A Masterwork of French Literature

The “only modern epic possible” according to Charles Baudelaire, “The Legend of the Centuries” (“La Légende des siècles”) is a masterpiece of French literature. Written by none other than Victor Hugo, this epic poem aims to depict the history of mankind from its origins until the 19th century, an epic task in itself.

An Epic Masterwork

Written between 1885 and 1876, this collection of narrative poems was published in three series: The “Little Epics” (1859) opens this work, followed by the second series (1877), and closed by the final one (1883).

The beginning line of the second series begins, “The vision from which this book came out,” where Hugo announces his approach to poetic exploration and his goal to retrace the history of man from its origins to Hugo’s time: “I had a dream: the walls of centuries appeared to me”—an imagined wall where scenes of humanity’s past, present, and future are drawn. This imagined wall represents the history of mankind. The writer becomes a poet-prophet, where he sees and knows all.

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo, circa 1870, by Nadar. (Public Domain)

This reads very much like the start of an epic journey, and Hugo chooses the epic poem, or long narrative form, to embark on this monumental task. He uses the style of idealized heroes and extraordinary adventures, the style of oral and written compositions in the styles of the great epic poems, like “Gilgamesh,” the “Odyssey,” the “Iliad,” the “Aeneid,” “Beowulf,” and “Paradise Lost.”

It is not a coincidence that Hugo uses a form dating back from the earliest human civilizations and combines it with the French Romantic style. In these poems, Hugo uses lyrical contrasts (the ugly and the beautiful, the grotesque and the sublime) in the model of Shakespearean theater, and combines them with epic themes (myths, heroic legends, religious tales, and philosophical and moral theories), modernizing the ancient model.

Hugo uses the oldest literary style known to man and the most recent style known to him then, illustrating the history of mankind in the first and last styles known until then, forming a great human adventure.

An Epic Journey

Throughout the 61 chapters that form the complete edition of  “The Legend of the Centuries,” the poet contemplates the wall of the centuries, with scenes from the past, present, and future of mankind. Some are terrible, some are sublime. Hugo shows what it means to be human, rather than giving an analytic summary of the history of man.

The journey begins with the first series, “From Eve to Jesus,” inspired by the Bible, from the original sin until the future redemption; “Out of Time,” with some Biblical stories such as the story of Cain and Abel in “The Conscience.” The second series follows Greco-Roman history and mythology. Finally, the last series is composed of psychological rather than narrative poems, where the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are illustrated.

The poem “Present Times” focuses on French historical events rather than world events, such as episodes from the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, making the collection of poems a French epic. Finally, one of the final chapters ends with the promise of a bright future in “20th century.”

It is a journey from darkness to light, where the poet’s hybrid style (epic, lyrical, and satirical) adapts to the different ages of mankind, where the legendary meets reality. Hugo often uses obscure or invented figures to symbolize their age and century to show that there can only be hope in the future.

Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo made many drawings for his epic poem, “Legends of the Centuries,” 1850. (Public Domain)

This “great mysterious thread of the human labyrinth” (preface) allows man to rise from darkness to light, move from evil to good, and progress towards moral awareness.  For the poet, the fight between good and evil over the centuries is necessary for the progress of mankind.

A monument of French literature by its epic task, impressive structure, and Hugo’s lyrical talent, “The Legend of the Centuries” is often considered the only French epic since “The Song of Roland” (“La Chanson de Roland”). It is a unique masterpiece in literary history that represents more than the history of mankind.

It represents humanity in its contrasting emotions, inspired by typically Romantic themes such as suffering, love, passion, nostalgia, and death. Victor Hugo often gives his characters a darker vision to represent their century, with recurring themes of human fragility. However, light ultimately prevails in this fight between good and evil.

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