Varieties of Darkness

by Victor Hugo, translation by C. Kevin Smith

We are humiliated by our lives.

We think ourselves deserving of a path

Less narrow, of a horizon more pure.

We say it’s not within our dignity

To be sick, weak, suffering, wandering

And knowing nothing, like a cow, chewing;

Like swine, slurping at our trough. Every step

Forward covers us in dust; each day lived

Makes us dirty. Weary of the weight of

Pointless hours, slaves to the beds where we sleep,

To the tubs where we bathe, we grow restless.

Our pride stiffens. Always to be hungry,

Always thirsty. Enough! Too much! we say.

And getting old, and trembling like a leaf,

And getting cold, our bones hardening to rock,

Waking up chilled after nights of bad dreams—

Oh, what a life!—and we weep.

A reply,

              From distant lights: “How else would you have it?

What is this nonsense? You are crushed and trapped

By the universal weight of things. So?

What did you expect? Why do you complain?

Every one of you, from the repellant

To the refined, kneels before unseen powers.

Fools! With the pathetic rigidity of your fists

You would reach, grasp for the impossible!

You ignore that all is one; you ignore

That mist and shadowy darkness cover all;

That no one escapes the sickening foam

Of the waves of shadow. No one; no one.

And that every living thing is designed

To mark you with the darkness of the void.

You find your destiny too humble, small.

You feel diminished by this heavy sky.

Ha! It’s the rule for all; no exceptions.

So you despise the cause, resenting the

Infinite. You want things to be clear, true,

With none of those obscurities that are

Explained in the future, that you call fate

And we call mystery. Your dream of you

Is to be whole, unstained and untouched by

Problems, wearing dawn’s purity like a

Crown: luminous, serene, perfect and calm.

You alone wish to live and breathe outside

The terrifying secret. Well. All that has

Come into being, lived, glowed, burned and perished,

All of it, to lead to you? The purpose

Of the glorious universe is you?

And what say the ashes, what say the worms?

Well? Shall all of creation look to you

For its pageantry, its beauty, its truth?

Stands God on His pedestal, proud of His

Speck? No. You suffer, you crawl, you are your

Own tomb. You shudder, you fall, forever

Bending from the weight of your ignorant

Soul and a body that sinks into rot.

You are greeted each morning and evening

By grief; blind, you seek the shape of your life.

For your star within follows unknown paths,

Buried inside your dumb, slumbering flesh.

The void fits so neatly in your cradle.

All will be enshrouded. All will wear black.

Besides, aren’t we too humiliated?

We distant suns, fires of the firmament?

When the shadowy abyss opens wide

And sucks all our light into its black hole,

Is not that an affront to our greatness?”




Darkness! darkness! darkness! So begins the

Somber De profundis of the ocean.

The sea-men tremble, knowing they will drown.

Miserere, we say. And there, in the

Churning skies, miserere, says the air.

Miserere, says the sea. Have pity.

Nettles obscure the slabs of the dolmen.

The stones exhale; the sorry dead arise.

Perhaps they groan; perhaps they can hear us.

The poisonous petals of the henbane

Unfold. From the tips of the mandrake plant

Come strange messages, hurried and dark.

What happened to the bramble bush? The tree?

And why these tears? To whom are the stones crying

Farewell? Are these the first darkened brothers

Of original sin? Oh, grief! They all

Suffer, deprived of light! Blind, yet they weep.

A ship moans like a man in pain, its pipes

Clanking and smoking, and the rising swells

Hurling foam, wet-white darkness upon the

Barrels of the steamship. Crabs, sea-monsters,

Wide-gilled creatures swimming, crawling in the

Shadowed depths of the sea’s hidden horror.

The thickets cry out, a raw screaming wind,

As if Nimrod, Sylla, or Cambyses,

Their bodies picked clean by the worms and crows,

Possessed, still, a voice; and from this noisy

Storm of fog and hate come the tortured roars

Of those condemned to die in ice-cold chains.

Are any of us still searching? Dreaming?

Who among us braves the hour of darkness

Along the murderous and spectral banks?

Who will tell us why forests groan with pain,

Like wild and monstrous cathedrals of wind

That sound and sound the echoing alarm?

We hear your whispers moving through the crowd,

We see your threatening branches hover

Above the downcast mourners. And the wind,

Forever the wind, blowing confusion

Across our pale graves. Who are you, grim voice?

What is this prayer that no one can silence?

And who sings forth with the breath of the earth,

With the murmuring sky, the energy

Of the waves, the rising falling oceans,

The clear, reedy whistling of the grasses?

What is this mysterious Requiem?

Lost souls! I hear the music of shadows,

Composed by Nature’s many darknesses,

Rhythms of death, resounding in the trees,

White keys and black keys, our headstones, our graves.




Perhaps we’re mistaken, seeing only dark.

We tremble, fill ourselves with doubt, believe

In the malevolence of the shadow.

Our eyes are only half-opened. We say:

Am I not damned, a pitiful speck, born

To fight a losing war against the world?

When we look at our lives we see darkness.

Humanity weeps, bleeds, cries out, suffers.

And everything pure has been extinguished.

Sir Thomas More follows Cato into

The ring: Let the human race watch the match,

Of Noble Heart vs. Black Destiny.

Our questing souls examine the cosmic

Enigma. Earth, water, air, fire: are these

The elements of evil? Sorry words.

Wind, ocean, night: so many treacheries.

For what, in the end, do we understand?

Of ourselves, little; of the world, nothing.

And what of science? Silent facts, gloomy,

Appearing, mute, like a wall of darkness.

Nothing illuminates, nothing explains.

Our horizons are shadows of other

Shadows, a mountain of night rising high

Before we men and women who would dream.

Nature is a shadowy Sphinx, crouching

Atop the highest summit. She gazes

With her petrifying, bottomless stare

At the witches, the wise men, at all those

Pallid and pensive Zoroastrians,

The seekers of suns and the spies of stars,

The terrified, the wild, the overwhelmed.

To these trembling would-be imitators

Of Œdipus, it seems that hurricanes,

An orchestra of thunderous wind; comets,

The terror of the seer; winter, death, lightning;

The restless, terrible sea: every fear

We find in the mystery of darkness

Is visible in her blank, stony eye.

All around the Sphinx, grim night is spreading

Its violence. But if we could lift up

Just one of her atrocious paws

And break through the longings of science and

Faith, adventure, desire and dreams, just past

Her menacing and shadowy claws, there

In the darkness we would find the word love.




Some Thoughts about “Varieties of Darkness”


When Marcel Proust told his editor Jacques Rivière that he considered “Booz endormi” to be the most beautiful poem of the nineteenth century, Proust singled out for special praise its qualities he described as “historical and geological.” He cherished the poem’s closing image so much he included it in a scene in his novel. And although he didn’t mention it, it can’t have escaped his notice that Hugo’s famous poem opened with the same verb, “se coucher,” with which Proust would launch his own grand opus. But nowhere in his letter to Rivière does Proust mention the name of the book in which Hugo published this poem: La Légende des Siècles.


La Légende des Siècles, as a book, does not exhibit the type of satisfying structural cohesion found in other collections Hugo compiled in his lifetime. First published in 1859, with new material added for subsequent editions in 1877 and 1883, la Légende des Siècles became le Livre Impossible—impossible to organize, impossible to finish, impossible to express, to get at what he desired so ardently to say, which was nothing less than the history, truth, and meaning of human life and struggle, within and beyond human historical time. In one of the book’s poems, he called his book a translation of “the past, the grave, the abyss and the night.” The protracted uncertainty over the book’s shape reflects the impossibility of its project: to wrestle the total truth of material and immaterial existence into the language and forms of French poetry. This book can also be, in its own way, impossible for readers: “Booz endormi” is a rare island of well-polished classical calm amidst hundreds of pages of extravagantly long poems, many with references now obscure to most readers.


Yet this very quality of unfinishedness, this anxious desire to “get it all in,” which was doomed to failure from the start, lends la Légende des Siècles the quality of testimony, not of the story of the ages but of Hugo himself, revealing the historical and geological strata, as Proust might have put it, of a writer’s mind. Hugo built his book piece by piece, with scraps of myth and history, fantasy and memory, obsession and belief, gathering together his inspirations as a bowerbird constructs his nest, with found objects and weird trouvailles, the shinier and stranger the better. In a poem called “Gaïffer-Jorge duc d’Aquitaine,” the setting is a deep pit in the ground, where a dungeon will be constructed for a Duke who refuses to allow the workers to stop their digging. Repeatedly, he commands them: “‘Creusez toujours, creusez. / Je veux savoir sur quoi ma demeure est bâtie.’” But the earth resists. This is harsh work. The workers must “Étançonner le sable, ôter l’argile, extraire / La brèche et le silex, et murer le talus.” Confronted with this resistance, the Duke flies into a rage and yells at the men to keep digging. “‘Creusez! répond le duc. Je vous l’ai dit. Je veux / Voir ce que j’ai sous moi dans la terre profonde.’” The poet continues: “Huit jours encore on creuse, on sape, on fouille, on sonde.” Near the end of the poem, the great hole in the ground is said to be “bloody, like a mystery,” until finally a voice is heard from the depths: “ ‘Ne creuse point plus bas, tu trouverais l’enfer.’ ” This is for Hugo one kind of hell: the edge of knowledge, against which he would vigorously press his poetry. His manner of digging into and against the resistance of things was to write—to accumulate, with the genius of obsession and the obsession of genius—to pile up, to build a wall like the “mur des siècles,” that, beginning with the 1877 edition, would provide the opening frame-image of la Légende.


So for Hugo, writing was a visionary means to “creuser,” to approach what he perceived as “the truth,” with the expectation that readers who accompany the poet on his imaginative journey will partake in and benefit from this digging. English-speaking readers who want to dig further, dig differently, can embrace the task of translation, a challenging but rewarding means to deepen the reading experience, another way to “creuser.” Verse translation demands that the reader take into consideration not only every word in the text but its position relative to the words around it: a fragile dynamic of sound, word-shape, association and meaning. One might compare each word in a poem to a stone in a rock wall, to use the Hugolian image. The translator’s task is to take the wall apart, to remove every stone one by one, examine its size, shape, and surfaces, in order to move the stones into the light of another language, and thus begin the building of a new wall.


Hugo’s poetry has not been as important for modern Anglo-American poets and translators as the works of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Valéry and other French 20th-century poets have been. These men who came after Hugo wrote formally tight, complex poems that invite—or defy—the translating poetic mind to arrange and rearrange a dense texture of words and concepts within the formal constraints of the original poem. This is not the case with Hugo’s verse. Even in his metaphysical poems, Hugo is a storyteller. Whereas the formal and often technically challenging poems of his successors demand and reward the intimacy of silent reading and analysis, Hugo’s long poems such as those published in la Légende des Siècles seem to demand not just to be spoken but announced. They are not so much self-conscious or private as they are urgent appeals, in the lineage of the oral tradition, to the universe and to all its communities, human and other.


In translating Hugo, especially his long, narrative poems, it is my opinion that blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, offers the best means to communicate their energetic flow and dramatic flair, their sense of forward motion. Milton’s Paradise Lost is the source-text for the kind of verbal, rhythmic and storytelling qualities it is important that the translator maintain. Indeed, Milton and Shakespeare were the only English-speaking “mages” Hugo claimed for his literary ancestry, so it is appropriate to adopt the rhythms of their poetic speech when attempting to render Hugo in English.


I have translated the poem’s title “Ténèbres,” as “Varieties of Darkness,” in order to lay stress on the strange plurality—strange for a speaker of English—of the French word “ténèbres.” A plural darkness can be seen as a crowd, threatening or obscuring from more than one direction with shadings and fragments of darkness that in their number and diversity can intensify the isolation experienced by the individual human subject. This is especially felt in the central section of the poem, where Hugo’s mania for accumulation is expressed in a series of dark scenes that stage the dilemma of human suffering in a hostile universe.


It was thinking about plurality that led me to make a controversial decision about my translation, controversial from the standpoint of textual fidelity. The first word of Hugo’s “Ténèbres” is “L’Homme,” “Man,” a word I have chosen to translate as the first-person plural pronoun: “We.” My principal reason for doing this is the sense—and this is something Hugo understood all too well—that one’s own historical moment can very well be its own variety of darkness. And I just couldn’t bring myself to begin my translation under the sign of that enduring blind spot in Western culture, where women are thought to be described by the word “Man.”


Of course, any discussion about the uncertainty or ambiguity of word choices points to another variety of darkness: that is, the darkness of language itself, which in its humanly variable dimensions can only allow an imperfect version or vision or translation of “reality.” Language—any language—is a deeply flawed tool with which to “exprimer l’humanité,” which was Hugo’s stated goal in the first preface to la Légende des Siècles. What he said elsewhere about the impossibility of translation—“le fond même des langues résiste,” he wrote—holds true for language itself. Hugo would seek to construct a poetic language that would lay down or reveal a path to the divine: poetic language as a new Verbe. Yet even in this belief system, Hugo compares words to bodies. “Le mot est la chair de l’idée,” he wrote, separating the flesh of the word as if from its soul, a separation that leaves most language fragmented and dark, the luminous promise of the sacred still obscured, despite the poet’s efforts, by the resistance of the divine and its shadows.


And it is, finally, the darkness of people that concerns Hugo most, the fate of human beings, that species Hugo calls “l’homme crépusculaire,” caught between heaven and hell, between darkness and light. Man is—or I would like to say that We are, too, a variety of darkness. In “Le Satyre,” another great poem from la Légende, its greatest poem, in my opinion, Hugo depicts the satyr as a sensuous thinker, a goat-man poet-figure who yearns to transcend the barriers of darkness that surround and define him. This animal-man is a “songeur velu, fait de fange et d’azur,” a living consciousness composed of dirt and sky, of azure and muck.


Fidelity in translation is important, but a translator must also be faithful to not only the text but its intent. So by translating the first line of the poem, “L’homme est humilié de son lot,” with the words “We are humiliated by our lives,” I have attempted to respect and carry forward Hugo’s progressivist project by drawing out of the poem its plural energy, so necessary for facing that particular variety of darkness that would keep people separate from one another, atomistic and unpowerful. I felt this was one way to honor Hugo’s belief that when people forget or neglect their common goals and values, other varieties of darkness, political varieties, can rise up and do damage to our collective purposes.


I’ve dwelt a bit on the poem’s title, first word and line, so now I’d like to offer a brief summary of its overall structure and themes. “Ténèbres” was written in 1855 but was only included in the third and final edition of la Légende, in 1883. The poem is divided into three sections. In the first, our bewildering human fate is described and lamented, but this receives a sharp retort from “les soleils,” who represent the plural voice of the cosmos. It is noteworthy that this poem was written during Hugo’s period in exile when he was holding “séances des tables,” at which he would receive messages from all manner of spirits, which included, for example, distant comets. So on the subject of humanity and its pathetic, pitiable existence, Hugo gives us the voices of celestial bodies as a kind of astronomical Greek chorus: “Eh bien?” the sun-stars say to the poet about humanity. “[Q]ue lui faut-il et de quoi se plaint-il?” The tone taken by “les soleils” is one of low mockery.


But Part 2 transports us back to the majesty of human suffering, now staged against the backdrop of wild nature and its myriad forms of hostility. This section is, in a manner of speaking, set to music, or rather its unfolding and multiple scenes constitute their own form of music, which the poet alone can hear and decipher and describe for us. As Charles Taylor has written, giving Wordsworth as an example, the Romantic poet “makes us aware of something in nature for which there are as yet no adequate words.” Here is the pertinent Wordsworth quote, from Book 2 of “The Prelude”: “[A]nd I would stand / If the night blackened with a coming storm / Beneath some rock, listening to notes that are / The ghostly language of the ancient earth / Or make their dim abode in distant winds.” Some of Hugo’s imagery in Part 2 of “Ténèbres” is quite similar.


In Part 3, the poet suggests that despite the mystery and madness of human existence, there is at least one means to persevere with a life that has value—we are offered at least one tool present in our lives, in the form of a single word—a single stone, if you will, with which to begin the task of building a happy life. The poem concludes with an encounter with the Sphinx, one of Hugo’s favorite symbols of the unknowable.


Hugo was a visionary poet who strove not just to see the varieties of darkness but to penetrate, even possess them. “Creusez, je vous l’ai dit. Je veux voir ce que j’ai sous moi dans la terre profonde.” This is how Milton describes hell in Book 2 of Paradise Lost, “No light, but rather darkness visible.” “Darkness visible” describes my opinion of the hellish spectacle of this country’s leadership under President Bush, and I wish to add in a personal aside that during the past two years I have spent reading la Légende des Siècles, I found comfort and energy in Hugo’s stirring voice, in this time in our country and elsewhere of “ténèbres.” Indeed, it was another poem in la Légende des siècles that helped me confirm my decision to translate “Ténèbres” as I did, with its opening first-person plural subject. That poem is “L’Élégie des Fléaux,” and as it happened, I first read it not long after the events of Hurricane Katrina. Before I proceed to my translation, I would like to quote a short passage from “L’Élégie des Fléaux,” a poem Hugo wrote in response to the catastrophic flooding of the Garonne River in 1875.


Nous sommes un pays désemparé qui flotte

Sans boussole, sans mâts, sans ancre, sans pilote,

Sans guide, à la dérive, au gré du vent hautain,

Dans l’ondulation obscure du destin;

L’abîme, où nous roulons comme une sombre sphère,

Murmure, comme s’il cherchait ce qu’il va faire

De ce radeau chargé de pâles matelots;

Délibération orageuse des flots.

Mais ô peuple, ayons foi. La vie est où nous sommes.


La vie est où nous sommes. Life is where we are. Hugo’s insistence here on a present tense, first-person plural response to suffering strikes me as both wise and radical, especially when viewed in light of so much 21st-century commentary and behavior. Like many artistic geniuses, Hugo was a first-class egotist, yet his powerful legacy was to encourage people to speak and to love across all the varieties of darkness that obscure the essential oneness of human needs and desires. In this he resembles two other poets, not French but American, poets I can’t help but now think of as “deux songeurs velus,” a pair of hairy dreamers, dreamers of democracy, writers of ecstatic poems that were long and lustful and rambling and revolutionary: Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, both poets of what Hugo called in la Légende des Siècles “the human epic”: “L’épopée humaine,” he wrote, “âpre, immense,—écroulée.” Gritty, magnificent, and forever falling. While I understand and share the pleasure felt by readers like Marcel Proust for lyric compression, for the beautifully wrought, the “exquis,” I want to advocate, as I hope to have done with my translation, for the kind of unbound art whose flaws, in some manner, are constitutive of its greatness.


Presented at a Symposium to honor Suzanne Nash upon her retirement from Princeton University, May 19-20, 2006.