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This review is taken from PN Review 28, Volume 9 Number 2, November - December 1982.

SUCCESSFUL LINES Victor Hugo, The Distance, The Shadows, tr. Harry Guest (Anvil) £6.95

Victor Hugo seems to have been strangely neglected in this century. According to its blurb, The Distance, The Shadows is 'the first comprehensive selection of Hugo's verse to appear in English translation for more than eighty years'. We know much more about Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Mallarmé, and yet it is arguable that Hugo was a greater poet than any of these. Perhaps his greatness is part of the problem. Hugo the unrepentant High Romantic and champion of the oppressed, who became a kind of national monument in his own time, is too much to take. His vigour and prolixity are uncongenial to analysts of Symbolist aesthetics, but without the backdrop of his long, turbulent and immensely diverse career, can we come to full understanding of Baudelaire and his successors? Despite misgivings concerning his allegiance to 'Jehovas et de colonnes, vieilles énormités crevées', Rimbaud numbered him among the exclusive company of true voyants, and there's at least one poem in this selection ('écrit sur la plinthe d'un bas-relief antique', written in 1833) which seems to anticipate many of the central tenets of Symbolism. So new translations by a gifted and undervalued poet such as Guest can only be welcomed.

Guest's translations are of absorbing interest, but, at first, I found some of his decisions puzzling. For example, his translation of 'Orphée' gives one no clue to the strict form of the original -eight alexandrines. Guest's version takes thirty lines of anything from four to eleven syllables. Much ...


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