‘Sunset’ is one of six poems that Victor Hugo composed in reverence while viewing the passage of day to night within the French communes of Vanves and Montrouge. Titled ‘Soleils couchants’ (“Sunsets” or “Setting Suns”), the collection sees the poet waxing nostalgic and philosophical on a variety of topics that were inspired by his observations.
In this poem titled ‘Sunset,’ the poet’s focus is only partially fixed on the vision of the sun’s disappearance. By the time the speaker begins relating to the reader, it’s already vanished behind a grouping of clouds. Instead, Hugo simply uses the cycle of day and night to highlight a few Romantic sentiments about life, death, and humanity’s place within the natural world.
Sunset Victor HugoThe sun set this evening in masses of cloud, The storm comes to-morrow, then calm be the night, Then the Dawn in her chariot refulgent and proud, Then more nights, and still days, steps of Time in his flight. The days shall pass rapid as swifts on the wing. O'er the face of the hills, o'er the face of the seas, O'er streamlets of silver, and forests that ring With a dirge for the dead, chanted low by the breeze; The face of the waters, the brow of the mounts Deep scarred but not shrivelled, and woods tufted green, Their youth shall renew; and the rocks to the founts Shall yield what these yielded to ocean their queen. But day by day bending still lower my head, Still chilled in the sunlight, soon I shall have cast, At height of the banquet, my lot with the dead, Unmissed by creation aye joyous and vast.
‘Sunset’ by Victor Hugo follows the thoughts of a speaker whose view of a recently departed sun inspires poignant thoughts about the eternal movement of life and time.
‘Sunset’ opens with the speaker remarking that the sun has just set, which causes them to begin musing on other coming meteorological and astronomical events. They include an approaching storm, the arrival of night, and the inevitable dawn.
This gets the speaker thinking about the movement of time in general, characterizing and personifying it with an unstoppable swiftness. The speaker then imagines time moving across the natural world, describing the various fauna and water as being renewed by time rather than decayed by it.
But that’s not the case for humans, according to the speaker: instead, the world echoes with a “dirge for the dead” (8). The speaker ends the poem envisioning their own aging and death. Yet instead of a morose or melancholic tone, they end with an optimistic one. The final line stresses the relative minuteness of man and the reassuring knowledge that long after we perish, the beauty of the world continues to flourish.
Structure and Form
‘Sunset’ is a single stanza poem composed of sixteen lines. The rhyme scheme is ‘ABABCDCDEFEFGHGH.’ Hugo’s meter was far more flexible than other poets of the period: this poem reflects both his lyrical verse and his use of caesura to interrupt the metrical feet of his lines in order to control its cadence.
‘Sunset’ mainly relies on Hugo’s use of imagery to illustrate their reverence for creation. There is visual imagery: “The sun set this evening in masses of cloud” (1); “Deep scarred but not shrivelled, and woods tufted green” (10). Also, kinesthetic imagery, “The days shall pass rapid as swifts on the wing” (5); auditory imagery, “forests that ring / With a dirge for the dead, chanted low by the breeze” (7-8); and tactile imagery: “chilled in the sunlight” (14).
There are also examples of personification — “Dawn in her chariot refulgent and proud” (3) and “steps of Time in his flight” (4) — as well as metaphor: “height of the banquet” (15).
The sun set this evening in masses of cloud,
The storm comes to-morrow, then calm be the night,
Then the Dawn in her chariot refulgent and proud,
Then more nights, and still days, steps of Time in his flight.
‘Sunset’ opens with the speaker telling the reader that the sun has just set, passing beyond “masses of cloud” (1). Hugo’s withholding of any imagery describing the actual sunset aids in placing the focus of the poem on the pensive thoughts that both follow it and are inspired by it.
The imagery the speaker does provide contributes to the poem’s precarious balancing act between being melancholic and wistful: a “storm comes to-morrow,” they recall, before reminding themselves that afterward, the night will be “calm” (2) in its aftermath.
A further shift in tone and mood occurs in the preceding line when the speaker imagines the inevitable return of the sun, personifying “Dawn in her chariot refulgent and proud” (3) as a female allusion to the Greek god Apollo. But then the speaker returns to their cyclical thinking, ruminating on all the coming nights and days yet to unfold, imagining them as steps taken by a personified “Time in his flight” (4).
The days shall pass rapid as swifts on the wing.
O’er the face of the hills, o’er the face of the seas,
O’er streamlets of silver, and forests that ring
With a dirge for the dead, chanted low by the breeze;
The face of the waters, the brow of the mounts
Deep scarred but not shrivelled, and woods tufted green,
Their youth shall renew; and the rocks to the founts
Shall yield what these yielded to ocean their queen.
In this sequence of lines within ‘Sunset,’ the speaker dives further into describing the movements of the time and their effects on the world around them. A simile emphasizes once more its rapidity: “The days shall pass rapid as swifts on the wing” (5).
The figurative language imbues time with the gift of flight, and the next few lines describe it passing over the landscape: “O’er the face of the hills, o’er the face of the seas” (6). But as it passes through the forests, the speaker describes them ringing with “a dirge for the dead, chanted low by the breeze” (8).
Hugo also deliberately entwines human features with the natural world, using words like “face” and “brow” to describe land formations and the ocean. The purpose of which is to highlight both how entangled we are with nature and the differences in our respective fates.
To underscore this, the speaker describes the “mounts” (i.e. hills) as being “deep scarred but not shrivelled” and the “woods tufted green” (10) despite time’s continuous passage. The point is that, unlike humankind, the natural world experiences (from the perspective of the speaker) a cyclical rejuvenation that’s similar to the passage between day and night, whereas people experience an end far more final in death.
But day by day bending still lower my head,
Still chilled in the sunlight, soon I shall have cast,
At height of the banquet, my lot with the dead,
Unmissed by creation aye joyous and vast.
The last four lines of ‘Sunset’ focus on the speaker, who imagines far ahead in time’s march the arrival of their own death. Their head “bending still lower” (13), offering visual imagery of their body’s own degradation. The imagery also returns to alternating between a doleful and reverent tone: so although the speaker describes the onset of death as being “chilled in the sunlight” (14), they also describe it as being at the “height of the banquet” (15).
A series of images capture the speaker’s lucid understanding of the realities of death alongside their perception of it as the pinnacle of life. The final line delivers the poem’s theme in a single verse: that after death, a person will go “unmissed by creation” (16) — not in any spiteful or cynical manner — but rather as an emphasis on humanity’s inherent insignificance to such forces. The speaker finds comfort in this thought because although we as people end, this world “joyous and vast” (16) continues onward ceaselessly.
The poem’s theme has to do with the speaker’s view of life as a series of cycles moved by time. For humans, that cycle ends eventually with the arrival of death, while the natural world continues to exist endlessly renewed by itself. But Hugo’s poem doesn’t lament this fact and instead appears rejuvenated by it: taking comfort in the continuation of the beautiful world that they’ll eventually leave behind.
Hugo wrote this poem in 1829, and it’s part of a series of poems he composed about sunsets. Through the speaker, the poet conveys the thoughts spurred by the setting sun into a meditation on time’s relentless nature and death’s finality, possibly as an attempt to cope with them and find solace.
The speaker’s tone wavers back and forth in part thanks to the contrasting images of life and death given in the poem. These are presented as two sides of time’s ceaseless movement and, as such, are seen as inevitabilities, much like the rising and setting sun. As a result, the poem expresses a Romantic perception of death that is both lucidly visceral and incorporates an idealistic love of nature. The speaker asserts that if people must expire, at least the world continues to exist in all its beatific glory.
This line uses metaphor to describe the music heard, symbolizing all those who have died over the course of time. It is slightly ambiguous in the poem, but the speaker appears to be referring only to human beings in this line as singing a dirge is an act performed in ceremonies at funerals and also fits the speaker’s perception that it is only humans who face such definite mortality.
- ‘How the old Mountains drip with Sunset’ by Emily Dickinson – this poem revels in the beauty of a sunset that the speaker denies can ever be captured in art.
- ‘Evening’ by Friedrich Schiller – this poem sees the speaker invoking Apollo to bring the sun to rest.
- ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley – this poem examines the passage of time and its indifference to humans in a far more bleak and foreboding manner.