“Be like the bird …” (Victor Hugo)

Utagawa Hiroshige, Warbler on a Plum Branch, ca. 1835. Polychrome woodblock print, 14.5 x 5.125″. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Howard Mansfield Collection, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1936. Photo: MetMuseum.org

“The Bird,” by Victor Hugo

Be like the bird, who
Pausing in his flight
On limb too slight
Feels it give way beneath him
Yet sings
Knowing he has wings.

I haven’t been able to discover who did the translation, but it’s brilliant: keeps the order (“wings” at the very end) and has a rhyme scheme that’s different, but still lovely. Here’s the original, with an ABAB rhyme scheme.

Soyez comme l’oiseau, posé pour un instant
Sur des rameaux trop frêles,
Qui sent ployer la branche et qui chante pourtant,
Sachant qu’il a des ailes!

I found the French by searching “oiseau” in my complete works of Victor Hugo on Kindle. It turns out these verses come at the very end of a six-part poem, “Dans l’eglise de ***” (“In the church of ***”), in Hugo’s Les chants du crepuscule (Songs of Dusk), 1836. What you ask, is before these verses?

In part I of the poem, Hugo and a friend enter a 300-year-old church at dusk. Hugo evokes its calm, echoing emptiness by describing in some detail all the people and sounds who are not present (e.g., the organist). His companion seems sad; she’s listening to the villagers outside. Part II consists of the joyful words of the villagers. Their theme is: Life passes quickly, enjoy yourself now. Part III is very short: while all that joyful noise is going on outside, the companion’s  expression is saying: “Pray!” In section IV, Hugo’s companion speaks softly: How can I enjoy myself when only God is real, and I’m so frightened and suffering? I have no friends, no lovers; I’ve been duly religious but still, “everything breaks under my hand, everything trembles under my feet, everything I lean on collapses” (Tout se rompt sous ma main, tout tremble sous mes pieds, Tout coule où je m’appuie“). In part V, Hugo decides to speak to the woman, but quietly, in case she is listening to some other, better voice. Part VI: Why are you, a charming woman, so sad? What does it matter that life ici-bas (down here below) isn’t fair? You have your soul, which perhaps will soon flee to heaven, carrying you away from your sorrows and from the murmurings of these people. Then come the final lines of the poem:

Be like the bird, who
Pausing in his flight
On limb too slight
Feels it give way beneath him
Yet sings
Knowing he has wings.

You might interpret these lines, particularly in the context of the poem, as: “You may be dead soon, so why worry?” But in context, I take them as: “Have confidence in your own power.”

Utagawa Hiroshige, Swallow and Wisteria, mid-1840s. Polychrome woodblock print, 8.8 x 6.6 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1918. Photo: MetMuseum.org

More

  • I’m quoting Hugo in French from the Delphi Complete Works of Victor Hugo. The poem is at Kindle Locations 237035-237389 (or search “oiseau”).
  • I first saw the English translation of this poem in Lisa VanDamme’s “The Joys of Reading: A Proper Reading Program.” in Capitalism Magazine 11/14/2006.
  • I highly recommend Lisa’s Read with Me program: I had enjoyed Hugo’s Ninety-Three before, but it was even better with her insights and the comments of others who participated. Details here.
Posted in Painting, Poetry Tagged permalink

About Dianne L. Durante

I’m an independent scholar and freelance writer /lecturer on art and art history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are *Innovators in Sculpture¸* a survey of 5,000 years of art in two hours, and *Monuments of Manhattan,* a videoguide app by Guides Who Know that’s based on my book *Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide.*

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