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S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.

Victor Hugo

  • [Vicomte Victor Marie Hugo, the French poet and novelist; born at Besançon, Feb. 26, 1802; published his first poems, 1822; became chief of the Romantic School by the production of his dramas between 1830–32; published “Notre Dame de Paris,” 1831; “Les Misérables,” 1862; admitted to the Academy, 1841; peer of France, 1845; member of the Constituent Assembly after the Revolution of 1848, with which he heartily sympathized; banished by Napoleon after the coup d’état of 1851, and returned to France the day after Sedan, Sept. 5, 1870; member of the Assembly; senator; died May 22, 1885.]
  • Kings are for nations in their swaddling clothes: France has attained her majority.

  • The Revolution of 1848 arrayed Victor Hugo, son of a Vendean mother, and the schoolmate of the Orleans princes, on the side of democracy. The unfavorable reception his dramas, painting boldly the vices of kings, had met from the liberal government of Louis Philippe, prepared him to advocate still larger liberties. When “Le Roi s’amuse” was proscribed on the ground of immorality, in 1832, Hugo said to the Tribunal of Commerce, to which he appealed, “To-day I am banished from the theatre, to-morrow I shall be banished from the country. To-day I am gagged, to-morrow I shall be transported. To-day it is literature that is in a state of siege, to-morrow it will be the city.” Accordingly he declared as a republican in the Assembly, 1851, “A republic may be called the climate of civilization;” and again, “I wish liberty to all, as I wish light to all.”
  • Because we have had Napoleon the Great, must we have Napoleon the Little?

  • A short time before the coup d’état, the Prince-President, paying a visit to the poet, said, “There are two men whom a lofty ambition might propose to itself as models,—Napoleon and Washington…. I am not a great man, I cannot copy Napoleon; but I am an honest man, I shall imitate Washington.” In a sitting of the Chamber, July 17, 1851, Victor Hugo said in a speech on the proposed revision of the Constitution, “What means the prolongation of the powers of the president? It means the consulate for life. Where does a life-consulate lead? To the empire.” After speaking of the heroes of French history, ending with Napoleon I., whom his nephew despaired of imitating, he hurled at the president this thunderbolt: “You wish, even you, to pick up the crown and sceptre after him, as he picked them up,—he, Napoleon, after Charlemagne,—and to take in your puny hands this sceptre of Titans, this sword of giants! Why? For what purpose? What! After Augustus, Augustulus! What! Because we have had Napoleon the Great, must we have Napoleon the Little?”—BARROU: Life. Kossuth was briefer: “Copies never succeed.” It is not surprising that the Duc de Morny, Louis Napoleon’s right hand in the coup d’état, wrote to his agents on the 3d of December: “If you arrest Victor Hugo, do what you will with him.”
  • Victor Hugo sought refuge in Brussels, which being denied him, he retired to the island of Jersey. But even there he continued his war upon the Second Empire. Sir Robert Peel having asked in the House of Commons if an “end could not be put to the fooleries of strangers who had found asylum in Great Britain,” the banished poet hurled another bolt at the emperor, whom he summoned to meet him at the bar of truth and justice. “M. Bonaparte is right,” he said: “there is a personal quarrel between him and me,—the old personal quarrel of the judge on his bench and the accused at his bar.”
  • I am only a proscribed man: you are only a minister.

  • While in Jersey, he interested himself in a man condemned in Guernsey to be hanged; and, other applications having failed, he addressed a letter to Lord Palmerston, in which he said, “We inhabit, you and I, sir, the infinitely little. I am only a proscribed man: you are only a minister. I am ashes: you are dust. Sir, keep your frivolities for earth: do not offer them to eternity.”
  • He interceded in like manner for the life of John Brown, in “A Word concerning John Brown, to Virginia, Dec. 2, 1859.” Of this appeal Wendell Phillips made the following use in Faneuil Hall, Boston, Dec. 21, 1860: “You may name Seward in Munich or Vienna, in Pesth or in Naples, and vacant eyes will ask you, ‘Who is he?’ But all Europe, the leaders and masses, spoke by the lips of Victor Hugo when he said, ‘The death of Brown is more than Cain killing Abel: it is Washington slaying Spartacus.’”
  • In an address upon the abolition of the death-penalty in Geneva, Nov. 17, 1862, Hugo said of Belgium, Switzerland, etc., “There is no such thing as a small country. The greatness of a people is no more affected by the number of its inhabitants than the greatness of an individual is measured by his height;” and again, “Whoever presents a great example is great.”
  • Citizens, I said, “On the day when the republic returns, I shall return.” Here I am!

  • The first words of the brief speech he made at the Northern railway-station, on arriving in Paris the day after the fall of the empire in 1870. He ended it with, “It is through fraternity that liberty is saved.” He accordingly first addressed himself to an appeal to the German army to spare Paris: “There has been an Athens, there has been a Rome, and there is a Paris. Paris is nothing but an immense hospitality.” (The Abbé Galiani called it “the café of Europe.”) Victor Hugo then declares that Paris, if attacked, will defend herself. “As for me, an old man, I shall be without arms. It will be enough for me to be with the people who die! I pity you for being with the people who kill.”
  • Later on, he would have spared the leaders of the Commune; saying at Brussels, where they were denied domicile, “If I were Jesus Christ, I would save Judas.”
  • Addressing a meeting of workingmen he said, “Labor is life; thought is light;” and again, “To mount from a workshop to a palace is rare and beautiful, so you think: to mount from error to truth is more rare and more beautiful.”
  • He is the author, in a speech, of the oft-quoted mot, “Forty is the old age of youth, fifty is the youth of old age.”
  • A happy compliment was paid the poet by the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II., in his visit to Paris in 1877. Taking Victor Hugo by the hand, he said, “Re-assure me, M. Hugo: I am somewhat timid.”