Islam. A Little-Known Poem by Victor Hugo as an Antidote to Islamophobia

In a little-known poem from La Légende des siècles, Victor Hugo takes a stand against the media uproar following the assassination of the French and British consuls in the city of Jeddah, then under Ottoman rule, on 15 June 1858, by resolutely inscribing Islam in a universal humanist perspective.

Eve’s tomb, in the cemetery of Jeddah
L’Illustration, 19 February 1859, private collection

The year is 1858. Hugo is 56 and has just begun writing his epic poem La Légende des siècles (The Legend of the Centuries) shortly after his attack of mysticism and his spiritualist period from 1853 to 1856. He wrote “L’an IX de l’Hégire,” which deals with the death of Muhammad, and then “Le Cèdre” (The cedar-tree) a little-known symbolist poem. As Théophile Gautier explains so well, La Légende des siècles “looks at Man through the shadows. Its subject is Mankind or rather humanity. (…) To portray Muhammad, he immerses himself in the Koran to a point where one might think him a son of Islam”1, displaying indeed an empathy which gave rise a few years ago to the speculation that towards the end of his life he had converted to that religion.

Hugo composed “Le Cèdre” from 20 to 24 October 1858, not long after June 15 murder of the French and British consuls in Jeddah, then under Ottoman rule. The local population had rioted that day to protest the growing British struggle hold on the economy, and massacred twenty-three Europeans, an event which made headlines and shocked French public opinion deeply and durably. Editorialists blamed the massacre on “fanaticism.” They portrayed Muslims as “enemies of the Christian name they should honour and bless” as General de Gaulle’s grandmother wrote in 1859, in reaction to the tragedy2.

Jeddah, the city of Eve

And yet in that cosmopolitan city, famous for its tolerance towards French visitors, the Jeddah rebels had not invoked religion, as the Europeans had done in their commentaries to disguise their real interests in the Red Sea region. One exception was the heroine of that massacre, Élise Éveillard, daughter of the murdered consul, who survived after a Homeric battle described eight years later by Alexandre Dumas. Her account eschews any religious allusion and tells with great simplicity how she and her future husband were saved by Muslims.

Narcisse-Alexandre Buquet, {Le massacre de Djeddah,} illustrated handkerchief, Rouen, July 1858
© Véronique Hénon, Museum of Norman traditions and arts, Martainville castle. The scene depicts the daughter of the French consul, Élise Éveillard, defending her dying father, lying on the ground, while the deputy consul Louis Émerat fights the assailants behind her. Mrs. Éveillard’s body can be seen in the lower left corner.

Hugo takes issue with the media clamour denigrating Islam by situating that religion in a universal humanist perspective. “Le Cèdre” establishes a mystical dialogue between Calif Omar (which he spells Omer) and Saint John the Evangelist, on the one hand, and between Jeddah, the mythical origin of humanity, and Greece, the imaginary source of European civilisation. If he places Omar in Jeddah rather than in his actual city of origin, Mecca or his capital, Medina, the first two holy cities of Islam, it is because Jeddah is from time immemorial the city of Eve, mother of all men3 and as such may also lay claim to be qualified as “holy” in the poet’s mind.

“History overheard at the doors to legend”

Hugo attached great importance to the myth of Eve, to whom he had dedicated the opening poem of the Legende des siècles under the title “Le Sacre de la femme”( The Rite of the Woman). He knew of the existence of her much reverenced tomb in Jeddah. The “santon” in the shadow of which Omar, strolling on the beach at Jeddah in the poem, glimpses a cedar tree, is an archaic term for a Muslim holy man and, by extension, his domed tomb, called a marabout in North Africa.

He was a regular reader of L’Illustration and had therefore read the article on the Jeddah massacre, illustrated by a drawing of Eve’s tomb in L’Illustration (see the illustration of the article, above). Now this drawing showed the cluster of palm trees (a palm-tree produces shoots at its base) growing in the shadow of the shrine built on the spot corresponding to Eve’s head. In his powerful oniric vision Hugo turns these palm trees into a cedar. He regards trees in general as symbolic of life: “The tree, the beginning of the forest, is a whole in itself. By its roots, it belongs to life in isolation, and by its sap to life in common. Taken alone, it proves only the tree, yet it announces the forest. (…) Every aspect of humanity is summarised in a single huge ascending movement towards the light”. The sacred tree of the ancient Midde-East (in humanity’s oldest myth, the saga of Gilgamesh, a quest for immortality, the goddess Ishtar’s throne is a giant cedar) it was a symbol of incorruptibility and immortality. This was no doubt the main reason for Hugo’s substituting it for the palm tree. The symbolism of the cedar was admirably suited to the poet’s intention since it was a way of bridging the gap between the oriental roots of civilisation and the Christian apocalypse of the West.

In this long, majestic poem, composed in alexandrine verse, Hugo portrays the Calif Omar wending his way along the beach at Jeddah, and is careful to equip him with his walking stick, celebrated in Muslim historiography. Muhammad’s second successor encounters an old cedar tree, which he orders to tear itself out of the rock in which it is rooted and fly away “in the name of the living God” to join Saint John the Evangelist, author of the Book of the Apocalypse, asleep on the beach of the Greek isle of Patmos. Hugo’s allusion to the “living” God confirms the role of awakened to life entrusted to the cedar in the poem. This oniric journey is reminiscent of the isra and the mi’raj or nocturnal journey of the prophet Muhammad, from Mecca to Jerusalem, symbolising the link between Islam and the other two great monotheistic faiths. Thus, the cedar associates the books of Genesis (Eve) and of the Apocalypse with the Koran in a mystical abridgement of human history.

“It is history overheard at the doors to legend” to quote from Hugo’s preface. It also establishes a symbolic bridge between an East rooted in Jeddah and an apocalyptic West, through an ecumenical dialogue between the Calif Omar and Saint John the Evangelist. Hugo displays a real knowledge of Islam when he gives Jesus his Arabic name, Issa.

“Ye newcomers, leave Nature alone!”

In the poet’s pantheistic vision, nature in general and trees in particular are reflections of godliness. Here then Hugo is referring symbolically to the respect we should have for nature, the source of all life. It is a message originating in the Levant, “once the paradise on earth” as he wrote in a youthful poem which already described the dialogue between “East and West”. Asleep here on Patmos, the latter should grasp the message of rebirth delivered by the cedar tree instead of foundering in the shades of the Apocalypse; it fell to “John, lying asleep upon the shore” like Eve on the beach at Jeddah, to rekindle life in the West: such was the poet’s message to the Evangelist, delivered by the mouth of the Calif Omar. And Saint John’s sibylline reply to all mankind, born and locked in sterile battles: “Ye newcomers, leave Nature alone!”, for she is what gives and sustains life.

It is a cedar tree with its roots planted in the oriental heart of humanity that comes in a dream to “cast its shadow over him”, to awaken him from his apocalyptic sleep and return him to the world of the living… That the poet should associate the legend of humanity’s origin with the eschatological myth of the apocalypse in “Le Cèdre” is certainly no accident. Actually, the poem is a condensation of La Légende des siècles, rooted in the Orient like the cedar tree at Jeddah. The contrast between this message and the ostracism of that city and of Islam in the France of Hugo’s time demonstrates his singularity and his humanistic determination to brew an antidote to the poison that was taking hold, pursuing his lifelong association of politics and literature. The poet accomplished the tour de force of grafting a timeless saga on a burning, and bloody issue of his day. That a tree could serve as a link between Islam and Christianity shows how pitting the one against the other is contrary to the laws of nature is in fact unnatural. Thus, literature could play its role as a link between peoples at a time when their fury divided them. Reacting to violence with dialogue instead of stigmatising the Muslim Other, what a lesson for our contemporaries from the greatest of our writers.

The Cedar-tree (excerpts)

Omer, sheik of Islam and of the new law
Which Muhammad added to what was revealed by Issa,
Walking, then pausing, and on his long stick,
By moments, like a shepherd, resting his chin.
Wandering near Jeddah the holy city, on the shore
Of the Red Sea, where God shines forth as in the depths of a dream.
In the desert that once was dark with the shadow of the skies
Where Moses passed veiled, mysterious.
While walking thus, brim-full of a grave idea,
Over the desert, Egypt and Judea,
To Patmos, by a mountain slope, a bald summit,
He espied John, lying on the sand, asleep.

(…) John slept and his head was bare to the sun.

Omer, the mighty priest, like unto the prophets,
Perceived, close onto the Red Sea, in the shade
Of a santon, an old cedar with dark broad leaves
Growing from a rock by the side of the path;
Sheik Omer reached out his hand to the horizon
To the North where dwelt the rapacious eagles,
And, showing to the old cedar tree, beyond the spaces,
The Aegean Sea, and John asleep on Patmos,
He pushed the tree with his finger and spoke these words:
“Go, Cedar! go cover yon man with thy shadow”,

(The cedar) plunged into the huge nimbus of the abyss,
And, spanning the waves, the dark enemy of the deep,
Landed on Patmos near to where John lay sleeping.

John, having woke, saw the tree, and the prophet
In his mind was surprised to find shade over his head.
Then he said, with forbidding serenity:
“Tree, what dost thou do here?

(…) A cedar is not meant to grow like a dream;
What is built in an hour may be broken in a moment”.
The cedar replied: “John, why lay blame upon me?
John, if I am here, it is by order of a man”
And John, ruminant beast, never to be named without trembling,
Spoke again: “Who is this man to whom all must obey?”
The tree said: “He is Omer, Muhammad’s priest.
I stood by Jeddah for countless years:
He bad me come and cover you with my shade”.
And so, John, forgotten by God among the living,
Turned to the South and shouted into the winds
Over the barren shore of his island:
“Ye newcomers, leave nature alone”.

1Rapport sur le progrès des lettres (1868), quoted in Paul Berret, La Légende des siècles, Mellotée, 1945.

2Joséphine-Marie de Gaulle, Histoires d’un grand-papa racontée à ses petits-fils, Paris, T. Lefèvre, 1859.

3For further details, see Louis Blin, La Découverte de l’Arabie par les Français. Anthologie de textes sur Djeddah, 1697-1939, Paris, Geuthner, 2019.