Titre : À Albert Dürer par Victor Hugo

In this post, I am translating Victor Hugo’s poem A Albert Dürer,  a salute to this revered German painter and engraver (1471-1528).  While I have been greatly inspired by Hugo’s prose , his 1100 page tome Les Miserables  in particular,  I have not spent much time reading his poetry.  However, I was drawn to the title artist, Durer, as well as the subject of Hugo’s poem, the Fontainbleau forest, as my family recently traveled here in northern France through this “old forest where the sap flows in torrents…with the quivering grass and rocking winds…branches of confused thoughts ” (lines 1, 30, ).  Of course, having not yet read Hugo’s lyrical representation of Fontainbleau, my thoughts were “just imagine all of the French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon who hunted here”.  Just one thing that separates his genius mind from mine!

Albret Durer woods
Foret de Fontainbleau by Dürer

I love Hugo’s tribute to his favorite artist,Dürer , in which he evokes the mysteries of the Fontainbleau forest portrayed by Dürer in many of his works of art.  He relates his Master’s study of nature to the inner voice of the poet which “supports all the voices of the world” ; the forest and the poet unite in its syncretism of the pagan world (fauna, Sylvain, Pan, Dryad) and the Christian world (God).


Albert Durer Self Portrait
Albert Dürer, Self Portrait, Musee du Louvre

In  Dürer , Hugo uses many metaphors from two different kingdoms, animal and human, to denote the secret life of nature where  “the forests for you (Dürer) is an ancient Dryad… it is a hideous world…where Dreams and reality fuse together” (lines 12-14).  The poet  and “dreamer” is also “awakened”  and given strength in the forest at “the bottom of the dark cave fixed with a bright eye”(line 26).

Hugo uses a mixture of iambic anapest tetrameters in the beginning narrative with trochaic dactyls in the rise in mood. He also uses rhyming couplets for the meter. In my translation, I chose to focus on the meaning and context through free verse as I am a novice of scansion. (I hope to attempt this soon!)

While translating Hugo’s vocabulary from French to English, I tried to stay very close to his original physiognomy of meaning, form, content, semantic and physical features of the poem.  In many of the French vocabulary definitions, there were multiple entries, therefore, I had to determine and chose the best semantic feature of Hugo’s meaning.

For example , in Line 31, the verb tressailler means: to startle, to thrill, to quiver.  I chose quiver to describe the motion of the grass as the poet looked on in “horror”.  Hence, when I came to the  next adjective in that line,  bercée: to rock;  to cradle; to soothe, I had to chose a parallel term, so I chose rocking  to describe the motion of the wind;  even though I prefer the idea of the wind as soothing, I don’t believe it is consistent with Hugo’s original meaning.

In addition, in Line 35, Hugo is wanting to “quiet a secret desire” and uses the noun flamme : a flame; a fire; a passion or love;  a pennant.  I chose “a passion” as I believe he is referring to either a romantic relationship or perhaps the verve of confused thoughts within the poet and this definition could serve both purposes.

Of course, these decisions were made all the way through the poem in every verse, which is a great challenge to me as the translator as well as a great victory, once all the pieces of the puzzle are put into place. ( I always welcome any suggestions from my readers of revisions that would lend to a more exact translation from your point of view!)

As in all works of poetry and prose, the meaning is purely subjective unless you are fortunate to have the author’s notes and purposes.  Hugo wrote this as a tribute to an artist which he admired greatly. This is absolute! For me, this poem is a beautiful description of life’s journeys through trials (forests of knotted, brambled branches) and the refuge of God’s “quiet” spirit that we can rest in. This theme also carries through Hugo’s Les Miserables. What a wonderful experience to climb into the mind of Victor Hugo!

My English Translation :

To Albret Durer

In the old forests where the sap flows in torrents

Short from the black alder with white-trunked birches,

Many times, is it not?  Across the clearing,

Pale, frightened, daring not to look back,

You’ve hurried, trembling and not from a convulsion,           5

O my master Albert Dure, oh old pensive painter!

One portends, before your revered paintings,

Which in the black thicket your visionary eye

Saw distinctly, by covered shade,

The fauna in webbed palms, the sylvan in green eyes,           10

Pan, who dons of floral caves where you retreat,

And the ancient Dryad in hands full of leaves

A forest for you, it is a hideous world.

Dream and reality fuse together.

There dreamers lean over the old pines, the large elms           15

Whose branches are twisted into hundreds of bent forms,

And in this somber group shaken by the wind,

Nothing is entirely dead nor entirely living.

The watercress drinks;  the short water ;  the angling ash trees,

The chaotic undergrowth and the climbing bramble bush,      20

Slowly constrict their gnarled, black feet.

The long, flexible flowers have the lakes for mirrors;

And to you who pass through and have awakened,

Many a foreigner in the splintered gorge dreams,

Of a tree between his fingers clenching the large knots,         25

From the bottom of the dark cave fixed with a bright eye.

O vegetation ! spirit !  matter !  strength !

In the woods, just as to you, I have never wandered,

Master, but my heart would be penetrated with horror,

Without seeing the quivering grass, and, the rocking wind,  30

Assume all the branches of confused thoughts.

God alone, this great testimony of mysterious deeds,

God alone knows it, often, in the savage places,

I felt myself quiet a secret passion,                                          35

Like me, to palpitate and to live with a soul,

And laugh, and talk in the shade in a low voice

The monstrous oak trees that fill the woods.

French Translation

Titre : À Albert Dürer

Dans les vieilles forêts où la sève à grands flots
Court du fût noir de l’aulne au tronc blanc des bouleaux,
Bien des fois, n’est-ce pas ? à travers la clairière,
Pâle, effaré, n’osant regarder en arrière,
Tu t’es hâté, tremblant et d’un pas convulsif,                          5
Ô mon maître Albert Dure, ô vieux peintre pensif !

On devine, devant tes tableaux qu’on vénère,
Que dans les noirs taillis ton œil visionnaire
Voyait distinctement, par l’ombre recouverts,
Le faune aux doigts palmés, le sylvain aux yeux verts,                        10
Pan, qui revêt de fleurs l’antre où tu te recueilles,
Et l’antique dryade aux mains pleines de feuilles.

Une forêt pour toi, c’est un monde hideux.
Le songe et le réel s’y mêlent tous les deux.
Là se penchent rêveurs les vieux pins, les grands ormes       15
Dont les rameaux tordus font cent coudes difformes,
Et dans ce groupe sombre agité par le vent,
Rien n’est tout à fait mort ni tout à fait vivant.
Le cresson boit ; l’eau court ; les frênes sur les pentes,
Sous la broussaille horrible et les ronces grimpantes,             20
Contractent lentement leurs pieds noueux et noirs.
Les fleurs au cou de cygne ont les lacs pour miroirs ;
Et sur vous qui passez et l’avez réveillée,
Mainte chimère étrange à la gorge écaillée,
D’un arbre entre ses doigts serrant les larges nœuds,                        25
Du fond d’un antre obscur fixe un œil lumineux.
Ô végétation ! esprit ! matière ! force !
Couverte de peau rude ou de vivante écorce !

Aux bois, ainsi que toi, je n’i jamais erré,
Maître, sans qu’en mon cœur l’horreur ait pénétré,                 30
Sans voir tressaillir l’herbe, et, par le vent bercées,
Pendre à tous les rameaux de confuses pensées.
Dieu seul, ce grand témoin des faits mystérieux,
Dieu seul le sait, souvent, en de sauvages lieux,
J’ai senti, moi qu’échauffe une secrète flamme,                                  35
Comme moi palpiter et vivre avec une âme,
Et rire, et se parler dans l’ombre à demi-voix,
Les chênes monstrueux qui remplissent les bois

par Victor Hugo 20 avril 1837




Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (