Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Hugo's Orientales Revisited

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Hugo's Orientales Revisited

Article excerpt

Ever since Sainte-Beuve praised the eclat eblouissant, the dazzling vividness of their colors, the poems of Les Orientales have been regarded as a masterpiece of colorful pittoresque, a poetry of light, a perfect example of how poetic imagery can be enriched and inspiration renewed by exoticism. Critics are not often so persistently unanimous, especially in judging poetry susceptible of various interpretations. Can it be that this consensus is a continuing echo of the surprise the poems aroused in their first generation of readers? And can it be that the initial surprise was due to the contrast between the Orientales and its background--the greyish vagueness, the even tenor of classical poetry? Can it be that Hugo's text, judged on its own, without historical considerations, would be differently appraised?

Let us first reexamine the allegedly dominating role of light in his imagery. The most recent critic and editor of Hugo's poetic works, Albouy, declares once more that Les Orientales "temoignent de l'ivresse verbale et de l'amour pour le soleil qui sont des traits eminemment hugoliens"; (1) he quotes as further evidence what Hugo once said of himself: Il aime le soleil. This quotation, however, does not mean what it seems to mean: in context (the preface to Les Rayons et les Ombres--a title, by the way, that equates shadow and light) soleil is a mere metonymy which stands for Mediterranean literatures as opposed by Madame de Stael to those of Northern Europe. This image, and the examples Hugo gives, concern clarity of style, not actual sunlight: le vague et le demi-jour ... il les admet plus rarement dans l'expression ... Il a toujours eu un gout vif pour la forme meridionale et precise. Il aime le soleil. La Bible est son livre. Virgile et Dante sont ses divins maitres. The fact remains, however, that perceptive critics, whatever their differences of temperament, agree on the importance of light. Emery, for example, sees in the poems "la recherche des impressions lumineuses les plus intenses." Barrere states that the main characters of Les Orientales, which celebrate the Hellenic war of independence, are not the Greek and Turkish heroes but "le soleil, la lune, toutes les varietes de la lumiere." Elsewhere Barrere summarizes the book as a "hymne au soleil. De lui l'imagination attend que sa reverie prenne forme ... Disparait-il, l'imagination semble frappee d'impuissance:

   Devant le sombre hiver de Paris qui bourdonne 
   Ton soleil d'Orient s'eclipse et t'abandonne. 
   Ton beau reve d'Asie avorte ..." (2) 

But these last three lines, it seems to me, actually demonstrate that Hugo's imagination is stimulated, not paralyzed; the poet is not stricken by impotence but puts it to use as a fruitful theme. The poem is written, precisely, about the failure of a dream, not in spite of it. In other words, the poet finds inspiration not in the sun but in its death--not in its splendor but in its extinction. Further, this is not an isolated instance. The sun is in fact rarely evoked as a source of light; far more often it is a symbol, or a character in the great cosmic drama.

And when it is a luminary for him, Hugo significantly prefers moments like dusk, when sunlight reddens and loses its brilliance. At that time of day his contemplation of the sun turns into such melancholy meditation as we find in the "Reverie":

   Oh! Laissez-moi! C'est l'heure ou l'horizon qui fume 
   Cache un front inegal sous un cercle de brume 
   L'heure ou l'astre geant rougit et disparait. (3) 

Obviously Hugo is not interested here in light but it the rising tide of darkness. Indeed, he eliminated the words astre de feu, which appeared in a first version, because they called attention to the light; he chose instead to suggest the immensity of the meteor, the image of a dying giant. The epigraph, a quotation from Dante, further obscures the atmosphere: Lo giorno se n'andava, e l'aer bruno, etc. …

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