Week 544: L’enfance, by Victor Hugo

This poem by Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was inspired by witnessing the death of Mme Ginestat, a neighbour of Hugo’s on Jersey, who died of tuberculosis in 1855. In his collection ‘Les Contemplations’ Hugo antedated the composition of the poem to well before the event that had inspired it because he wanted it to seem as if it foreshadowed the death of his own child Léopoldine: I don’t really approve of such manipulation but I guess it’s a very small deceit on the scale of what some poets get up to!

The translation that follows is my own.


L’enfant chantait; la mère au lit, exténuée,
Agonisait, beau front dans l’ombre se penchant;
La mort au-dessus d’elle errait dans la nuée;
Et j’écoutais ce râle, et j’entendais ce chant.

L’enfant avait cinq ans, et près de la fenêtre
Ses rires et ses jeux faisaient un charmant bruit;
Et la mère, à côté de ce pauvre doux être
Qui chantait tout le jour, toussait toute la nuit.

La mère alla dormir sous les dalles du cloître;
Et le petit enfant se remit à chanter…
La douleur est un fruit; Dieu ne le fait pas croître
Sur la branche trop faible encor pour le porter.

Victor Hugo


The child sang; and the mother on the bed,
Her fair face turned to shadow, suffered long.
Death hovered in the cloud above her head.
I heard her rattling breath, heard the child’s song.

The child was five years old; there by the window
Its play and laughter made a charming sight;
The mother, next to that poor gentle creature
Who sang all day, was coughing all the night.

In cloister laid, she slept at last below
Stone slabs; the singing did not long abate…
Grief is a fruit; God does not let it grow
Upon a branch too frail yet for such weight.

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