In this paper I am supposed to find a major theme of Victor Hugo’s poem, and then cite supporting examples from the text. But right away I ran into a problem: this is a translation — the poem was written in French. I don’t speak or write French, but in researching this poem, I found out that Hugo used a form of grammar English doesn’t have: it’s called the formal you. Hugo used it for Napoleon Bonaparte to show his respect. But then, in another part of the poem, he used the informal you when speaking of Napoleon III, who followed Napoleon Bonaparte to the throne of France. Hugo wanted to show he had no respect for Napoleon III. The problem is, what else is missing from the English version? And how would it affect my selection of a major theme of the poem without me knowing it? I think the only approach is to just find the broadest theme in the poem, since it is probably not going to be affected as much by any differences in English and French. To me, that theme is that defeat and victory are states of mind.
You might think that the winter weather is the dominant theme. After all, the poem is almost one continuous description of the cold, from the first The snow fell, and its power was multiplied to the middle In hollows where the snow was piling up to the conclusion of Napoleon understood, before his butchered legions in the snow. But in between there are clues to another point of view: that of the Russian Cossacks. The Cossacks, along with the North and the Czar are named as enemies of the French in the poem. But you’ll notice that the North (the winter cold) are not stopping those enemies. What’s more, research tells that the Cossacks are generally described as being southern Russians (although there were and still are lots of different tribes of Cossacks). That means that the cold wasn’t necessarily their normal environment, any more than it was for the French, even though parts of France can also get very cold.
The point I’m making here is that the winter cold didn’t stop the winning side. In fact, the winning side probably saw the weather as their ally. So for the French, defeat was a state of mind. It was a state of mind that infected Napoleon as much as his troops. I would bet it is just as clear in French as it is in the English of: Two foes. The North, the Czar. The North was worse. Worse for the French, but not for the Cossacks and their Czar: Ney, bringing up the former army’s rear, hacked his horse loose from three disputing Cossacks and White ghosts would wrench away our guns or . . . rush sabering through our camps like dervishes. Compare that to the French who hid in the bellies of dead horses, in stacks of shattered caissons.
It not like things were all that different for the Russians. After all, Moscow’s onion domes still burned, and as part of their defense they had adopted a “scorched earth” policy, burning buildings and crops to deny the French food and shelter. And during a warm spell, Russia’s muddy roads were just as sticky for the Cossacks. But if their leader had cried out God of the armies, is this the end? we can be pretty sure the answer he heard wouldn’t have been what Napoleon had heard, no matter what language it was in.
But qui vive! It seems to me that even in a big theme, the problem of a translated poem just doesn’t go away. After Napoleon hears the answer to his question, he understood before his butchered legions in the snow. But exactly what did he understand? That the voice was right — or wrong? It’s really the only mysterious line in the whole poem, and it comes right at the end. Understood must mean something more in French. Otherwise it’s just a dishonest ending.