Six of the Most Famous Poems by Victor Hugo with their English Translations

A portrait photograph of Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo in 1876 (taken by Étienne Carjat)

Victor Hugo is one of the most famous French authors, and is best-known in the Anglophone world for his novels The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables. However, he was also one of the great Romantic poets (and playwrights). His poetry collections contain some of the finest works of the era, and reflect upon themes such as death, nature, and love, as well as the political issues of his day.

In his writing career, Victor Hugo produced some brilliant epic poems, including La Fin de Satan (1886; “The End of Satan”) and Dieu (1891: “God”). For the purpose of this article though, I’m just going to focus on some of his ‘regular-sized’ poems. I’ve chosen these from six different collections: Les Contemplations, La Légende des Siècles, L’Année Terrible, Les Voix Intérieures, Les Châtiments, and Les Feuilles d’automne.

The English translations that I’ve made for these selected poems are relatively literal. Rather than crudely alter the language to maintain the rhyme and rhythm, I think it’s better to produce English versions that allows you to understand the vocabulary and meanings of the originals, and appreciate their French as much as possible.

If you enjoy these poems, then I’d personally recommend Penguin’s Selected Poems, which is a great guide to Victor Hugo’s finest poetry.


Demain, dès l’aube

Potentially the most famous Victor Hugo poem, Demain dès l’aube was written four years after the death of his recently married daughter Léopoldine, who drowned alongside her husband in a boating accident on the Seine in 1843. This poem was included in the collection Les Contemplations, which was divided into Autrefois (“In the Past”) and Aujourd’hui (“Today”). The moment of his daughter’s passing is the mark between these two sections.

Demain, dès l’aube

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et, quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.

Tomorrow at Dawn

Tomorrow, at dawn, when the countryside brightens,
I will depart. You see, I know that you wait for me.
I will go through the wood, I will go past the mountains.
I cannot remain far from you any longer.

I will walk, eyes set upon my thoughts,
Seeing nothing around me and hearing no sound,
Alone, unknown, back bent, hands crossed,
Sorrowful, and for me, day will be as night.

I will not watch the evening gold fall,
Nor the distant sails going down to Harfleur,
And, when I arrive, I will put on your grave
A bouquet of green holly and heather in bloom.


Après la bataille

Après la bataille appeared in the first series of Victor Hugo’s poem collection, La Légende des Siècles (1859). It was written in honour of his father, Joseph Leopold Sigisbert Hugo (1773 – 1828), who served as an army general under Napoleon Bonaparte. The poem is set during the Peninsular War (1808 – 1814), which was one of the conflicts of the Napoleonic Wars (1800 – 1815). During this war, the French fought against Spanish, Portuguese, and British troops.

Après la bataille

Mon père, ce héros au sourire si doux,
Suivi d’un seul housard qu’il aimait entre tous
Pour sa grande bravoure et pour sa haute taille,
Parcourait à cheval, le soir d’une bataille,
Le champ couvert de morts sur qui tombait la nuit.
Il lui sembla dans l’ombre entendre un faible bruit.
C’était un Espagnol de l’armée en déroute
Qui se traînait sanglant sur le bord de la route,
Râlant, brisé, livide, et mort plus qu’à moitié.
Et qui disait:  » A boire! à boire par pitié !  »
Mon père, ému, tendit à son housard fidèle
Une gourde de rhum qui pendait à sa selle,
Et dit: « Tiens, donne à boire à ce pauvre blessé.  »
Tout à coup, au moment où le housard baissé
Se penchait vers lui, l’homme, une espèce de maure,
Saisit un pistolet qu’il étreignait encore,
Et vise au front mon père en criant: « Caramba!  »
Le coup passa si près que le chapeau tomba
Et que le cheval fit un écart en arrière.
« Donne-lui tout de même à boire », dit mon père.

After the Battle

My father, this hero with such a soft smile,
Followed by a single hussar whom he loved above all others
For his great bravery and for his tall stature
Was travelling on horseback, on the evening of a battle,
The field covered with the dead upon whom the night was falling.
He thought he heard a faint noise in the shadows.
It was a Spaniard of the routed army
Bleeding, dragging himself along the side of the road
Gasping, broken, pale, more dead than alive,
And who said to him “A drink! A drink for pity’s sake!”
My father, moved, handed to his faithful hussar,
A flask of rum which hung from his saddle,
And said: “Here, give this poor wounded man a drink”.
All of a sudden, when the soldier was bending down
And leaning towards him, the man, some kind of Moor,
Grabbed a pistol that he was still clutching in his hand,
And aimed at my father’s forehead, crying “Caramba!”
The bullet flew so closely by that his hat fell off
And his horse stumbled backwards.
“All the same, give him a drink”, said my father.


Sur une barricade

This poem appears in the collection L’Année Terrible (1872), in which Victor Hugo recounted both personal and national tragedies. He wrote about the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the subsequent Paris Commune (1871), and the death of his son Charles. Sur une barricade focuses on the Commune, a radical insurrection against the government that resulted in much bloodshed. Hugo was dismayed at the wrongdoings of both the Communards and the government, writing in a diary entry, “this Commune is as idiotic as the National Assembly is ferocious. From both sides, folly.” In this poem, he tells the story of a young boy who is embroiled in the violence.

Sur une barricade

Sur une barricade, au milieu des pavés
Souillés d’un sang coupable et d’un sang pur lavés,
Un enfant de douze ans est pris avec des hommes.
– Es-tu de ceux-là, toi ? – L’enfant dit : Nous en sommes.
– C’est bon, dit l’officier, on va te fusiller.
Attends ton tour. – L’enfant voit des éclairs briller,
Et tous ses compagnons tomber sous la muraille.
Il dit à l’officier : Permettez-vous que j’aille
Rapporter cette montre à ma mère chez nous ?
– Tu veux t’enfuir ? – Je vais revenir. – Ces voyous
Ont peur ! où loges-tu ? – Là, près de la fontaine.
Et je vais revenir, monsieur le capitaine.
– Va-t’en, drôle ! – L’enfant s’en va. – Piège grossier !
Et les soldats riaient avec leur officier,
Et les mourants mêlaient à ce rire leur râle ;
Mais le rire cessa, car soudain l’enfant pâle,
Brusquement reparu, fier comme Viala,
Vint s’adosser au mur et leur dit : Me voilà.

La mort stupide eut honte et l’officier fit grâce.
[…]

On a Barricade

On a barricade, amidst the cobbles
Dirtied with guilty blood and cleaned with pure blood,
A boy of twelve was taken alongside the men,
“Do you belong to them?” The child said, “I do.”
“That’s good”, said the officer, “we are going to shoot you.
Wait your turn.” The child saw bright flashes,
And all his partners die against the wall.
He said to the officer, “May I go
Return this watch to my mother at home?”
“You want to escape.” “I am going to return.” “These ruffians
Are afraid! Where do you live?” “There, by the fountain
And I am going to come back, Mr Captain.”
“Beat it, scoundrel!” The child leaves. Clumsy trick!
And the soldiers laugh with their officer,
And to this laughter the dying add their moans;
But the laughter stops, because suddenly the pale child,
Without warning reappeared, proud like Viala,
Came to stand against the wall and said to them: here I am.

Stupid death was ashamed, and the officer pardoned the boy.
[…]


La tombe dit à la rose

La tombe dit à la rose appears in Victor Hugo’s 1837 collection of poems, Les Voix Intérieures (“Inner Voices”). It’s a relatively typical Romantic poem, imagining a conversation between an anthropomorphised grave and rose. In its simplicity the poem conveys a unique poignancy, and with its imagery of a grave, the dawn, and the glistening dew, it’s comparable to Demain, des l’aube.

La tombe dit à la rose

La tombe dit à la rose :
– Des pleurs dont l’aube t’arrose
Que fais-tu, fleur des amours ?
La rose dit à la tombe :
– Que fais-tu de ce qui tombe
Dans ton gouffre ouvert toujours ?

La rose dit : – Tombeau sombre,
De ces pleurs je fais dans l’ombre
Un parfum d’ambre et de miel.
La tombe dit : – Fleur plaintive,
De chaque âme qui m’arrive
Je fais un ange du ciel !

The Grave Said to the Rose

The grave said to the rose:
“With the tears that dawn sprinkles upon you
What do you make, flower of love?”
The rose said to the tomb:
“What do you make of those who fall
In your ever-open abyss?”

The rose said, “sombre tomb,
From these tears I make in the shade
A fragrance of amber and of honey.”
The tomb said, “wistful flower,
From each soul that arrives to me
I make an angel in heaven.”


L’homme a ri

L’homme a ri appears in Victor Hugo’s 1853 poem collection, Les Châtiments (“The Punishments”). He wrote this collection at the beginning of his 20-year long exile, having left France following Napoleon III’s coup d’état of 1851. Hugo initially re-located to Brussels, before moving to the British Isles a year later. He settled first in Jersey, where he completed Les Châtiments, which he had begun in Belgium. He was later expelled from Jersey, and moved to the neighbouring channel island of Guernsey, which is now famously associated with the author. Les Châtiments attacks Napoleon III, who was denounced by Hugo as “Napoleon le Petit”.

L’homme a ri

Ah ! tu finiras bien par hurler, misérable !
Encor tout haletant de ton crime exécrable,
Dans ton triomphe abject, si lugubre et si prompt,
Je t’ai saisi. J’ai mis l’écriteau sur ton front ;
Et maintenant la foule accourt, et te bafoue.
Toi, tandis qu’au poteau le châtiment te cloue,
Que le carcan te force à lever le menton,
Tandis que, de ta veste arrachant le bouton,
L’histoire à mes côtés met à nu ton épaule,
Tu dis : je ne sens rien ! et tu nous railles, drôle !
Ton rire sur mon nom gaîment vient écumer ;
Mais je tiens le fer rouge et vois ta chair fumer.

The Man who Laughed

Ah! In the end you will howl, wretch!
Still panting from your heinous crime,
In your despicable triumph, so dismal and so brief,
I grab you. I place a sign on your forehead;
And now the crowd comes running, and ridicules you.
Whilst you are nailed to a post in vengeance,
Whilst your chin is pushed up by an iron-collar,
Whilst the button flies off your jacket,
History, stood at my side, strips your shoulder naked,
You say: “I feel nothing!” and you mock us, how funny!
You drool as you laugh gaily upon my name;
But I hold the red-hot branding iron and see your flesh smoke.


Les Soleils Couchants

Soleils Couchants is from Victor Hugo’s 1831 collection, Les Feuilles d’automne (“Autumn Leaves”). The poem has as its central theme the passage of time, and the different effects that it has on nature and mankind. Hugo reflects upon this, putting it into the context of his own mortality.

Soleils Couchants

Le soleil s’est couché ce soir dans les nuées.
Demain viendra l’orage, et le soir, et la nuit ;
Puis l’aube, et ses clartés de vapeurs obstruées ;
Puis les nuits, puis les jours, pas du temps qui s’enfuit !

Tous ces jours passeront; ils passeront en foule
Sur la face des mers, sur la face des monts,
Sur les fleuves d’argent, sur les forêts où roule
Comme un hymne confus des morts que nous aimons.

Et la face des eaux, et le front des montagnes,
Ridés et non vieillis, et les bois toujours verts
S’iront rajeunissant ; le fleuve des campagnes
Prendra sans cesse aux monts le flot qu’il donne aux mers.

Mais moi, sous chaque jour courbant plus bas ma tête,
Je passe, et, refroidi sous ce soleil joyeux,
Je m’en irai bientôt, au milieu de la fête,
Sans que rien manque au monde, immense et radieux !

Setting Suns

The sun set this evening in the clouds.
Tomorrow, the storm shall come, and the evening, and the night;
Then the dawn will clear the dark mists;
Then the nights, then the days, the footprints of vanishing time!

All these days will pass; they will pass in crowds
Over the face of the seas, over the face of the mountains,
Over rivers of silver, over the rolling forests
Like a distant hymn for our beloved dead.

And the face of the waters, and the brow of the mountains,
Wrinkled but not aged, and the woods evergreen
Will return to them their youth: the river of the country
Forever takes the tide from the hills to the seas.

But I, lowering my head more with each day,
I go, and, cooled under the merry sun,
I will depart soon, amid the celebrations,
Unmissed by the vast and blinding world.