Victor Hugo wrote a collection of poetry titled Les Chants des Crepuscules in 1835. Upon its first publication in France it received glowing reviews. It also came to the notice of a young English emigrée, George W.M. Reynolds, who in the mid-1830s was working in a Paris bookshop. Reynolds decided to translate the poem for English-speaking readers. The whole has been transcribed by Stephen Basdeo, who now presents the first part to readers of this website.
In presenting this work to the world, I shall not make its preface a vehicle for the intrusion of elaborate remarks and tedious comment with regard to the poetry of Victor Hugo, on that public whose favour and support I have now again to solicit. Suffice it to say that had I not entertained a favourable idea of the original of these translations, I should not have attempted to contribute to the renown that Les Chants du Crépuscule have already acquired. Victor Hugo’s talents have been depreciated in England by reviewers and critics—perhaps deservedly so; for when I declare my admiration of them, and my conviction that they are first rate, I merely suggest an opinion, without venturing to question the rectitude of the sentiments of others.
It is necessary to inform my readers that the difficulties, contingent to the translation of French Poetry, are not inconsiderable, either in magnitude, or in number. To have literally rendered many paragraphs in Les Chants du Crépuscule would have been impossible. That, which is beautiful in French, is frequently nonsense in English. As an example I adduce the seventh stanza of the Introduction. In French its stands thus:
Les ondes que toi seul, ODieu! comptes et nommes;
L’air qui fuit; le caillou par le ruisseau lavé;
Et tout ce que, chargés des vains projets des hommes,
Le soc dit au sillon, et la roue au pavé.
The literal translation would be:
The waves which thou only, O God! canst count and name;
The air that flies; the stones washed by the stream;
And all that, full of the vain projects of men,
The plougshare tells to the furrow, and the wheel to the pavement.
But I have conveyed the meaning of these lines as follows:
The waves, which thou, O Lord! alone canst still,
Th’ elastic air, the streamlet on its way,
And all that man projects, or sov’reigns will,
Or things inanimate might seem to say.
Thus I have faithfully adhered to the intentions of the author in penning the above stanza.
The Youthful Impostor was vituperated for the freedom with which it was written, and was deemed preposterous. I take this opportunity of acknowledging the justice of the remarks, and of pledging myself to correct those faults, of which better judges than myself find me guilty, in future publications. In offering these concessions, the critics themselves will allow that I partially make, or endeavour to make the amende honorable. But for the political sentiments—for the glaring exaggerations of the conquests of Napoleon—and indeed for any of the ideas contained in the Songs of Twilight I am not responsible. They are faithfully translated from the original: in changing their language, they have not lost their meaning.
It is but fair to notice, that this volume contains but one half of Les Chants du Crépuscule. Should the portion, now presented to the world, meet with a favourable reception, the rest will be shortly published: but should the English taste be sufficiently gratified with these specimens of Victor Hugo’s poetry, none will blame me for having kept back that which might have been superfluous.
GEORGE W. M. REYNOLDS.
Paris. French, English, and American Library
55, Rue Neuve Saint-Augustin.
March 25th, 1836.
Victor Hugo’s Preface
The stanzas at the commencement of this volume explain the spirit of the whole. The prelude indicates the nature of the songs.
In the present age, everything, whether ideal or fact, whether connected with society in general, or with a single individual—everything is in a state of twilight. But of what species is that twilight? Oh! who shall solve so profound a mystery—the most sublime of all those that are agitated during times of doubt and uncertainty? Mankind is waiting the event of much that darkens the horizon around us. What else can we say?
As far as regards this work intrinsically, the author will explain no more. Wherefore should he notice the slight communication between this and his other productions? ’Tis ever the same thought in a different language—the same wave elevated by other winds—the same forehead with other wrinkles —the same existence with another date!
But of this enough. The author only suffers personal allusions to remain in his work, because they are analogous with those that are general. He believes not that it is worthwhile to appreciate his motive otherwise: for however that motive be construed, the real one is always to be found in the pages of his book. Still he is very far from considering its contents as an universal development of the human mind: much of those contents is composed of reverie and dream.
The chief aim of the author in the following Poems, and the principal groundwork of their subject, is the representation of that strange predicament of twilight in which the human mind, and society in general, are involved—a mist without, and doubt within—a species of illuminated fog that envelopes us. Hence, in this work, may the reader account for those ebullitions of hope mingled with uncertainty—those tender couplets concluded with others of complaint—that calmness touched with melancholy—those sighs of delight—that feebleness suddenly reviving—that resigned infelicity—that profound sorrow exciting the very surface of the sea of poetry—those serene contemplations of political tumults—those holy wanderings from public to domestic matters—the dread that all proceed darkly in the world—and then those intervals of joyous and burning hope that the human species yet may bloom to excel! In this book, therefore—small though it be when compared with the vast magnitude of its subject—there are a thousand discrepancies—lustre and obscurity, which pervade all we see, and all we conceive in this age of twilight, which envelope our political theories, our religious opinions, our domestic life, and which are even discovered in the histories we write of others, as well as in those of ourselves.
It barely remains for the author here to add, that he himself, in this age of research and of change, in this epoch when discussion is so violent, so positive, and so profound, that there is scarcely aught to hear, and scarcely aught to comprehend or to applaud, save the words Yes, and No—he himself is neither one of those who believe, nor of those who deny.
He is among them that hope!
Paris, October 25th, 1835.
How shall I note thee, line of troubled years.
Which marks th’existence of our little span?
One constant twilight in the heav’n appears,
One constant twilight in the mind of man.
Creed, hope, anticipation, and despair,
Form but a mingling, as of day and night:
The globe, surrounded by a fitful air,
Is all envelop’d in that same twilight.
And thought is deafen’d by the evening breeze;—
The shepherd’s songs, or maiden’s in her bower,
Mix with the rustling of the neighb’ring trees,
Within whose foliage vegetates a flower.
Yes—all unites!—The wand’ring path, that leads
Through fields where verdure meets the trav’ller’s eye
The river’s margin, crown’d with graceful reeds—
The chaunt of anthems, echoing to the sky:
The ivy, clust’ring round the ruin’d tower—
The wind, unwelcome to the pilot’s ear—
The lordly equipage, at midnight hour,
Led into danger by the charioteer:
The votaries of Satan or of Jove—
The wretched mendicant, absorb’d in woe—
The din of multitudes, that onward move—
The voice of conscience in the heart below:
The waves, which though O Lord! alone can’st still—
Th’elastic air—the streamlet on its way—
And all that man projects, or sov’reigns will,
Or things inanimate might seem to say:
The strain of gondoliers in passing by,
The lively barks, that o’er the waters bound—
The trees that life their summits to the sky—
The wailing voice, that fills the cots around:
And man, who studies with an aching heart—
For now, when smiles are scarcely deem’d sincere,
In the 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 the twilight’s gloom,
Wherein we smile at births, or bear along,
With noiseless steps, a victim to the tomb!
Now vot’ries of the Muses, turn your eyes
Unto the East, and say what there appears:
“Alas!” the voice of Poesy replies,
“Mystic’s that light between the hemispheres!
“Yes—dread’s the mystic light in yonder heaven—
“Dread is the light behind the distant hill,
“Like feeble flashes o’er the welkin driven
“When the far thunder seems as it were still!
“But who can tell if that uncertain glare
“Be Phoebus self, adorn’d with golden vest;
“Or if illusions, pregnant in the air,
“Have drawn our glances to the radiant west?
“Haply the sun-set has deceiv’d the sight—
“Perchance ‘tis evening, while we wait the morn:
“Bewilder’d in the mazes of twilight,
“That lucid sun-set may appear a dawn!”
“Say, Lord!—for thou can’st tell—is that the sun,
To which all eyes their anxious glances cast?
Is that th’expected orb they look upon?
And are those beams the primal, or the last?
Are they, for whom that unknown sun is bright,
Unborn as yet, or winding on their way?
Are we, invested in this sad twilight,
To feel the blessing of its cheering ray?
There is a gentle hum—a murm’ring sound—
Is that the wings of them that soon must dwell
In other realms, amid a space profound?
Or is it Earth that sorrowing says “Farwell?”
That gentle sound, which falls upon the ear,
Soft as a breath, and sweet as a lover’s tale—
Is it the token of an Eden near?
Or is it Earth that gladd’ning sings “All hail?”
The forests rustle—and the birds shrill song
Re-echoes loudly—and the sounding main
Mixes with music, as it rolls along,
And leaves to doubt the motive of the strain!
Oh! In such hours Philosophy may teach
Calmness but vainly to the soul of man:
Useless for hoary fanatics to preach
From ancient books their eyes can scarcely scan.
Alas! For fruitlessly the priest essays
T’explain the acts of a mysterious heaven:
Involv’d in doubt are all th’Omniscient’s ways—
The threat is here—but there’s the promise given!
Wherefore thus linger on so sad a theme,
Since Fate, against whose mandates none may strive,
Carries us on with Time’s eternal stream,
Nor recks for them that die, nor them that live?
But, oh! Within that Eastern quadrature
What murm’ring sound re-echoes from the skies?
Will that dread lustre vanish, or endure?
Will darkness come? or will the morning rise?
And turning towards the East, the poet’s ear
Alike collects the noises that abound—
The din of multitudes—the sigh of fear—
The heavenly warnings that re-echo round—
The poet’s song, where bitterness is rife,
Describes them all! all—all is here betray’d—
The woes, the reveries, the joys of life—
All—all that passes in this twilight shade!
Paris. October 20. 1835.
Songs of Twilight: Written After July 1830
Oh! friends of your country, immortal in story,
Adorn’d with the laurels ye won in the fight;
When thousands around you fell cover’d with glory,
Ye turned not away from the enemy’s might;
And ye raised up your banners all tatter’d and torn,
Like those that your sires had at Austerlitz borne.
Ye have rivalled those sires—ye have conquer’d for France—
The rights of her people from tyrants are sav’d:
Ye beckon’d to Freedom—ye saw her advance—
And danger was laugh’d at, and peril was brav’d;
Then, if they were admir’d who destroy’d the Bastille,
What for you should not France in her gratitude feel?
Ye are worthy your fathers—your souls are the same,
Ye add to their glory, their pride, and renown;
Your arms are well nerv’d—ye are noted by Fame
That the laurel and oak may unite for your crown:
Your mother—‘tis France, who for ever will be
The mother of heroes, the great, and the free!
E’en England the jealous, and Greece the poetic—
All Europe admir’d—and the New Western World
Arose to applaud with a heart sympathetic,
When it mark’d the French banners of freedom unfurl’d.
Three days were sufficient to shake off the chain,
And ye prov’d yourselves friends of your country again!
‘Twas for you that your ancestors trac’d round the earth
The circle of conquest, triumphant and glorious
Which, extending to Cairo, from France took its birth,
And proceeded through slaughter, but ever victorious:
‘Twas for you they encounter’d the Muscovite snows,
Or in Italy pluck’d for their trophies the rose!
Oh! offspring of heroes, and children of Fame,
Applaud the achievements your sires did before you;
Extend their renown while ye honour their name,
And fight for the banners that proudly wave o’er you:
Remember Napoleon has oft cast his eye
Through the long serri’d ranks of the French chivalry!
Thou herald of Jupiter! Eagle of France!
‘Tis thou that hast carri’d our thunder afar;
With thee for a sign did our armies advance—
With thee as their symbol went they to the war:
Look around thee—Rejoice! for the sons of thy land
Are worthy the sires that thou erst didst command!
Too long by tyrant hand restrain’d,
Too long in slavery enchain’d,
Paris awoke—and in his breast,
Each his ideas at once confest:
“Vainly may despots now essay
“To lead a mighty race astray;
“True to themselves, the French shall bring
“Such treason home unto the King!
“No sooner is the watch-word spoken,
“Than chain and shackle both are broke:
“Oh! yes—and in our hearts beneath
“We laugh at gags between the teeth:—
“Although the King retir’d may dwell,
“Silence he never can compel!
“The flame that burns, is quenched at will—
“But who a nation’s tongue shall still?
“Immured within his palace wall,
“The King shall heark the cry of Gaul!
“What! all that we have toil’d to gain,
“And all our sires—must this be vain?
“The labours of a mighty race
“To fall before a tyrant’s face!
“And are the charters of the free
“Regarded as a reverie
“By him, whose arbitrary hand
“Would bind in chains a noble land?
“Ere half a century be gone,
“Fair Liberty, thy work’s undone!
“Was it for tyrants that we saw
“Napoleon give the world his law?
“Was it for Slav’ry’s sons, that he?
“Uprear’d the brand of Victory?
“Was it a despot’s throne to raise
“That, like the Greeks of ancient days,
“Our fathers fought, to gain or die,
“Braver than Rome’s proud progeny?
“Or that the cities of the foe
“Bore witness to his overthrow?
Ah! they who, proud of pomp and state,
Deem that we dread their potentate,
“They mark not their approaching fate:
“They tremble not, nor see the gloom
“That darkly menaces their doom;
“By arrogance and wealth made blind,
“Onward they rush, nor look behind:
“The thunders rolls—too late to save,
“For France has drawn the gleaming glaive!”
And France has awaken from stupor profound,
And the watch-word has rais’d her champions around;
And the din of their weapons struck loud on the ear,
As it hearken’d the tread of the cavalry near.
But the tyrant has marshall’d his warriors vain,
And his culverins thunder’d again and again,
For the stones, that the citizens tore from the street,
Laid the cohorts of royalty dead at their feet;
And their numbers increas’d—for they fought to be free—
And they pour’d on the foe like the waves of the sea;
While the din of the tocsin, that echo’d on high,
Was drown’d in the fervour of liberty’s cry!
Three dismal days the battle rag’d—
Three weary nights the war was wag’d;
Iena’s lance was bathed in gore—
The banner show’d its eyes no more!
Vainly the King might reinforce
His arms with chosen troops of horse—
To meet a certain overthrow,
Headlong the royal squadrons go;
And as they one by one dropt dead,
They seem’d like leaves in autumn shed.
Oh! yes—they were conquer’d—but how have you vanquish’d,
Fair city, the glory of France and the world?
Three times has the sun set, since lately you languish’d—
You have fought—you have won—and your banners are furl’d!
And wise were your counsels succeeding the strife,
Revenge even smil’d with the rest;
For Clemency bade her surrender the knife,
Ere ‘twas plung’d in the enemy’s breast!
Ask ye why Paris gain’d the day?–
Her choicest offspring form’d th’array
That hurl’d the tyrant from his sky,
And broke the bonds of Slavery!
Henceforth, whatever ills await,
One gen’ral feeling guards the state:
Oh! let us then the period bless,
That rais’d us up from nothingness,
And, casting off our servile chain,
Proclaim’d us freemen once again!
The friends of the monarch with him are o’erthrown—
‘Tis thus that a people its rights will defend;
For if Fate have determined the fall of a crown
The schemes of the council accomplish the end.
The wretches! they deem’d in their insolent pride,
That France to their sceptre would bow;
But the Lord found them light when their balance was tri’d,
And reduc’d them to what they are now!
O Muse! forget not in thy lay
Those citizens who bore away
Dread testimony of the fray,
The ghastly wounds that mark the brave,
Descending with them to the grave
Prepar’d in holy Genevieve!
And while unto his tomb we bring
The ashes of our slaughter’d King,
We’ll consecrate the trophy high
Rais’d to Napoleon’s memory!
And here let me rest for a time to deplore
The race of old monarchs which now is no more,
Which exile brought back, and which exile depos’d—
Oh! yes—let us weep how its grandeur has clos’d
And e’en let compassion be found in each heart,
As the last of that race turns away to depart!
I rent my soul—I remember well—
When I said to that aged King “Farewell!”
For I would not insult the old man’s pain,
As he left with regret his late domain;
And I dar’d not plant a single thorn
In the core of a heart already forlorn.
Alas! ‘tis sad to linger more
On the tale of them we may scarce deplore;
For their fall gave France and her children rest—
And Exile and Tombs in my lay are blest:
From the rocks of St. Helen the notes of my song
Slow and sad to St. Denis shall oft sweep along!
And oh! let the lesson for ever remain—
When we raise up a King, we are forging a chain;
When we humble our necks to a monarch we make
A bond that we leave for our children to break;
Since the breath of a King is the spark to the pan—
The musket explodes—and its victim is Man!
But gay and bright the future seems;
The Sun breaks forth with golden gleams,
And bids Tranquillity
To dwell among the fields of France:
Each day yon planet marks shall see
The sons of Freedom yet more free;
And ever, till the end of Time,
That Freedom, in her march sublime,
Shall with the rapid Ocean’s force,
O’erwhelm th’opponents of her cours.
Children of France! the days are gone,
Since first in flight your fathers shone;
And they were gen’rous, and were brave,
And monarchs to the nations gave;
So that their neighbours round them came
To share the honours of their name,
And combat ‘neath the standard high,
Rais’d by Napoleon’s chivalry!
The blood in you is not more cols
Than that which through your fathers roll’d;
Then let each thought and wish be free,
And all to France must bow the knee.
Teach them that curse a servile chain,
To make their tyrant’s mandates vain;
Show them the road that onward lies,
Where Freedom’s temples touch the skies;
And to that universal shrine
Pursue, uncheck’d, your course divine!
Oh! let th’imagination fly
To Science, or to Poesy—
Let all pursuits and arts engage
The thought and skill of ev’ry age;
Still may conviction to each mind
A prompt and easy entrance find,
Teaching how num’rous ills await
The man enthron’d in regal state,
And how a hundred thousand tongues
Daily proclaim the nation’s wrongs.
Now let the fun’ral dirge be said,
And let the priests lament the dead:
But let them come with modest vest.
No more in tinsel splendour drest;
No more, with ostentatious air,
Need they commence a lofty pray’r;
No sign of regal pomp should be
Mingled with aught of sanctity:
Less welcome to the Lord on high
Is grandeur than sincerity!
Henceforth to the priest be all splendour unknown,
Let his cross be of wood, and his cushion of stone;
The Church is his refuge, the Church is his rest—
In her arms he is safe, in her care he is blest:
For when volcanic eruption is red,
Like the froth of the wine-press Burgundy fed;
When the sides of Vesuvius are glowing and bright,
When Naples re-echoes with cries of affright—
‘Tis then that the groans of the children resound,
And mothers despairingly cling to the ground—
‘Tis then that in vain they expend to the air,
The half-utter’d words which are meant for a pray’r,
While the black lines of mist from the crater ascend,
And seem to foretell that the world’s at an end.
Those lines have divided—a lustre, that broke
From the bow’ls of the mount, superseded the smoke:—
Then, Naples, adieu to the grots in thy vales—
Adieu to thy ships—the flame spreads to their sails;
The lava has fall’n on the sides of the hill,
As the locks of a maiden float wildly at will!
And farther—oh! farther the lava rolls on—
O’er meadows, o’er streams—to the gulf it has gone:
The smoke forms a canopy sombre and dread,
Tho’ the waves of the torrent be glowing and red.
And the homes of the great—and the paladin’s hall
Were doom’d in that deluge to totter and fall!
‘Twas a chaos of ruin! The cinders were strew’d
O’er a town late so lovely—now shapeless and rude:
From dwelling to dwelling proceeded th’assail,
The houses were burning in city and vale;
The earth was unsteady—the waves of the sea
Boil’d white on the shore—and the tocsin rang free,
Though no human hand were the cause of the sound—
‘Twas rais’d by the steeples that tottered around!
‘Twas a chaos immense! But the arm of the Lord,
Which scatter’d such ruin and havoc abroad—
The arm of the Deity, pow’rful to kill,
And pour out the wrath of the thunder at will—
That arm, on the brink of the crater, can spare
The hermit who kneels to his Maker in pray’r!
10 August. 1830.