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Victor Marie Hugo, Vicomte

Hugo, Victor Marie, Vicomte (hyōˈgō, Fr. vēktôrˈ märēˈ vēkôNtˈ ügōˈ) [key], 1802–85, French poet, dramatist, and novelist, b. Besançon. His father was a general under Napoleon. As a child he was taken to Italy and Spain and at a very early age had published his first book of poems, resolving "to be Chateaubriand or nothing." The preface to his drama Cromwell (1827) placed him at the head of the romanticists; he remained the greatest exponent of the school and was considered by many the greatest poet of his day. His principal poetic works are Les Orientales (1829), Les Feuilles d'automne (1831), Les Chants du crépuscule (1835), Les Voix intérieures (1837), Les Rayons et les ombres (1840), Les Châtiments (1853), Les Contemplations (1856), and La Légende des siècles (1859). The production of his poetic drama Hernani (tr. 1830), which broke with conventions of the French theater, caused a riot between the classicists and the romanticists. The drama was the basis of Verdi's opera Ernani; Verdi also made use of Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse (1832) for Rigoletto. Other plays include Marion Delorme (1831, tr. 1872), Ruy Blas (1838, tr. 1850), and Les Burgraves (1843), the failure of which spelled the end of the romantic drama. The tragic deaths in that year of Hugo's daughter and her husband were reflected in a moving series of poems of childhood, including The Art of Being a Grandfather (1877). Hugo's two greatest novels are Notre Dame de Paris (1831, tr. 1833) and Les Misérables (1862, tr. 1862), which are epic in scope and portray the sufferings of humanity with great compassion and power. His other important novels include Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866, tr. Toilers of the Sea, 1866), and Quatre-vingt-treize (1874, tr. Ninety-three, 1874). He began his political career as a supporter of the duke of Reichstadt, Napoleon's son; later Hugo espoused the cause of Louis Philippe's son, and then for a short time of Louis Bonaparte. Because he afterward opposed Napoleon III, Hugo was banished and went first to Brussels, then to the isle of Jersey, and later (1855) to Guernsey, where he lived until 1870, refusing an amnesty. In 1870 he returned to Paris in triumph. He was elected to the national assembly and the senate. His last years were marked by public veneration and acclaim, and he was buried in the Panthéon. Critics are divided as to his relative greatness, but he was a towering figure in 19th-century French literature.

See biographies by A. Maurois (tr. 1956), H. Peyre (1980), and G. Robb (1997); studies by R. B. Grant (1968), E. M. Grant (1945, repr. 1966 and 1968), J. P. Houston (1974), W. M. Greenberg (1985), and V. Brombert (1986).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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