19th Century

To Some Birds Flown Away (1837) | Victor Hugo

The following poem was written by Victor Hugo in 1837 and translated by Mrs Newton Crossland.

(“Enfants! Oh! revenez!”)

{XXII, April, 1837}

     Children, come back—come back, I say—

     You whom my folly chased away

     A moment since, from this my room,

     With bristling wrath and words of doom!

     What had you done, you bandits small,

     With lips as red as roses all?

     What crime?—what wild and hapless deed?

       What porcelain vase by you was split

     To thousand pieces? Did you need

       For pastime, as you handled it,

     Some Gothic missal to enrich

       With your designs fantastical?

       Or did your tearing fingers fall

     On some old picture? Which, oh, which

     Your dreadful fault? Not one of these;

     Only when left yourselves to please

     This morning but a moment here

       ‘Mid papers tinted by my mind

     You took some embryo verses near—

       Half formed, but fully well designed

     To open out. Your hearts desire

     Was but to throw them on the fire,

     Then watch the tinder, for the sight

     Of shining sparks that twinkle bright

     As little boats that sail at night,

     Or like the window lights that spring

     From out the dark at evening.

     ‘Twas all, and you were well content.

     Fine loss was this for anger’s vent—

     A strophe ill made midst your play,

     Sweet sound that chased the words away

     In stormy flight. An ode quite new,

     With rhymes inflated—stanzas, too,

     That panted, moving lazily,

       And heavy Alexandrine lines

     That seemed to jostle bodily,

       Like children full of play designs

     That spring at once from schoolroom’s form.

     Instead of all this angry storm,

     Another might have thanked you well

     For saving prey from that grim cell,

     That hollowed den ‘neath journals great,

       Where editors who poets flout

       With their demoniac laughter shout.

     And I have scolded you! What fate

     For charming dwarfs who never meant

       To anger Hercules! And I

     Have frightened you!—My chair I sent

       Back to the wall, and then let fly

     A shower of words the envious use—

     “Get out,” I said, with hard abuse,

     “Leave me alone—alone I say.”

     Poor man alone! Ah, well-a-day,

     What fine result—what triumph rare!

       As one turns from the coffin’d dead

     So left you me:—I could but stare

       Upon the door through which you fled—

     I proud and grave—but punished quite.

     And what care you for this my plight!—

     You have recovered liberty,

     Fresh air and lovely scenery,

     The spacious park and wished-for grass;

       The running stream, where you can throw

     A blade to watch what comes to pass;

       Blue sky, and all the spring can show;

     Nature, serenely fair to see;

     The book of birds and spirits free,

     God’s poem, worth much more than mine,

     Where flowers for perfect stanzas shine—

     Flowers that a child may pluck in play,

     No harsh voice frightening it away.

     And I’m alone—all pleasure o’er—

       Alone with pedant called “Ennui,”

     For since the morning at my door

       Ennui has waited patiently.

     That docto-r-London born, you mark,

     One Sunday in December dark,

     Poor little ones—he loved you not,

     And waited till the chance he got

     To enter as you passed away,

       And in the very corner where

     You played with frolic laughter gay,

       He sighs and yawns with weary air.

     What can I do? Shall I read books,

     Or write more verse—or turn fond looks

     Upon enamels blue, sea-green,

     And white—on insects rare as seen

     Upon my Dresden china ware?

     Or shall I touch the globe, and care

     To make the heavens turn upon

     Its axis? No, not one—not one

     Of all these things care I to do;

     All wearies me—I think of you.

     In truth with you my sunshine fled,

     And gayety with your light tread—

     Glad noise that set me dreaming still.

     ‘Twas my delight to watch your will,

     And mark you point with finger-tips

       To help your spelling out a word;

     To see the pearls between your lips

       When I your joyous laughter heard;

     Your honest brows that looked so true,

       And said “Oh, yes!” to each intent;

     Your great bright eyes, that loved to view

       With admiration innocent

     My fine old Sèvres; the eager thought

     That every kind of knowledge sought;

     The elbow push with “Come and see!”

     Oh, certes! spirits, sylphs, there be,

     And fays the wind blows often here;

     The gnomes that squat the ceiling near,

     In corners made by old books dim;

     The long-backed dwarfs, those goblins grim

     That seem at home ‘mong vases rare,

     And chat to them with friendly air—

     Oh, how the joyous demon throng

     Must all have laughed with laughter long

     To see you on my rough drafts fall,

     My bald hexameters, and all

     The mournful, miserable band,

     And drag them with relentless hand

     From out their box, with true delight

     To set them each and all a-light,

     And then with clapping hands to lean

     Above the stove and watch the scene,

     How to the mass deformed there came

     A soul that showed itself in flame!

     Bright tricksy children—oh, I pray

     Come back and sing and dance away,

     And chatter too—sometimes you may,

     A giddy group, a big book seize—

     Or sometimes, if it so you please,

     With nimble step you’ll run to me

       And push the arm that holds the pen,

     Till on my finished verse will be

       A stroke that’s like a steeple when

     Seen suddenly upon a plain.

     My soul longs for your breath again

     To warm it. Oh, return—come here

     With laugh and babble—and no fear

       When with your shadow you obscure

       The book I read, for I am sure,

     Oh, madcaps terrible and dear,

     That you were right and I was wrong.

     But who has ne’er with scolding tongue

     Blamed out of season. Pardon me!

     You must forgive—for sad are we.

     The young should not be hard and cold

     And unforgiving to the old.

     Children each morn your souls ope out

       Like windows to the shining day,

     Oh, miracle that comes about,

       The miracle that children gay

     Have happiness and goodness too,

     Caressed by destiny are you,

       Charming you are, if you but play.

     But we with living overwrought,

     And full of grave and sombre thought,

     Are snappish oft: dear little men,

     We have ill-tempered days, and then,

     Are quite unjust and full of care;

     It rained this morning and the air

     Was chill; but clouds that dimm’d the sky

     Have passed. Things spited me, and why?

     But now my heart repents. Behold

     What ’twas that made me cross, and scold!

     All by-and-by you’ll understand,

     When brows are mark’d by Time’s stern hand;

     Then you will comprehend, be sure,

     When older—that’s to say, less pure.

     The fault I freely own was mine.

     But oh, for pardon now I pine!

     Enough my punishment to meet,

     You must forgive, I do entreat

     With clasped hands praying—oh, come back,

     Make peace, and you shall nothing lack.

     See now my pencils—paper—here,

     And pointless compasses, and dear

     Old lacquer-work; and stoneware clear

     Through glass protecting; all man’s toys

     So coveted by girls and boys.

     Great China monsters—bodies much

     Like cucumbers—you all shall touch.

     I yield up all! my picture rare

       Found beneath antique rubbish heap,

     My great and tapestried oak chair

       I will from you no longer keep.

     You shall about my table climb,

       And dance, or drag, without a cry

     From me as if it were a crime.

       Even I’ll look on patiently

     If you your jagged toys all throw

     Upon my carved bench, till it show

     The wood is torn; and freely too,

     I’ll leave in your own hands to view,

     My pictured Bible—oft desired—

     But which to touch your fear inspired—

     With God in emperor’s robes attired.

     Then if to see my verses burn,

     Should seem to you a pleasant turn,

     Take them to freely tear away

     Or burn. But, oh! not so I’d say,

     If this were Méry’s room to-day.

     That noble poet! Happy town,

     Marseilles the Greek, that him doth own!

     Daughter of Homer, fair to see,

     Of Virgil’s son the mother she.

     To you I’d say, Hold, children all,

     Let but your eyes on his work fall;

     These papers are the sacred nest

     In which his crooning fancies rest;

     To-morrow winged to Heaven they’ll soar,

       For new-born verse imprisoned still

     In manuscript may suffer sore

       At your small hands and childish will,

     Without a thought of bad intent,

     Of cruelty quite innocent.

     You wound their feet, and bruise their wings,

     And make them suffer those ill things

     That children’s play to young birds brings.

     But mine! no matter what you do,

     My poetry is all in you;

     You are my inspiration bright

     That gives my verse its purest light.

     Children whose life is made of hope,

     Whose joy, within its mystic scope,

     Owes all to ignorance of ill,

     You have not suffered, and you still

     Know not what gloomy thoughts weigh down

     The poet-writer weary grown.

     What warmth is shed by your sweet smile!

     How much he needs to gaze awhile

     Upon your shining placid brow,

     When his own brow its ache doth know;

     With what delight he loves to hear

     Your frolic play ‘neath tree that’s near,

     Your joyous voices mixing well

     With his own song’s all-mournful swell!

     Come back then, children! come to me,

     If you wish not that I should be

     As lonely now that you’re afar

     As fisherman of Etrétat,

     Who listless on his elbow leans

     Through all the weary winter scenes,

     As tired of thought—as on Time flies—

     And watching only rainy skies!