« J’eus dans ma blonde enfance, hélas ! trop éphémère,
Trois maîtres : — un jardin, un vieux prêtre et ma mère. »
‘I had in my blond childhood – alas, all too fleeting!
Three teachers: a garden, an old priest and my mother.‘
Les Rayons et les ombres, 1840
« Tout le jour, libre, heureux, seul sous le firmament,
Je pus errer à l’aise en ce jardin charmant. »
‘All day, free, happy, alone under the heavens,
I could wander at will through that lovely garden.’
Les Rayons et les ombres, 1840
« Mes deux frères et moi, nous étions tout enfants.
Notre mère disait : Jouez, mais je défends
Qu’on marche dans les fleurs et qu’on monte aux échelles. »
‘My two brothers and I, we were little kids.
Our mother said: go play, but Mummy forbids
Any walking through the flowers or climbing ladders.’
Les Contemplations, 1856
Victor Hugo’s mother, a Breton royalist, was a great influence on him in his early years. However, despite his love for her he had some reason to be resentful of her. She kept him away from his father, whose political views were the opposite of hers. If she had had her way, the Revolution would have been stopped in its tracks and reversed and the children of the Revolution – which Hugo and his brothers were, being born very soon after it – would, in Hugo’s opinion, not have been able to progress and fulfil their latent potential. Napoleon, too, would have been assassinated. Therefore humanity writ large would be prevented from advancing, as for Victor Hugo the French Revolution and the ambitions of Napoleon were the key to mankind’s political and social evolution. In addition, she would not allow Victor to marry his sweetheart Adèle Foucher, as she thought Adèle would not amount to much. The ladders and the flowers here may also refer to the sexual undercurrents in the wild garden of Hugo’s youth, which he was forced to repress. He had to wait to be reconciled with his father after his mother’s death to obtain permission to marry. Hugo was for ever grateful to his father for the goodwill he showed him over his marriage.
« J’ai cueilli pour toi cette fleur dans la dune. … Garde-la pour l’amour de ton petit père qui t’aime tant. … Et puis, mon ange, j’ai tracé ton nom sur le sable : DIDI. La vague de la haute mer l’effacera
cette nuit, mais ce que rien n’effacera, c’est l’amour que ton père a pour toi. »
‘I picked this flower for you on the dunes … Keep it safe for the love of your papa who loves you so
much. … And then, my angel, I wrote your name in the sand: DIDI. Tonight at high tide the waves
will wash it away, but what can never be washed away is the love your father has for you.’
Letter to Léopoldine, Étaples, 3 September 1837
Léopoldine married young and drowned aged 19 with her husband in Normandy in 1843 as Victor Hugo was returning from a holiday. She had already been buried by the time he found out about her death.
« La fleur est de la terre et le parfum des cieux! »
‘The flower is of the earth and its scent is of the heavens!‘
Les Chants du crépuscule, 1835, translated: Karen F Quandt
One of Victor Hugo’s earlier poems, Date lilia. The title is a well-known phrase taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, VI.883, manibus date lilia plenis ‘offer handfuls of flowers’, where he mourns the death of Augustus’ nephew and bright hope for Rome, Marcellus. Victor Hugo was very influenced by classical poetry, especially Latin, which he was well taught in his youth. Dante, another of Victor Hugo’s great models, quotes this phrase in La Divina Commedia, as he leaves Virgil in Purgatory.
The poem describes Victor Hugo’s wife and young children going to visit the grave of his wife’s mother, and compliments his wife on her filial and maternal dutifulness. At this time Hugo was two years into his affair with Juliette Drouet and the relations between him and his wife Adèle, who had betrayed him with a mutual friend, the critic Charles Saint-Beuve, were not particularly good. This collection of poems was published at a time when the future in France seemed uncertain, hence its title – Songs of Twilight.
This quotation succinctly illustrates how Victor Hugo had already conceived his vision of duality: plants, like people, are held down by the material; yet plants grow towards the light and release their perfume into the air, as humans strive towards the Ideal, which is to be found in the immaterial realm of air and light. The soul of both plants and people is one soul, and it aims always for the Ideal.
The quotation was chosen for the garden by Professor Karen F Quandt, of Wabash College in the USA. Professor Quandt makes a particular study of Victor Hugo, gardens and the enviroment.
« Aimer, c’est plus que vivre »
‘To love is more than to live’
From Victor Hugo to Juliette Drouet, 26 February 1835
This quotation is from Juliette Drouet’s Anniversary Book, now kept in the BnF in Paris, an album in which Victor Hugo would write a message to her each year on his birthday or on the anniversary of their first night together in 1833. He wrote to her on this date: ‘February has always been a special month for me. On 26 February 1802 I was born into this life; on 17 February 1833 I was born to happiness in your arms. The first date is only life; the second is love. To love is more than to live.’
Guernsey, 12 October 1856, 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon.
… Isn’t your heart saying something to you in this lovely weather we are having, my dear little man, don’t you feel the need to feel loved under this charming sun, surrounded by flowers, birds, trees and God, by a poor Juju walking as close as she can beside you?
If you think you might like that, why don’t you come over and why are you leaving me closeted in my room like some poor deserted woman?’
Juliette Drouet to Victor Hugo
« J’effeuillais de la sauge et de la clématite ;
Je me la rappelais quand elle était petite,
Quand elle m’apportait des lys et des jasmins … »
‘I plucked the petals from some sage and clematis,
I remembered her when she was a little girl,
When she used to bring me lilies and jasmine …’
‘To she who has remained in France,’ Les Contemplations, 1856. This refers to Victor Hugo’s eldest daughter Léopoldine, who drowned on the Seine in Normandy in 1843 aged nineteen. This meant she could not, of course, accompany her father and the rest of her family into exile. She had been married for only a short time. Victor Hugo had initially been reluctant to allow her to marry (she was a minor), but had eventually given into her pleadings. This guilt is reflected in The Toilers of the Sea. Although Gilliatt loves Déruchette, and could have insisted on preventing her marriage to Ebenezer, he instead helps her to marry, because he cares for her; but he is helpless to affect the course of her life after that and must watch her sail away to an uncertain fate
« Dieu a mis ses intentions dans les fleurs, dans l’aurore, dans le printemps, et il veut qu’on aime. »
‘God put his intentions into flowers, dawn, springtime, and he wants us to love.’
Les Travailleurs de la mer, 1866, translation: Marva Barnett
Professor Marva Barnett chose this quotation because she loves the way Victor Hugo pays special attention to nature and to the garden. Her most recent publication focuses on the lessons of love, life and social justice we can learn from Les Misérables: To Love is to act, Swan Isle Press, Chicago, 2020.
« Il vient une heure où protester ne suffit plus : après la philosophie, il faut l’action »
‘There comes a time when protesting is no longer enough; after the philosophising must come action’
Les Misérables, 1862
« Qui assiste au crime assiste le crime. »
‘Whoever is the witness to a crime abets it.’
William Shakespeare, 1864, translation: Victor Brombert
Chosen by Professor Bradley Stephens, Associate Professor of French Literature, University of Bristol, Vice-President of the Victor Hugo in Guernsey Society.
Victor Hugo held very strong opinions on the death penalty, which he wanted to see abolished. His view of ‘common purpose’ here is a harsh one. Throughout his life he had been deeply affected by seeing crowds of sightseers attending executions. Here he also includes the law-givers and ministers of the Church who collaborate in, or do not speak out against, what he regards as a crime against humanity. William Shakespeare was written in Guernsey. His son Francois-Victor had asked him to write a preface to one of his translations of Shakespeare’s plays; this he did, but then decided the subject deserved a book. Shakespeare is one of Victor Hugo’s most cherished and revered models. In a way he and other British authors are a symbol of Liberty for Victor Hugo, as they were able not only to make use of a freedom of expression which was forbidden to the French but absolutely crucial to Hugo, but were also free to innovate in their use of language.
« N’est-ce pas là tout, en effet, et que désirer au delà? Un petit jardin pour se promener, et l’immensité pour rêver. A ses pieds ce qu’on peut cultiver et cueillir ; sur sa tête ce qu’on peut étudier et méditer ; quelques fleurs sur la terre et toutes les étoiles dans le ciel. »
‘Indeed, what more could you want? A little garden to amble about in, and infinite space to dream in. At his feet whatever could be grown and gathered, over his head, whatever could be studied and meditated upon; a few flowers on the ground and all the stars in the sky.’
Les Misérables, 1862, translation: Julie Rose, in the Vintage Classics edition, 2007 (See bibliography). This is Professor Fiona Cox’s favoured translation. The Society recommends this as the best available translation into English.
This quotation was chosen for us by Professor Fiona Cox of Exeter University. She says: ‘In Les Misérables Hugo describes the saintly Bishop Myriel in his garden. In these few lines Hugo encapsulates the ingredients of a good, simple, spiritual life. I love the way in which the small garden expands to become a whole world, able to meet the Bishop’s physical needs, as well as his intellectual and spiritual needs, while the flowers starring the earth are reflected in the stars of the heavens.’
« Je ne hais pas qu’on dise : la porte de Victor Hugo dans l’exil est ouverte à un battant aux riches et à deux battants aux pauvres. »
‘I can live with it if people say: Victor Hugo’s door in exile is half-open to rich people, and wide open to the poor.’
Letter to Mme Hugo, Hauteville House, 22 March 1862. Minuted in his notebook under this date by Julie Chenay.
‘Ubi spes ibi pax’
« Où est l’espoir, là est la paix »
‘Where there is hope there is peace’
In the garden of Hauteville House, Guernsey
« Mon nom appartient à quiconque veut s’en servir pour le progrès et pour la vérité. »
‘My name belongs to anyone who wants to use it for progress and for truth.‘
Letter to Paul Blanc, Hauteville House, 3 July 1867
This part of Hugo’s response to a request from America for his support in raising a subscription for a medal to be presented to the widow of the executed abolitionist, John Brown. John Brown was hanged in 1859 for his part in a slave insurrection. Victor Hugo had campaigned vigorously for his sentence to be commuted, and later raised money for the abolitionists through the sale of an aquatint and photograph of his famous drawing of Guernsey murderer John Tapner, known as ‘The Hanged Man’, in addition to publishing a short book about Brown. His disenchantment with America dates from this episode. Hugo was a consistent and vocal opponent of slavery.
« Le printemps arriva. Un jour, Gilliatt eut une vision ; le ciel s’ouvrit. Gilliatt vit Déruchette arroser des laitues. »
‘Spring came. One day, Gilliatt had a vision; it was ecstasy. Gilliatt saw Déruchette watering some lettuces.’
Les Travailleurs de la mer, 1866
« Gilliatt … achetait tous les oiseaux qu’on lui apportait et les mettait en liberté. »
‘Gilliatt … bought all the birds people brought to him and set them free.’
Les Travailleurs de la mer, 1866
« Mess Lethierry était guernesiais, c’est-à-dire normand, c’est-à-dire anglais, c’est-à-dire français. »
‘Mr Lethierry was Guernsey, that is to say Norman, that is to say English, that is to say French.’
Les Travailleurs de la mer, 1866
« Mes amis, retenez ceci, il n’y a ni mauvaises herbes ni mauvais hommes. Il n’y a que de mauvais cultivateurs. »
‘My friends, remember this, there are no bad weeds and no bad people. There are only bad cultivators.’
Les Misérables, 1862
« De quel droit mettez-vous des oiseaux dans des cages ? …
Qui sait comment leur sort à notre sort se mêle ? …
Oh! de nos actions qui sait les contre-coups …? »
‘What right have you to put birds in cages? …
Who knows how our fate and theirs are interlinked? …
Oh! Who knows what the repercussions of our actions will be …?’
‘Liberté,’ La Légende des siècles, dated 1856, published 1883
« Il fallait civiliser l’homme du côté de l’homme. La tâche est avancée déjà et fait des progrès chaque jour. Mais il faut aussi civiliser l’homme du côté de la nature. Là, tout est à faire. »
‘Humans had to be taught to treat each other better. The task is already advanced and progress is made every day. But humanity also has to be taught to treat nature better. In that, everything remains to be done.’
Voyage aux Pyrénées, 1843, published 1890
« C’est une triste chose de songer que la nature parle et que le genre humain n’écoute pas. »
‘It’s sad to think that nature is talking but mankind isn’t listening.’
Pierres, published 1951
« Mais je prends pour abri l’ombre des grands bois sourds. »
‘But the great wordless woods are my shelter and shade.’
L’Art d’être grand-père, 1877, translation: Timothy Adès
« Aimer, c’est agir »
‘To love is to act’
Victor Hugo (1802-1885)