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Victor Hugo’s Immortality
by [?]

“A few squares of the guard, standing motionless in the swash of the rout, like rocks in running water, held out till night. They awaited the double shadow of night and death, and let them surround them. Each regiment, isolated from the others, and no longer connected with the army, which was broken on all sides, died where it stood. The gloomy squares, deserted, conquered and terrible, struggled formidably with death, for Ulm, Wagram, Jena and Friedland were dying in it. When twilight set in at nine in the evening, one square still remained at the foot of the plateau of Mont St. Jean. In this mournful valley, at the foot of the slope scaled by the cuirassiers, now inundated by the English masses, beneath the converging fire of the hostile and victorious artillery, under a fearful hailstorm of projectiles, this square still resisted. It was commanded by an obscure officer by the name of Cambronne. At each volley the square still diminished, but continued to reply to the canister with musketry fire, and each moment contracted its four walls. Fugitives in the distance, stopping at moments to draw breath, listened in the darkness to this gloomy diminishing thunder. When this legion had become only a handful, when their colors were but a rag, when their ammunition was exhausted, and muskets were clubbed, and when the pile of corpses was greater than the living group, the victors felt a species of sacred awe, and the English artillery ceased firing. It was a sort of respite; these combatants had around them an army of specters, outlines of mounted men, the black profile of guns, and the white sky visible through the wheels; the colossal death’s head which heroes ever glimpse in the smoke of battle, advanced and looked at them. They could hear in the twilight gloom that the guns were being loaded; the lighted matches, resembling the eyes of a tiger in the night, formed a circle round their heads. The linstocks of the English batteries approached the guns, and at this moment an English general, Colville according to some, Maitland according to others, holding the supreme moment suspended over the heads of these men, shouted to them, ‘Brave Frenchmen, surrender!’ Cambronne answered, ‘Merde.’ To Cambronne’s exclamation, an English voice replied, ‘Fire!’ The batteries flashed, the hillside trembled, from all these throats of brass came a last eruption of grape, a vast cloud of smoke vaguely whitened by the rising moon rolled up, and when the smoke had been dissipated, there was nothing. The dreaded remnant was annihilated, the guard was dead. The four walls of the living redoubt lay low, with here and there a scarcely perceptible quiver among the corpses. Thus the French legions, grander than those of Rome, expired on Mont St. Jean, on the earth sodden with rain and blood.”

Hugo quite needlessly apologized for quoting the Frenchman’s laconic reply to the summons to surrender. He was writing history, and no milk-and-water euphemism could have expressed Cambronne’s defiance and contempt. Of course John Bull pitilessly shot to death that heroic fragment of the Old Guard, which forgot in its supreme hour that while foolhardiness may be magnificent, it is not war. I would have put a cordon of soldiers about that pathetic remnant of Napoleon’s greatness and held it there to this good day rather than have plowed it down as a farmer plows jimson weeds into a pile of compost; but John Bull is not built that way–is impregnated with the chivalry of Baylor. Cambronne’s reply is the only objectionable word in the entire work, and certain it might be pardoned in a scrap of history by people whose press and pulpit have apotheosized “Trilby,” Du Maurier’s supposititious prostitute. I presume that the Philadelphia school board is about on an intellectual and moral parity with the trustees of Baylor–haven’t the remotest idea whether merde means maggots or moonshine. Victor Hugo was a lord in the aristocracy of intellect; his masterpiece is nature’s faithful mirror. Ame de boue should be branded with a hot iron on the hickory-nut head of every creature whom its perusal does not benefit. His description of the Battle of Waterloo is to “Ben-Hur’s” chariot race what Mount Aetna in eruption is to a glow worm. It transcends the loftiest flights of Shakespeare. Before it even “The Wondrous Tales of Troy” pales its ineffectual fires. It casts the shadow of its genius upon Bulwer’s “Pompeii” as the wing of the condor shades the crow. Byron’s “sound of revelry by night” is the throbbing of a snare drum drowned in Hugo’s thunders of Mont St. Jean. Danton’s rage sinks to an inaudible whisper, and even Aeschylus shrivels before that cataclysm of Promethean fire; that celestial monsoon. It stirs the heart like the rustle of a silken gonfalon dipped in gore, like the whistle of rifle-balls, like the rhythmic dissonance of a battery slinging shrapnel from the heights of Gettysburg into the ragged legions of General Lee. I have counseled my contemporary to be calm; but by Heaven! it does stir my soul into mutiny to see a lot of intellectual pismires, who have secured positions of trust because of their political pull in the Tenderloin, hurling their petty scorn at Victor Hugo. It were like Carlyle’s “critic fly” complacently rubbing its hinder legs and giving its opinion of the Parthenon, like aesop’s vindictive snail besliming the masterpiece of Phidias, like a Baylor professor lecturing on the poetry of Lord Byron. Every writer of eminence since the days of Moses has had to run the gauntlet of these slight people’s impotent wrath. While slandering the prophets of progress and religion they have vented their foul rheum on all the gods of literature. Kansas, I am told, put a man in the penitentiary for sending through the mails biblical texts printed on postal cards. Speaking of Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister,” Carlyle says: