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Victor Hugo - Les Feuilles d’automne

Late Autumn 2021

Les Feuilles d’automne: Autumn Leaves

Les Feuilles d'automne is a collection of poems by Victor Hugo that was published in 1831. This poetry is quite aptly titled for its pervasive sensibility of melancholy, loss, an awareness of aging, and of a lessening of vital energy. For Hugo, whose creative energy, literary ambition, and artistic passion were profound, this outpouring of pensive sorrow was the expression of a poet who was maturing as a man, looking back but pondering, with uncertainty, the future.

He was nearly thirty years of age in 1831, approaching, as the French say, la trentaine. It is reputedly a time of life that, even today, prompts in many an individual a somber sense of the passage of youth, one that was either spent wisely, or squandered. I can say that my life began at my trentaine; I therefore do not easily comprehend the motivations that provoked within Hugo the shadowy and solemn lyrical poetry of Les Feuilles d’automne.

An obvious metaphor for the autumn of his life, the title of this collection of verse hardly marked the decline of the literary powers of this Frenchman. Nevertheless, of these 53 poems, six are granted the title, Soleils couchants — Setting suns.

After the publication of this recueil de poésie, Hugo would live another 53 years, and he would compose the fictional masterpiece known as Les Misérables. He had yet, before him, the creation of five more volumes of poetry (Les Chants du crépuscule, 1835; Les Voix intérieures, 1837; Les Rayons et les Ombres, 1840; Les Contemplations, 1856; and La Légende des siècles, 1859-1883). Those works decisively solidified his worth as the greatest lyric and poignant poet of his era, known as the Romantic.

I believe his wistful dolor, a form of restless pessimism, sprang from his response to the boisterous instability of political life in France; and from his inability to compromise himself, personally, politically, or professionally, to accept the upheavals and disorder that made no sense to this single-minded but ingenious man. His introspective despondency went hand-in-hand with his agitated questioning of staunch beliefs that had been so facilely held, and had long been fortified by his artistic fervor.

Hugo was fiercely affected by the politics of his nation, and his nation was in the habit of undergoing cataclysms during his lifetime, from 1802 to 1885. As concerns the writings of Victor-Marie Hugo, it is, at times, difficult to separate the political from the poetic. He was a self-appointed social critic, to the point where his opinions on the just society, and on the unjust society, with its attendant social miseries, threaten to overtake the magnificence of his aesthetic poetry and prose.

Exile, political exile, for Hugo freed him to create art from a truly aesthetic vision, albeit alongside his intense scribblings of political pamphlets, tracts, and ramblings. Political poetry was set aside to permit the expression of outpourings of a tempestuous heart, one that questioned the future, one that questioned, even more, the past.

Picture, if you will, just a bit of the historic background of the governmental vicissitudes of France during this era.

The July Monarchy in 1830 brought Louis-Philippe of the Orléans branch of the House of Bourbon to the throne of France., thereby establishing a constitutional monarchy in that nation. That monarchy lasted until the Revolution of 1848 when King Louis-Philippe was overthrown. That monarch got away with his life, the remainder of which he lived out in exile in the United Kingdom.

Yes, the French needed two revolutions to upend a monarchy, and to make permanent their rejection of royalty. I believe nonetheless that the French people still yearn for an august, austere and dignified authority figure commanding their nation. They are not alone, patriotically speaking, in that desire, for a wise and decisive leader.

The Revolution of 1848 jettisoned the monarch, abolished the monarchy, and established the Second Republic. Hugo was, by that time, a devoted republican; although, in 1845, he’d gladly accepted a peerage, known as the pair de France, from King Louis-Philippe. Hugo thus became a member of the Upper Chamber of Parliament where he elucidated his position against the death penalty and he freely advocated freedom of the press.

In 1851, the nephew of Napoleon, Louis Napoleon, seized complete power by force. He’d been unable to constitutionally seek re-election to the Presidency of the Second Republic, the position he’d legally held since 1848. This Napoleon then became Napoleon III.

An outraged Victor Hugo publicly declared this usurper of power a traitor, and he promptly moved, with his family, to Brussels; and then to the isle of Jersey. His overt criticism of Queen Victoria was met with expulsion from that isle; Hugo thereafter moved with his family to Saint Peter Port on the nearby isle of Guernsey.

It was there, on this Channel island of Guernsey that Victor Hugo lived in exile from October 1855 until 1870.

His most magnificent writings were realized during this period of self-imposed exile: Les Misérables (1862), and the collections of poetry that followed Les Feuilles d’automne: Les Contemplations (1856); and La Légende des siècles (published in three series in 1859, 1877, and 1883). This last collection was a monumental work that strove to portray the history and the evolution of Humanity.

He had known personal tragedy and loss, but, through the splendour and the mystery of poetry, had somewhat come to terms with his acute anguish. The anguish over the government of France, however, that state of mind he did not easily confront, much less accept. The ongoing tumult of political life in France was caused by forces that this man did not, and could not fully comprehend — because those events and the motivations propelling such grand fluctuations and lurid lurches in retrograde, they flew in the face of the fundamental ethos of Victor-Marie Hugo.

Throughout his life, regardless of whether he was a monarchist or a republican, this Frenchman held an unswerving, even ardent, belief in the unending and unstoppable progress of mankind to improve and to ascend, ever upward, toward a better place, a more regal realm. Progress, for Hugo, was a series of linear steps of amelioration. Always the Romantic, Victor Hugo was bewildered, disgusted, and alarmed by any steps backwards, to the side, or none at all. France, during this precarious epoch, was committing false steps in just about every direction.

The French Revolution of 1789 abolished a monarchy, guillotined a King and his wife, and persecuted to death their young son, Louis-Charles, a child who perished at the age of ten in the appalling Temple Tower. The replacement parts for this royal family were sub-par, to say the least.

It took the French two revolutions to make democracy stick to that bastille wall of liberty. There have nevertheless been, and still are, as in recently, occasions when haughty absolutism heavily wins out over liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Victor Hugo believed passionately in France, in the ideals of France, in art, in the ideals of art, and in the application of all of those ideals, particularly his own, to the betterment of mankind, and to the refinement of life amidst portions of humanity that do not always seek or savour enlightenment. A life-long romantic idealist, he sought solace in the reflection of light; and he excoriated any person, including himself, who sought the abyss.

The preface of Les feuilles d’automne describes his poetry as serene and peaceful, such as all the world makes or dreams of . . . verses of the interior of the heart.

The interior of the heart of this writer, during this fecund phase of his life, was far from serene or peaceful.

Hugo was a poet first and foremost. That he would not find the upward mobility of humanity on his terms, on his timeline, on his watch — there was to be found the dark shadow that forever haunted the resplendent illumination that was his Muse. There existed for Hugo more than a little trepidation regarding the exact location of où est bonheur: where is happiness?

His exile lasted until the return of liberty to the governance of France, and the reconstitution of the republic in 1870. That government was known as the Third Republic, one which died ignominiously in the spring of 1940. During a very fateful month, le général Charles de Gaulle would follow in the fervently patriotic footsteps of this poet who had exiled himself to protest a national traitor.

The “sonorous echo” of the epoch of Victor Hugo, that echo resounded in May 1940, with tragedy and eloquence. That reverberation during those momentous weeks was heard as the chimes of rebellion by another heroic son of France. This military leader would not merely restore to France her dignity, but save her from the Nazis and from the traitors within her own borders.

Les feuilles d'automne

Quand le livre où s'endort chaque soir ma pensée,

Quand l'air de la maison, les soucis du foyer,

Quand le bourdonnement de la ville insensée

Où toujours on entend quelque chose crier,

Quand tous ces mille soins de misère ou de fête

Qui remplissent nos jours, cercle aride et borné,

Ont tenu trop longtemps, comme un joug sur ma tête,

Le regard de mon âme à la terre tourné ;

Elle s'échappe enfin, va, marche, et dans la plaine

Prend le même sentier qu'elle prendra demain,

Qui l'égare au hasard et toujours la ramène,

Comme un coursier prudent qui connaît le chemin.

Elle court aux forêts où dans l'ombre indécise

Flottent tant de rayons, de murmures, de voix,

Trouve la rêverie au premier arbre assise,

Et toutes deux s'en vont ensemble dans les bois !

English translation:

When the book where every night my thought falls asleep,

When the air of the house, the worries of the home,

When the buzzing of the senseless city

Where always something is heard screaming,

When all these thousand cares of misery or of celebration

Which fill our days, arid and confined circle,

Have held too long, like a yoke on my head,

The look of my soul to the rotated earth;

She escapes at last, goes, walks, and in the plain

Takes the same path that she will take tomorrow,

which leads her astray at random and always leads her back,

Like a careful courier who knows the way.

She runs to the forests where in the indecisive shadow

Float so many sunbeams, whispers, voices,

Finds the reverie at the first sitting tree

And together they both go off into the woods!


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