Victor Hugo Poems in English

Selected Poems of Victor Hugo in English 

Victor Hugo Poems in English

Victor Hugo (1802 - 1885) 

Victor Hugo published his first collection of odes when he was only twenty. In 1827, upon publishing his celebrated "Preface de Cromwell", he became the recognized leader of the Romantic group. With " Hernani (1830), he won the victory for Romanticism of the stage. Having been made a peer of France in 1846, he took an active part in politics as a defender of liberal ideas. After the revolution of 1848, as a deputy, he used all his eloquence to defend democratic principles, only to be rewarded by exile when Napoleon III overthrew the republic. Until the second Empire ended, Hugo remained in voluntary exile on the islands of Jersey and Guernsey and it was there that many of his best works were composed. 

Hugo considered the poet to be the prophet, preacher and leader of mankind, and himself the leader of both poets and mankind. His works show some of the defects as well as many of the virtues of Romanticism. Brilliant, supremely self confident, possessed of incredible vigor, a master of rime a d rhythm as well as of words, Victor Hugo brought into French poetry a freedom in both form and vocabulary which it had not enjoyed since "le tyran des mots et des syllabes", Malherbe ,became the arbiter of French poetry. Hugo revived old an created new forms, and for "le mot noble" substituted "le mot probe".

His most striking quality is imagination, a quality which is so strong that it leads him to see images as ideas and ideas as images, and to abuse antithesis. 

As a dramatist, Victor Hugo shows the defects of Romantic School. He uses all the tricks found in melo drama. 

One quality, however, Hugo's best dramas do possess to a high degree, and it is this quality, lyric beauty, which saves them. Hugo's novels offer, in general, the same features that are to be found in his plays. Here his use of antithesis is just as striking as in the drama.

Famous Poems of Victor Hugo Translated in English 

Nothing But Death

There are cemeteries that are lonely, 
graves full of bones that do not make a sound,
the heart moving through a tunnel,
in it darkness, darkness, darkness,
like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves, 
as though we were drowning inside our hearts,
as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.

And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears or rain.

Sometimes I see alone
coffins under sail,
embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair,
with bakers who are as white as angels,
and pensive young girls married to notary publics,
casket sailing up the vertical river of the dead,
the river of dark purple,
moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death 
filled by the sound of death which is silence.
Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
Comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no finger in it.

Comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no throat.
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree

I'm not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets,
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and the somber color of embittered winter.

But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom,
lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies,
death is inside the broom, 
the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses,
it is the needle of death looking for thread.

Death is inside the folding cots:
it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses, 
in the black blankets, and suddenly breath is out:
it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets, 
and the beds go sailing towards a port
where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.

Melancholy Inside Families

I keep a blue bottle. 
Inside it an ear and a portrait. 
When the night dominates
the feathers of the owl, 
when the hoarse cherry tree
rips out its lips and makes menacing gestures
with rinds which the ocean wind often perforates -
then I know that there are immense expanses hidden from us, 
quartz in slugs, 
blue waters for a battle, 
much silence, many ore-veins
of withdrawals and camphor, 
fallen things, medallions, kindnesses, 
parachutes, kisses. 

It is only the passage from one day to another, 
a single bottle moving over the seas, 
and a dining-room where roses arrive, 
a dining room deserted
as a fish-bone; I am speaking of 
a smashed cup, a curtain, at the end
of a deserted room through which a river passes
dragging along the stones. It is a house
set on the foundations of the rain, 
a house of two floors with the required number of windows, 
and climbing vines faithful in every particular. 

I walk through afternoons, I arrive
full of mud and death, 
dragging along the earth and its roots, 
and its indistinct stomach in which corpses
are sleeping with wheat, 
metals, and pushed-over elephants. 

But above all there is a terrifying, 
a terrifying deserted dining-room, 
with its broken olive oil cruets, 
and vinegar running under its chairs, 
one ray of moonlight tied down, 
something dark, and I look
for a comparison inside myself:
perhaps it is a grocery store surrounded by the sea
and torn clothing from which sea water is dripping. 

It is only a deserted dining-room, 
and around it there are expanses, 
sunken factories, pieces of timber
which I alone know
because I am sad, and because I travel, 
and I know the earth, and I am sad. 

Sonata And Destructions

After so many things, after so many hazy miles, 
not sure which kingdom it is, not knowing the terrain, 
travelling with pitiful hopes, 
and lying companions, and suspicious dreams, 
I love the firmness that still survives in my eyes, 
I hear my heart beating as if I were riding a horse, 
I bite the sleeping fire and the ruined salt, 
and at night, when darkness is thick, and mourning furtive, 
I imagine I am the one keeping watch on the far shore
of the encampments, the traveller armed with his sterile defenses, 
caught between growing shadows
and shivering wings, and my arm made of stone protects me. 

There's a confused altar among the sciences of tears, 
and in my twilight meditations with no perfume, 
and in my deserted sleeping rooms where the moon lives, 
and the spiders that belong to me, and the destructions I am fond of, 
I love my own lost self, my faulty stuff, 
my silver wound, and ny eternal loss. 
The damp grapes burned, and their funereal water
is still flickering, is still with us, 
and the sterile inheritance, and the treacherous home. 
Who performed a ceremony of ashes? 

Who loved the lost thing, who sheltered the last thing of all? 
The father's bone, the dead ship's timber, 
and his own end, his flight, 
his melancholy power, his god that had bad luck? 
I lie in wait, then, for what is not alive and what is suffering, 
and the extraordinary testimony I bring forward, 
with brutal efficiency and written down in the ashes, 
is the form of oblivion that I prefer, 
the name I give to the earth, the value of my dreams, 
the endless abundance which I distribute
with my wintry eyes, every day this world goes on. 

Gentleman Without Company

The homosexual young men and the love-nad girls, 
and the long widows who suffer from a delirious inability to sleep, 
and the young wives who have been pregnant for thirty hours, 
and the hoarse cats that cross my garden in the dark, 
these, like a necklace of throbbing sexual oysters, 
surround my solitary house, 
like enemies set up against my soul, 
like members of a conspiracy dressed in sleeping clothes 
who give each other as passwords long and profound kisses. 

The shining summer leads out the lovers
in low-spirited regiments that are all alike, 
made up of fat and thin and cheerful and sullen pairs;
under the elegant coconut palms, near the sea and the moon, 
there is a steady movement of trousers and petticoats, 
and a hum from the stroking of silk stockings, 
and women's breasts sparkling like eyes. 

The small-time employee, after many things, after the boredom of the week, and the novels read in bed at night, 
has once and for all seduced the woman next door
and now he escorts her to the miserable movies, 
where the heroes are either colts Or passionate princes, 
and he strokes her legs sheathed in their sweet down
with his warm and damp hands that smell of cigarettes. 

The evenings of the woman-chaser and the nights of the husbands

There Is No Forgetfulness (Sonata) 

If you ask where I have been
I have to say, "It so happens.... "
I have to talk about the earth turned dark with stones, 
and the river which ruins itself by keeping alive;
I only know about objects that birds lose, 
the sea far behind us, or my sister crying. 
Why so many different places, why does one day
merge with another day? Why all these people dead? 

If you ask where I come from I have to start talking with broken objects, 
with kitchenware that has too much bitterness, 
with animals quite often rotten, 
and with my heavy soul. 

What have met and crossed are not memories, 
nor the yellow pigeon that sleeps in forgetfulness;
but they are faces with tears, 
fingers at the throat, 
anything that drops out of the leaves:
the shadowiness of a day already passed by, 
of a day fed with our own mournful blood. 

Look and see violets, swallows, 
all those things we love so much and can see 
on the tender greeting-cards with long tails
where time and sweetness are sauntering. 

But let's not go deeper than those teeth, 
nor bite into the rinds growing over the silence, 
because I don't know what to say. 
There are so many people dead
and so many sea-walls that the red sun used to split, 
and so many hands that have closed around kisses, 
and so many things I would like to forget. 

Some Beasts

It was the twilight of the iguana. 
From the rainbow-arch of the battlements, 
his long tongue like a lance
sank down in the green leaves, 
and a swarm of ants, monks with feet chanting, 
crawled off into the jungle, 
the guanaco, thin as oxygen
in the wide peaks of cloud, 
went along, wearing his shoes of gold, 
while the llama opened his honest eyes
on the breakable neatness
of a world full of dew. 
The monkeys braided a sexual
thread that went on and on
along the shores of the dawn, 
demolishing walls of pollen
and startling the butterflies of Muzo
into flying violets. 
It was the night of the alligators, 
the pure night, crawling
with snouts emerging from ooze, 
and out of the sleepy marshes
the confused noise of scaly plates
returned to the ground where they began. 

The jaguar brushed the leaves
with a luminous absence, 
the puma runs through the branches
like a forest fire, 
while the jungle's drunken eyes
burn from inside him. 
The badgers scratch the river's
feet, scenting the nest 
whose throbbing delicacy
they attack with red teeth. 

And deep in the huge waters
the enormous anaconda lies
like the circle around the earth, 
covered with ceremonies of mud, 
devouring, religious. 

The Heights of Macchu Picchu, III

The human soul was threshed out like maize in the endless
granary of defeated actions, of mean things that happened, 
to the very edge of endurance, and beyond, 
and not only death, but many deaths, came to each one:
each day a tiny death, dust, worm, a light
flicked off in the mud at the city's edge, a tiny death with coarse wings
pierced into each man like a short lance
and the man was besieged by the bread or by the knife, 
the cattle-dealer: the child of sea-harbors, or the dark captain of the plough, 
or the rag-picker of snarled streets:
everybody lost heart, anxiously waiting for death, the short death of every day:
and the grinding bad luck of every day was
like a black cup that they drank, with their hands shaking. 

The Head On The Pole

Balboa, you brought death and claws
everywhere into the sweet land
of Central America, and among those hunting dogs
your dog was your soul:
with his blood-strained jowls Lioncub
picked up the slave escaping, 
sank his Spanish teeth
into the panting throats;
pieces of flesh slipped from 
the dogs' jaws into martyrdom
and the jewel fell in the pocket. 

A curse on dog and man, 
the horrible howl in the unbroken
forest, and the stealthy
walk of the iron and the bandit. 
And a curse on the spiny crown
of the wild thornbush
that did not leap like a hedgehog
to protect the invaded cradle. 

But the justice of knives, 
the bitter branch of envy, 
rose in the darkness
among the bloody captains. 

And when you got back, the man
named Pedrarias stood
in your way like rope. 

They tried you surrounded by the barkings
of dogs that killed Indians. 
Now you are dying, do you hear
the pure silence, broken 
by your excited dogs? 
Now you are dying in the hands
of the stern authorities, 
do you sense the precious aroma
of the sweet kingdom smashed forever? 

When they cut off Balboa's 
head, it was stuck up
on acpole. His dead eyes 
let their lightning rot
and descended along the pole
as a large drop of filth
which disappeared into the earth. 

The Dictators

An odor has remained among the sugar cane:
a mixture of blood and body, a penetrating
petal that brings nausea. 
Between the coconut palms the graves are full
of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles. 
The delicate dictator is talking 
with tophats, gold braid, and collars. 
The tiny palace gleams like a watch
and the rapid laughs with gloves on
cross the corridors at times
and join the dead voices
and the blue mouths freshly buried. 
The weeping cannot be seen, like a plant
whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth, 
whose large blind leaves grow even without light. 
Hatred has grown scale on scale, 
blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp, 
with a snout full of ooze and silence. 

Friends On The Road

Then I arrived at the capital, vaguely saturated
with fog and rain. What streets were those? 
The garments of 1921 were breeding
in an ugly smell of gas, coffee, and bricks. 
I walked among the students without understanding, 
pulling the walls inside me, searching
each day into my poor poetry for the branches, 
the drops of rain, and the moon, that had been lost. 
I went deep into it for help, sinking
each evening into its waters, grasping
energies I could not touch, the seagulls of a deserted sea, 
until I closed my eyes and was shipwrecked in the middle of my own body. 

Were these things dark shadows, 
were they only hidden damp leaves stirred up from the soil? 
What was the wounded substance from which death was pouring out
until it touched my arms and legs, controlled my smile, 
and dug a well of pain in the streets? 

I went out into life: I grew and was hardened, 
I walked through the hideous back-alleys
without compassion, singing out on the frontiers
of delirium. The walls filled with faces:
eyes that did not look at light, twisted waters
lit up by a crime, legacies
of solitary pride, holes
filled with hearts that had been condemned and turn down. 
I walked with them: it was only in that chorus
that my voice refound the solitudes
where it was born. 

I finally became a man
singing among the flames, accepted
by friends who find their place in the night, 
who sang with me in the taverns, 
and who gave me more than a single kindness, 
something they had defended with their fighting hands, 
which was more than a spring, 
a fire unknown elsewhere, the natural foliage
of the places slowly falling down at the city's edge. 

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