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The Republican across the Water – Victor Hugo in the Channel Islands

Victor_Hugo_by_Charles_Hugo_c1854_crop.jpgSitting at home, with many volumes of Victor Hugo’s poetry staring at me from my bookshelves (several of which, I have to admit, have never been read in their entirety), I’ve been reflecting on the author’s time in ‘self-isolation’ from Napoleon III’s Second Empire. As always with Hugo, it turned out to be a period of immense invention and productivity.

The poet landed in St Peter Port, Guernsey on the morning of 31 October 1855, accompanied by his son, François-Victor, and discreetly followed off the boat by a Mrs. Drouell, in reality Hugo’s faithful mistress, companion and secretary, Juliette Drouet. The rest of the family, including his wife and daughter – both named Adèle – and his other son, Charles, would arrive shortly afterwards. It was the poet’s third place of exile in as many years.

As a member of the French National Assembly and a vocal critic of the increasingly authoritarian Government, Hugo had fled Paris in disguise a few days after Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état on the night of 1–2 December 1851, during which several other opposition politicians had been imprisoned. He was officially declared a ‘proscrit’ (‘outlaw’) soon afterwards.

A short period in Brussels ensued, during which the poet wrote Napoléon le Petit, a scathing attack on Louis-Napoleon’s character and political machinations which he knew would do little to assuage the Belgian Government’s fear of antagonising its unpredictable and powerful neighbour. So, on 1 August 1852, Hugo sailed from Antwerp and after passing through London and Southampton, arrived in Jersey on the 5th, two days before Napoléon le Petit appeared in Brussels. Samizdat copies would make their way into France in the most extraordinary ways, including inside plaster cast busts of the soon-to-be-anointed Napoleon III.

Three years later, Hugo made the short trip to Guernsey. He had been expelled from Jersey following a period of increasing tension between the French exiles and local people on the island (almost certainly fomented by the French and British Governments who were now wartime allies in the Crimea). The poet’s reluctant support for a rather crass and scurrilous ‘Lettre à la Reine d’Angleterre’ published by a fellow exile had proved the final straw. Fortunately, he was able to take advantage of Guernsey’s traditional rivalry with its neighbour to establish a new base.

Hugo’s fifteen years in St Peter Port, which he described as ‘a real old Norman port, hardly anglicized at all’, have rightly been the lens through which the poet’s period of exile has mainly been viewed. Not least because it is still possible to visit the wonderfully extravagant and egocentric Hauteville House at 38 Hauteville Street which the poet and his family occupied from May 1856 and which is now maintained by the French Government (and is technically French national territory).

tiles.jpgThe poet took full advantage of the fact that the large Georgian house overlooking the port had been empty for many years – its previous occupant apparently chased out by a ghost – to remodel its interior, a reminder that Hugo was not just a poet, novelist, playwright, politician and visionary artist, but also a talented, if quirky, interior designer. Pieces of timber and other ‘objets trouvés’ were brought back from his daily walks across the island, local craftsmen were commissioned to shape the heavily panelled hallway and interiors, tiles were laid out in patterns reflecting the poet’s initials, mirrors and tapestries were everywhere. Hugo’s son Charles called Hauteville House his father’s ‘virtual autograph’.1

And it was from here that Hugo oversaw the publication of Les Contemplations, his most commercially successful collection of poetry from whose proceeds he was able to purchase Hauteville House, thereby establishing his inalienable right to remain on Guernsey. It was standing in the ‘look-out’ at the top of the house that he completed Les Misérables and the extraordinary operation to coordinate its publication was launched, a story brilliantly told by David Bellos in his book The Novel of the Century. Also composed on Guernsey were Hugo’s Les Travailleurs de la mer and L’Homme qui rit, which his biographer, Graham Robb, has called ‘the two finest prose works of English literature in French’.2

picture.jpgBut I want to return to Jersey and to Les Châtiments (Castigations), which was published in late 1853 during the poet’s time on that island, and has been described by Robb as ‘one of the most savage collections of poetry in French literature’ and ‘with Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal…the most popular forbidden poetry book in the generations of schoolboys which included Zola, Verlaine and Rimbaud’.

One of the longest poems in the volume, and a personal favourite, is ‘L’Expiation’ (‘The Expiation’) in which Hugo manages to combine sustained historical narrative and bitter farce within a structure that leads up to a dramatic denouement in the final line.3 Warning – the following paragraphs contain spoilers.

The opening three sections of the poem focus on key moments in Napoleon Bonaparte’s downfall, couched in rolling alexandrines and rhyming pairs of lines. First comes the retreat from Moscow. Against an insistent drumbeat – ‘Il neigeait’ – the poet describes in horrifying detail the effects of the Russian winter on the beaten army:

Il neigeait. Les blessés s’abritaient dans le ventre
Des chevaux morts; au seuil des bivouacs désolés
On voyait des clairons à leur poste gelés,
Restés debout, en selle et muets, blancs de givre,
Collant leur bouche en pierre aux trompettes de cuivre.

Snow fell. The wounded huddled up inside
Dead horses' bellies; buglers, white with frost,
Stiff in the saddle, frozen at their post,
Manned windswept bivouacs, erect, alone,
The brass clamped silent to their lips of stone.4

Faced with such scenes of desolation, the Emperor senses that he might be expiating something and calls on God ‘Est-ce le châtiment?’ ‘Is this the punishment?’. A mysterious voice – God’s? Hugo’s? – replies in the shadows ‘No’.

The scene then moves to Waterloo in a justly famous passage that begins with the anguished cry ‘Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! morne plaine!’ The carnage of battle is set before us:

La batterie anglaise écrasa nos carrés.
La plaine où frissonnaient les drapeaux déchirés
Ne fut plus, dans les cris des mourants qu’on égorge,
Qu’un gouffre flamboyant, rouge comme une forge;
Gouffre où les régiments, comme des pans de murs
Tombaient, où se couchaient comme des épis mûrs
Les hauts tambours-majors aux panaches énormes,
Où l’on entrevoyait des blessures difformes!

The guns of England broke the squares of France.
Amid the cries of slaughtered combatants,
The plain where our torn banners shook and spread
Was but a fiery chasm, furnace-red.
Regiments tumbled down like lengths of wall.
Like stalks of corn the great drum-majors fall,
Their plumes, full-length, enormous on the ground;
And every view revealed a hideous wound.

When, in a last throw of the dice, the Imperial Guard is sent forward to be massacred and a general rout ensues, Napoleon asks once again whether this is his punishment. Once again comes the answer ‘No!’

The final section of this part of the poem describes the Emperor’s exile under British guardianship on remote and desolate Saint Helena:

Évanouissement d’une splendeur immense!
Du soleil qui se lève à la nuit qui commence,
Toujours l’isolement, l’abandon, la prison;
Un soldat rouge au seuil, la mer à l’horizon,
Des rochers nus, des bois affreux, l’ennui, l’espace,
Des voiles s’enfuyant comme l’espoir qui passe,
Toujours le bruit des flots, toujours le bruit des vents

Immeasurable splendour, passed away!
From earliest sunrise till the end of day
Ever alone, abandoned, caged in prison;
A redcoat near, beyond, the sea's horizon.
Bare rocks, grim woods, depression, emptiness:
Sails passing, fleeing into hopelessness.
The sound of winds and waves for evermore!

Surely this is my final punishment, Napoleon pleads. But the answer comes ‘Not yet!’

The Emperor dies and there follow three shorter sections, two in alexandrines and a central one in a lighter eight-syllable metre, where Napoleon’s gradual rehabilitation as a hero rather than a tyrant is described. Like Caesar, like King Cyrus of Babylon, he sought to unite the world under a single throne to the point where even Jehovah would be jealous of him. His body is returned to France and he sleeps in a gilded vault ‘confiant et tranquille’.

But Napoleon cannot evade divine – or Hugolian – retribution indefinitely. One night his slumbers in the tomb are disturbed by a familiar voice, dripping with ‘black sarcasm and burning irony’, which promises at last to show him his punishment. This final section of the poem, reverting to its opening metre, presents the horrified Emperor with a vision of a mad circus into which he has been swept:

Regarde. Des brigands, dont l’essaim tourbillonne,
D’affreux bohémiens, des vainqueurs de charnier,
Te tiennent dans leurs mains et t’ont fait prisonnier.
A ton orteil d’airain leur patte infâme touche.
Ils t’ont pris. Tu mourus, comme un astre se couche,
Napoléon le Grand, empereur; tu renais
Bonaparte, écuyer du cirque Beauharnais.

Behold the eddying swarm, how close it draws,
To touch your foot of bronze with impious claws!
Bandits and ruffians of deepest dye,
By massacre they gained the mastery.
They have laid hands on you, their prisoner:
You died Napoleon, a falling star,
The Emperor. Who rises from the tomb?
Circus Beau Harness: Bonaparte, the groom.

The ringmasters are, of course, his nephew Louis-Napoleon and gang, who pass round Bonaparte’s hat for money and use his old flag as a tablecloth. Napoléon le Grand is well and truly under the heel of Napoléon le Petit.

The despairing Emperor finds the strength to ask one final question of the voice: ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am your crime’, it replies and, like Belshazzar at his feast, Napoleon in his grave sees written in light the words DIX-HUIT BRUMAIRE – a reference to the coup d’état in November 1799 that brought Bonaparte to power as First Consul of France and marked the beginning of the end of the First French Republic.


The Imperial Eagle blasted by Les Châtiments by H. Daumier

If Napoleon I gets his republican comeuppance in Hugo’s poem, so too would Napoleon III in real life. On 2 September 1870, following a disastrous campaign against Prussia and its German allies, the Emperor surrendered at the battle of Sedan. Two days later, the return of the Republic was proclaimed, and the Second Empire was over.

In an ironic reversal of fortune, Napoleon III spent his final days in exile in England, living with his wife Eugénie and son in Chislehurst. He died in January 1873 and is buried in the Imperial crypt at Saint Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough. Hugo, meanwhile, having refused an amnesty in 1859, returned to France on 5 September 1870 to a hero’s welcome. Poems from Les Châtiments were recited in theatres during the subsequent siege of Paris to raise money for cannons. And when the poet died in 1885, with the Third Republic now solidly established, his funeral was preceded by a 21-gun salute and over two million people were thought to have crowded the streets of Paris, more than the city’s usual population. Today Hugo rests in the Panthéon – untroubled we hope by the voices that so tormented Napoleon Bonaparte in his great poem!

© David Hunter
April 2020

The brown ink drawing is of Frauenfeld, Switzerland and was produced by Hugo in 1869 during his time on Guernsey. It is now in Hauteville House.

The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation would particularly like to thank Timothy Adès for providing a previously unpublished translation of the lines from Hugo’s poem beginning ‘Regarde’, as well as for giving us permission to use extracts from his award-winning rhymed translation of the first three sections of ‘L’Expiation’.

1 The image of Hauteville House is by Frédéric Almaviva, provided under a Creative Commons licence For further images of the house’s extraordinary interior, visit the official website

2 Graham Robb, Victor Hugo, Picador, 1997

3 Robb deems it ‘the finest of all French historical poems’. Hugo, of course, had a direct connection with the First Empire as his father had been a general in Napoleon I’s army

4 Translations © Timothy Adès. Timothy’s How to be a Grandfather The Complete Edition – and other poems published by Hearing Eye in 2012 contains complete rhymed translations of the first three sections of Hugo’s poem

Posted on:Sunday 3rd May, 2020