This is a translation of an opening poem in Victor Hugo’s lengthy epic cycle La Legende des Siecles. I translated it sometime in 1997-98 (see intro, and more of this translation, here).

I

THE EARTH

A HYMN

She is the earth, she is the plain, she is the field,

she is dear to all who seed while on the march.

.           She offers a bed of moss to fathers,

chilly, she is warmed by an eternal sun,

she laughs, and circles with heaven’s planets turning

.           like sisters around the hearth.

.

She loves the ray auspicious for moving wounds,

and the formidable cleansing of the winds,

.              and the breaths that blow through lyres,

and the clear and vibrant brow that, when it shines and flies,

it both reassures and terrifies the night

.               by force of its frightful smiles.

.

Glory to the earth! Glory to dawn where God appears!

To opened eyes flittering through the forest,

.                 to flowers and nests the day engoldens.

Glory to nocturnal whitening of summits!

Glory to heaven, blue and able, without exhaustion,

.                 to afford the expenses of aurora!

.

The earth loves the tranquil sky, equal for all,

whose serenity does not depend on us,

.                  who mixes in with our foul disasters,

with our toils, with bursts of mocking effrontery,

with our acts of malice, our rapidities,

.                  the honeysweet profundity of stars.

.

The earth is calm beside the ocean’s groaning.

The earth is comely with her godly shame

.                concealed below the foliage.

Springtime, her lover, comes in May to kiss her.

She sends him, to appease his haughty thunder,

.                the humble smoke of villages.

.

Don’t strike them, thunder! They’re so small, them there.

The earth is good. She is grave, as well, severe.

.                 The roses are pure as she is.

May hope and labor please whoever thinks,

and innocence, her milk, she offers all to drink,

.                 from her breast of justice.

.

The earth hides gold, and makes the harvests show;

she lays upon the flanks of fleeting seasons

.                 the seed of seasons coming,

through the blue, the eyes that whisper, “Let’s be lovers!”

and shadow’s deeper sources, and on the mountains

.                 the oak trees’ mighty trembling.

.

Under heaven her august deed is harmony.

She orders the reeds to bow to, joyously

.             and satisfied, the tree superb.

Balance the chariot, the low loving the high,

so that the mighty cedar may gain, by right,

.            the consent of a sprig of herb.

.

With the grave she equalizes all, and confounds

with dead cowherds the ash that was, compounded,

.              the Caesars and Alexanders.

She sends to heaven souls and guards the animal;

she ignores, in her vast effacement of evil,

.              the difference between two cinders.

.

She pays to each her debt: to day the night,

to night the day, the plant to rocks, to flowers fruit;

.              whatever she creates, she nurtures.

The tree is confident while man is uncertain.

O confrontation that puts our fate to shame,

.              o great and sacred nature!

.

She was the cradle of Adam and of Japhet,

and then she was their tomb; and it is her who makes-

.                in Tyre that, today, we do not see,

in Sparta and Rome in toil, in Memphis cast down,

in all the places man has spoken, then your town-

.               the sonorous cicada sing.

.

Why? To pacify the sleeping tombs.

Why? Because there’s need, upon collapse and doom,

.             of apotheoses to succeed

the voices of dissent, the voices of assent,

the vanishings of evanescent man,

.            the mysterious song of things.

.

The earth is friendly with the harvesters; at dusk,

she’ll chase from the horizon, vast and black,

.               the voracious swarm of rasping crows,

at the hour the bull tells them, “Let’s turn in now,”

when the brown laborers wind their ways back, drawing,

.               like armor, their scythes and plows.

.

She does not cease to birth flowers that don’t endure;

the flowers never found to reproach their Lord;

.                from virgin lilies, from vines mature,

from myrtles trembling in the wind, never a cry

rises to the venerable sky, who’s softened by

.                the innocence of murmurs.

.

Underneath dense boughs she writes her secret leaves.

She does whatever’s possible, and lavishes peace

.                on stones, on trees, on plants,

to enlighten us, we children of Shem and Hermes,

who are condemned to never read, except

.                by trembling luminescence.

.

Her aim is nativity, it is not death,

it is the mouth that speaks, not biting teeth.

.             When wars, defaming streets, hollow

out of man a vile furrow of bloodshed,

fierce, she turns her gaze away indignant

.             from this sinister plow.

.

Mutilated, she demands of man: “For what

this devastation? What fruit swells in a desert?

.              Why kill the plain so green?”

She finds no use in our malicious wills,

and mourns the virginal beauty of the fields

.               dishonored by pure ruin.

.

Of old the earth was Ceres, Alma Ceres,

blue-eyed mother of meadows, of corn and forests;

.                  and I would have her say still more:

“Children, I am Demeter, goddess of the gods,

and you will build for me a splendid temple

.                 on the hill called Callicore.”

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