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Victor Hugo: Biography, Books & Poems

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You may not know too much about this famous French author, but chances are you've enjoyed his work in one form or another. Keep reading to learn more about Victor Hugo's life, along with some of his most notable poems and novels.

A House Divided: A Brief Biography of Victor Hugo

Some of us might have experience with parents who fundamentally disagree and argue their points passionately. This was the sort of family life that Victor-Marie Hugo was born into on February 26, 1802 at Besançon, France. His mother, Sophie Trébuche, was a staunch royalist supporter; while, his father Joseph - later a general under Napoleon - seemed to follow whatever government was prevalent at the time. Due to his father's many military deployments and his mother's frequent returns to Paris, much of Victor's early life was spent on the move.

Between 1815 and 1818, Victor studied law at the Pension Cordier and Lycée Louis-le-Grand. During this time, he had begun to write plays and poems, and soon literary rather than legal pursuits were all that occupied him. At the encouragement of his mother, Victor started a periodical in 1819 (Conservateur Littéraire) devoted to poetry and literary essays - most of which belonged to Hugo or close friends.

The Conservateur ran for only two years, and 1821 also saw the end for Victor's mother. Happiness would return, though, the next year with his marriage to Adèle Foucher and the publication of his first book of poetry, Odes et poésies diverses. 1823 then saw the publication of Hugo's first novel (Hans of Iceland), which gained him much public and critical acclaim. At this time, he began mingling with Charles Nodier and other influential members of the literary community and began his journey toward Romanticism - an artistic and intellectual movement of the early 19th century which worked to reject concepts such as rationality and materialism.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885), French poet, playwright, and novelist
Photo of Victory Hugo

With the production and success of his dramatic Romantic masterpiece Cromwell in 1827, Victor's reputation as a Romantic literary genius skyrocketed. Over the next twenty years, Hugo continued to prolifically produce his art, publishing numerous plays, novels, and books of poetry. At this point in his life and career, Victor began to express his expanding literary, political, and social ideas. Finally - following three previously failed attempts - Hugo was acknowledged for his achievements in literature with induction into the famed French Academy in 1841, as well as with a nomination to the Chamber of Peers (the superior house of French Parliament) in 1845.

Victor soon became so involved in social and political obligations that he practically stopped publishing at all. He was elected to represent Paris in legislative assemblies following the Revolution of 1848; however, he quickly found himself on the wrong side of the revolt when Napoleon III seized control with a coup in December 1851, eventually forcing Hugo into exile.

The writer spent nearly two decades on the move, fleeing first to Belgium, then to the Channel Islands of Britain. Nevertheless, this period proved to be one of the most fruitful and original points in Hugo's career. Much of the work produced during his time in exile is of course charged with socio-political commentary, but much of it also displayed a morose fixation on death and the divine forces of good and evil following the many tragedies that had befallen him (i.e. death of his daughter in 1843).

Throughout his life, disagreements, death, and disaster perpetually divided Victor Hugo's household. Even his triumphant return to France in 1871 was clouded by Adèle's death in 1868 and those of two more of their children in 1871 and 1873. Five years later, Victor was hospitalized with cerebral congestion, but still managed to cling to life until finally succumbing to his illness on May 22, 1885.

At his death, Victor Hugo was given a national funeral and viewing at the Arc de Triomphe and is interred at the Panthéon in Paris in honor of his astounding and lasting contributions to French literature and political thought.

Poetry and Novels by Victor Hugo

Odes et poésies diverses

First published in 1822, this collection of Odes and Various Poems earned Hugo not only a growing literary reputation, but even a state pension from Louis XVIII. Victor's early poems such as this anthology's first ode 'Le poète dans les révolutions' ('The Poet in the Revolutions') were full of Classical references expressing the royalist sympathies he originally shared with his mother.

In this poem, Hugo poses the question 'What can a poet contribute in such troubled times?' He answers: 'When perfidious Python (mythical giant snake), / Brave, unpunished, dares commit crimes, break laws / The Muse becomes the Eumenides (goddesses of vengeance), / Apollo takes up his quiver.' The poet, then, represented by the Muse and Apollo, is capable of avenging crimes against the state perpetrated by revolution (symbolized by Python) through his art.

Hernani

Victor first produced this piece of dramatic poetry - any dramatic work written in lines of verse - in 1830. With his exposure to and experimentation with Romanticism, Hugo had become increasingly liberal in his views. His sense of liberalism was especially heightened when his play Marion de Lorme was banned by Charles X in 1829 for displaying French royalty in an unfavorable light.

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