August 31, 2016

When Victor Hugo gave his love a bat

In The Nation magazine's last issue for the year 1880, it recounted the following charming anecdote from the life of the author Victor Hugo:

One day. . .  Victor brought to his betrothed a paper well pinned and tied. She thought there was in it a precious flower, and opened it cautiously: a bat came out of it. She was much frightened, and only forgave the poet when she read on the paper the ode on the bat.  This ode is one of the first in which the true Romantic spirit is shown.

The story is sourced to an account of Hugo's life from 1863.

Authority for the tale is a good one, given that the book was written by the very same recipient of the chiropteran gift, Adèle Foucher.  Foucher, despite her receipt of the surprise package, was nevertheless not deterred from marrying Hugo, several months later in 1822.

The original-language version of Hugo's poem, "La Chauve-souris" (from April 1822) is here.

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Before allowing the reader to commence the reading of his bat poem proper, Hugo precedes it with a separate quote from another author, as he was generally wont to do in this period.

What was up with that?  Was this a shout out?  Logrolling?  Homage?

A very entertaining and useful article that explains  some background of the use of literary epigrams in the era is Rainier Grutman's "Quoting Europe: Mottomania in the Romantic Age" (2005), viewable here.

Hugo's choice of epigram for "La Chauve-souris" was a quote translated into French from an evidently favorite author of his from around this time, Charles Maturin, and his 1816 Gothic play, Bertram; or The Castle of St. Aldobrand. A copy of the play is viewable here.  

Maturin's English-language play made it across the Channel to the wider, non-English-reading public in France, in an 1821 translation, done by Charles Nodier and one M. M. Taylor.  Their translation is viewable here.  Nodier's version became the basis for Bellini's opera, Il pirata.

What is Hugo trying to tell us via his selection of epigram here? Where was his head was at when he penned "La Chauve-souris"?  TiR doesn't purport to know for sure.  

The premise of  Bertram is basically that its central, titular (anti-) hero, returns home, courtesy of a freak shipwreck, to his native land, after many years at sea as a brigand, scoundrel and exile / fugitive, to find that his true love, Imogine, has married his worst enemy.  

Hugo's quote from the play is in fact a mashup of two lines, spoken by different characters.

The first part is spoken by Bertram in Act 5, scene 3.  Spoiler alert: Bertram has by now murdered his romantic rival, and is being led to the dungeon to await execution.  A Prior comes, asking Bertram to repent. B. is in a trance, oblivious to the outside world.  He proudly, almost snottily tells all around him that he welcomes the most painful death possible.  However, he also seems to be struggling, internally and spiritually, with the whole situation, specifically about whether to repent his misdeeds.  Bertram's heart appears to be on the verge of softening when the Prior's presence snaps Bertram out of his reverie, whereupon B. snaps back into his hardened and stoic stance.  Bertram asks the Prior: "Why art thou here? There was an hovering angel, Just lighting on my heart, and thou hast scared it." 

The second part of Hugo's mashup epigram is taken from a bit earlier in the same scene of the play.  Imogine has just seen her husband murdered before her eyes.  She has fled to a dark cavern near the woods, taking her small child with her.  She's wracked with guilt.  She's been awake all night, wandering the woods, raving, seeing ghosts.  Meanwhile, her child gambols around the trees, playing.  She calls to him:  "Yet come . . .  I'll sing thee songs the churchyard spirits taught me."  Creepy.  Does this kid live to see the end of the play?  We think not.  

Hugo jams together the above two quotes, for his prefatory epigram.

Bertram and Maturin today might be even more thoroughly forgotten than they are, were it not for the scorchingly righteous rantage against them, perpetrated by Coleridge and preserved in his 1817 Biographia Literaria, chapter 23 (readable here).  

Coleridge's chapter, like the practice of literary epigrams, contains within itself a window into a miniature history of Romanticism.  He suggests a scurrilous process whereby the superior grotesqueries of Elizabethan drama were plagiarized by the French, from whom they were in turn stolen by the Germans, with the dramatic material coarsened and cheapened at both steps of the way.  At last, per Coleridge, the gullible and slavish British theatrical public is buying back its heritage from its own "apes' apes," as continental Europe floods the market with schlock ("speaking monsters imported from the banks of the Danube"), and imitators jump on the bandwagon.  Prime example:  Bertram.   

Coleridge attended a performance of Bertram in Drury Lane, probably with the great Edmund Kean in the title role.  An image of a  print of Kean as Bertram is here.

Coleridge's observations about the play and its contents include the following:

"crowded with solecisms, corrupt diction, and offences against metre"

"the shocking spirit of jacobinism"

"atrocious events and characters"

"rant and nonsense" 

"a superfetation of blasphemy upon nonsense"

"senseless plagiarism"

" this loathsome and leprous confluence of robbery, adultery, murder, and cowardly assassination"

"a series of super-tragic starts, pauses, screams, struggling, dagger-throwing, falling on the ground, starting up again wildly,  swearing, outcries for help, falling again on the ground, rising again,faintly tottering towards the door, and, to end the scene, a most convenient fainting fit"

"proof of the depravation of the public mind"

"And did a British audience endure all this? -- They received it with plaudits"

Yes, sure enough:  Bertram was a huge hit with the theater-going public, enjoyed a long run, and saved Maturin from financial ruin.  Robert Lougy's book on Maturin has some good details on this.

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Hugo published "La Chauve-souris" among the odes in his book Odes et Ballades.

But is the poem in fact an ode?  What exactly is one of those, anyway?  Did Hugo even really care?

He addressed these questions, somewhat, in his 1826 preface (one of several published over the years) to the book, saying in effect:

Plenty of serious minded persons have said that these Odes were not exactly odes.  So be it.  . . . . You can give them whatever name you like.  The author hereby signs off on it, in advance.

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TiR, having found no complete English translation of "La Chauve-souris" on-line or published anywhere, decided to give it a shot.  Below is our possibly fanciful version.

The Bat
by Victor Hugo

 "Why art thou here? There was an hovering angel, Just lighting on my heart, and thou hast scared it. . . . Yet come . . .  I'll sing thee songs the churchyard spirits taught me." 
Maturin, Bertram

Sad bird! Yes, I know you, I've seen you in dreams. 
Now o'er me you lurk, although useless it seems.
In long loops erratic, you block out the sun,
But I'll never fear your dark portents of dread.
I've heard them already from ghosts of the dead.
So go! Guilt or gladness, you bring neither one.

My young bride awaits, so you linger above,
'Though heaven itself blessed my fate with her love,
Long hoped for, of worth more than crowns worn with pride.
You'll visit our wedding day, plotting to spread,
'Midst sweet celebration, wings over my head,
Like two veils in black to mourn someone who's died.

Your kin: woeful owl, preying eagle that screams,
Or glum holly crossed with pale leaves from dead streams.
You're too friend of witches, called for in their spell;
Flee far from my home and the air my lungs draw;
My poet's lyre, touch not with hideous claw,
Or down I'll call on you all specters from hell. 

On murky nights when, in dance, demons take wing, 
From the gloom you sail forth, enticed to hear sing 
The infernal coven, joined evil in song.
Begone! Nuptial flowers here give sweet perfume.
Begone, yours instead is the stench of the tomb,
With pools of blood steaming.  That's where you belong!

Who sent you my way?  Flew you from black hillsides,
Strewn with ruins bleak, where the moon even hides?
Your brow, pale and mournful, is like that same hill. 
Did weak eyes here guide you in devious flight,
Thus stalking the fire of my lamp's distant light? 
By radiance brought, to bring dark omens ill?

Come you from some tower where Vertigo rules,
Or peaks where you flutter, beast stunted and cruel? 
You stoke the hot swamp, bid it ignite and hiss, 
But too buzz the precipice where, laughing, you
Would unfoot the mountaineer, aghast, and who
To vultures below plunges in the abyss.

I'm unmoved; above me you flutter in vain.
So flee with your stench of dry human remains,
Or, wait 'til tomorrow, you monster. That's when
I'll set, like a gift, before innocent eyes
Your carcass of gauze, like one hung as a prize, 
By the rustic shepherd who adorns his den.

Your once-fearsome fangs, I'll give to tykes for toys.
My fair maid will see you and shriek, and the noise
May rouse you.  You'll bolt towards the sky in blind fright,
Exiled by nobler flocks who fly by bright day, 
Who'll jeer, foul wretch, as you flounder away,
In vain hapless search for the shelter of night.

April 1822