Feb. 26, 2004

The Story we Know

by Martha Collins

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Poem: "The Story We Know," by Martha Collins, used by permission of the poet.

The Story We Know

The way to begin is always the same. Hello,
Hello. Your hand, your name. So glad, Just fine,
and Good-bye at the end. That's every story we know,

and why pretend? But lunch tomorrow? No?
Yes? An omelette, salad, chilled white wine?
The way to begin is simple, sane, Hello,

and then it's Sunday, coffee, the Times, a slow
day by the fire, dinner at eight or nine
and Good-bye. In the end, this is a story we know

so well we don't turn the page, or look below
the picture, or follow the words to the next line:
The way to begin is always the same Hello.

But one night, through the latticed window, snow
begins to whiten the air, and the tall white pine.
Good-bye is the end of every story we know

that night, and when we close the curtains, oh,
we hold each other against that cold white sign
of the way we all begin and end. Hello,
Good-bye is the only story. We know, we know.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Les Misérables (1865) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Victor Hugo, born in Besançon, France (1802). His father was a general in Napoleon's army, and Victor was raised mostly by his mother. As he was growing up, his godfather read literature to him and taught him about the ideals of the French Revolution. Hugo began writing poetry and plays, and won several prizes from prestigious French institutions. He went to law school to satisfy his father, but while he was there he focused all his attention on reading and writing literature. He and his brother founded a literary magazine, and in 1822, when he was twenty years old, he published his first book of poetry. He quickly became the leader of the French Romantic movement in literature. He had a large apartment and hosted gatherings devoted to the discussion of literature and philosophy. He wrote many more books of poetry and published his first two novels. In the preface to his play Cromwell (1827), he called for a new kind of literature that embraced both beautiful and ugly aspects of life. In 1831, on opening night of his play Hernani, more traditional theatergoers got into a huge shouting and throwing match with supporters of Hugo and the Romantics. The play went on to become a huge success, running for more than 40 nights, and Hugo established his reputation as the best young writer in France.

In 1831 Hugo became an even bigger celebrity with the publication of Notre-Dame de Paris, usually translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It's a historical novel, set in fifteenth-century Paris, about a gypsy girl named Esmeralda and the deaf and deformed bell ringer of the Notre Dame Cathedral, Quasimodo. A priest named Claude Frollo falls in love with Esmeralda, but she is in love with a Captain named Phoebus. Frollo stabs Phoebus out of jealousy, and Esmeralda is accused of the crime. Quasimodo tries to hide her in the cathedral, but Frollo finds her and tries to win her affection one last time. When that doesn't work, Frollo leaves Esmeralda to be caught and executed by the police. Finally, Quasimodo captures Frollo and throws him from the tower of the cathedral. The book ends with the later discovery of two skeletons in Esmeralda's tomb—Esmeralda's and Quasimodo's, locked in an embrace.

After the publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo began devoting more time to politics than to writing. In 1841, he was elected to the French parliament. He had written about the oppressed in his novels, and now he gave speeches about the misery of the poor and capital punishment. During the revolution of 1848, he started a leftist journal that was eventually repressed by the government. He was violently opposed to Louis Napoleon, who was rising to power at the time, and in 1851 he gave a speech that ended, "Because we have had a Napoleon the Great, must we have a Napoleon the Little?" When Louis Napoleon became president, Hugo was forced to flee the country. First he went to Belgium, then the island of Guernsey, in the English Channel. He began writing poetry and novels again, and in 1865 he published his masterpiece, Les Misérables. Hugo said, "I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Misérables."

Hugo finally returned to France in 1870. As an old man, he continued to publish novels and poetry, and he was enormously popular in France. When he died in 1885, almost two million people attended his funeral.

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