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Victor Hugo


Victor Hugo was born on February 26, 1802, in Besançon, France. He studied law from 1815 to 1818 and graduated from the law faculty in Paris. During this time, he also began a career in literature, founding the journal Conservateur Littéraire in 1819. He published his first book of poems, Odes et poesies diverses (Pélicier), in 1822. Hugo went on to publish numerous poetry collections and is considered one of the great French Romantic poets. However, he is perhaps best known for his novels, which include Les Misérables (Carleton, 1862) and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (R. Bentley, 1833). Also known for his political involvement, Hugo served in Paris’s Constituent Assembly and Legislative Assembly after the Revolution of 1848. After a coup d-etat in 1851, he fled France to live in Belgium and, later, the Channel Islands. In 1871 he returned to Paris, where he was received as a national hero. He died on May 22, 1885, and was buried in the Panthéon.

By This Poet




You can see it already: chalks and ochers; 
   Country crossed with a thousand furrow-lines;
Ground-level rooftops hidden by the shrubbery; 
   Sporadic haystacks standing on the grass;
Smoky old rooftops tarnishing the landscape; 
   A river (not Cayster or Ganges, though:
A feeble Norman salt-infested watercourse); 
   On the right, to the north, bizarre terrain
All angular—you'd think a shovel did it. 
   So that's the foreground. An old chapel adds
Its antique spire, and gathers alongside it 
   A few gnarled elms with grumpy silhouettes;
Seemingly tired of all the frisky breezes, 
   They carp at every gust that stirs them up.
At one side of my house a big wheelbarrow 
   Is rusting; and before me lies the vast
Horizon, all its notches filled with ocean blue; 
   Cocks and hens spread their gildings, and converse
Beneath my window; and the rooftop attics, 
   Now and then, toss me songs in dialect.
In my lane dwells a patriarchal rope-maker; 
   The old man makes his wheel run loud, and goes
Retrograde, hemp wreathed tightly round the midriff. 
   I like these waters where the wild gale scuds;
All day the country tempts me to go strolling; 
   The little village urchins, book in hand,
Envy me, at the schoolmaster's (my lodging), 
   As a big schoolboy sneaking a day off.
The air is pure, the sky smiles; there's a constant 	
   Soft noise of children spelling things aloud.
The waters flow; a linnet flies; and I say: "Thank you! 
   Thank you, Almighty God!"—So, then, I live:
Peacefully, hour by hour, with little fuss, I shed 
   My days, and think of you, my lady fair!
I hear the children chattering; and I see, at times, 
   Sailing across the high seas in its pride,
Over the gables of the tranquil village, 
   Some winged ship which is traveling far away,
Flying across the ocean, hounded by all the winds. 
   Lately it slept in port beside the quay.
Nothing has kept it from the jealous sea-surge:
   No tears of relatives, nor fears of wives, 
Nor reefs dimly reflected in the waters,
   Nor importunity of sinister birds.

Boaz Asleep

Boaz, overcome with weariness, by torchlight 
made his pallet on the threshing floor 
where all day he had worked, and now he slept 
among the bushels of threshed wheat.

The old man owned wheatfields and barley, 
and though he was rich, he was still fair-minded. 
No filth soured the sweetness of his well. 
No hot iron of torture whitened in his forge.

His beard was silver as a brook in April. 
He bound sheaves without the strain of hate 
or envy. He saw gleaners pass, and said, 
Let handfuls of the fat ears fall to them.

The man's mind, clear of untoward feeling, 
clothed itself in candor. He wore clean robes. 
His heaped granaries spilled over always 
toward the poor, no less than public fountains.

Boaz did well by his workers and by kinsmen. 
He was generous, and moderate. Women held him 
worthier than younger men, for youth is handsome, 
but to him in his old age came greatness.

An old man, nearing his first source, may find 
the timelessness beyond times of trouble. 
And though fire burned in young men's eyes, 
to Ruth the eyes of Boaz shone clear light.

* * *

So, Boaz slept among his heaps of grain
in darkness, as among the ruins of summer.
Reapers sprawled nearby like fallen troops.
And this took place in very ancient times.

Then, judges led the tribes of Israel. 
People wandering with tents as herdsmen saw 
the footprints left by giants where the earth 
was soft still from the waters of the flood.

* * *

As Jacob slept, as Judith slept, 
so now did Boaz on his threshing floor, 
while overhead a door came open, and a dream 
fell from the sky into the old man's mind:

he saw a live oak grow out of his belly 
far up into the blue; and many people 
climbed it in a long chain, while a king sat 
singing at the root, and a god died at the crown.

And Boaz murmured, sleeping, 
in his soul: Could this come forth 
from me, past eighty? Still, 
I have no son. I have no wife.

The one who shared my bed, Lord! years ago, 
you took from my house into yours, 
though she and I are yet one soul--hers 
half-alive in me and mine half-dead in her.

And shall a nation come from this ruined flesh? 
Shall I now have a child? I might believe it, 
young, when I could still see mornings 
rise out of the night as if in triumph.

Now, I tremble like a birch in winter. 
Old, a widower, alone at nightfall,
I have turned my soul to face the grave, 
an old ox turned by thirst down to the river.

So said Boaz in his dream, his ecstasy still 
turning him toward God, eyes blurred with sleep. 
The cedar does not feel the rose bloom at its root, 
and Boaz did not feel, at his feet, the young woman.

* * *

Ruth, a Moabite, had come while Boaz slept, 
and now lay at his feet, who knows what light 
from what door in the heavens finding her breast 
naked, tender to its stirring as his dreams.

But Boaz did not know Ruth came to him, 
and Ruth did not know what God asked of her. 
The night breathed out a freshness from wild 
clumps of asphodels over the hills of Judah.

The dark was nuptial, and august, and solemn. 
Hidden angels must have hovered over them, 
for Ruth saw in the night sky, here and there, 
a dark blue movement like a wing.

The breath of Boaz sleeping mixed 
with a dull hush of brookwater in the moss. 
It was the time of year when lilies open 
and let go their sweetness on the hills.

Ruth was dreaming. Boaz slept. The grass looked black. 
And little bells of sheep were trembling on the verge 
of silence. Goodness came down clear as starlight 
into the great calm where the lions go to drink.

All slept, all, from Ur to Bethlehem. 
The stars enameled the deep black of the sky. 
A narrow crescent in the low dark 
of the west shone, while Ruth wondered,

lying still now, eyes half opened,
under twinging of their lids, what god 
of the eternal summer passing dropped
his golden scythe there in that field of stars.