The romantic period was partly in reaction to the impact that the industrial revolution had on the psyches of artists of all stripes. The move toward an industrial culture had moved many people from the pastoral scenes of the country into the grungy hearts of the cities. Many of the people worked in the factories six days a week for many hours a day, or they worked in mines and other industries to support the industry in the cities. The response from the artistic community was to remind the public of two things. They wanted people to remember where they came from and they wanted to help people see the true emotion of life.
One of the most influential writers of the period was a young Frenchman who was known for his poetry early in his career (Halsall x), but who gained international fame for his novels was Victor Hugo. Most now know him as the writer of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but early on his first literary success was a chap book of poems called Odes et Ballades. He was an iconic member of the romantic movement because his characters displayed the emotions that the humanistic wrtiers of the time wanted the public reminded of. This research paper looks at the writings of Victor Hugo, specifically Ruy Blas and Odes et Ballades, for romantic themes with a pointed look at how Hugo dealt with dreams.
Odes and Ballads
Victor Hugo wrote these poems when he was in his early twenties and he had already been recognized by the crown in France as a worthy author. From the age of 22 he had been receiving a regular pension from the king (Hugo, 2001, 1). His poems were well liked by the general public and offered them something different than they had had in the past. They are passionate and full of deep expression. However, Hugo, in his later life, would tell others that they were not his greatest work. In the introduction to Selected Poems of Victor Hugo, the translators said
"The Odes and Ballads are definitely the work of a poet still feeling his way. Hugo never disowned them: but in his later years he displayed them mainly to show how shabby his beginnings had been much as (to his own analogy) a famous king or general might point to the humble cottage of his childhood" (2001, 1).
But, though he may not have been as proud of these poems in his later years as he was when they were published, they started him on a journey that would end in his being regarded as one of the greatest French writer of all time. They were also an early example of his romantic style.
The first poem to examine in Odes et Ballades is titled "Epitaph." The theme is a popular one with romantic poets. One of the best known from the romantic period, Edgar Allen Poe, made his living from this theme as did many who wrote at the same time. Death was a theme that had been lost when people moved to the cities from the country to a large extent. The poor in the cities were not even given the time to mourn their dead before they had to return to work. The problem was that if a person was to go to a funeral for a family member or a friend they could very easily lose their job. There were plenty of people who were lined up to take the jobs of those who missed even one day or were terminated for some other reason. It was not uncommon also for people to see dead bodies lying in the gutter until someone came to claim them. This diluting of the importance of death was one of the regrets that the romantics were trying to quell. In an agrarian community, people spent a great deal of time honoring the person who had died and then they had specific ceremonies for them. But, much of this ceremony had been lost. Thus, the romantic poets wrote about how death affected people.
The primary message in the poem "Epitaph" is that every person will be in the same predicament. Death is a constant, and it is both a curse and a relief. One stanza says reminds the reader of the curse of death by saying;
"Death whose triumphant foot is everywhere,
Has veiled my glories in atoning gloom.
My very name endured its cruel doom,
And if my void holds something rich or fair,
Dismal oblivion hides it from your curious stare!" (Hugo, 2001, 5).
The gist of the verse is that a visitor has come to an old graveyard and the dream is that the person who lies within the tomb can speak to him or her. The ghost wants to remind the person of their own mortality, and it sounds like a kind of taunt. Although you may be alive and strong and vibrant now, he seems to be saying, you will soon be hidden from the living world as I am.
On the other side, the ghost of the epitaph is saying to the person that he (or she) is glad that they do not have the daily toil to deal with anymore because the rest of death is better than the constant worry of life. The ghost says;
"If you want shade or shelter, come; your bed
Waits; you will sleep here, far from all commotion.
If your frail barque is battling the black ocean,
Here are both reef and harbor -- straight ahead!" (Hugo, 2001, 6)
The dichotomy of death and the detailing of this fact is what makes Hugo a romantic. He wants to show the reader the deep emotion and the terror that is involved in the contemplation of death.
Many of the poems offer a glimmer of light only to be doused in the cold rain of death. He wrote one of the poems to praise the glorious morning that he was seeing, but then he took that pleasant feeling away by reminding the reader that life is fleeting.
"Dawn's veils are parting on the mountain height.
Look: newborn light is whitening old spires;
Already in the heavens glory and delight
The forest's first song and the day's first fires.
Smile at those skies dressed in their radiant bloom!
Tomorrow, if the grave drags me away,
As bright a sun will shine upon your gloom," (Hugo, 2001, 7)
The key elements in this poem are life and death, young and old. He talks in veiled terms about the beauty of youth and how it brightens even the lives of those who are old and near the grave. The raw emotion in this poem is that the person who is watching the blooming morning is also considering it as possibly their last. Nothing is a guarantee they are saying. One moment someone is gazing upon the beauty of a mountain morning and the next they are lain in a grave. There is no constant other than the mountain will see another sunrise tomorrow.
The romantics may have liked to remind people of the futility of their lives (there was a lot of that in Hugo's novel Les Miserables), but they also enjoyed discussing the beauty of the surrounding world also. Many times the stark reality that the writers were pushing to the front of their compositions was darkness and death, and anything that could be construed as light had a dreamlike quality to it. This does not mean that they did not see beauty as real, but they chose to look at it as fleeting. Therefore, because death was a permanent condition which pursued every person, and beauty was fleeting even for the most beautiful, death was real and beauty was a dream to be sought. The dream may have been the more desirable, but it was also almost unattainable compared to the reality of death.
The romantics also liked to write using a more ethereal feel. The use of the pastoral scene in paintings or like passages in novels and poems were meant to show the people what they were missing. Romanticists presented a scene with flowing flowery language that gave it a dreamy quality. In "Summer Rain," Hugo uses this technique to describe the after effects of a rain.
"After the streams have washed the ground,
Back to the sun their haze ascends,
And the dim skyline all around
Blurs and dissolves and drifts and bends.
Yet through those wayward veils a few
Light specks -- like stars that half exist
Shine from the fraudulent terrain," (Hugo, 2001, 11)
The water soaked air is seen as a veil through which the reader looks at the hazy background. Again, Hugo is describing a dreamy landscape that would have been familiar to his readers, but that might have been impossible for them to see in the cities. The poem…