Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Victor Hugo on Genesis

The French literary figure Victor Hugo (1802-1885) wrote about the book of Genesis in the Preface to Cromwell (1857). In the Preface, Hugo provides an historically accurate depiction of the Puritan politician and soldier. He wrote that Cromwell "was a complex, heterogeneous, multiple being, made up of all sorts of contraries - a mixture of much that was evil and much that was good, of genius and pettiness...tormented by his young royalist daughter; austere and gloomy in his manners, yet keeping four court jesters about him..."

The late 19th-century writers did not have the advantage of the penetrating disciplines of archaeology, anthropology, and linguistics. They usually portray early humans as innocent brutes whose closeness to Nature they admire from an attitude of superiority. We find the same attitude in Rudyard Kipling's India and in G.K. Chesterton's Africa.

Though Hugo's profile of Cromwell is realistic, in the following excerpts from his Preface to Cromwell he is the chief Romantic in his depiction of early Man.

"In primitive times, when man awakes in a world that is newly created, poetry awakes with him. In the face of the marvellous things that dazzle and intoxicate him, his first speech is a hymn simply. He is still so close to God that all his meditationns are ecstatic, all his dreams are visions. His bosom swells, he sings as he breathes. His lyre has but three strings - God, the soul, creation: but this threefold mystery envelopes everything, this threefold idea embraces everything. The earth is still almost deserted. There are families, but no nations; patriarchs, but no kings. Each race exists at its own pleasure; no property, no laws, no contentions, no wars. Everything belongs to each and to all. Society is a community. Man is restrained in nought. He leads that nomadic pastoral life with which all civilizations begin, and which is so well adapted to solitary contemplation, to fanciful reverie. He follows every suggestion, he goes hither and thither, at random. His thought, like his life, resembles a cloud that changes its shape and its direction according to the wind that drives it. Such is the first man, such is the first poet. He is young, he is cynical. Prayer is his sole religion, the ode is his only form of poetry.

This ode, this poem of primitive times, is Genesis."

"Thus, to sum up hurriedly the facts that we have noted thus far, poetry has three periods, each of which corresponds to an epoch of civilization: the ode, the epic, and the drama. Primitive times are lyrical, ancient times epical, modern times dramatic. The ode sings of eternity, the epic imparts solemnity to history, the drama depicts life. The character of the first poetry is ingenuousness, of the second simplicity, of the third, truth. The rhapsodists mark the transition from the lyric to the epic poets, as do the romancists that from the lyric to the dramatic poets. Historians appear in the second period, chroniclers and critics in the third. The characters of the ode are colossi - Adam, Cain, Noah; those of the epic are giants - Achilles, Atreus, Orestes; those of the drama are men - Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello. The ode lives upon the ideal, the epic upon the grandiose, the drama upon the real. Lastly, this threefold poetry flows from three great sources - The Bible, Homer, Shakespeare."

"There is more than one connection between the beginning and the end; the sunset has some features of the sunrise; the old man becomes a child once more. But this second childhood is not like the first; it is as melancholy as the other is joyous. It is the same with lyric poetry. Dazzling, dreamy, at the dawn of civilization, it reappears, solemn and pensive, at its decline. The Bible opens joyously with Genesis and comes to a close with the threatening Apocalypse. The modern ode is still inspired, but is no longer ignorant."

Related reading: Fossil Footprints Speak of Tough Conditions; The Sting of Death; Early Written Signs

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