Victor Hugo's Poetics

By Riffaterre, Michael | The Romanic Review, January-March 2002 | Go to article overview

Victor Hugo's Poetics


Riffaterre, Michael, The Romanic Review


As any poetics must be, Hugo's is inseparable from a certain theory of inspiration, since the nature of his inspiration affects a writer's techniques. (1) The poet finds inspiration in what surrounds him. His concern is with the "mysteries which rise to blind him ... every morning with the sun, every evening with the stars." (2) But Hugo goes far beyond contemplation and meditation upon the spectacle of nature: "the horizon darkens and contemplation becomes vision;" (3) in fact, as early as the time of his first travels to see the world, when he composed Le Rhin, his exercises in imagination, and sometimes in hallucination, in the face of nature foreshadow the methods of a Rimbaud.

The poet's task is not only to see the world as a Baudelairean forest of symbols, (4) like the seer who deciphers God's intentions in the book of the universe. He must not merely let himself be penetrated by reality, he must penetrate it, and prolong it, so to speak, in the direction sketched out by God: "the vast yearning for what could be, such is a poet's perpetual obsession. What could be in nature, what could be in destiny." In short, the poet must continue the work of divine creation where ascertainable truth gives place to potential truth: "what is it to look at the ocean, compared with looking at the possible!" (5) It is this rivalry with God--"the poet putting himself in the place of destiny" (6)--this going beyond, which engenders beauty: "in art, however lofty the truth, beauty is still higher." (7)

Prisoner as he is within the boundaries of reality, the poet can find his escape toward the possible only through supernaturalism, "the part of nature that is beyond our senses." (8) To reach it the poet must use observation, imagination and intuition. (9) Here is a sensualistic theory of knowledge: nature is the object of imagination, imagination being the interiorization of the world perceived by the senses; mankind is the object of observation, but mankind is still nature, observed in man; "supernaturalism" is the object of intuition. Intuition, or conjecture, makes the poet kin to the scientist, (10) with the difference that the latter's work remains to be perfected, whereas a poem is a final and perfect form. (11) Conjecture is, we might say, an extrapolation from the given of the senses, or, again, a conception of possible infinity inferred from a finite given: "nature mirrored by the soul is more abysmal than when seen directly ... This reflection ... is an augmentation of reality." (12) Infinity is the only reality, be it called God or moral ideal or absolute, (13) or simply consciousness of what is beyond man, a consciousness which in itself makes him great (14) and is the source of all poetry.

Any esthetics which limits Beauty by certain definitions or by the application of certain rules negates infinity and sterilizes imagination. This is the case with French classicism. Even irregularity can be a part of true poetry; in one of his drafts, under the title The Infinite in Art, Hugo sketches a theory of the baroque: "What makes the charm or irregularity? apparently irregularity is unfinishedness, and in unfinishedness there is infinity." Even ugliness or evil can be part of poetry: "What we call evil we should call good if we could see the beginning and the end of it. Evil, whether in nature or in destiny, is a thing mysteriously begun by God which stretches beyond us into the invisible ... Some apparent ugliness ... is really part of a supreme beauty." (15)

The poet, therefore, eager to contemplate the absolute, must cast away any preconceived esthetics. He must be sure not to let literary tradition interpose itself between him and nature. Not only must he not restrict his inspiration to the beaten path, he bas to be more than original. For an original poet may still follow guides and models; in order to create a beauty that can be called his own, it is then sufficient if he has personal traits of style: thus Virgil imitating Homer. …

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