La Légende des siècles
("The Legend of the Ages") is a collection of poems by Victor Hugo
Victor-Marie Hugo was a Frenchpoet, playwright, novelist, essayist, visual artist, statesman, human rights activist and exponent of the Romantic movement in France....
, conceived as an immense depiction of the history and evolution of humanity.
Written intermittently between 1855 and 1876, while the exiled Victor Hugo worked on numerous other projects, the poems were published in three series in 1859, 1877, and 1883. Bearing witness to an unparalleled poetic talent in which all Hugo's art is evident, the Légende des Siècles
is often considered the only true French epic and, according to Baudelaire's formulation, the only modern epic possible.
The dreaming poet contemplates the "wall of the centuries," indistinct and terrible, on which scenes of the past, present and future are drawn, and along which the whole long procession of humanity can be seen. The poems are depictions of these scenes, fleetingly perceived and interspersed with terrifying visions. Hugo sought neither historical accuracy nor exhaustiveness; rather, he concentrated on obscure figures, usually his own inventions, who incarnated and symbolized their eras. As he proclaimed himself in the preface to the first series, "this is history, eavesdropped upon at the door of legend." The poems, by turns lyrical, epic and satirical, form a view of the human experience, seeking less to summarize than to illustrate the history of humanity, and to bear witness to its long journey from the darkness into the light.
La Légende des Siècles
was not originally conceived as the vast work it was to become. Its beginning, the original seed, was in a vague project entitled Petites Epopées
("Little Epics"), which features in the notes and jottings of Hugo from 1848, and which gives no indication of so vast an ambition.
After Les Châtiments
Les Châtiments is a collection of poems by Victor Hugo that fiercely attack the grandeur of Napoléon III's Second Empire.- Historical background :...
and Les Contemplations
, his editor, Hetzel
Pierre-Jules Hetzel was a French editor and publisher. He is best known for his extraordinarily lavishly illustrated editions of Jules Verne's novels highly prized by collectors today...
, was perturbed by the submission of La Fin de Satan
La Fin de Satan is a long religious epic by Victor Hugo, of which 5700 lines were written between 1854 and 1862, but left unfinished and published after his death....
Dieu is a long religious epic by Victor Hugo, parts of which were written between 1855 and 1862. It was left unfinished, and published after his death....
, both of which were nearly complete. Seeing that Hugo was ready to proceed yet further down the metaphysical (or even eschatological) road mapped out by the final Contemplations
, Hetzel became anxious at the probability of their failure with the public, and preferred the sound of the Petites Epopées
which Hugo had mentioned, feeling they would be more in harmony with the spirit of the times. Even though these "epics" were still no more than sketches, in March 1857 Hetzel wrote to Hugo, rejecting Fin de Satan
, but accepting with enthusiasm the Petites Epopées
This new commission was nevertheless transformed by the influence of Hugo's latest ideas and most recent works, created with the same dash and fire and in a sort of magma of inspiration: a mixture of poesy, mysticism and philosophy which is characteristic of Hugo's first decade of exile. This inspiration normally led him to write a large number of poems, more or less brief, which would finally be published as components in projects which were constantly shifting and evolving. In this case Hugo integrated the little epics into his poetical system by casting them as the "human" panel in a triptych of which "God" and "Satan" were the wings, with the implication that they were merely sparse fragments stolen from a greater epic: the whole of human experience itself. On 11 September 1857 Hugo signed a contract with Hetzel, reserving the right to alter the project's title.
Later, Hetzel pronounced himself willing to publish La Fin de Satan
; but Hugo, perhaps conscious of the difficulties of completing either to his satisfaction, had by that time thrown himself entirely into the new project. He began by taking the French Revolution as the turning point in human history, intending to use a poem entitled La Révolution
as a pivot around which La Pitié Suprême
or Le Verso de la page
would revolve. More titles were written down, but some were discarded or greatly altered, and the section dealing with the Nineteenth Century coalesced as L'Océan — La Révolution — le Verso de la page — la Pitié Suprême — Les Pauvres Gens — L'épopée de l'Âne
Hetzel followed this evolution with alarm, and, fearing that the great philosophical questions would turn these little epics into towering giants, endeavoured to temper Hugo's ardour. After a serious illness in the summer of 1858, Hugo tried to reassure Hetzel by writing in a more straightforwardly narrative vein (eg Le Petit Roi de Galice
), and modified his plans—but retained the general ambition, which he declared in a preface. He had hit on the idea of publishing in several instalments, to give himself more time and space within which to work. The title was not decided on until a month after the manuscript's submission. With his gift for phrases, Hugo came up with La Légende des Siècles
. Petites Épopées
was kept as a subtitle.
The first series was published in two volumes on 26 September 1859 (see 1859 in poetry
Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature .-United Kingdom:* William Barnes:** Hwomely Rhymes ** The Song of Solomon in the Dorset Dialect...
) in Brussels
Brussels , officially the Brussels Region or Brussels-Capital Region , is the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of the European Union...
. In exile, Hugo dedicated it to his home country:
- Livre, qu'un vent t'emporte
- En France, où je suis né !
- L'arbre déraciné
- Donne sa feuille morte.
The framing of the series is resolutely Biblical: opening with Eve (Le sacre de la femme
) and closing on La trompette du jugement
, the classical world is largely forgotten (the Roman Empire, for which Hugo had little admiration, is represented only by its decadence). Several poems dating from 1857-58 were set aside for a future continuation.
- I. D'Ève à Jésus (Le sacre de la femme ; La conscience ; Puissance égale bonté ; Les lions ; Le temple ; Booz endormi ; Dieu invisible au philosophe ; Première rencontre du Christ avec le tombeau)
- II. Décadence de Rome (Au lion d'Androclès)
- III. L'Islam (L'an neuf de l'Hégire ; Mahomet ; Le cèdre)
- IV. Le Cycle Héroïque Chrétien (Le parricide ; Le mariage de Roland ; Aymerillot ; Bivar ; Le jour des rois)
- V. Les Chevaliers Errants (La terre a vu jadis ; Le petit roi de Galice ; Eviradnus)
- VI. Les Trônes d'Orient (Zim-Zizimi ; 1453 ; Sultan Mourad)
- VII. L'Italie — Ratbert
- VIII. Seizième siècle — Renaissance. Paganisme (Le Satyre)
- IX. La Rose de l'Infante
- X. L'Inquisition (Les raisons du Momotombo)
- XI. La Chanson des Aventuriers de la Mer
- XII. Dix-septième siècle, Les Mercenaires (Le régiment du baron Madruce)
- XIII. Maintenant (Après la bataille ; Le crapaud ; Les pauvres gens ; Paroles dans l'épreuve)
- XIV. Vingtième siècle (Pleine mer — Plein ciel)
- XV. Hors des temps (La trompette du jugement)
Work on the second series began immediately after the first, but Hugo was soon busy with Les Misérables
Les Misérables , translated variously from the French as The Miserable Ones, The Wretched, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims), is an 1862 French novel by author Victor Hugo and is widely considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century...
and with completing La Fin de Satan
. In 1862, with the publication of Les Misérables
, Hugo reviewed his earlier plan and gathered together the poems already written: L'Âne
, Les Sept Merveilles du Monde
(a recent one), La Révolution
, and La Pitié Suprême
. Again, he delayed work for the sake of novels (Les travailleurs de la mer
and L'Homme Qui Rit
). In 1870, a decisive moment came, when Hugo decided to keep La Révolution
for the future collection Les Quatre Vents de l'esprit
, and to fuse together La Légende
and La Fin de Satan
, according to the following plan: La Fin de Satan
, first book — L'Océan
— La Vision de Dante
— Les Religions
) — La Pitié Suprême
. Current events in the 1870s
The 1870s continued the trends of the previous decade, as new empires, imperialism and militarism rose in Europe and Asia. America was recovering from the Civil War. Germany declared independence in 1871 and began its Second Reich. Labor unions and strikes occurred worldwide in the later part of...
, however, saw upheavals in Hugo's life, and he was once more greatly involved in politics.
La Nouvelle Série
was finally published on 26 February 1877 (see 1877 in poetry
Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature .- The Annus mirabilis of poetastery:In the annals of poetasting, 1877 stands out as a historic year....
), Hugo's sixty-fifth birthday. Most of the contents date from 1859 and 1875–1877, and the events of the 1870s make themselves felt: the Paris Commune
The Paris Commune was a government that briefly ruled Paris from March 18 to May 28, 1871. It existed before the split between anarchists and Marxists had taken place, and it is hailed by both groups as the first assumption of power by the working class during the Industrial Revolution...
, the fall of Napoleon III, and the beginnings of the Third Republic
The French Third Republic was the republican government of France from 1870, when the Second French Empire collapsed due to the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, to 1940, when France was overrun by Nazi Germany during World War II, resulting in the German and Italian occupations of France...
The collection closes with the formidable Abîme
, a vertiginous dialogue between Man, Earth, Sun, and Stars, playing on the numberless steps leading to an infinity behind which stands God, and placing human beings, with all their pettiness, face to face with the Universe.
- La vision d'où est sorti ce livre
- I. La Terre (La terre - hymne)
- II. Suprématie
- III. Entre géants et dieux (Le géant, aux dieux ; Les temps paniques ; Le titan)
- IV. La ville disparue
- V. Après les dieux, les rois (I : Inscription ; Cassandre ; Les trois cents ; Le détroit de l'Euripe ; La chanson de Sophocle à Salamine ; Les bannis ; Aide offerte à Majorien ; II : L'hydre ; Le romancero du Cid ; Le roi de Perse ; Les deux mendiants ; Montfaucon ; Les reîtres ; Le comte Félibien)
- VI. Entre lions et rois (Quelqu'un met le holà)
- VII. Le Cid exilé
- VIII. Welf, Castellan d'Osbor
- IX. Avertissements et châtiments (Le travail des captifs ; Homo duplex ; Verset du Koran ; L'aigle du casque)
- X. Les Sept merveilles du monde
- XI. L'Epopée du ver
- XII. Le Poëte au ver de terre
- XIII. Clarté d'âmes
- XIV. Les chutes (Fleuves et poëtes)
- XV. Le Cycle pyrénéen (Gaïffer-Jorge, duc d'Aquitaine ; Masferrer ; La paternité)
- XVI. La Comète
- XVII. Changement d'horizon
- XVIII. Le Groupe des Idylles
- XIX. Tout le passé et tout l'avenir
- XX. Un poëte est un monde
- XXI. Le Temps présent (La Vérité, lumière effrayée ; Tout était vision ; Jean Chouan ; Le cimetière d'Eylau ; 1851 — choix entre deux passants ; Écrit en exil ; La colère du bronze ; France et âme ; Dénoncé à celui qui chassa les vendeurs ; Les enterrements civils ; Le prisonnier ; Après les fourches caudines)
- XXII. L'Élégie des fléaux
- XXIII. Les Petits (Guerre civile ; Petit Paul ; Fonction du l'enfant ; Question sociale)
- XXIV. Là-haut
- XXV. Les Montagnes (Désintéressement)
- XXVI. Le Temple
- XXVII. À L'Homme
- XXVIII. Abîme
The New Series had been advertised with the following message: « Le complément de la Légende des siècles sera prochainement publié, à moins que la fin de l'auteur n'arrive avant la fin du livre.
» ("The conclusion to the Legend
will be published shortly, provided that it is not preceded by the conclusion to the author.")
On 9 June 1883 the fifth and last tome of La Légende des Siècles
was published with the subtitle série complémentaire
(see 1883 in poetry
Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature .-United Kingdom:* William Allingham, The Fairies, including "Up the airy mountain ..."; reprinted from Poems 1850...
). Critics who claimed that the "anticlericalism" and "glibness" were evidence of the bitterness of age were mistaken: in fact, Hugo's cerebral edema of June 1878 had already essentially put an end to his work as a writer, and most of the contents dated from long before. It is probable, but not certain, that he had intended to write new poems.
For example, La Vision de Dante
(written in 1853) was initially intended for Châtiments
, and Les Quatre Jours d'Elciis
(written in 1857) was bumped forward from both the First and the New Series, the prologue dating from perhaps 1880. This assemblage of poems with little narrative drive, alternating dark and bright visions, gives the impression of a contemplative and intemporal epilogue, very different from what came before.
- Je ne me sentais plus vivant
- I. Les Grandes Lois
- II. Voix basses dans les ténèbres
- III. Je me penchai
- IV. Mansétude des anciens juges
- V. L'Échafaud
- VI. Inferi
- VII. Les quatre jours d'Elciis
- VIII. Les paysans au bord de la mer
- IX. Les esprits
- X. Le Bey outragé
- XI. La chanson des doreurs de proues
- XII. Ténèbres
- XIII. L'Amour
- XIV. Rupture avec ce qui amoindrit
- XV. Les paroles de mon oncle
- XVI. Victorieux ou mort
- XVII. Le cercle des tyrans
- XVIII. Paroles de Géant
- XIX. Quand le Cid
- XX. La vision de Dante
- XXI. Dieu fait les questions
- XXII. Océan
- XXIII. Ô Dieu, dont l'œuvre va plus loin que notre rêve
In September 1883, several months after the appearance of the Last Series, a "complete" edition was issued in which the three series are mixed together and reorganised according to a more or less chronological plan.
No one is entirely sure how close this comes to Hugo's original vision. It is not impossible that Hugo, physically and intellectually enfeebled, and greatly affected by the death of Juliette Drouet
Juliette Drouet, born Julienne Josephine Gauvain was a French actress. She abandoned her career on the stage after becoming the mistress of Victor Hugo, to whom she acted as a secretary and travelling companion...
, allowed himself to be overly influenced by friends and by the executors of his estate. The rearrangement, which tries to make things easier for the reader by alternating long and short poems, and poems with different moods, has the effect of erasing the internal logic; in particular, the references to current affairs that are found in the New Series are dispersed. Additionally, it introduces bizarreries of chronology: Greek mythology is depicted after Jesus Christ, and El Cid appears before Muhammad. Finally, it often gives the reader the erroneous impression that this final fusion was what Hugo originally intended, as though the original appearance in "series" were a historical accident. Nevertheless, most modern editions adopt this arrangement for the sake of simplicity.