commentary on Nox, strophe 1

by Geoffrey Barto of

To fully appreciate this strophe or verse, one must understand that Les Châtiments is not simply a collection of poems; it is a unified work divided into books and poems, just as a large novel is sometimes divided into books and chapters. The poem, Nox (Latin for night), is for all intents and purposes a prologue, standing before the numbered books to announce the subject: darkness. (There is also an epilogue, Lux, which follows the numbered books.) Nox refers both to the night which now envelops France, the light of Liberty having been stifled, and to the specific night when under cover of darkness a President made of himself an Emperor.

The verse presented is mockingly addressed to Napoleon III, as though given on the eve of December 2, 1851. This was Napoleon III's chosen date : as the anniversary of his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte's triumph at Austerlitz, it seemed a perfect moment to evoke the glory of the old Empire in order to pave the way for a Second Empire. At the same time, the decision furnishes an outraged Victor Hugo with a confirmation of the hypocrisy of the act. The appellations given Napoleon - assasin, robber-baron, bandit - underline that in this "prince," Hugo sees a pretender to the throne.

Napoleon III would be resoundingly confirmed as Emperor in around a year, but his actions on the eve of December 2, 1851 are more indicative of a Richelieu than of a popular figure for whose leadership the public was crying out. That night, opposition leaders were rounded up and jailed. Later, Napoleon's minions made a second round so that when Paris awoke the next morning there were placards everywhere proclaiming the Second Empire. The Second Empire, as grand as the name sounds, did not come bursting into existence; it crept into the political landscape of Paris on little cat feet.

While Les Contemplations are often seen as the most personal of Hugo's verse, the tone of Les Châtiments shows that Napoleon III had hit a very sensitive nerve where Hugo was concerned. Hugo's rage was not solely rooted in political convictions. Toward the end of the strophe, Hugo evokes a Paris sleeping soundly in the knowledge that Louis-Napoleon would never aspire to more than the Presidency. Paris, however, was accepting enough of the idea of a Second Empire to join with the rest of France in voting for it. Hugo's friends, many of them jailed that evening, were the ones tossing and turning. Indeed, they had been tossing and turning since years before when Hugo convinced them that it was right and just to release Louis-Napoleon from jail for stirring unrest. They were concerned enough to make the future Emperor take a special oath not to challenge the Republic before he was officially installed as President. And they were upset, not surprised, when he broke that oath.

That Hugo would become the symbol of the exiled Republican in the era of Napoleon III carries a certain irony. In his journal, Choses vues, Hugo had been celebrating the ideal of a Republic since the 1830s, but always with the hedge that the people weren't yet ready. At the same time, he had been daydreaming about another Napoleon to unify the mighty France under a single will. One would like to dismiss these thoughts as the musings of a young man, but only three years prior Hugo had taken to the public square to declare that a regency, not an outright republic, was the best replacement for an ousted Louis-Philippe. And one could plausibly argue that in offering assurances about the charismatic Louis-Napoleon, Hugo was at some level seeking to allow a quasi-restoration of the Empire, only within the framework of a republic (and why not? he'd been lobbying for a republic within the framework of a monarchy for years before). The torrent of anger here unleashed certainly owes in some measure to political principle, but it also reveals the degree to which Hugo was wounded by the failure of Louis-Napoleon and France alike to conform to his scenarios for the republicanization of a France on the march to greatness.

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