19th Century

Prelude to “Songs of Twilight” | Victor Hugo

(“De quel non te nommer?”)[1]

{PRELUDE, a, Oct. 20, 1835.}

How shall I note thee, line of troubled years,

   Which mark existence in our little span?

One constant twilight in the heaven appears—

   One constant twilight in the mind of man!

Creed, hope, anticipation and despair,

    Are but a mingling, as of day and night;

The globe, surrounded by deceptive air,

    Is all enveloped in the same half-light.

And voice is deadened by the evening breeze,

    The shepherd’s song, or maiden’s in her bower,

Mix with the rustling of the neighboring trees,

    Within whose foliage is lulled the power.

Yet all unites! The winding path that leads

     Thro’ fields where verdure meets the trav’ller’s eye.

The river’s margin, blurred with wavy reeds,

     The muffled anthem, echoing to the sky!

The ivy smothering the armèd tower;

    The dying wind that mocks the pilot’s ear;

The lordly equipage at midnight hour,

    Draws into danger in a fog the peer;

The votaries of Satan or of Jove;

    The wretched mendicant absorbed in woe;

The din of multitudes that onward move;

    The voice of conscience in the heart below;

The waves, which Thou, O Lord, alone canst still;

    Th’ elastic air; the streamlet on its way;

And all that man projects, or sovereigns will;

    Or things inanimate might seem to say;

The strain of gondolier slow streaming by;

    The lively barks that o’er the waters bound;

The trees that shake their foliage to the sky;

     The wailing voice that fills the cots around;

And man, who studies with an aching heart—

     For now, when smiles are rarely deemed sincere,

In vain the sceptic bids his doubts depart—

     Those doubts at length will arguments appear!

Hence, reader, know the subject of my song—

     A mystic age, resembling twilight gloom,

Wherein we smile at birth, or bear along,

     With noiseless steps, a victim to the tomb!

[1] Original citation: G.W.M. Reynolds, Songs of Twilight, Translated from the French of Victor Hugo (London: Librairie des Etrangers, 1836). Selections also found in Hapgood, Smith, and Dole, pp. 107–32.

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