures, no slow evolutionary disclosures.

One of his most interesting literary devices, and it is an essentially poetic one, is the diffusion through the story of some particular background, a background which gathers to itself a sort of brooding personality as the tale proceeds, and often becomes before the book is finished far more arresting and important than any of the human characters whose drama it dominates.

Such is the sea itself, for instance, in "The Toilers." Such is the historic cathedral in "Notre Dame." Such is the great Revolution—certainly a kind of natural cataclysm—in "Ninety-three." Such are the great sewers of Paris in "Les Misérables." Such—though it is rather a symbol than a background—is the terrible fixed smile of the unfortunate hero in "L'Homme qui Rit."

It is one of the most curious and interesting phenomena in the history of literature, this turning of a poet into a writer of romances, romances which have at least as much if not more of the poetic quality in them than the orthodox poetry of the same hand.

One is led to wonder what kind of stories Swinburne would have written had he debouched into this territory, or what would have been the novels conceived by Tennyson. Thomas Hardy began with poetry and has returned to poetry; and one cannot help feeling that it is more than anything else the absence of this quality in the autobiographical studies of sex and character which the younger writers of our day spin out that makes them after a time seem so sour and flat.

It is the extravagance of the poetic temper and its lack of proportion which leads to some of the most glaring of Victor Hugo's faults; and it is the oracular, prophetic, gnomic tone of his genius which causes those queer gaps and rents in his work and that fantastic arbitrariness which makes it difficult for him to evoke any rational or organic continuity.

It is an aspect of the poetic temper too, the queer tricks which the humour of Victor Hugo will condescend to play. I suppose he is by nature the least endowed with a sense of humour of all the men of genius who have ever lived. The poet Wordsworth had more. But like so many poetic natures, whose vivid imagination lends itself to every sort of human reaction, even to those not really indigenous, Victor Hugo cannot resist in indulging in freakish sallies of jocularity which sometimes become extraordinarily strained and forced, and even remind one now and then of the horrible mechanical smile on the countenance of the mutilated man in his own story.

Poet-like too is the portentous pedantry of his archaeological vein; the stupendous air of authority with which he raps out his classical quotations and his historic allusions. He is capable sometimes of producing upon the mind the effect of a hilarious school-master cracking his learned jokes to an audience only too willing to encourage him. At other times, so bizarre and out of all human proportion are his fantasies, one receives an impression as if one of the great granite effigies representing Liberty or Equality or the Rights of Man, from the portico of some solemn Palais de Justice, had suddenly yielded to the temptation of drink and was uttering the most amazing levities. Victor Hugo in his lighter vein is really, we must honestly confess, a somewhat disconcerting companion. One has such respect for the sublime imaginations which one knows are lurking behind "that cliff-like brow" that one struggles to find some sort of congruity in these strange gestures. It is as though when walking by the side of some revered prophet, one were suddenly conscious that the man was skipping or putting out his tongue. It is as though we caught Ajax masquerading as a mummer, or Aeschylus dressed up in cap and bells.

There are persons who interest themselves still in Victor Hugo's political attitudes, in his orations on the balcony of the Hotel de Ville; in his theatrical visits to the barricades where "he could be shot, but could not shoot"; in his diatribes against Napoleon the Third; in his defence of the Commune from the safe remoteness of Brussels. There are persons who suffer real disillusion when they discover how much of a conservative and a courtier he was in his youth. There are persons who are thrilled to recall how he carried his solemn vengeance against his imperial enemy so far as to rebuke in stern language Queen Victoria for her friendliness towards the Empress.

I must confess I find it difficult to share these emotions. I seem to smell the foot-lights of the opera in these heroic declamations, and indeed poor Napoleon the Little was himself so much of an operatic hero that to exalt him into a classic tyrant seems little short of ridiculous.

We derive a much truer picture of Victor Hugo's antagonist from Disraeli's "Endymion" than we do from the poet's torrential invectives. I have a shrewd idea that the Emperor was a good deal more amiable, if not more philosophical, than his eloquent judge.

Victor Hugo was an impassioned lover of children. Who can forget those scenes in "Les Misérables" about little Cosette and the great wonderful doll which Valjean gave her? He loved children and—for all his lack of humour; sometimes I think because of it—he thoroughly understood them. He loved children and he was a child himself.

No one but a child would have behaved as he did on certain occasions. The grave naiveté of his attitude to the whole spectacle of life was like the solemnity of a child who takes very seriously every movement of the game which he is playing. A child is solemn when it is pretending to be an engine-driver or a pilot, and Victor Hugo was solemn when he pretended to be a saviour of society. No one but a person endowed with the perfect genius of childishness could have acted toward his mistress and his wife in the way he did, or have been so serenely blind to the irony of the world.

There is as little of the sensual in Victor Hugo's temperament as there is in the temperament of a pure-minded child; but like a child he finds a shuddering pleasure in approaching the edge of the precipice; like a child he loves to loiter in melancholy fields where the white moon-daisies are queerly stained with the old dark blood of weird and abnormal memories.

Irony of any kind, worldly or otherwise, never crossed so much as the margin of his consciousness. He is shamelessly, indecently, monstrously lacking in the ironic sense.

"What are we going to do?" he dramatically asked his sons when they had established themselves in their island home; and after they had each replied according to their respective tastes, "I," he added, "am going to contemplate the ocean!"

I am ready to confess that I feel a certain shame in thus joining the company of the godless and making sport of my childhood's hero. "He was a man, take him for all in all," and we at any rate shall not live to see his like again.

There was something genuinely large and innocent and elemental in Victor Hugo. The austere simplicity of his life may have been perhaps too self-consciously flung at the world's face; but it was a natural instinct in him. I hesitate to call him a charlatan. Was it Goethe who said "There is something of charlatanism in all genius"? Victor Hugo hardly deserves to have Goethe quoted in his favour, so ignorantly did he disparage, in his childish prejudice, the great German's work; but what perhaps the world calls charlatanism in him is really only the reaction of genius when it comes into conflict with the brutal obstinacy of real life.

What is charlatanism? I am almost scared to look up the word in the dictionary for fear of discovering that I am myself no better than that opprobrious thing. But still, if Victor Hugo was really a charlatan, one can safely say one would sooner be damned with the author of "L'Homme qui Rit" than saved with many who have no charlatanism in them.

But what is charlatanism? Does it imply false and extravagant claims to qualities we do not possess? Or is there the spirit of the Mountebank in it? If one were a deliberate Machiavel of dissimulation, if one fooled the people thoroughly and consciously, would one be a charlatan? Or are charlatans simply harmless fools who are too embarrassed to confess their ignorance and too childish to stop pretending?

There is something nobly patriarchal about the idea of Victor Hugo in his old age. The man's countenance has certainly extraordinary genius "writ large" there for all men to see. His head is like something that has been carved by Michelangelo. Looking at his face one realises where the secret of his peculiar genius lay. It lay in a certain tragic abandonment to a sublime struggle with the elements. When in his imagination he wrestled with the elements he forgot his politics, his prejudices, his moral bravado.

Whatever this mysterious weakness may have been which we call his "charlatanism," it certainly dropped away from him like a mask when he confronted the wind or sea or such primitive forms of human tragedy as are elemental in their simple outlines. Probably for all his rhetoric Victor Hugo would have made an obstinate invincible sailor on the high seas. I discern in the shape of his head something of the look of weather-beaten mariners. I can fancy him holding fast the rudder of a ship flying before the fury of an Atlantic storm.

The sea-scenes in his books are unequalled in all prose literature. To match them you would have to go to the poets—to Shakespeare—to Swinburne. A single line of Hugo has more of the spirit of the sea, more of its savagery, its bitter strength, its tigerish leap and bite, than pages of Pierre Loti. Whether I am prejudiced by my childish associations I do not know, but no other writer makes me smell the sea-weed, catch the sharp salt tang, feel the buffeting of the waves, as Victor Hugo does. Yes, for all his panoramic evocations of sea-effects, Pierre Loti does not touch the old eternal mystery of the deep, with its answer of terror and strange yearning in the heart of man, in the way this other touches it. The great rhetorician found a rhetoric here that put his eloquence to silence and he responded to it with sentences as sharp, as brief, as broken, as abrupt, as stinging and wind-driven, as the rushing waves themselves pouring over a half drowned wreck.

And just as he deals with the sea, so he deals with the wind and rain and snow and vapour and fire. Those who love Victor Hugo will think of a hundred examples of what I mean, from the burning castle in "Ninety-three," to the wind-rocked gibbet on the Isle of Portland, when the child hero of the "Man who Laughs" escapes from the storm.

When one tries to cast one's critical plummet into the secret motive forces of Hugo's genius, one is continually being baffled by the presence there of conflicting elements. For instance no one who has read "Notre Dame" can deny the presence of a certain savage delight in scenes of grotesque and exaggerated terror. No one who has read "Les Misérables" can deny the existence in him of a vein of lovely tenderness that, with a little tiny push over the edge, would degenerate into maudlin sentiment of the most lamentable kind.

The performances of the diabolical "archdeacon" in "Notre Dame" to the moment when Quasimodo watches him fall from the parapet, are just what one might expect to enjoy in some old-fashioned melodramatic theatre designed for such among the pure in heart as have a penchant for ghastliness. But one forgets all this in a moment when some extraordinary touch of illuminating imagination gets hold of one by the throat.

I do not think that Victor Hugo will go down to posterity honoured and applauded because of his love for the human race. I suspect those critics who hold him up as a grand example of democratic principles and libertarian ideals of not being great lovers of his stories. He is a name for them to conjure with and that is all.

Victor Hugo loved children and he loved the mothers of children, but he was too great a soul to spoil his colossal romance with any blatant humanitarianism. I do not say he was the high, sad, lonely, social exile he would have liked the world to believe him; for he was indeed of kind, simple, honest domestic habits and a man who got much happiness from quite little things. But when we come to consider what will be left of him in the future I feel sure that it will be rather by his imagination than by his social eloquence that he will touch our descendants. It is indeed not in the remotest degree as a rhetorician that he arrests us in these unique tales. It is by means of something quite different from eloquence.

His best effects are achieved in sudden striking images which seem to have in them a depth of fantastic diablerie worthy of the wreck-strewn "humming waters" whose secrets he loved to penetrate.

It is not sufficiently realised how much there was of the "macabre" about Victor Hugo. Like the prophet Ezekiel, he had strange visions from the power he served, and in the primordial valleys of his imagination there lie, strewn to the bleaching winds, the bones of men and of demons and of gods; and the breath that blows upon them and makes them live—live their weird phantasmal life of mediaeval goblins in some wild procession of madness—is the breath of the spirit of childhood's fancies.

"Victor Hugo" is reprinted from Suspended Judgments: Essays on Books and Sensations. John Cowper Powys. New York: G. Arnold Shaw, 1916.


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