|Original title||La Légende des siècles|
|1859, 1877, 1883|
La Légende des siècles (The Legend of the Ages) is a collection of poems by 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 only 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. The poems are depictions of these scenes, fleetingly perceived and interspersed with terrifying visions. Hugo sought neither historical accuracy nor exhaustiveness; rather, he concentrated on obscure figures, usually his own inventions, who incarnated and symbolized their eras. As he proclaims in the preface to the first series, "this is history, eavesdropped upon at the door of legend." The poems, by turns lyrical, epic and satirical, form a view of the human experience, seeking less to summarize than to illustrate the history of humanity, and to bear witness to its long journey from the darkness into the light.
La Légende des Siècles was not originally conceived as the vast work it was to become. Its beginning, the original seed, was in a vague project entitled Petites Epopées ("Little Epics"), which features in the notes and jottings of 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. Seeing that Hugo was ready to proceed yet further down the metaphysical (or even eschatological) road mapped out by the final Contemplations, Hetzel became anxious at the probability of their failure with the public, and preferred the sound of the Petites Epopées which Hugo had mentioned, feeling they would be more in harmony with the spirit of the times. Even though these "epics" were still no more than sketches, in March 1857 Hetzel wrote to Hugo, rejecting Fin de Satan and Dieu, but accepting with enthusiasm the Petites Epopées.
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. In this case Hugo integrated the little epics into his poetical system by casting them as the "human" panel in a triptych of which "God" and "Satan" were the wings, with the implication that they were merely sparse fragments stolen from a greater epic: the whole of human experience itself. On 11 September 1857 Hugo signed a contract with Hetzel, reserving the right to alter the project's title.
Later, Hetzel pronounced himself willing to publish La Fin de Satan and Dieu; but 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. More titles were written down, but some were discarded or greatly altered, and the section dealing with the 19th century coalesced as L'Océan -- La Révolution -- le Verso de la page -- la Pitié Suprême -- Les Pauvres Gens -- L'épopée de l'Âne.
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. After a serious illness in the summer of 1858, Hugo tried to reassure Hetzel by writing in a more straightforwardly narrative vein (e.g. Le Petit Roi de Galice and Zim-Zizimi), and modified his plans--but retained the general ambition, which he declared in a preface. He had hit on the idea of publishing in several instalments, to give himself more time and space within which to work. The title was not decided on until a month after the manuscript's submission. With his gift for phrases, Hugo came up with La Légende des Siècles. Petites Épopées was kept as a subtitle.
The framing of the series is resolutely Biblical: opening with Eve (Le sacre de la femme) and closing on La trompette du jugement, the classical world is largely forgotten (the Roman Empire, for which Hugo had little admiration, is represented only by its decadence). Several poems dating from 1857-58 were set aside for a future continuation.
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. In 1862, with the publication of Les Misérables, Hugo reviewed his earlier plan and gathered together the poems already written: L'Âne, Les Sept Merveilles du Monde (a recent one), La Révolution, and La Pitié Suprême. Again, he delayed work for the sake of novels (Les travailleurs de la mer and L'Homme Qui Rit). In 1870, a decisive moment came, when Hugo decided to keep La Révolution for the future collection Les Quatre Vents de l'esprit, and to fuse together La Légende, Dieu and La Fin de Satan, according to the following plan: La Fin de Satan, first book -- L'Océan -- Elciis -- La Vision de Dante -- Les Religions (from Dieu) -- La Pitié Suprême. Current events in the 1870s, however, saw upheavals in Hugo's life, and he was once more greatly involved in politics.
La Nouvelle Série was finally published on 26 February 1877 (see 1877 in poetry), Hugo's sixty-fifth birthday. Most of the contents date from 1859 and 1875-1877, and the events of the 1870s make themselves felt: the Paris Commune, the fall of Napoleon III, and the beginnings of the Third Republic.
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.")
On 9 June 1883 the fifth and last tome of La Légende des Siècles was published with the subtitle série complémentaire (see 1883 in poetry). 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. It is probable, but not certain, that he had intended to write new poems.
For example, La Vision de Dante (written in 1853) was initially intended for Châtiments, and Les Quatre Jours d'Elciis (written in 1857) was bumped forward from both the 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. The rearrangement, which tries to make things easier for the reader by alternating long and short poems, and poems with different moods, has the effect of erasing the internal logic; in particular, the references to current affairs that are found in the New Series are dispersed. Additionally, it introduces bizarreries of chronology: Greek mythology is depicted after Jesus Christ, and El Cid appears before Muhammad. Finally, it often gives the reader the erroneous impression that this final fusion was what Hugo originally intended, as though the original appearance in "series" were a historical accident. Nevertheless, most modern editions adopt this arrangement for the sake of simplicity.