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The below paragraphs served as introductions to selected poems from the corresponding works. They were written by Henry Carrington and appeared in Translations from the Poems of Victor Hugo, 1885. Most of them are translations or descriptions of Hugo's own prefaces to the works.
Odes and Ballads - 1818-1828
In the preface to the first edition of Odes Et Ballades the author says that he had in its publication two intentions -- the political and the literary-- though, in his opinion, the former is the natural consequence of the latter, since the history of mankind has nothing in it of poetry unless considered from the height of monarchical ideas, or of religious beliefs. The reader may observe, in the order of these Odes, a division, which, however, is not strictly methodical. The author thinks that the emotions of the soul are not less fruitful of poetry than the revolutions of an empire. But after all, the domain of poetry is boundless; beneath the external world an ideal world exists, which shows its splendour to the eyes of those whose deep thinkings have accustomed them to see in things more than the mere things. The great works of poetry of every class, whether in prose or verse, which have done honour to our age, have revealed the truth, scarceley ever suspected before, that poetry consists not in the form given to ideas, but in the ideas themselves. Poetry consists in divulging the inner meaning of all things.
Songs from the East - 1829
In his preface to Les Orientales the poet speaks thus about its origin:-- "If any one asks the author what is the use of Orientales? what put it into his head to go travelling about the East through a whole volume? what is the purpose of this useless book of mere poetry, thrown out in a time of great public interest, and at the opening of a session? how it can be timely? what "l'Orient" rhymes to?-- he will answer, he knows nothing about it; that the fancy took him, and took him in rather an odd manner, whilst last summer he was watching a sunset. He only wishes the book was better....Moreover, as a poet (if the assumption of this title for once will be forgiven) he has always had the most lively sympathy with the East; he thought he there perceived far off, the splendour of much lofty poetry. It is a spring at which he had long wished to quench his thirst. There, in truth, all is great, rich, fruitful, as in the middle ages was that other great ocean of poetry. And this brings him to say--and why should he not say it?--that far too much attention has been paid to the time of Louis XIV in considering modern epochs, and to Greece and Rome in considering antiquity. He asks whether a wider and loftier view would not be obtained by studying the modern epoch through the middle ages, and antiquity through the East." And he adds, in a somewhat prophetic vein, "for empires, as well as for literature, before long, the East may be called on to play a great part in the West. We shall see great things."
Autumn Leaves - 1831
In his preface to the first edition of Feuilles d'Automne, dated November 1831, we find the following words:-- "No one denies that the political situation a the present moment is very serious, and the author less than anyone. Within--the old solutions of social problems are all called in question; all parts of the body politic are displaced, re-cast, and re-forged in the furnace of a revolution on the resounding anvil of the public press...Abroad are heard the hollow sounds emitted by revolutions, while still in embryo, pushing beneath every European kingdom their underground galleries, ramifications of the great central revolution, of which Paris is the crater. In short, without, as within, beliefs in dispute, consciences in travail, new religions (a serious matter), springing up, stammering formulas partly bad and partly good, old religions adopting new forms. Rome, the city of faith, meaning perhaps to reform itself up to the level of Paris, the city of intelligence, theories, fancies, systems, everywhere at odds with truth, the problem of the future already explored and sounded as that of the past. Such is the state to which we have arrived in this month of November 1831."
Songs of Twilight - 1835
The poet concludes his preface to Les Chants du Cre'puscule with this admonition:-- "The last word the author has to add is this -- viz., that in this age, wholly given up as it is to change and expectation, when discussion is so grievous and uncompromising, so altogether in extremes, that nothing is listened to nowadays, and nothing applauded save the two words 'Yes' and 'No'-- he himself is not either among those who deny or those who affirm. He is among those who hope."
Inner Voices - 1837
The author in his preface to Les voix Intérieures says that these poems are dedicated to his father, Lieutenant-General Joseph Leopold Sigisbert Hugo-- and to his father's name he subjoins these words, "Not inscribed on the Arc de l'Etoile;" and he goes on to say, that until this omission is repaired by the country, he himself repairs it, so far as in him lies, by the dedication of this work to his memory.
Sunbeams and Shadows - 1840
In the preface to this volume we find the following words:-- "Several poems in Les Rayons et les Ombres will show the reader that the author is not faithless to the mission he assigned to himself in the prelude to the Voix Intérieures...As for the questions about style and form, he will say nothing about them. Those who are good enough to read his writing have long ago known, that if sometimes and on some occasions he admits the vague, the half lights in the thought, yet he very seldom admits them in the expression. Without disparaging the great poetry of the North, which even in France has been represented by some admirable poets, he has himself always had a strong liking for the Southern and precise form. The Bible is his book, Virgil and Dante are his divine masters. The whole of his childhood, being (as he was) a poet, was nothing but one long reverie, accompanied by exact studies. That childhood made his mind what it is, and there is no incompatibility between poetry and exactness. Number enters into art as well as into science. Algebra enters into astronomy, and astronomy is akin to poetry--algebra enters into music, and music is askin to poetry. The human mind has three keys, which open everything--number, letters, notes-- to know, to think, to dream-- herein you have the whole matter.
Chastisements - 1853
Carrington didn't include a note about Hugo's preface. Instead he wrote the following:
Translator's Note. The specimens of the poet's invective and tremendous powers of vituperation in this collection have been inserted because without them the representation of his feelings, dispositions, and opinions, as he himself wished them to be known, and as they are revealed in his works, would have been altogether incomplete.
Contemplations - Vol I - 1856
The two volumes of the Contemplations may almost be taken as an autobiography of twenty-five years of the poet's life, and this is what he says in the preface to the first volume:-- "Five and twenty years are contained in these two volumes. 'Grande mortalis aevi spatium.' The author has, so to speak, allowed this book to construct itself in him. Life, filtering drop by drop through its events and sufferings, has deposited it in his heart. Those who will lean over it will find their own image reflected in that deep and dismal water, which has slowly there gathered itself together in the depths of a soul, and the contents of this book concern the reader as intimately as the author.-- Homo Sum. To pass through tumult, rumour, dreamings, contests, pleasure, labour, grief, silence-- to find repose in sacrifice, and there to turn the thoughts to God-- to begin in publicity and to end in solitude. Is not this, allowing for individual proportions, the history of us all? No one will be surprised to see these two volumes shade by shade become more and more gloomy-- happiness, that fast fading flower of youth, drops its leaves page by page in the first volume, which is of Hope, and disappears in the second volume, which is of Mourning -- and what mourning? The true, the only one, Death, the loss of those we love. We have just said that these two volumes are the autobiography of a soul -- The Then -- and the Now, divided by a gulf -- The Tomb."
Legend of the Ages - 1859-1883
In the Epilogue of the second series of the Legende des Siecles, the poet, in forcible verses, tells the reader, "Whence comes this book?" He had before, in the preface to the first series, explained at some length the end and aim of these poems; but the following paragraph, taken from it, will suffice to show his intention:-- "These poems," he says "are nothing but a succession of imprints of the human profile, epoch after epoch, from the time of Eve, the mother of men, to that of Revolution, the mother of peoples. Imprints, taken sometimes from barbarism, sometimes from civilization, more often than not from history, moulded on the mask of the ages."
Songs of the Streets and Woods - 1865
These few words are prefixed by the author to the Chansons des Rues et des Bois:-- "It is a sad and serious lesson which is given by the confrontation of two ages in the same man. The age which begins, and the age which finishes,-- the hope of the former is in life, of the latter, in death. It is not without use to compare the starting point with the goal, the fresh stir of the morning with the calm of evening, the illusion with the result. The heart of man has a blank page at the beginning, on which is written, 'Youth,' and another at the end, on which is written, 'Wisdom.' It is these two pages which will be found in this book. In this book reality is modified by all that exists in man beyond the real. This book was composed chiefly by dreamings, but a little by recollection. Dreaming is allowed to the vanquished, and recollection to the lonely."
The Terrible Year - 1872
The seventeenth edition of the Année Terrible is dated April, 1872, when hardly two years had passed from the beginning of the disasters which it records. At this date peace and order had been restored to Paris, but the poet in his short preface notes that the state of seige still continued, and concludes with saying, "The present state of things will pass away. The Republic we possess, and we shall have Liberty."