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This is the first poem in a series of 10 where Hugo gives his reflections on the Jardin des Plantes.  It is one of the longest poems in this series;  over 100 lines, so hang in there as it is well worth the read.  Hugo dedicates these 10 poems to his grandchildren, Georges and Jeanne, and references them throughout the poems. In the first stanzas, Hugo refers to the Jardin as an “Eden where June radiates” which was created by Buffon for the expressed pleasure of the future; if not just for Georges and Jeanne! Hugo tells of his intentions for the day:

       I go to this garden because it is pleasing/To Jeanne, and that I am helpless against her /         I’m going there to study two chasms, God, childhood.

(Who among us is not helpless against the pleas of our grandchildren!)

This is not, however, your typical exchange of a grandfather to his grandchildren at the zoo:” Oh Georges, look at that big tiger; what a loud roar!” Instead, I believe this is an account of Hugo’s reflections and personal opinion on Darwin’s recently published book on The Origin of the Species (1859) as he illustrates with the animals in the Menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes. Hugo pokes fun at Darwin’s theories on the evolution of man: “A book to the excessive monkey”. He then turns our attention to The Creator, God, and how our observations of His creation cause us to tremble and shake at its magnificence: The Great Creator, who could “curve the rainbow over the ocean that he tames” would also create a varied species from the tiniest hummingbird to the massive mastodon! As Hugo reminds us: “Being a grandfather, one is an apostle… Questioned by one, climbed by another.”

Just as in Hugo’s 1000 page tomes (Les Miserables, Hunchback of Notre Dame), he changes tone in the middle of the poem to bring out his political criticisms : “He (God) makes some moles;/ God, certainly, has differences of imagination;/ He does not know how to keep the measure; he abuses/ From his intellect to make the goose and the buzzard;/ He ignores, tawny author and unbridled nor straight/This just point or Laharpe stops Colardeau.”

Fortunately Hugo returns to his original message.  Notice the change in typography of this poem.  The last section is separated by a Caesura, a deliberate rhetorical break in poetry used for emphasis: Et quant aux nouveau-nés (and as to the new borns).  Here Hugo brings the reader’s attention back to his primary purpose for the promenade in the Jardin des Plantes: to share this beautiful experience with his grandchildren: “… a man moved by childhood and dawn.”  Here he reminds us that the future of Paris is the children who, “have eyes so deep that sometimes/They vaguely seek the vision of the woods…/who, Look at the invisible, and think, the wise are/Always working to please someone who is a dreamer.”

The same Victor Hugo who gave us a beautiful story of grace and redemption of God in Les Miserables gives us his belief of who created our world, “C’est Dieu; moi je l’accepte.” (It is God; I accept it)

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Me and Hugo! 2012, Rodin Museum

Translation notes :

1) Fille de Saturne et de Rhea
2) Evandre= a King of Arcadia
3) savant ours= (pejorative) misanthropes, like old bears who live at odds with the world
4) bonne= Good, maid, friend, sweetheart girl
5) bonze= Buddist monks, religious bigwigs
6) caloyer= from Ancient Greek meaning beautiful old age.
7) Buffon: Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Director of the Jardin des Plantes. His works influenced naturalists Lamarck and Cuvier.  Published iconic Histoire Naturelle.
8) Nisard= either Jean Marie Napoléon Désiré Nisard who supported classicism and romanticism, member of Académie Française or his brother Charles : both nineteenth century French writers.
9) Dupin= a character in Poe’s “The Murders in Rue Morgue
10)Livre au singe excessif= Book to the excessive monkey, possible reference to Darwinism
11) cornacs= a mahout, an elephant driver

 

Le Jardin des Plantes Part I

Le comte de Buffon fut bonhomme, il créa
Ce jardin imité d’Evandre et de Rhéa,
Et plein d’ours plus savants que ceux de la Sorbonne,
Afin que Jeanne y puisse aller avec sa bonne ;
Buffon avait prévu Jeanne, et je lui sais gré
De s’être dit qu’un jour Paris un peu tigré
Complètant ses bourgeois par une variante,
La bête enchanterait cette âme souriante ;
Les enfants ont des yeux si profonds, que parfois
Ils cherchent vaguement la vision des bois :
Et Buffon paternel, c’est ainsi qu’il rachète
Sa phrase sur laquelle a traîné sa manchette,
Pour les marmots, de qui les anges sont jaloux,
A fait ce paradis suave, orné de loups.
J’approuve ce Buffon. Les enfants, purs visages,
Tâchent toujours de plaire à quelqu’un de rêveur.
L’été dans ce jardin montre de la ferveur ;
C’est un éden où juin rayonne, où les fleurs luisent,
Où l’ours bougonne, et Jeanne et Georges m’y conduisent.

C’est du vaste univers un raccourci complet.
Je vais dans ce jardin parce que cela plaît
A Jeanne, et que je suis contre elle sans défense.
J’y vais étudier deux gouffres, Dieu, l’enfance.
Le tremblant nouveau-né, le créateur flagrant,
L’infiniment charmant et l’infiniment grand,
La même chose au fond ; car c’est la même flamme
Qui sort de l’astre immense et de la petite âme.

Je contemple, au milieu des arbres de Buffon,
Le bison trop bourru, le babouin trop bouffon,
Des bosses, des laideurs, des formes peu choisies,
Et j’apprends à passer à Dieu ses fantaisies.
Dieu, n’en déplaise au prêtre au bonze, au caloyer,
Est capable de tout, lui qui fait balayer
Le bon goût, ce ruisseau, par Nisard, ce concierge,
Livre au singe excessif la forêt, cette vierge,
Et permet à Dupin de ressembler aux chiens.
(Pauvres chiens !) – Selon l’Inde et les manichéens,
Dieu doublé du démon expliquerait l’énigme ;
Le paradis ayant l’enfer pour borborygme,
La Providence un peu servant d’Ananké,
L’infini mal rempli par l’univers manqué.
Telle serait la loi de l’aveugle nature ;
De là les contre-sens de la création.
Dieu, certe, a des écarts d’imagination ;
Il ne sait pas garder la mesure ; il abuse
De son esprit jusqu’à faire l’oie et la buse ;
Il ignore, auteur fauve et sans frein ni cordeau,
Ce point juste ou Laharpe arrête Colardeau ;
Il se croit tout permis. Malheur qui l’imite !
Il n’a pas de frontière, il n’a pas de limite ;
Et fait pousser l’ivraie au beau milieu du blé,
Sous prétexte qu’il est l’immense et l’étoilé ;
Il a d’affreux vautours qui nous tombent des nues ;
Il nous impose un tas d’inventions cornues,
Le bouc, l’auroch, l’isard et le colimaçon ;
Il nous raille ; il nous fait avaler la couleuvre !
Au moment où, contents, examinant son œuvre,
Rendant peine justice à tant de qualités,
Nous admirons l’œil d’or des tigres tachetés,
Le cygne, l’antilope à la prunelle bleue,
La constellation qu’un paon a dans sa queue.
D’une cage insensée il tire le verrou,
Et voilà, qu’il nous jette au nez le kangourou !
Dieu défait et refait, ride, éborgne, essorille,
Exagère le nègre, hélas ! jusqu’au gorille,
Fait des taupes et fait des lynx, se contredit,
Mèle dans les halliers l’histrion au bandit,
Le mandrille au jaguar, le perroquet à l’aigle,
Lie à la parodie insolente et sans règle
L’épopée, et les laisse errer toutes les deux
Sous l’âpre clair-obscur des branchages hideux ;
Si bien qu’on ne sait plus s’il faut trembler ou rire,
Et qu’on croit voir rôder, dans l’ombre que déchire
Tantôt le rayon d’or, tantôt l’éclair d’acier,
Un spectre qui parfois avorte en grimacier.
Moi, je n’exige pas que Dieu toujours s’observe,
Il faut bien tolérer quelques excès de verve
Chez un si grand poète, et ne point se fâcher
Si celui qui nuance une fleur de pécher
Et courbe l’arc-en-ciel sur l’océan qu’il dompte,
Après un colibri nous donne un mastodonte !
C’est son humeur à lui d’être de mauvais goût,
D’avoir en toute chose une stature étrange,
Et d’être un Rabelais d’où sort un Michel-Ange.
C’est Dieu ; moi je l’accepte.

Et quant aux nouveau-nés.
De même. Les enfants ne nous sont pas donnés
Pour avoir en naissant les facons du grand monde ;
Les petits en maillot, chez qui la sève abonde,
Poussent l’impolitesse assez loin quelquefois ;
J’en conviens. Et parmi les cris, les pas, les voix,
Les ours et leurs córnacs, les marmots et leurs mères,
Dans ces réalités semblables aux chimères,
Ébahi par le monstre et le mioche, assourdi
Comme par lu rumeur d’une ruche à midi,
Sentant qu’à force d’être aïeul on est apôtre,
Questionné par l’un, escaladé par l’autre,
Pardonnant aux bambins le bruit, la fiente aux nids,
Et le rugissement aux bêtes, je finis
Par ne plus être, au fond du grand jardin sonore,
Qu’un bonhomme attendri par l’enfance et l’aurore,
Aimant ce double feu, s’y plaisant, s’y chauffant,
Et pas moins indulgent pour Dieu que pour l’enfant.

My English Translation

The Count of Buffon was a good man, he created
This garden imitated from Evander and Rhea,
And full of more learned bears than those of the Sorbonne,
So that Jeanne can go there with her bonne;
Buffon had anticipated Jeanne, and I appreciate him
To have thought that one-day Paris a little tiger,
Completing his bourgeois culture with a variant,
The beast would enchant this smiling soul;
Children have eyes so deep that sometimes
They vaguely seek the vision of the woods
And paternal Buffon, that’s how he redeems
His phrase on which drew out his headline,
For the marmots, whose angels are jealous,
Made this suave paradise, illuminated by wolves.
I approve of this Buffon. Children, pure faces,
Look at the invisible, and think, the wise are
Always working to please someone who is a dreamer.
Summer in this garden shows fervor;
It is an Eden where June radiates, where the flowers shine,
Where the bear grumbles, and Jeanne and Georges lead me there.

It is of the vast universe a complete shortcut.
I go to this garden because it is pleasing
To Jeanne, and that I am helpless against her.
I’m going there to study two chasms, God, childhood.
The trembling newborn, the flagrant creator,
The infinitely charming and the infinitely big,
The same thing at the bottom; because it’s the same flame
Which comes out from the immense star and from her petite soul.

I contemplate, among the trees of Buffon,
The bison too surly, the baboon a buffoon,
Bumps, ugliness, unpopular shapes,
And I learn to pass to God his fantasies.
God, no offense to the priest to the old fossils, the caloyer,
Is capable of everything, of sweeping away all,
Good taste, this stream, by Nisard, this concierge,
Book to the excessive monkey, the forest, this virgin,
And permits Dupin to resemble the dogs.
(Poor dogs!) – According to India and the Manichaeans,
God doubled with the demon would explain the enigma;
Heaven having hell for a rumbling,
Providence a little servant of Ananké,
The infinite badly filled by the missed universe.
Such would be the law of the blind nature;
Hence the counter-sense of creation.
God, certainly, has differences of imagination;
He does not know how to keep the measure; he abuses
From his intellect to make the goose and the buzzard;
He ignores, tawny author and unbridled nor straight
This just point or Laharpe stops Colardeau;
He believes he’s allowed everything. Woe to whom imitates him!
He has no frontier, he has no limit;
And separates the middle of the wheat,
On the pretext that he is immense and starry;
He has dreadful vultures that fall from the clouds;
He imposes on us a lot of reticulated inventions,
The goat, the auroch, the chamois and the snail;
He mocks us; he makes us swallow the snake!
At the moment, content, examining his work,
Doing justice to so many qualities,
We admire the golden eye of the spotted tigers,
The swan, the antelope with the blue pupil,
The constellation that a peacock has in his tail.
From a senseless cage he pulls the lock,
And that’s it, that he throws us the kangaroo nose!
God undoes and remakes, wrinkles, blinds, expands,
Exaggerates the negro, alas! to the gorilla,
Makes some moles and makes some lynx, to contradict himself,
Mixes together in the brush the historian to the bandit,
The mandrille to the jaguar, the parrot to the eagle,
Dregs with insolent parody and without rule
The epic, and leaves both to wander
Beneath the bitter, clear-vague shade of the hideous branches;
Therefore, one does not know whether to shake or laugh,
And should one wander about in the shade that pierces the silence
Sometimes the golden ray, sometimes the flash of steel,
A specter that sometimes aborts a hypocrite.
Me, I do not insist that God always observes himself,
We must tolerate some excesses of verve
At the home of such a great poet, and to not be angry
If those who give nuance a flower of sin
And curve the rainbow over the ocean that he tames,
After a hummingbird gives us a mastodon!
It’s his mood to be in bad taste,
To have in all things a strange stature,
And to be a Rabelais from which comes a Michelangelo.
It’s God; me,  I accept it.

And as to the newborns.
Similarly. Children are not given to us
To have in birth the lessons of the great world;
The little ones in their swaddling, with whom the sap abounds,
Push impoliteness far enough sometimes;
I agree with that. And among the cries, the steps, the voices,
The bears and their cornacs, the marmots and their mothers,
In these realities which resemble the chimeras,
Stunned by the monster and the lousy, deafened
As by the rumor of a hive at noon,
Feeling that, because of being a grandfather, one is an apostle,
Questioned by one, climbed by the other,
Forgiving the toddlers the noise, the nests dung,
And the roar to the beasts, I finish
By no longer being, at the bottom of the big sound garden,
That a man moved by childhood and dawn,
Loving this double fire, enjoying it, warming up,
And no less indulgent for God than for the child.

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PopPop et Go-Go
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Grammar et George

Copyright 2017 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only 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:

  • Jardin des Plantes

https://frenchquest.com/2017/12/01/translating-hugo-jardin-des-plantes-from-lart-detre-grand-pere/

https://frenchquest.com/2017/12/08/translating-hugo-jardin-des-plants-a-georges/