A tale of two poets

A friend of mine shared Victor Hugo's over 150 year old "Man and Woman" poem on social media this morning, presumably in appreciation, although he did not offer an opinion on it. A quick internet search of the title revealed just how celebrated this piece of work is; translated into numerous languages and set to romantic music and scenery on YouTube videos, this poem is, apparently, being widely shared as one of the ultimate pieces of romance writing.

This is where I became very confused. Let me share a few of the differences Hugo points out between men and women:

Men Women
The highest of creatures The most sublime of ideals
Brain Heart
Reason Tears
Heroes Martyrs
Geniuses Angels
Thinkers Dreamers
Must aspire for supreme glory  Must aspire for supreme virtue


Whilst there is nothing wrong with any of these qualities per se, the idea that one necessarily excludes the other - that one is the exclusive domain of men, and the other of women - is a concept that most people would consider outdated in today's world. Even in Hugo's time, these sentiments were being called into question. It is interesting to contrast Hugo's poem with some of the works of one of his contemporaries, Elizabeth Barret Browning.

In many ways, Barrett Browning's works were a counterweight to the type of thinking represented in Hugo's poem. She often wrote about the difficulties of being a female author, in a world in which intellectual pursuits were seen as almost the exclusive domain of men.

Despite heroism being the a trait of the highest of creatures, Barrett Browning took the very brave step for a 19th century woman of giving up her wealth and her family (her father and brothers disowned her), for the man she loved. Although she was of an angelic disposition and clearly not in possession of the genius and rational mind of men, Barrett Browning married a fellow poet; the man who met, fell in love and appreciated her for her intellec tears.

In contrast, Hugo, being a thinker and in possession of reason, made a much more rational choice of life partner, marrying a woman completely uninterested in intellectual pursuits, with little appreciation for his literary work (which possibly brings to mind a 'chicken and egg' argument over his opinions on women).

It is interesting that despite their differences, both Barrett Browning and Hugo wrote extensively on politics, justice, equality, and (anti-)slavery. It is somewhat puzzling, therefore, that Hugo often drifted back within the 19th century box when it came to his opinions on men and women being at opposite ends of just about every spectrum he could name.

Or perhaps it isn't. In our 21st century world, most people would agree that they believe in gender equality, and in equal opportunities for all. Yet, at the same time, we segregate the playtime of our boys and girls in a way that would have Barrett Browning turning in her grave and Victor Hugo barely batting an eyelid.

Just as Hugo championed social justice, and even spoke against the oppression of women at various points in his life, he was never quite able to free himself of an intrinsically gendered way of thinking. Nor could he clearly see the link between such ideas and the ways they then manifest themselves in society, many of which Hugo vehemently disagreed. 

Intellectually, how much has really changed in 160 years?




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