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....
that fiercely attack the grandeur of Napoléon III
Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was the President of the French Second Republic and as Napoleon III, the ruler of the Second French Empire. He was the nephew and heir of Napoleon I, christened as Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte...
's Second Empire
The Second French Empire or French Empire was the Imperial Bonapartist regime of Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870, between the Second Republic and the Third Republic, in France.-Rule of Napoleon III:...
It is difficult to understand Hugo's motivation for writing such a vehement critique without an overview of the historical context which inspired it. Louis-Napoléon had previously made unsuccessful attempts to gain power, leading to his exile in London. His final attempt resulted in a coup d'état
on 2 December 1852. French guards opened fire on a group of protesters, causing several deaths. This did little to help achieve the reputation that Louis-Napoléon had hoped for. In addition to this, he proceeded to change the constitutional laws governing the length of time that an emperor could rule.
Hugo's sympathies lay with the working classes,and he was appalled by what he saw as a willingness to kill in order to gain power. Viewed as the voice of the masses in France, Hugo used his substantial influence to gather support against Louis-Napoléon. His contempt was best illustrated in a speech delivered to the Académie française
L'Académie française , also called the French Academy, is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution,...
, where he declared, "Quoi? Après Augustus, nous avons Augustule!" This is a reference to the Roman emperor Augustus
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...
, and the suffix -ule
derives from a Latin diminutive, indicating an object or person that is smaller in stature. This deliberately antagonistic declaration encapsulates Hugo's view: Louis-Napoléon was far removed from the great military leader that his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, had been.
In addition, Louis-Napoléon's legitimacy was also brought into question. Rumours abounded (although none was ever proven) that he was an illegitimate child — a product of one of his mother's numerous affairs — and therefore could claim no right to his title. Hugo seizes on this in an attempt to discredit his position.
His vociferous condemnation of Louis-Napoléon as a traitor, usurper and dictator put Hugo and his family in danger . Realising this, Hugo fled his beloved France, vowing never to return until a new order was installed. After stopping 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...
and then Jersey
Jersey, officially the Bailiwick of Jersey is a British Crown Dependency off the coast of Normandy, France. As well as the island of Jersey itself, the bailiwick includes two groups of small islands that are no longer permanently inhabited, the Minquiers and Écréhous, and the Pierres de Lecq and...
, Hugo settled with his family in Guernsey
Guernsey, officially the Bailiwick of Guernsey is a British Crown dependency in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy.The Bailiwick, as a governing entity, embraces not only all 10 parishes on the Island of Guernsey, but also the islands of Herm, Jethou, Burhou, and Lihou and their islet...
and remained there until 1870. Despite the distance from his readership, Hugo's influence remained strong and the years in exile produced a flurry of literary activity.
Written in 1853, Les Châtiments
is arguably Hugo's most scathing work, including Les Égouts
("The sewers"), which contrasts the lives of the poor whom Hugo claims Louis-Napoléon ignored with the pompous grandeur to which the emperor aspired. Even the editor of the collection claimed that Hugo had gone too far with his vehement criticisms of the Second Empire. However, even if Hugo's comments did exaggerate the failings of Louis-Napoléon's regime, they present a strong critique of a society bound by censorship of the press and the arts.
Hugo resorts to extreme measures to portray Louis-Napoléon as ruler with much blood on his hands, and Les Châtiments
is littered with references to corrupt and flawed historical figures. Some better known than others, they all gained notoriety for their corrupt and cruel natures. A device particularly favoured by Hugo is the comparison to Roman emperors, such as Caligula
Caligula , also known as Gaius, was Roman Emperor from 37 AD to 41 AD. Caligula was a member of the house of rulers conventionally known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Caligula's father Germanicus, the nephew and adopted son of Emperor Tiberius, was a very successful general and one of Rome's most...
Claudius , was Roman Emperor from 41 to 54. A member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, he was the son of Drusus and Antonia Minor. He was born at Lugdunum in Gaul and was the first Roman Emperor to be born outside Italy...
and Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....
. Allusions to the Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...
include Judas Iscariot
Judas Iscariot was, according to the New Testament, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. He is best known for his betrayal of Jesus to the hands of the chief priests for 30 pieces of silver.-Etymology:...
, Barabus and Cain. Others include European leaders and French criminals who were well known in their days.
Not satisfied with evil despots and tyrants, Hugo also turns to animalistic imagery as a means of implying that Louis-Napoléon is less than human. References to snakes, crocodiles, worm
The term worm refers to an obsolete taxon used by Carolus Linnaeus and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck for all non-arthropod invertebrate animals, and stems from the Old English word wyrm. Currently it is used to describe many different distantly-related animals that typically have a long cylindrical...
s, bees, wasps and spiders can be found.
Hugo reserves the vous
form of address for Napoleon Bonaparte. Along with being the polite form of address in French
French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...
, it also denotes respect for someone in a higher position of power. The tu
is used in a disparaging way for Louis-Napoléon. It would be unthinkable that anybody should address the Emperor of the French in such a way. This form of address may denote familiarity between friends, but this is not Hugo's intention and it is used purely to belittle a futile leader.
It is said that Napoleon III read the work thoroughly and kept a copy by his bedside. He is said to have been so devastated by Hugo's vicious condemnation that he never fully recovered from the shock of his first reading. There was even an attempt to reconcile with Hugo, with Louis-Napoléon publicly extending an invitation for Hugo to return to France.
One could equally argue that the failings of that same regime would indeed be difficult to exaggerate in terms of the time in which Hugo lived. This is very important to keep in mind: while Napoleon III, who was influenced by Saint-Simonianism
Saint-Simonianism was a French political and social movement of the first half of the 19th century, inspired by the ideas of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon ....
, was no Hitler, and some of his policies are recognized as liberal
Liberalism is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but generally, liberals support ideas such as constitutionalism, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights,...
, Hugo was a much-needed voice for continued social change in an impoverished, 19th-century France.
, about the Battle of Waterloo, is parodied in Asterix in Belgium
Asterix in Belgium is the twenty-fourth volume of the Asterix comic book series, by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo .It is noted as the last Asterix story Goscinny worked on...
when Caesar fights a battle against the Belgians resembling the Battle of Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday 18 June 1815 near Waterloo in present-day Belgium, then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands...
. The actions on the battlefield are accompanied by verses which parody this poem.
has never been out of print and is still studied in universities today. It is fair to say that Hugo's portrayal of Louis-Napoléon is somewhat exaggerated, as many historians have recently agreed that he was not the tyrannical despot that the vicious poems suggest.