In conclusion, I wish to repeat here what I have said in the General Preface to the ‘Oxford Modern French Series,’ that ’those who speak a modern language best invariably possess a good literary knowledge of it.’ This has been endorsed by the best teachers in this and other countries, and is a generally admitted fact. The present series by providing works of high literary merit will certainly facilitate the acquisition of the French language—a tongue which perhaps more than any other offers a variety of literary specimens which, for beauty of style, depth of sentiment, accuracy and neatness of expression, may be equalled but not surpassed.
Oxford, December, 1905.
Victor Hugo’s conception of the scheme of the series of poems to which he gave the title of La Legende des Siecles is thus described in the preface to the first scenes: ’Exprimer l’humanite dans une espece d’oeuvre cyclique; la peindre successivement et simultanement sous tous ses aspects, histoire, fable, philosophie, religion, science, lesquels se resument en un seul et immense mouvement d’ascension vers la lumiere; faire apparaitre, dans une sorte de miroir sombre et clair—que l’interruption naturelle de travaux terrestres brisera probablement avant qu’il ait la dimension revee par l’auteur—cette grande figure une et multiple, lugubre et rayonnante, faible et sacree, L’Homme.’ The poet thus dreamt of a vast epic, of which the central figure should be no mythical or legendary hero, but Man himself, conceived as struggling upwards from the darkness of barbarism to the light of a visionary golden age. Every epoch was to be painted in its dominant characteristic, every aspect of human thought was to find its fitting expression. The first series could pretend to no such completeness, but the poet promised that the gaps should be filled up in succeeding volumes. It cannot be said that this stupendous design was ever carried out. The first volumes, which were published in 1859, and from which the poems contained in this selection are taken, left great spaces vacant in the ground-plan of the work, and little attempt was made in the subsequent series, which appeared in 1877 and 1883, to fill up those spaces. In fact, Hugo has left large tracts of human history untrod. He has scarcely touched the civilization of the East, he has given us no adequate picture of ancient Greece. L’Aide offerte a Majorien can hardly be regarded as a sufficient picture of the wanderings of the nations, nor Le Regiment du Baron Madruce as an adequate embodiment of the spirit of the eighteenth century. The Reformation, and, what is stranger still, the French Revolution, are not handled at all, though the heroism of the Napoleonic era finds fitting description in Le Cimetiere d’Eylau. The truth is that Hugo set himself a task which was