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Professor of Romance Languages in

Princeton University


The text of this edition is the same as that of the édition
, Paris, 1880. The unusual length of the introduction will
be pardoned, it is hoped, in view of the paucity of general reviews of
modern French literature that are available for students in schools
and some colleges. It contains the matter which I should require a
class of my own to get up for examination in connection with reading
this play or any other of Hugo’s works. The Historical Note is a
necessity, and is introduced before the play to save students from
confusion and waste of time.

Mr. H.A. Perry and Dr. John E. Matzke, in their editions of «Hernani»,
have so thoroughly annotated it that it has been impossible to avoid
the appearance of following them very closely; and there are indeed
several notes for which I am directly indebted to them. Without their
indications, I should in other cases have been obliged to spend a
great deal more time in looking up references than has been necessary.
It would be unfair to Dr. Matzke, in particular, not to pay tribute to
the completeness of his notes, which leave his successor little chance
for originality.



For American and English readers who are at all well informed about
modern European literature the name of Victor Hugo stands out more
prominently than any other as representing the intellectual life of
France since the fall of Napoleon. Even the defects of his character
are by many considered typically French. They see him excessively
conceited, absurdly patriotic, a too voluminous producer of very
varied works; and it is not unusual to find that such readers believe
him to be all the more French for these peculiarities. It would open
their eyes if they should read what M. Ferdinand Brunetière, the most
authoritative French critic of our generation, says of Victor Hugo.
They would be surprised, if they conversed with intelligent Frenchmen
generally, to hear their opinions of him. Indeed if they had a wider
acquaintance with French letters and French character they would not
need M. Brunetière or any other guide, because they would feel for
themselves that Hugo must seem to the French just as peculiar, just as
phenomenal, as he does to foreigners. For it is only to superficial
readers that French literature can appear to be in the main frivolous
or eccentric. Dignity is not necessarily severe. It cannot be heavy;
indeed, grace is of its essence. And dignity is the note of French
literature in the seventeenth century, its Augustan age. To say that
seriousness is the note of the eighteenth-century literature in France
may sound less axiomatic, but I think it is even more true. No men
are more serious than those who believe it to be their mission to
revolutionize and reform society. We may not now take Diderot and
Voltaire and Rousseau as seriously as they took themselves; but that
is partly because their purposes have been to a large extent achieved,
and the result is an old story to us. The note of the nineteenth
century in French literature is harder to catch, perhaps cannot be
caught; for the voices are many, and we are too near the stage. But
if anything is evident it is that this epoch is marked by severe and
conscientious industry. Criticism has been developed into an almost
perfect instrument for quick, sure testing of literary claims. A
perverse book may, through neglect, through its insignificance, or
indeed through its very absurdity, find a large number of gentle
readers in England or America. In France less favor would be shown
it. The artistic sense is more widely diffused there; life centres
in Paris, where values can be readily compared; and, above all, the
custom of personal journalism prevails in France. A man is not going
to waste his time in reading a new book if the critic most competent
to judge condemns it over his own signature in the morning paper.
And if a new book is so insignificant that no critic reviews it, the
condemnation of silence is even more annihilating. Then, too, the
competition for literary honors is intense. The rewards are greater
than in any other country: a seat in the Academy; a professor’s chair
in the College de France; an office of dignity and pecuniary value
under government; the knowledge that a successful French book
will sell from St. Petersburg to Madrid, and from Amsterdam to
Constantinople—all over the world, in fact; for in nearly every
country people read two languages—their own and French. In this
competition it may not always be the best-written books that come to
the front; but the chance of their doing so is immensely greater than
elsewhere. And another beneficial result is the careful toil bestowed
upon the preparation of books, the training to which authors submit
themselves, the style and finish, the lopping off of eccentricities
and crudities, the infinite pains, in short, which a writer will take
when he knows that his fate depends on his pleasing first of all a
select and cultivated audience of connoisseurs. No journeyman work
will do.

It was by such a tribunal that Victor Hugo was judged, long before his
name was known outside of France. And yet, although the popular voice
has been immensely favorable to him for two generations, this high
court of criticism has not decided the case. The position of Victor
Hugo is by no means definitely established, as Alfred de Musset’s is
established, and Balzac’s. But, whatever be the verdict, Victor Hugo,
because of the power and quantity of his work, and his long life,
certainly is the most imposing figure of this century in French

It is often a questionable proceeding to make one man’s life and works
interpret for us the doings of his contemporaries, to try to find in
one term the expression for a whole series of events. It is the most
convenient method, to be sure, but not on that account the most
reliable. When therefore I remembered that Victor Hugo entered into
prominence only a little after the beginning of our century, and that
although dead he yet speaks, for the definitive edition of his works
is not completed, and every year adds new volumes of posthumous books
to that enormous succession; when I perceived how convenient it would
be to make him the central and distributive figure of this whole epoch
in French literary history,—I regarded the chronological coincidence
rather as a temptation than as a help, and resolved not to yield to
the solicitations of a mere facile arrangement. For I had no great
belief in Victor Hugo’s fitness to be called the representative and
interpreter of his age. I was under the influence of the prevailing
Anglo-Saxon opinion of him as an egoist, whom even the impulsions of
his mighty genius could not break loose from absorbed contemplation of

Even a critic so appreciative of national differences as Lowell
expressed this opinion when he said: «In proportion as solitude
and communion with self lead the sentimentalist to exaggerate the
importance of his own personality, he comes to think that the least
event connected with it is of consequence to his fellow-men. If he
change his shirt, he would have mankind aware of it. Victor Hugo, the
greatest living representative of the class, considers it necessary to
let the world know by letter from time to time his opinions on every
conceivable subject about which it is not asked nor is of the least
value unless we concede to him an immediate inspiration.»

Let us take another of these estimates, which might well deter one
from considering Hugo as capable of representing any body of men or
any mass of life. I quote Mr. W. E. Henley, in «Views and Reviews», a
little volume of bright and suggestive «appreciations», as he calls
them: «All his life long he was addicted to attitude; all his
life long he was a poseur of the purest water. He seems to have
considered the affectation of superiority an essential quality in art;
for just as the cock in Mrs. Poyser’s Apothegm believed that the sun
got up to hear him crow, so to the poet of the «Légende» and the
«Contemplations» it must have seemed as if the human race existed but
to consider the use he made of his oracular tongue.»

These are but two of the many expressions of disgust anybody may
encounter in reading English or American criticism of Victor Hugo. But
not discouraged by such estimates, and fortifying myself rather with
the thought of how the French themselves esteem him, I began to read
Victor Hugo again with a view of determining whether or not he
could be accepted as the unifying representative, the continuous
interpreter, of French literature since the fall of Napoleon. And as a
result I can say that, for me, this one man’s life and works formulate
nearly all the phenomena of French literary history from the battle
of Waterloo down to the present day. Except comedy and the realistic
novel, be has excelled in every kind of literature which the
French have cultivated during this century. With these two notable
exceptions, he has been a champion, a precursor, what the Germans call
a Vorfechter, in every great literary movement.

Nothing more deplorable can be conceived than the intellectual
condition of France under the First Empire. The fine ideals of the
young republic were a laughingstock, a butt of saddest ridicule. For
there is nothing men hate so much as the thought of a pure ideal they
have once cherished and since shrunk away from; and the remembrance of
a lost opportunity to be one’s true self is the bitterest of griefs;
and no reproach stings deeper than this, of a former and nobler state
of conscience which was not obeyed. Liberty was borne down under a
weight of circumstance all the more oppressive because it was
thought that the new order of things was the natural product of the
Revolution; and indeed it looked so. Literature was bidden to flourish
by the despot. He posed as a protector of the arts, and at his command
the seventeenth century was to begin again and a new Corneille, a new
Boileau, a new Molière, were to adorn his reign. But he who conquered
Italy could not compel unwilling Minerva, and the victor of the
Pyramids could not reanimate a dead past. The writings of the period
1800-1815, indeed the whole intellectual life of that time, its art,
its music, its literature, its philosophy, are what might have been

After the downfall of Napoleon what intellectual ideals remained in
France? With what equipment of thoughts and moral forces did she set
out at the beginning of this new epoch? With no equipment that was at
all adequate for solving the staggering problems set for her to solve.
Just think of them! She had to deal with monarchy and a state church
all over again. She had to decide between the spirit of the old règime
and the spirit of ’89. There was a contradiction in her past, and she
had to turn her back on one or the other fascinating epoch in her
history—either on Louis Quatorze and the grand siècle with all its
glory of treasured acquirement, its shining names, its illustrious and
venerable institutions, or on the less attractive men and measures and
purposes of the Revolution; and these latter, though apparently less
worthy of proud contemplation, impressed the conscience and the
political sense as being the things fullest of life for the dawning
future. The most loyal conservative must have felt an awkward
consciousness that the things he hated would in the end prevail.

Such, then, was the intellectual condition of France in
1815—uncertainty and division and dearth of ideals and purposes,
in the face of a future full of perplexing problems. But she was
strangely hopeful. She has never been otherwise. The French are the
most elastic people in Europe, and no defeat has ever discouraged
them. And she was in love with herself as much as ever, and as fully
convinced of her right to the leading place among all nations. Indeed
it did not occur to her that she had ever surrendered that right.

What have been the principal lines of movement in French literature
since 1815? In order to answer this question we must not merely follow
the traces of political history and say that literature changed with
the government. Such a solution would be facile, but would do violence
to the facts. The matter is verv indeterminate, and the best way to
bring it into a clear arrangement is to ask ourselves who were the
influential writers of any given period and what did they stand for.
In 1815 there were three men prominent in French letters and life:
Chateaubriand, Lamartine, and Lamennais. Victor Hugo was born in 1802,
and by 1817 he had become a literary man, not by intention merely, but
by writing. He came upon the scene, therefore, when these three men
were at the height of their activity; for Chateaubriand was born in
1768, Lamartine in 1790, and Lamennais in 1782; and they, appreciating
the need of leadership in France under the newly restored monarchy,
had thrown themselves enthusiastically into the work of instructing
the people. Let us inquire who they were and what was the nature of
their activity; or, in other words, what was the first public literary
atmosphere that surrounded Victor Hugo.

Chateaubriand at the age of seventeen was a captain of cavalry under
Louis XVI. When the Revolution broke out he came to America on a
royal commission to find the northwest passage. He brought letters of
introduction to the chief personages of the new world, and was
much impressed with the simple and gracious reception given him by
Washington, and with his unpretentious mode of life. After the failure
of his geographical researches, the young officer plunged into the
forest and started alone, on foot, for the Southwest, his head full of
romantic ideas about the beauty of primitive civilization, or absence
of civilization, put there no doubt by Jean Jacques Rousseau, of whom
he was an ardent admirer and a disciple. We are told that one evening
in an Indian wigwam he discovered a torn page of an English newspaper
and read of the ravages of the Revolution and the flight and arrest
of Louis XVI. His loyalty was awakened, and after two years of
sentimental wanderings in the forests of the Mississippi valley he
returned to France and enlisted with the Royalists. They received him
with suspicion, and even after his recovery, in exile, from a severe
wound received in their cause, they refused him fellowship. He lived
in London and Belgium and the island of Jersey, composing his first
work, an «Essai sur les Révolutions», 1797, in which his ideas,
both of politics and of religion, are still in a line with those of
Rousseau. Shortly after its publication some inward experience of the
reality of life and its dependence upon God gave him an impulsion in a
new direction, and he began his great apology for the Christian faith,
entitled «Le Génie du Christianisme», 1802, of which «Atala» and
«René» are only episodes. At this time Napoleon was re-establishing
order, and as he considered religion necessary to political security,
and was just then courting the Pope, he showered favors upon the young
author, to the latter’s manifest harm, for they made him fickle
and ambitious, and turned his natural sentimentality into the most
repulsive egoism. His masterpiece was «Les Martyrs», a sort of
Christian epic, which appeared in 1809; and thereafter he was regarded
as the leader in a conservative reaction back to Rome and back to

Alphonse de Lamartine was a poet of greater significance, though
in his early years he stood in a secondary place, owing to
Chateaubriand’s influence with the clerical and royalist party, and
indeed with all those who longed for peace and a revival of religious
faith in France. His early life was as interesting as Chateaubriand’s,
and, like his, its years of transition from boyhood to active manhood
were spent in foreign lands. His poetry is characterized by a certain
softness and sweetness peculiar to itself, reminding one somewhat of
English Cowper. It is contemplative and religious; but that does not
say all, for its range is wide, and Wordsworth has demonstrated to us
what a world of thought and fancy there may be in meditative poetry.
The chief of his works are: the volume entitled «Les Meditations»,
which contains that fine poem «Le Lac»; «Les Harmonies»; «Jocelyn»;
«La Chute d’un Ange»; «Graziella»; «Voyage en Orient», and «L’Histoire
des Girondins». Lamartine succeeded in being a guide to his people in
so far as he attracted them by his beautiful verse to a more serious
contemplation of themselves and the world, to a renewed interest in
true religion, to an appreciation of the fact that Christianity was
still alive and capable of inspiring enthusiasm. The feeling had
prevailed in France that vital Christianity was incompatible with the
cultivation of the fine arts. Lamartine proved this to be untrue.
He failed, however, when it came to writing history or engaging in
politics, because, as Lowell long ago perceived, and as people now
generally acknowledge, Lamartine was a sentimentalist, that is, a man
who cultivated fine sentiments because they were beautiful and not
because they were right, and who performed fine actions to be seen of
men; in other words, an egoist, an artist spoiled by artificiality.
Apart, however, from all question of the intrinsic merit of his work,
his tendency was, like that of Chateaubriand, in the direction of
recognizing religion and looking back to monarchical rather than
republican France for inspiration and example.

Félicité de Lamennais lived a life whose details belong as much to the
history of philosophy, or to ecclesiastical history, as to that of
belles-lettres. First a priest, and the most ardent Catholic in
France, he afterward turned against Rome and led a movement towards
religious independence. There are few more interesting figures,
chiefly because great religious leaders have been so rare in modern
France. At the time when Victor Hugo was beginning to write, Lamennais
was ardently engaged in an effort to establish the supremacy of Rome,
not only over private conscience, but over political institutions, and
although from his subsequent actions he is known to the world as a
liberal and a heretic, yet at that time, having published in 1817 his
«Essai sur l’Indifférence en Matière de Religion», he was the most
jealous conservative and the most fiery churchman in France.

Thus a superficial glance has sufficed to show that the first movement
which stirred literary France after 1815 was a reaction in favor of
monarchy and Rome; that its champions were Chateaubriand, Lamartine,
and Lamennais; that its effort was mainly through poetry; that its
honor was its high political and moral purity; that its defect was its
sentimentality; that its ultimate inefficacy was due to its running
counter to the tendency of the age. Into this movement Victor Hugo
inevitably fell; by it he was for a long time carried; with it he at
first kept step bravely.

At this point let us take a glance at Victor Hugo’s early life. He was
born in 1802, of respectable and educated parents. His father was an
army officer of increasing distinction under the Empire; his mother a
sympathizer with the exiled Bourbons. During Victor’s early childhood
he, with his mother and brothers, moved about through Italy, following
his father’s campaignings under Joseph Bonaparte; but when the boys
were old enough to attend school their mother took them to Paris,
while the father fought through a guerilla war against the brigands
headed by Fra Diavolo. After several years of tranquillity in France,
Madame Hugo and her sons were again called to follow the fortunes
of the head of the family, this time in Spain. The father won a
generalship in the French army in that conquered country, and became
majordomo of the palace at Madrid. The boys attended school in a
college for noblemen’s sons, and were badly treated by the young
Spaniards, who could not forget that the French lads were the children
of one of their conquerors. But after a brief sojourn in Spain they
returned to Paris, and there the poet-life of Victor Hugo began, and
began in earnest; for during three years, at school and at home, he
composed verses of all sorts, and in 1817, in competition for a prize
offered by the National Academy, he wrote an ode which, although not
successful in the contest, brought him into public notice.

The next year he won a prize in the Floral Games of Toulouse, with a
poem which is published among his other works, and which is one of the
most remarkable productions of precocious genius known to literary
history. In 1821 he had his first taste of the bitterness of life,
and his boyhood came to an abrupt termination, in the death of his
excellent mother. On the same day he became engaged to a young girl
who had for a long time been his schoolmate and almost a member of
his own home-circle. Her parents allowed his suit, but postponed the
marriage until he should have proved himself capable of supporting a
family. He set to work with feverish ardor and undertook almost every
kind of literary production—odes, plays, novels. The first of his
successes under this new stimulus were two remarkable stories, «Bug
Jargal» and «Han d’Islande», stories which indicate a strange and
exuberant imagination, tropical in its fervor, its singularity, its

But it was in 1826, by the publication of his «Odes et Ballades», that
he laid the real corner-stone of his fame. The king, Louis XVIII,
liked the poems, for a natural reason, as we shall see, and gave their
author a pension of one thousand francs, which in those days, and
in economical France, seemed a large sum, and the young people were
permitted to marry. It will be interesting to observe what was the
character of the «Odes et Ballades». They are almost all political
and religious, and all thoroughly conservative; all in praise of the
Bourbons, condemnatory of the Revolution; silent as to Napoleon, or
nearly so, and glowing with devotion to the Roman Catholic Church.
They remind us of what Wordsworth twenty-five years earlier wrote,
in a precisely contrary spirit, when he was influenced by the hopes
inspired by the first events of 1789, and before the subsequent
outrages changed him into a stiff British church-and-state
conservative. These early effusions of Hugo are noble pieces of
versification, and wonderful enough as the works of a very young man;
but they cannot be called poetry of a high order, nor do they even
give promise of what he was to do later, except that towards the last
we begin to find poems which bid us expect great things in the way of

Two years afterward, in 1828, appeared a second volume of poems,
«Les Orientales», a collection of dream-pictures of Eastern life, in
somewhat the same manner as the efforts of Thomas Moore which were
popular with young ladies of the last generation, but infinitely
superior to all the «Lalla Rookhs» and other impossibilities of that
little Irish dandy. The fact is that some of Hugo’s most beautiful
lyrics are to be found in this collection, and certainly some of his
greatest successes in passionate, highly-colored description. He was a
man whose heart grew slowly, however, and we look in vain as yet
for poems which could teach us much about life and how to bear it
patiently or enjoy it nobly.

But we are now in the midst of the four years during which Victor Hugo
was changing his attitude towards art entirely, 1826-1830. Up to this
time he had not entered specially into the business of criticism,
had not made theories about writing, but simply written, either
celebrating his political heroes or letting his fancy wander through
distant lands, which were full of glamour because distant. He had
gathered about him a circle of interesting people; indeed he was
already the young king of nearly all the rising literary men and
women in Paris. It was natural that there should be a great deal of
discussion among them about the rules and proprieties of their art;
but Victor Hugo was still, in this matter as in every other, a

In 1827 he surprised this little world of admirers with a drama,
«Cromwell», in the preface to which he expounded some advanced views
in regard to dramatic writing. His opinions were debated, and all
Paris was divided into their supporters and opponents. In 1830
appeared «Hernani», which he succeeded in having played at the Théâtre
français, in spite of the opposition of the Academy, which saw in it a
menace to good literature.

There are few exciting events in the history of literature. It is in
the main a record of quiet, intellectual lives, a story of thoughts
and tendencies. The account of a single border feud will present a
greater number of striking incidents than the history of the forces
which have produced our English poetry or Germany’s philosophy.
And the few memorable anecdotes of a concrete character which are
scattered here and there in the chronicles of literature usually
attract more attention than they deserve. They are suitable chiefly
to awaken the interest of children and ignorant people. Out of ten
persons who will tell you that Demosthenes practised oratory by the
sea-shore, with a pebble in his mouth, not more than one has any
notion what his orations themselves were about. The man who is most
set agog by the story of Shakespeare’s poaching exploit is the least
likely to have read his plays. The same thing might be said of the
hubbub occasioned by the first representation of Victor Hugo’s
«Hernani», on February 25, 1830. There is a temptation to make
«Hernani» the text of disquisitions on Romanticism, forgetting that it
is a drama of high intrinsic merit, and that the question of positive
value is, after all, the essential one.

Word was passed about among those who regarded Hugo’s new theories

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