Analysis of the Poem "More Strong Than Time"
The name of Victor Hugo’s poem “More Strong than Time,” technically, is the poem's first line: “Since I have set my lips to your full cup.” Hugo wrote it in French in 1835, and it was translated by Andrew Lang in his 1872 collection "Ballads and Lyrics of Old France." When approaching the analysis of a poem not originally written in English, keep in mind that translation never is a simple “this-equals-that” process. Translators have a certain right -- and obligation -- to use their own creativity. As long as you acknowledge the translator, you can treat the translation as a poem in its own right. This approach is especially helpful if you are not familiar with the original language. This was Lang’s first publication, and he used these translations to experiment with various stylistic techniques.
It is fairly simple to catch the overall meaning of "More Strong that Time" -- the speaker is in love with a woman. However, the meaning of each individual sentence is more difficult to decipher. This is because the translator makes excellent use of syntax to place words in specific places to delay meaning. This technique, known as periodicity, is employed frequently in the poem. While reading a periodic line, you will notice that the meaning is unclear until you reach a word near the end or even the very last word. This, in part, is what gives the poem its formal and oratorical style, and when combined with end rhyme, its sentiment becomes quite forceful.
The English language, in particular, relies heavily on syntax to create meaning. For example, “the girl hit the ball” means something very different from “the ball hit the girl.” If you look at the second line of stanza 1, “Since I my pallid face between your hands have laid,” you will notice that the order of words deviates from the traditional subject, verb, object syntax used in English. Here the subject “I” comes first, but rather than being followed by the verb “have laid,” it is followed by the object “my pallid face.” This syntactical organization is not in Hugo’s original, which translates as “Since I, in your hands, have put my pallid face.” Lang manipulates the syntax of the clause to do two things: He maintains the rhyme scheme in Hugo’s original -- ABAB -- but also emphasizes the submissive nature of the speaker by ending the line with the word “laid,” as in “laid down.”
Look at stanza 4: “Since I have felt the fall, upon my lifetime’s stream,/Of one rose petal.” If you were to read the first line out of context, you might have no idea what it means. On one hand, without the punctuation -- a comma -- the sentence could literally read, “I have fallen in life that rushes by like a stream.” However, the comma remains, and so you must keep reading to make sense of it as a whole. Indeed, on the next line you will find that the speaker is referring to the fall not of himself but rather of “one rose petal.” The typical English syntax -- subject, verb, object -- is interrupted by the clause “upon my life’s stream,” causing a delay that might give the reader, at least, a moment of curiosity in which he wonders “What fell?"
Another remarkable feature of Lang’s translation is his decision to maintain a somber tone although this is not in the original. If you look at this line in stanza 4 -- “Pass, pass upon your way, for I never grow old” -- the tone is hopeful, but still formal and serious. In Hugo’s original, however, the punctuation is much different, and it greatly affects the tone of the poem: “Go away! Go away forever! I don’t have to grow old!” You will notice that the tone of the original poem is much more forceful, aggressive and perhaps even more confrontational than Lang's translation. You might argue that Lang has taken more than his fair share of creative license and overtly altered the poem's meaning. When analyzing “More Strong than Time,” think about how the use of this somber tone -- as shown here and in the intricate syntax -- affects your interpretation of the poem.
- Poetry-archive.com: "More Strong than Time," Victor Hugo
- A Glossary of Literary Terms, Ninth Edition; M. H. Abrams, 2009
- Les Grands Classiques: "Puisque J'ai Mis Ma Lèvre à Ta Coupe Encor Pleine," Victor Hugo
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images