Victor Hugo, conceived as an immense depiction of the history and evolution of humanity. Written intermittently between 1855 and 1876 while Hugo worked in exile on numerous other projects, the poems were published in three series in 1859, 1877, and 1883. Bearing witness to the unparalleled poetic talent evident in all Hugo’s art, the Légende des Siècles is often considered the only true French epic and, according to Baudelaire’s formulation, the les Contemplations: Tome I PDF modern epic possible. The dreaming poet contemplates the « wall of the centuries, » indistinct and terrible, on which scenes of the past, present and future are drawn, and along which the whole long procession of humanity can be seen.
Extrait: « Les mots, bien ou mal nés, vivaient parqués en castes; Les uns, nobles, hantant les Phèdres, les Jocastes, Les Méropes, ayant le décorum pour loi, Et montant à Versailles aux carrosses du roi; Les autres, tas de gueux, drôles patibulaires, Habitant les patois »
The poems are depictions of these scenes, fleetingly perceived and interspersed with terrifying visions. La Légende des Siècles was not originally conceived as the vast work it was to become. Hugo from 1848, and which gives no indication of so vast an ambition. After Les Châtiments and Les Contemplations, his editor, Hetzel, was perturbed by the submission of La Fin de Satan and Dieu, both of which were nearly complete. This new commission was nevertheless transformed by the influence of Hugo’s latest ideas and most recent works, created with the same dash and fire and in a sort of magma of inspiration: a mixture of poesy, mysticism and philosophy which is characteristic of Hugo’s first decade of exile.
This inspiration normally led him to write a large number of poems, more or less brief, which would finally be published as components in projects which were constantly shifting and evolving. Hugo, perhaps conscious of the difficulties of completing either to his satisfaction, had by that time thrown himself entirely into the new project. He began by taking the French Revolution as the turning point in human history, intending to use a poem entitled La Révolution as a pivot around which La Pitié Suprême or Le Verso de la page would revolve. Hetzel followed this evolution with alarm, and, fearing that the great philosophical questions would turn these little epics into towering giants, endeavoured to temper Hugo’s ardour. Livre, qu’un vent t’emporte En France, où je suis né ! L’arbre déraciné Donne sa feuille morte.
Work on the second series began immediately after the first, but Hugo was soon busy with Les Misérables and with completing La Fin de Satan and Dieu. La Révolution, and La Pitié Suprême. The collection closes with the formidable Abîme, a vertiginous dialogue between Man, Earth, Sun, and Stars, playing on the numberless steps leading to an infinity behind which stands God, and placing human beings, with all their pettiness, face to face with the Universe. The New Series had been advertised with the following message: Le complément de la Légende des siècles sera prochainement publié, à moins que la fin de l’auteur n’arrive avant la fin du livre. The conclusion to the Legend will be published shortly, provided that it is not preceded by the conclusion to the author.
Critics who claimed that the « anticlericalism » and « glibness » were evidence of the bitterness of age were mistaken: in fact, Hugo’s cerebral edema of June 1878 had already essentially put an end to his work as a writer, and most of the contents dated from long before. First and the New Series, the prologue dating from perhaps 1880. This assemblage of poems with little narrative drive, alternating dark and bright visions, gives the impression of a contemplative and intemporal epilogue, very different from what came before. In September 1883, several months after the appearance of the Last Series, a « complete » edition was issued in which the three series are mixed together and reorganised according to a more or less chronological plan. No one is entirely sure how close this comes to Hugo’s original vision. It is not impossible that Hugo, physically and intellectually enfeebled, and greatly affected by the death of Juliette Drouet, allowed himself to be overly influenced by friends and by the executors of his estate.