A poem from La Légende des Siècles, by Victor Hugo, translation by Mina Samuels
A lot of us are asking ourselves these days, what can I do? That question contains another — How should I be? This poem offers an answer that returns to the heart of the matter.
What do we know? Who then understands the depths of things?
The sunset glowed in the rose-hued clouds.
It was the end of a day of storms, and the west
Set the showers aflame in a ferocious blaze.
Near a ditch, at the edge of a rain puddle,
A toad looked at the sky, dazzled creature.
In solemn contemplation, horror considered the splendor.
(Oh! Why is there suffering and why is there ugliness?
Alas! The Roman Empire is littered with petty Augustuses
Tyrannous Caesar’s, as the toad is with pustules,
As the meadow with flowers and the sky with sunshine.)
The leaves were purpling in the vermillion trees.
The water glinted, twined with the grass in the ditch.
The evening unfurled as a banner.
The bird lowered its voice in the weakening day.
All softened, in the air, on the horizon; and, full of forgotten dreams,
The toad, without fear, without shame, without anger,
Gentle, watched the enormous solar aureole.
Maybe the damned one felt blessed.
There’s no creature who cannot see a reflection of the infinite.
No eye so abject and vile that it does not touch
The light above, sometimes tender, sometimes shy;
No cringing monster, bleary, louche, impure,
Who does not have the heavens’ immensity in its eyes.
A man passing by saw the hideous creature,
And shuddering, stepped on the toad’s head.
It was a priest with a book he was reading.
Then a woman, with a flower on her lapel,
Came and poked out the toad’s eye with her umbrella.
And the priest was old, and the woman was beautiful.
Then came four schoolboys, serene as the heavens.
— I was a child, I was young, I was cruel —
All men on earth, where their subjugated souls wander,
Can start the story of their lives this way.
We have game, inebriated by the dawn in our eyes.
We have our mothers. We are joyous schoolboys.
Gay little men, breathing the air,
Filling our lungs, loved, free, and happy. What to do;
If not torture a pathetic being?
The toad crawled along in the bottom of a rut.
It was the hour when the far fields turn azure.
Wild creature, the toad longed for night. The children saw him.
They cried out, “Kill the disgusting animal. And he’s so ugly, let’s hurt him a lot.”
And each one of them, laughing — children laugh when they kill —
Began to stab at him with a pointed stick.
Enlarging the hole where his eye had been, wounding
His wounds, thrilled, applauded by the passersby;
Because the passersby laughed. And the sepulchral shadow
Covered the dark martyr who could not even moan.
And the blood, the atrocious blood, flowed from everywhere
On the poor creature, whose crime was to be ugly.
He fled. He had one leg torn off.
A child struck him with a broken trowel,
And every blow skimmed the beleaguered beast
Who, even on a day that smiled upon him,
Even beneath an immense sky, lurked at the bottom of a cave.
And the children said: “Is he mean! He drools!”
His forehead bled, his eye hung out; in the scrub
And brush, hideous to see, he made his way.
We might have said that he had escaped a terrible embrace.
Oh! The sorry act! To worsen misery!
To add horror to deformity!
Dislocated, he stumbled from stone to stone.
The toad still had breath, without shelter, without asylum.
He crawled. We might have said that death
Found him too ugly and refused to take him.
The children wanted to tie him in a shoelace,
But he escaped them, slipping beside a hedge.
The rut gaped. He dragged his wounds
And dived in, bloodied, broken, his skull open,
Feeling the bit of freshness in the green swamp,
Washing the human cruelty in the mud.
And the children, with spring on their cheeks,
Blonde, charming, had never had such fun.
They all talked at once, from the big to the little
Crying out: “Come see! Cm’on Alfred, cm’on Peter
Let’s finish him off with a big stone!”
All together, they fixed their gaze upon the being
Beset by chance. And the despairing creature
Watched as their terrible faces hunched over him.
— Alas! Let’s have ideals; let’s not have targets.
When we set our sights on humanity’s horizon,
Let us hold life, and not death, in our hands —
All eyes followed the toad in the mud.
It was a furor and it was an ecstasy.
One of the children returned with a brick.
Heavy, but for its evil purpose easily carried.
He said: “We’ll see how this will be done.”
But, in the same moment, on this very spot of earth
Chance delivered a heavy cart
Pulled by an old, lame donkey, skin and bones and deaf.
This exhausted donkey, limping and appalling,
Was close to the stable after a day of walking.
He pulled the cart and carried a saddlebag.
Every step he took, as if his next to last.
The beast walked, beaten, extenuated.
The blows enveloped him like a clouded mist.
His eyes were veiled with a vapor
Of that stupidity, which is perhaps stupor.
And the rut was deep, and so full of mud,
And a slope so sharp that every turn of the wheel
Was like a dismal and hoarse tearing.
And the donkey went on, moaning, and the master cursed.
The road descended and pushed the pack animal
The donkey retreated into his thoughts, passive beneath the whip, beneath the flog;
Sunk to a depth where no human can go.
The children, hearing the wheel and the clop
Turned noisily and saw the cart.
“Don’t drop the brick on the toad. Stop!”
They cried. “Do you see, the cart will come down
And crush him as it passes. That will be so much more amusing.”
Then, advancing in the rut,
Where the monster awaited his final torture,
The donkey saw the toad. And, sad — alas! Bent
Upon one sadder still — heavy, broken, mournful and scabrous,
He seemed to sniff with his head low.
This enslaved one, this damned one, this patient one, granted grace.
He gathered all his spent strength. And, stiffening
His chain and harness on his bloodied muscles,
Resisting his master who cried: “Go on!”
Taking the full measure of the terrible burden of his complicity,
In his weariness, accepting the fight;
He pulled the cart and lifted the saddle.
Haggard, he turned the inexorable wheel,
Leaving behind him the miserable toad to live.
Then, under the blow of the whip, he continued on his way.
So, letting the stone drop from his hand,
One of the children — the one who tells this story —
Under the infinite arched expanse that is at once blue and black,
Heard a voice that said to him: “Be good.”
(n.b. the poem’s final few lines have been left off, as they take on the old style of a moral caution, which the reader already understands. En Français )