Ces Colosses de Gloire: Napoleon and Cromwell in Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo begins “Lui,” his rapturous celebration of Napoleon, with an epigraph from his hero, “J’étais géant alors, et haut de cent coudées.” What Hugo says of himself in this poem, “Son image sans cesse ébranle ma pensée,” also might be said of Chateaubriand who, like Hugo, spent a lifetime trying to come to terms with this flawed and terrifying as well as stupefyingly grand Vesuvius of a man who fired their creative passions.
The title of Hugo’s poem springs from the government ban on any overt naming or visual portrayals of Napoleon during the repressive regime of Charles X. Contemporaneous with “Lui” is Hugo’s epic drama, Cromwell of 1827 whose hero is built up through evocations of Napoleon (i.e.,”the eagles flight,” “his star shines with undiminished light,” “this colossus of earthly fame”) and whose theme is a powerful denunciation of monarchical evils. Though a minor figure in terms of lines in the play, Milton, as Cromwell’s tacit conscience and advisor, is a crucial witness to this theme as well as being a Hugonian alter-ego. Before, during, and after the time of Hugo’s Cromwell, evaluating the historic Cromwell as well as Milton’s relationship with the Lord Protector was also a means by which Chateaubriand attempted to configure his varying responses to Napoleon. I draw examples from Les Quatre Stuarts, Mémoires d’outre-tombe, Essai sur la littérature anglaise, and Vie de Rancé.
In contrast to Hugo who uses Cromwell mainly as a way to shadow forth praise of Napoleon and nostalgia for his reign, Chateaubriand introduces examples of Cromwell and Milton primarily in order to criticize the political actions of Napoleon, particularly his suppression of liberty of the press. Nevertheless, especially in his later years, and also deeply dismayed by the regressive oppressions of Charles X, Chateaubriand in his way , as Hugo in his, celebrated both Napoleon and Cromwell for their colossal and seismic reconfigurations of English and European national identities.