Hugo’s ‘Les Djinns’

French Romantic novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885), author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables, penned a wonderful, little-known poem about the jinn. Set in a North African seaport, it describes the horror of an invasion of the town by a horde of evil jinn in an array of frightening shapes – “Hideous army of vampires and dragons,” say the townsfolk – and concludes with their eventual withdrawal. In the words of Jorge Luis Borges: “With each stanza, as the Jinn cluster together, the lines grow longer and longer, until the eighth, when they reach their fullness. From this point on they dwindle to the close of the poem, when the Jinn vanish.”1 Here is an English translation:

The Djinns By Victor Hugo
Walls, town And port, Refuge From death, Gray sea Where breaks The wind All sleeps. In the plain Is born a sound. It is the breathing Of the night. It roars Like a soul That a flame Always follows. The higher voice Seems a shiver. Of a leaping dwarf It is the gallop.
1

Jorge Luis Borges, Book of Imaginary Beings, Mexico City: 1957.

He flees, he springs, Then in cadence On one foot dances At the end of a stream. The murmur approaches, The echo repeats it. It is like the bell Of a cursed convent, Like a crowd sound That thunders and rolls And sometimes crumbles And sometimes swells. God! The sepulchral voice Of Djinns! … What noise! We flee beneath the spiral Of the deep staircase! My lamp has already died, And the shadow of the ramp, Which crawls along the wall, Ascends to the ceiling. The swarm of Djinns is passing, And it whirls, hissing. Old conifers, stirred by their flight, Crackle like burning pine. Their herd, heavy and swift, Flying in the vacant space, Seems a livid cloud With lightning flashing at its edge. They are so near! – We keep closed This room where we defy them. What noise outside! Hideous army Of vampires and dragons! The beam of the loosened ceiling Sags like soaked grass, And the rusted old door Trembles, unseating its hinges. Cries from hell! voice that roars and weeps! The horrible swarm, driven by the north wind, Doubtless, or heaven! assails my home. The wall bends under the black battalion. The house cries out and staggers tilted, And one could say that, ripped from the soil, Just as it chases a dried-out leaf, The wind rolls it along in a vortex!

2

Prophet! If your hand spares me From these impure demons of the night, I would go prostrate my bald forehead Before your sacred incense burners! Make their breath of sparks Die on these faithful doors, And make the talons of their wings Scrape and cry in vain at these black windows! They have passed! – Their cohort Takes flight and flees, and their feet Stop beating on my door With their multiple blows. The air fills with a sound of chains, And in the nearby forests All the great oaks tremble Bent beneath their fiery flight! The beating of their wings Fades in the distance. So vague in the plains, So faint, that you believe You hear the grasshopper Cry with a shrill voice Or the hail crackling On the lead of an old roof. Strange syllables Still approach us. Thus, of the Arabs, When the horn sounds, A chant on the shore Rises up in moments, And the dreaming child Has dreams of gold. The funerary Djinns, Files of death, In the shadows Hurry their step; Their swarm rumbles; Thus, deep, Murmurs a wave That no one sees. This vague sound That falls asleep, It is the wave On the edge;

3

It is the moan, Almost extinct, Of a saint For a death. One doubts The night… I listen: – All flees, All fades; Distance Erases Sound. -- Translated from the French by Robert W. Lebling Hugo’s poem was the inspiration for a musical composition by 19th-century Belgian composer César Franck: THE GUARDIAN (U.K.), May 6, 2010:

Franck: Prélude, Choral et Fugue; Les Djinns; Variations Symphoniques; etc
Chamayou/Latry/Royal Scottish National O/Denève (Naïve) This is an intriguing collection of César Franck's five works involving a solo piano, all featuring the up-and-coming French pianist Bertrand Chamayou. Two of them are rarely heard, and another is a genuine oddity. The familiar pieces are the Prélude, Choral et Fugue for piano alone, and the Variations Symphoniques, for piano and orchestra, both of which are heard in concert and recorded regularly enough for Chamayou's perfectly adequate but under-characterised performances to face stiff competition. But he demonstrates that both the solo-piano Prélude, Aria et Final and Les Djinns, a compact symphonic poem for piano and orchestra based upon a Victor Hugo poem, deserve to be heard far more frequently. Meanwhile the texturally rather awkward Prélude, Fugue et Variation, for piano and harmonium, in which Chamayou is joined by Olivier Latry, provides a reminder that Franck was an organist first and foremost, and then a pianist. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/may/06/cesar-franck-chamayou-classicalreview

4