jardin monkey cage 1800
Jardin des Plantes, monkey cage 1800’s

This is the seventh poem in Hugo’s Le Poème du Jardin Des Plantes.  It is the longest poem in this series, so I have divided it in two parts (a and b).

Hugo begins with a requiem to the great French poets and men associated with the Jardin des Plantes:

  • Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux= a French poet and critic. He did much to reform the prevailing form of French poetry,
  • Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon= a French naturalist, mathematician, and encyclopoédiste. He was the Director of the Jardin des Plantes,
  • André Le Nôtre= a French landscape architect and the principal gardener of King Louis XIV of France. Most notably, he was designed the park of the Palace of Versailles, and his work represents the height of the French formal garden style, or jardin a la francaise. He would have equal renown today as I.M. Pei or Frank Lloyd Wright of the last century.

In the first 10 lines, I believe Hugo is using a metaphor of a cimetière, where the young are scattered beneath the trees, the marble vases aligned in rows, and the black bars crossed on the flagrant flowers. This is an interesting comparison as the cimetières of Paris also have rows of marble statues and flowers to show respect and homage to the great Frenchmen buried there (see link to Pere LaChaise ).

Hugo uses anaphora in the next eight lines to bring the hopefulness that life goes on after death: this does not… as the roses will still bloom with fragrant perfumes, seasons will still rotate, children will still be playing and monsters (in the menagerie) will still be roaring.

Hugo returns his readers back to the menagerie with the monsters from the “bored abyss…  How fun to be scared without danger!” A delightful part of childhood!

The last section is a conversation between Hugo and his grandchildren as denoted by the em dashes which are used in French literature.  As the English language uses “ “ to denote conversation, the French use  — to alternate speakers. This part is delightful as Hugo is imagining that the wolves are chasing them: “Come quick! Throw them your cake, not all of it!”

The mysterious eyes are open wide and meditating in this menagerie; both the animals and the humans!

Translation notes :

1) Les bas âges= an adverbial phrase meaning “low in age” or young; Hugo could be referencing that all of the eras of time are represented in the garden. This botanical garden has species from all the known species of the world; from creation forward! This phrase is commonly used for enfants, young children.
2) cordeau= a garderner’s line or chord separating the beds (could not find English equivalent)
3) Cela n’empêche pas….(This does not prevent…) =Hugo uses repetition here as a literary device to make this idea clearer and more memorable
4) leuer=not found in Robert; paired with fauve = fawn-like hues (describing the depths of the woods)
5) L’énorme bâillement du gouffre qui s’ennuie= (The enormous yawn of the bored abyss) The abyss is too deep for any living forms to inhabit; therefore, it is alone and therefore bored.  This is so cool.
6) louvre=in reference to where a tiger lives, not found in Robert. Of course, this is the proper noun in France for a famous museum; In Britain, same definition as U.S. English=horizontal, slanting boards used to keep rain out

Jardin des Plantes, 1800’s

Le Poème du Jardin Des Plantes, Part VII a (1877)

 Tous les bas âges sont épars sous ces grands arbres.
Certes, l’alignement des vases et des marbres,
Ce parterre au cordeau, ce cèdre résigné,
Ce chêne que monsieur Despréaux eût signé,
Ces barreaux noirs croisés sur la fleur odorante,
Font l’honneur à Buffon qui fut l’un des quarante
Et mêla, de façon à combler tous nos vœux
Le peigne de Le Nôtre aux effrayants cheveux
De Pan, dieu des halliers, des rochers et des plaines ;
Cela n’empêche pas les roses d’être pleines
De parfums, de désirs, d’amour et de clarté ;
Cela n’empêche pas l’été d’être ;
Cela n’ôte à la vie aucune confiance ;
Cela n’empêche pas l’aurore en conscience
D’apparaître au zénith qui semble s’élargir,
Les enfants de jouer, les monstres de rugir.
Un bon effroi joyeux emplit ces douces têtes.
Ecoutez-moi ces cris charmants. — Viens voir les bêtes !
Ils courent. Quelle extase! On s’arrête devant
Des cages où l’on voit des oiseaux bleus rêvant
Comme s’ils attendaient le mois où l’on émigre.
—Regarde ce gros chat. —Ce gros chat, c’est le tigre,
Les grands font aux petits vénérer les guenons,
Les pythons, les chacals, et nomment par leurs noms
Les vieux ours qui, dit-on, poussent l’humeur maligne
Jusqu’à manger parfois des soldats de la ligne.

Spectacles monstreux !Les gueules, les regards
De dragon, lueur fauve au fond des bois hagards,
Les écailles, les dards, la griffe qui s’allonge,
Une apparition d’abîme , l’affreux songe
Réel que l’œil troublé des prophètes amers
Voit sous la transparence effroyable des mers
Et qui se traîne épars dans l’horreur inouïe,
L’énorme bâillement du gouffre qui s’ennuie,
Les mâchoires de l’hydre ouvertes tristement,
On ne sait quel chaos blême, obscur, inclément,
Un essai d’exister, une ébauche de vie
D’où sort le bégaiement furieux de l’envie.
C’est cela l’animal ; et c’est ce que l’enfant
Regarde admire et craint, vaguement triomphant ;
C’est de la nuit qu’il vient contempler, lui, l’aurore,
Ce noir fourmillement mugit, hurle, dévore ;
On est un chérubin rose, frêle et tremblant ;
On va voir celui-ci que l’hiver fait tout blanc,
Cet autre dont l’œil jette un éclair du tropique ;
Tout cela gronde, hait, menace, siffle, pique,
Mord ; mais par sa nourrice on se sent protéger ;
Comme c’est amusant d’avoir peur sans danger !
Ce que l’homme contemple, il croit qu’il le découvre.
Voir un roi dans son antre, un tigre dans son louvre,
Cela plaît à l’enfance. —Il est joliment laid !
Viens voir ! —Etrange instinct ! Grâce à qui l’horreur

On vient chercher surtout ceux qu’il faut qu’on evite.
—Par ici! —Non, par là ! —Tiens, regarde ! —Viens
[vite !
—Jette-leur ton gateau. —Pas tout. —Jette toujours.
—Moi, j’aime bien les loups. —Moi, j’aime mieux les
Et les fronts sont riants, et le soleil les dore,
Et ceux qui, nés hier, ne parlent pas encore,
Pendant ces brouhahas sous les branchages verts,
Sont là mystérieux, les yeux tout grands ouverts,
Et méditent.


My English Translation


All of the young are scattered beneath these tall trees.
Certainly, the alignment of vases and marbles,
This flower bed in the cordeau, this resigned cedar,
This oak that Monsieur Despréaux would have signed,
These black bars crossed on the fragrant flower,
Do honor to Buffon who was one of the forty
And mingled, so as to fulfill all our wishes
Le Nôtre’s comb with scary hair
Of Pan, god of the thickets, of the rocks and plains;
This does not prevent the roses from being full
Of perfumes, of desires, of love and of clarity;
This does not prevent summer from being summer;
This does not take confidence from life;
This does not prevent the dawn in consciousness
To appear at the zenith that seems to be widening,
Children playing, monsters roaring.
A happy fright fills these sweet heads.
Listen to me, these charming cries. — Come see the animals!
They are running. What an ecstasy! We stop in front of
The cages where we see blue birds dreaming
As if they were waiting for the month when they miagrate.
—Look at this big cat. —This big cat is the tiger,
The big ones make the little ones worship the monkeys,
The pythons, the jackals, and to be called by their given name
The old bears who, it is said, are pushing the malignant mood
Until sometimes eating the soldiers of the line.

Monstrous spectacles! The bellows, the looks
From the dragon, tawny fawn hues in the depths of the haggard woods,
The scales, the stings, the elongated claw ,
An apparition of the abyss, the dreadful dream
Real as the troubled eye of the bitter prophets
Sees under the frightening transparency of the seas
And who crawls scattered in the unheard horror,
The enormous yawn of the bored abyss,
The jaws of the hydra open sadly,
One does not know such chaos; pale, obscure, inclement,
An attempt to exist, a sketch of life
Whence comes the furious faltering of envy.
This is the animal; and there is the child
Look, admire and fear; vaguely triumphant;
It is the night that he comes to contemplate; himself, the dawn,
This black tingling roars, howls, devours;
One is a pink cherub, frail and trembling;
One will see this; that winter is all white
This other whose eye casts a flash of the tropic;
All that scolds, hates, threatens, hisses, stings,
Bites; but by his nurse one feels protected;
How fun to be scared without danger!
What man is contemplating, he believes he discovers.
To see a king in his lair, a tiger in his louvre,
This appeals to childhood. -It is attractively ugly!
Come see ! — Strange instincts! Thanks to whom the horror


One comes especially to look for those we must avoid.
— This way! — No, that way! — Here, look! — Come


— Throw them your cake. — Not all of it. — Always throw.
— Me, I like the wolves alot. — Me, I like them better than the


And the brows are laughing, and the sun gilds them,
And those who, born yesterday, do not speak yet,
During these turbulences under the green branches,
Are there mysterious, eyes wide open,
And meditating.

Copyright 2018 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)