For a writer of famously long books, Victor Hugo is a master of concision. In La Légende des siècles he tells “from Eve to Jesus” in twenty pages, including a four-line poem called “Le Temple” and a two-page rhyming summary of the Gospels. And it’s excellent. The account of Daniel from the perspective of the lions is the best Biblical adaptation I’ve read, and I’m the child of a pastor. Here’s a tome that deserves to be one – lengthy not for its own sake but because its author was writing “The Legend of the Ages.”
This being legend, things talk. Trees, cups, comets – all deploy “la voix qui sort des choses” [the voice that comes from things] to deft effect. In one poem, a ghost asks a mountain for directions. “Je ne sais pas, spectre,” replies the mountain: “je suis ici.” I don’t know; I am here – more mountain-like words were never uttered, and that’s before the spoken autobiographies of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
At times Hugo’s vision tests the constraints of the Alexandrine – “Après des feux, des cieux, des cieux, des cieux, des cieux!” – but control quickly returns. “The Epic of the Worm” is horror poetry at its finest, far scarier and far-reaching than Poe’s raven. “Tout marche; j’interromps” declares the corpse-eating creature: “things go; I cut off.” When the Night (another stand-in for death) speaks, it’s with a single word: “Come.”
This controlled epic itself embodies an argument for moderation à la française, visible in its rejection of both atheism and piety [“et de l’athée et de l’augure”] and its willingness to interrogate both comets and worms. Hugo implicitly traces this mode of harmonisation to the contradictions inherent in his nation’s rebirth:
La révolution française
C’est le salut, d’horreur mêlé.
De la tête de Louis seize,
Hélas! la lumière a coulé.
[The French revolution / mingled salvation with horror. / From the head of Louis 16th, / Alas! brightness streamed.]
My favourite chapter is “The Twentieth Century,” which opens in apocalyptic mode (a re-flooded planet ruled by a seamonster) and ends with fullblown sci-fi. “Look up,” instructs the poet, and sure enough humanity’s still there, buzzing around in a spaceship called Délivrance. When this “aéroscaphe” lifts off to the stars – “il monte, il monte, il monte encore” – the poem goes with it, leaving the nineteenth century at sea with Leviathan, transcended.