Week 126: Elle avait pris ce pli, by Victor Hugo

The French poet Victor Hugo (1802-1885) lost his beloved elder daughter Lėopoldine when she was only nineteen: she drowned along with her husband in a boating accident on the Seine. Hugo wrote many moving poems in her memory; this is one of them. The translation that follows is my own.

‘Elle avait pris ce pli…’

Elle avait pris ce pli dans son âge enfantin
De venir dans ma chambre un peu chaque matin;
Je l’attendais ainsi qu’un rayon qu’on espère;
Elle entrait, et disait: Bonjour, mon petit père;
Prenait ma plume, ouvrait mes livres, s’asseyait
Sur mon lit, dérangeait mes papiers, et riait,
Puis soudain s’en allait comme un oiseau qui passe.
Alors, je reprenais, la tête un peu moins lasse,
Mon oeuvre interrompue, et, tout en écrivant,
Parmi mes manuscrits je rencontrais souvent
Quelque arabesque folle et qu’elle avait tracée,
Et mainte page blanche entre ses mains froissée
Où, je ne sais comment, venaient mes plus doux vers.
Elle aimait Dieu, les fleurs, les astres, les prés verts,
Et c’était un esprit avant d’être une femme.
Son regard reflétait la clarté de son âme.
Elle me consultait sur tout à tous moments.
Oh! que de soirs d’hiver radieux et charmants
Passés à raisonner langue, histoire et grammaire,
Mes quatre enfants groupés sur mes genoux, leur mère
Tout près, quelques amis causant au coin du feu!
J’appelais cette vie être content de peu!
Et dire qu’elle est morte! Hélas! que Dieu m’assiste!
Je n’étais jamais gai quand je la sentais triste;
J’étais morne au milieu du bal le plus joyeux
Si j’avais, en partant, vu quelque ombre en ses yeux.

Victor Hugo

From her earliest years, this was her thing
To come into my room a while each morning.
I’d wait, as for a sunbeam to appear.
She’d march in, say ‘Good morning, little father’,
Sit down on my bed, take up my pen,
Open my books, muddle my papers, laughing,
Then like a bird of passage she’d be gone
And I, with clearer head, begin again
My interrupted work, often to find
Some zany arabesque she’d left behind
Among my manuscripts, a sketch she’d traced,
And then, blank pages that her hands had creased.
Somehow, my best lines fell between those folds.
She loved God, flowers, starry skies, green fields.
Before she was a woman, she was spirit
And from her clear eyes her bright soul shone out.
She quizzed me constantly, upon all things.
Ah, but the warm glow of those winter evenings
When we’d talk language, grammar, history,
Their mother near, four children at my knee,
A few friends by the hearth and much to say –
That was a life to which content came easy.
And now to think that she is dead! God help me,
For I, when she was sad, was never happy.
I took no joy in joyous balls and parties
If parting I’d seen shadow in her eyes.

3 thoughts on “Week 126: Elle avait pris ce pli, by Victor Hugo

    • Ah, I didn’t take it as that, I thought it was just the child being mischievous in that teasing way small children have. I remember my own eldest when he was about two liked to run off with my pencil when I was scribbling away. I don’t remember it doing my creativity much good, but as long as he had fun…

      • Hi David, I thought that Hugo might have had in mind that the dead Lėopoldine was guiding his pen – as indeed she was, in the sense that the memory of her inspired him?

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