It is not until the end of the poem that the reader comprehends that Hugo or the narrator or the reader as narrator, converses with a heavenly orphan. This poem is beautifully heart breaking and tragic. The turn of phrase is masterful. This is truly what critics refer to as "poetic." Let the analysis commence from the poem's beginning since the poem's end has already been mentioned.
The first word of the poem is "Oh!" This is an exclamation. It is reminiscent of Biblical verses, hymns, and epic poetry. Hence Hugo invokes the quality of the epic poem immediately. Then he begins, just as epic poems do, in medias res, Latin for "in the middle of things." Epic poems never begin at the beginning of the epic; epic poetry is an exercise in non-linear storytelling. The narratives of epic poems begin the middle of the narrative; over the course of the narrative, there are flashbacks, flash-forwards, and transitions among the points-of-view of various characters. Hugo continues with "among the suns, spheres, stars, the gantries of azure, the palaces of sapphire." Hugo refers to the heavenly bodies. He immediately evokes qualities of epic poetry and the first location in the poem is among the stars in the magnificent cosmos. He does not use simple colors such as "blue." He uses deep, vivid adjectives such as "sapphire" and "azure." These colors are specific and evoke specific imagery in the readers' minds. There is array of shades of blue, but there is only one sapphire and one azure. The language is powerful, precise, and vivid. Hugo continues with descriptions of the heavens evoking a sense of infinity with adjectives such as "eternal." He writes that an eternal zephyr, or wind, shakes. This makes the poem turn haunted and spooky. The heavens that he has spent most of the time describing are luminous and wondrous, and yet there is a wind from the west that eternally blows, haunting parts of the sky. This is the first hint to the reader that the true tone of the poem is somber and morbid. The wind may remind the reader of a ghost or a haunted residence.
Hugo splices violent imagery with greater frequency while he intensifies the vividness of the beautiful imagery as the poem continues. This makes the poem both beautiful and grotesque. The reader wants to keep reading, but the reader can tell something horrible approaches the further the reader progresses through the poem. He creates this impending sense of dread with subtlety, yet the reader is aware of this feeling's constant presence. It is really very clever, but really creepy. The second stanza opens with "in the torrent of love where every soul is drowning." A torrent is a horrible storm and one may argue that love is akin to a terrible, long-lasting storm in some, if not all, cases. He writes that in the storm of love, every soul is present, together, drowning. This is a tragic and powerful image to ask the reader to conjure. Hugo asks the reader to imagine the souls of every person on Earth trapped in a horrible storm, all of us drowning together. That is a frightening image; even more frightening is Victor Hugo's ability to use such beautiful descriptive words while truly describing a truly wretched situation.
The rest of the second stanza describes burning seraphims, burning celestial snakes that are burning alive as they drink or consume flames. This is a mythical creature from Judeo-Christian mythology. The flames consume the snakes as the snakes consume the flames. It is some kind of hellish yin and yang or the snake eating its own tail -- symbols of infinity. All of this is happening on the "flamboyant orbe which ceaselessly spins around the sparkling throne!" Hugo describes snakes, that are supposed to be in heaven, are actually burning in hell. Furthermore, the orbe that spins around the sparkling throne is the planet Earth that spins around the sun. Hugo truly describes a hell on Earth that is both beautiful and hideous, where no one is safe from hell, even the heavenly beings such as seraphims.
The third stanza begins again with the association with souls. He writes that that wherever this conversation is being held, it is "among the endless game of childish souls." Childish souls play games that never end. Are adult or mature souls the ones who stop playing? Is this an admonition to the reader and to humanity to stop playing around like children? The third stanza is a transition in tone. He writes the phrase "mislaid in the sky" and "axles guide them unsteady." To mislay indicates a mistake occurred. To mislay an object in the sky is a large mistake. He refers to axles providing unstable guidance. Axles are supposed to do just that -- assist as part of the guidance system of a vehicle so that the vehicle remains on track or within the control of the driver. Therefore, in this stanza, the world, the heavens, and the course of life are out of control.
Most of the fourth stanza is a set up to lull the reader into a false sense of security that the poem will return to happy imagery and happy subtext. The beginning and middle of the stanza have the reader imagining being in bed with an enthusiastic virgin, and right after the virgin has bestowed some kisses and giggles, the virgin asks her lover if "the aspect of life scare them in the cradle"? That is a bleak situation. Before, during, and after people engage in intercourse, they are very vulnerable. Imagine: an incredibly sexy, horny virgin just concluded an intense sexual encounter with a lover, and then, while the lover in his/her most vulnerable state, the no-longer-a-virgin asks, if while the lover was an infant, if the thought of living and the thought of life itself, scared that person to death? The author suggests the lover not call that ex-virgin back for a second date. Again, Hugo sets up the reader with erotic and romantic imagery, only to deliver a potent punch-line of morbidity.
The fifth stanza somehow reminds conjures mother imagery, though he does not specifically refer to a mother. He says "in her bright deep ark." An ark could be womb. Arks, besides being the mythical ship that, according to the Bible, God instructed Noah to build, are also places of sanctuary and protection. Hugo writes "her bright deep ark," which sounds like yet another contradiction in this poem. First, whoever's ark this is, it belongs to a female. Second, when we think of bright, we think of open air, something spacious, but an ark is similar to a type of cave. Hugo writes that the ark is bright and deep. This seems counterintuitive. When we think of caves, we think of darkness. When we think of deep caves, we think of extreme darkness. How is this cave or ark both bright and deep? It is wondrous and perhaps holy -- some kind of heavenly and/or cosmic paradox or contradiction. A miracle perhaps? Speaking of miracles, Hugo's next reference after the holy ark is Jesus Christ, who is the homerun derby winner of the Bible when it comes to miracles. He writes of Jesus' heavenly procession dazzling viewers while Jesus brings his children/followers close to him to protect and love them. This is the happiest part of the poem, even though he does refer to Jesus, who was brutally tortured over a sustained period and was ultimately crucified. Still, this is the least tragic section of the poem.
The last stanza begins as the first did, with an outcry of "Oh!" Again, we are brought back to the canon of epic poetry. The final stanza evokes imagery and metaphors of eternity and infinitude. He calls upon "the august world where nothing is ephemeral." August is the last full month of the summer before the fall and winter. In essence, years before surfer culture, Hugo wishes for the endless summer. He wishes for endless happiness and smiles, but yet, as soon as he mentions smiles, the poem takes a sharp and heart-wrenching tone. Hugo writes of "happiness that does not disturb any gall." Gall is a bitterness of spirit or an experience or situation that is bitter, yet must be endured. The reader senses that the profoundly tragic moment of the poem quickly approaches. It is at this point where we realize that the preceding stanzas were a preamble to Hugo's true and most haunting question. It is at this point, the very end, where we realize the poem is a dialogue with a child. This child is "far from smiling and tears of your mother." A child that is far from smiling is profoundly sad as children laugh so much more than adults. Many parents wish that their children have only happy and joyous childhoods, full of smiles. Therefore a child that is…