By Geoffrey Barto
This commentary is restricted to the first part of the poem, which I offer in translation here. After a brief general commentary, the article will focus on issues in the poem that arose in doing the translation. This is at once a departure from standard American commentary and something less than the French explication de texte. Still, I hope it will be of some use.
“Magnitudo parvi” roughly translates as “The magnitude of the small,” an appropriate title for a poem in which the human soul is expressed on an at times cosmic scale. The poem is the longest in Hugo’s Les Contemplations, a poetry collection centered on the poet’s reflections upon the drowning of his daughter, Léopoldine, and her husband.
In this first section, we find Hugo and his daughter standing together on the riverbank as night falls. Now it is known that Hugo is somehow too transparent, too obvious, too… something… for the taste of obscurantist academics that pride themselves on being in on secrets denied mere mortals. This is among his finest virtues. When one finds Hugo and his daughter placed at the water’s edge in a poem, one doesn’t need a doctorate in literature and training under Derrida – well, Hugo doesn’t exist for Derrida, so some other big shot might be better – to guess at what’s on his mind. To know that the daughter drowned at an early age is enough to know that big things – spiritual things – happen at the water’s edge. For Hugo, king of the Romantics, did not write poetry to hide or conceal. He used language for its proper purpose: Expression.
In the poem, Hugo is to tell his daughter about the two worlds, the cosmic world of stars, of the heavens – yes, those heavens – and that of earth. In this first section, our attention is merely drawn to what the subject is to be. In this poem, Hugo seemingly speaks to the still-living Léopoldine – it takes place in the past – but the memory is colored by the knowledge of what will come. The earth is therefore like a sinking ship, darkness swallowing it up, the night and darkness rising – as though darkness were a force all its own, and not merely the absence of the energy of light. So it is that with the coming of night, things are erased, lose their color and form, in some Humean world where what we see is indeed all there is. This is a world drained of life, a world where even the sun goes away – permanently.
Hugo, a Christian with leanings toward the mystical, knows, of course, that all does not slip away, and the presentation of the two worlds will show the uniting of the human and the divine before the poem is done. But in our fragment, we see only the lead-up, the revelation that there are indeed two worlds, and that they are closer to one another than one might think; so close in fact that their respective lights can appear as twins, as though emanating from one source. For the magnitude of the heavens is in its way matched by magnitudo parvi.
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The remainder of this article focuses on the poem as form and text, i.e. the action of the individual stanzas and the issues involved in problems of translation now come to the fore. First of all, the shape of the stanzas must be noted. The rhyme scheme goes AA-B-CC-B, with Alexandrines (12 syllable lines) for A and C and six-syllable lines for B. The practical poetic effect is that stanzas break into two larger units (AA-B and CC-B) with the B lines both wrapping up rhyming couplets and forming a larger rhyming couplet that reaffirms the unity of the stanza. For Hugo (and most accomplished poets) form is part of the meaning; ideas go where they go and in a certain relationship. Rhymes resolve when thoughts resolve and thoughts either go together (in couplets) or inter-relate (when interlaced). In this case, unity of thought is only achieved when the two larger rhyming couplets (AA-B and CC-B) are complete. This means the translation had to follow the pattern. Lacking the necessary time – and skill – I have not completely hewed to the form; lines A and C are longer and divided into hemistiches (halves, rhythmically) while B lines are shorter and less liable to split rhythmically. But the lines do not follow a standardized syllabification.
What follows is mostly a form of apologia, justifications for straying from the text to make the translation (with any luck) stand on its own. For the most part, places where the translation sticks to the text are not mentioned.
In the first stanza, Hugo and his daughter watch the day dying on the riverbank – though “strand” rhymes better – with the earth plunging into darkness – though the translation might give the impression the darkness comes to the earth and not vice-versa. Finally, the night rises (rather than falling).
In the second stanza, it’s specifically the pale night’s brow that rises into the clouds, while the world disappears and sadness descends even as sorrow or suffering is on the rise.
The third stanza again sees darkness and night as entities, this time poured out from an urn over the landscape; note that those who are watchful can see the process unfold; it is mysterious but not hidden.
The next stanza sees both the darkness unfolding and something more, something glorious coming about under God’s eyes. Are these eyes watchful? Or unaware? It isn’t said, but the answer should be clear.
In the fifth stanza, I fudged the translation, hopefully accurately. The first B line reads, “Rêveur, Jehovah,” and would best be translated, “A dreamer, Jehovah…” before sharing Hugo’s vision of loss, a shadow within. Neither “dreamer” nor “Jehovah” lend themselves to rhyming; I chose to represent the action, rather than nature, of Hugo’s mind in order to make the rhyme and clarify a line that may confuse.
In the sixth and seventh stanzas, we conclude part I with the daughter finally speaking, specifically noting two points of light around the dune (reduced to sand for rhyming in stanza six but with the hillside hopefully making it clear that we are not dealing with a broad sandy beach). And then comes the big conclusion to part I, the revelation that there are two worlds, the point on which part II starts.