52 Poems, Week 13: The Universal Prayer (Victor Hugo)
I came across this poem because the high school literature discussion that my wife and I run was reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame (otherwise known as Notre-Dame du Paris). I wanted to find some Hugo poem and this one caught my fancy.
It is very romantic, with a wistful nostalgia for the imagined innocence of childhood contrasted with the wretched guilt of adult life.
I like the first part more than the second. His description of an innocent child at prayer is exquisite. And I like the first part of the second more than the second. His description of the unblemished innocence of the mother, though idealized in the manner so cherished by the romantic, is also quite moving. His own request for prayers seems a little overdone to me.
It is, of course, a translation. I don’t apologize, though. It is very good in translation. Notice that the French title is “My daughter, go pray!.” I don’t know how it got the English title, but it surely doesn’t reflect the content.
THE UNIVERSAL PRAYER
(“Ma fille, va prier!”)
[XXXVII., June, 1830.]
Come, child, to prayer; the busy day is done,
A golden star gleams through the dusk of night;
The hills are trembling in the rising mist,
The rumbling wain looms dim upon the sight;
All things wend home to rest; the roadside trees
Shake off their dust, stirred by the evening breeze.
The sparkling stars gush forth in sudden blaze,
As twilight open flings the doors of night;
The fringe of carmine narrows in the west,
The rippling waves are tipped with silver light;
The bush, the path–all blend in one dull gray;
The doubtful traveller gropes his anxious way.
Oh, day! with toil, with wrong, with hatred rife;
Oh, blessed night! with sober calmness sweet,
The sad winds moaning through the ruined tower,
The age-worn hind, the sheep’s sad broken bleat–
All nature groans opprest with toil and care,
And wearied craves for rest, and love, and prayer.
At eve the babes with angels converse hold,
While we to our strange pleasures wend our way,
Each with its little face upraised to heaven,
With folded hands, barefoot kneels down to pray,
At selfsame hour with selfsame words they call
On God, the common Father of them all.
And then they sleep, and golden dreams anon,
Born as the busy day’s last murmurs die,
In swarms tumultuous flitting through the gloom
Their breathing lips and golden locks descry.
And as the bees o’er bright flowers joyous roam,
Around their curtained cradles clustering come.
Oh, prayer of childhood! simple, innocent;
Oh, infant slumbers! peaceful, pure, and light;
Oh, happy worship! ever gay with smiles,
Meet prelude to the harmonies of night;
As birds beneath the wing enfold their head,
Nestled in prayer the infant seeks its bed.
(Translation by Henry Highton, M.A.)
To prayer, my child! and O, be thy first prayer
For her who, many nights, with anxious care,
Rocked thy first cradle; who took thy infant soul
From heaven and gave it to the world; then rife
With love, still drank herself the gall of life,
And left for thy young lips the honeyed bowl.
And then–I need it more–then pray for me!
For she is gentle, artless, true like thee;–
She has a guileless heart, brow placid still;
Pity she has for all, envy for none;
Gentle and wise, she patiently lives on;
And she endures, nor knows who does the ill.
In culling flowers, her novice hand has ne’er
Touched e’en the outer rind of vice; no snare
With smiling show has lured her steps aside:
On her the past has left no staining mark;
Nor knows she aught of those bad thoughts which, dark
Like shade on waters, o’er the spirit glide.
She knows not–nor mayest thou–the miseries
In which our spirits mingle: vanities,
Remorse, soul-gnawing cares, Pleasure’s false show:
Passions which float upon the heart like foam,
Bitter remembrances which o’er us come,
And Shame’s red spot spread sudden o’er the brow.
I know life better! when thou’rt older grown
I’ll tell thee–it is needful to be known–
Of the pursuit of wealth–art, power; the cost.
That it is folly, nothingness: that shame
For glory is oft thrown us in the game
Of Fortune; chances where the soul is lost.
The soul will change. Although of everything
The cause and end be clear, yet wildering
We roam through life (of vice and error full).
We wander as we go; we feel the load
Of doubt; and to the briars upon the road
Man leaves his virtue, as the sheep its wool.
Then go, go pray for me! And as the prayer
Gushes in words, be this the form they bear:–
“Lord, Lord, our Father! God, my prayer attend;
Pardon! Thou art good! Pardon–Thou art great!”
Let them go freely forth, fear not their fate!
Where thy soul sends them, thitherward they tend.
There’s nothing here below which does not find
Its tendency. O’er plains the rivers wind,
And reach the sea; the bee, by instinct driven,
Finds out the honeyed flowers; the eagle flies
To seek the sun; the vulture where death lies;
The swallow to the spring; the prayer to Heaven!
And when thy voice is raised to God for me,
I’m like the slave whom in the vale we see
Seated to rest, his heavy load laid by;
I feel refreshed–the load of faults and woe
Which, groaning, I drag with me as I go,
Thy winged prayer bears off rejoicingly!
Pray for thy father! that his dreams be bright
With visitings of angel forms of light,
And his soul burn as incense flaming wide,
Let thy pure breath all his dark sins efface,
So that his heart be like that holy place,
An altar pavement each eve purified!
(Translation by Tait’s Magazine)
—Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac.