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Jardin des Plantes, 2012

This post is the first in a series of my translations of Victor Hugo’s poems about the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.  Victor Hugo wrote ten poems about his experiences of taking promenades in the Jardin with his grandchildren, Georges and Jeanne.  Hugo wrote two volumes for L’art d’etre Grand-Pere in 1877 and they were published in Paris by Artheme Fayard & C, 18 rue du St-Gothard.

The following poem, A Georges, takes place in the Ménagerie, the oldest public zoo in the world of over 1,000 animals, and begins with Hugo describing to his beloved grandson the different animals they encounter. We can imagine Georges asking, “What’s that Papapa” (his affectionate nickname) at every turn.

Jardin des Plantes, 2012

As is typical for Hugo’s works, A Georges is full of metaphors, biblical and political references as he relates this menagerie of untamed creatures from all over the world to humankind.  How incredible to think of bears, leopards, tigers, and elephants in the heart of Paris in the 1800’s.   Hugo wrote many of these poems while in political exile on the isle of Guernsey and therefore could be relating these experiences to the menagerie (the jackals and vultures for sure!).

A leopard at the Jardin des Plantes, 2012

Also in the poetic style of Hugo, the final stanzas become more somber and reflective and leaves his readers with a contemplation:

how many useless things we say without knowing the harm we do…the soul in the             forest dreams and is left alone.

 (see Further Readings on Jardin des Plantes, Guernesey)

 Translation notes: 1) Gypaètes= snow leopard or lammergeyer;  2) not sure the meaning of “two poets”;  3) Amphisbène is a possible typo. I could not find this translation in any French dictionary. Should possibly be amphibian; 4) fauve= favour, I chose the translation of gentleness 5) r=  commonly used for certain, sure, safe, without danger, reliable, sound= I used “sturdy” to refer to the limb of the oak ;  6) Corbière was the minister of the Interior at that time; and  7) Frayssinous= was an  Abbey and le grand-maître de l’Université.


A Georges

Mon doux Georges, viens voir une ménagerie
Quelconque, chez Buffon, au cirque, n’importe où ;
Sans sortir de Lutèce allons en Assyrie,
Et sans quitter Paris partons pour Tombouctou.

Viens voir les léopards de Tyrs, les gypaètes,
L’ours grondant, le boa formidable sans bruit,
Le zèbre, le chacal, l’once et ces deux poètes,
L’aigle ivre de soleil, le vautour plein de nuit.

Viens contempler the lynx sagace, l’amphisbène
A qui Jacob comparait son faux ami Sepher,
Et l’obscur tigre noir, dont le masque d’ébène
A deux trous flamboyants par où l’on voit l’enfer.

Voir de près l’oiseau fauve et le frisson des ailes.
C’est charmant ; nous aurons, sous de très sûrs abris,
Le spectacle des loups, des jaguars, des gazelles,
Et l’éblouissement divin des colibris,

Sortons du bruit humain.  Viens au jardin des plantes,
Penchons-nous, à travers l’ombre, où nous étouffons.
Sur les douleurs d’en bas, vaguement appelantes,
Et sur les pas confus des inconnus profonds.

L’animal, c’est de l’ombre errant dans les ténèbres,
On ne sait s’il écoute, on ne sait s’il entend ;
Il a des cris hagards, il a des yeux funèbres ;
Une affirmation sublime en sort pourtant.

Nous qui régnons, combien de choses inutiles
Nous disons, sans savoir le mal que nous faisons
Quand la vérité vient, nous lui somme hostiles
Et contre la raison nous avons des raisons.

Corbière à la tribune et Frayssinous en chaire
Sont fort inférieurs à la bête des bois ;
L’âme dans la forêt songe et se laisse faire ;
Je doute dans un temple, et sur un mont je crois.

Dieu par les voix de l’ombre obscurément se nomme ;
Nul Quirinal ne vaut le fauve Pélion ;
Il est bon, quand on vient d’entendre parler d’homme,
D’aller entendre un peu rugir le grand lion.

My English Translation

My sweet Georges, come and see a menagerie
Here or there, at Buffon, at the circus, it’s not important where;
Without leaving Lutetia let us go to Assyria,
And without leaving Paris, let us go to Timbuktu.

Come see the leopards of Tyre, the lammergeyer,
The grand bears, the formidable silent boa,
The zebra, the jackal, the snow leopard and these two poets,
The sun-dried eagle, the vulture full of night.

Come contemplate the shrewd lynx, the amphibian
To which Jacob compared his false friend Sepher,
And the obscure black tiger, whose mask of ebony
Has two flamboyant holes through which one sees hell.

See up close the gentle bird and the shudder of his wings
It is charming; we will have, under very sound trees,
The spectacle of the wolves, of the jaguars, of the gazelles,
And the divine dazzle of the hummingbirds.

 Let us escape the noise of humans.  Come to the jardin des plantes,
Let us look through the shadows, where we can hide.
On the pain from down below, vaguely calling,
And on the confused footsteps of strangers unknown.

The animal, he is a shadow wandering in the darkness,
We do not know if he listens, we do not know if he hears;
He has wild cries, he has lugubrious eyes;
A sublime assertion comes through even so.

We who reign, how many useless things
We say, without knowing the harm we do;
When the truth comes, we are hostile to it
And against reason we have reasons.

Corbière at the tribune and Frayssinous at the pulpit
Are much inferior to the beast of the woods;
The soul in the forest dreams and is left alone;
I doubt in a temple, and on a mount, I believe.

God by the voices of the shadow is obscurely called;
No Quirinal is worth the wild Pelion;
It is good, when one just hears about man,
Of hearing a little roar of the great lion.

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Copyright 2017 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)

Work Cited

Fayard, Artheme, L’art d’être Grand-Père. L’œuvre de Victor Hugo. Volume 51. Les                       Meilleurs Livres : Paris. 1877.

Further Reading

  • From L’Art D’Être Grand-Père

         Lesson One, The Moon


Jardin des Plantes


           A Guernesey


One Year-Old