‘The Sower’ by Victor-Marie Hugo is a short lyrical poem. It was originally written in French by Hugo and translated to English by Toru Dutt. It describes the activity of an old sower as observed by the persona in the poem. With an alternating rhyme scheme and vivid imagery, ‘The Sower’ is one of the most recognized poems by a French poet.
The Sower Victor-Marie HugoSitting in a porchway cool,Fades the ruddy sunlight fast,Twilight hastens on to rule--Working hours are wellnigh pastShadows shoot across the lands;But one sower lingers still,Old, in rags, he patient stands,--Looking on, I feel a thrill.Black and high his silhouetteDominates the furrows deep!Now to sow the task is set,Soon shall come a time to reap.Marches he along the plain,To and fro, and scatters wideFrom his hands the precious grain;Moody, I, to see him stride.Darkness deepens. Gone the light.Now his gestures to mine eyesAre august; and strange--his heightSeems to touch the starry skies.
Explore The Sower
‘The Sower’ by Victor-Marie Hugo is a poem telling of an old sower’s activities from an observer’s perspective.
The poem begins with the fading of the day into night. The poet persona notes this change as the universal indication working hours are over. As the poem progresses, however, he spots a sower still planting seeds in his fields. The sower’s dedication to this activity intrigues him. The persona admires the man’s diligence; he also senses the old sower only works till late out of necessity and pities him. In the poem’s conclusion, the titular sower never leaves his fields, even when it becomes totally dark. Although the sower’s figure is a distorted shadow at the end, out of admiration, the poet persona doesn’t stop watching him either.
You can read Dutt’s translation here and the original poem here.
‘The Sower’ consists of five quatrains, each quatrain with the alternating rhyme scheme ABAB. In Dutt’s translation, each line comprises seven syllables written in trochaic tetrameter. Dutt heavily uses punctuations—commas, em-dashes, and periods—to indicate pauses throughout the poem. Enjambment is no uncommon feature in ‘The Sower’ either.
Sitting in a porchway cool,
Fades the ruddy sunlight fast,
Twilight hastens on to rule—
Working hours are well-nigh past.
This quatrain begins the poem with the speaker watching day become twilight. He notes this change to mean working hours are over. With these lines, the poem portrays its persona as a fairly relaxed individual; this trait would go on to provide a stark contrast between our persona and the sower he observes.
Shadows shoot across the lands;
But one sower lingers still,
Old, in rags, he patient stands,—
Looking on, I feel a thrill.
This stanza introduces the sower, whom the persona is quick to observe. The speaker’s description paints the image of a poor farmer. His tone in this quatrain also shifts from carefree to intrigued. This change makes readers anticipate the sower’s actions.
Black and high his silhouette
Dominates the furrows deep!
Now to sow the task is set,
Soon shall come a time to reap.
This stanza reveals the sower’s next—and expected—action: planting seeds. The persona also observes, from the length and thickness of the sower’s shadow, twilight fading into night. The speaker’s laid-back personality should’ve made him turn in for the night, but he continues to observe the sower from his porch. From his actions, readers can tell the speaker’s intrigue has become a deep interest. He’s predicting the outcome of the farmer’s activities confirms this shift in tone.
Marches he along the plain,
To and fro, and scatters wide
From his hands the precious grain;
Moody, I, to see him stride.
In stanza four, the persona describes the sower’s actions in detail. The diction here brings romantic elements into the poem, elevating the farmer’s mundane activities until they sound almost magical. The diction also highlights the hardworking nature of the sower. With the word/phrase, “march” and “to and fro”, readers see strength in the sower’s gait. His scattering the seeds “wide” suggest a dedication to his work. However, pity tinges on the speaker’s tone as he watches the farmer work well after dark. Regardless, we know he’s still spellbound by the sower from the romantic way he describes his activities.
Darkness deepens. Gone the light.
Now his gestures to mine eyes
Are august; and strange—his height
Seems to touch the starry skies.
The last stanza underscores the themes of hard work and dedication. A parallel to the conclusion of the poem, night fully sets in here. The poet persona can’t accurately describe the sower’s activities anymore. Despite that, neither the persona nor sower leaves their respective locations. The old sower keeps working in his fields, reaffirming the admiration his observer has for him.
- Inversion: This is the dominant device in Dutt’s translation of Hugo’s poem. In inversion, the normal order of words in a sentence (subject-verb-predicate) are reversed to create an effect, which is, in this case, the alternating rhyme scheme seen throughout the poem.
- Personification: In ‘The Sower’, “twilight”, “shadows”, “silhouette”, and “height” perform human actions.
- Imagery: It’s no surprise visual imagery dominates the poem. Throughout, the persona describes his environment, the sower’s actions, and even the temperature of the porchway in detail. With words, the persona engages our senses and paints a vivid picture of the entire poem.
- Alliteration: Alliteration appears in stanza 2 line 1, stanza 5 line 1 and stanza 5 line 4. The “sh”, “d” and “s” sounds respectively form the alliterations.
- Enjambment: Enjambment runs throughout the poem. More often than not, Dutt breaks what can be read as a sentence into at least three lines of a stanza.
- Hyperbole: This figure of speech appears between lines 3 and 4 of stanza 5, where the speaker exaggerates the length of the sower’s shadow.
The speaker is an individual who is, from all indications, of a higher social class than the titular sower. This person contrasts the tireless and striving nature of the sower. He carefully monitors the times to work and relax, whereas the sower he observes doesn’t seem to note this at all. In short, the speaker in the poem is an observer.
The poet’s persona is full of admiration for the sower. However, he also feels a tinge of pity, watching the old farmer overwork himself.
The poem’s central theme is hard work. The sower diligently planting seeds inspired the speaker’s thoughts, and therefore the poem itself.
A romantic poem focuses on man’s appreciation of nature and/or the seemingly mundane activity around him. In ‘The Sower’, the poet persona uses slightly elevated language to express his admiration of the sower’s activity. On a normal day, planting seeds is a mundane—if not stressful—task. But the speaker describes it in an almost magical way. In this sense, ‘The Sower’ is a romantic poem.
Dutt’s translation of the Victor Hugo poem retains the original’s romantic elements and alternating rhyme scheme. However, Hugo’s original goes by the name, La Saison des semailles: Le soir. (The Sowing Season: Evening). The structure of the original poem varies slightly from its translation as well.
About Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo, fully known as Victor-Marie Hugo, is a French poet, playwright, and novelist. In France, he is mostly recognized for his political and romantic poetry, whereas he is known in other European countries for his historical novels, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and Les Misérables (1862). Hugo’s interest and involvement in politics, paired with his anger at the injustices of the government at the time inspired the latter novel. Towards the end of his life, however, he tired of politics.
After losing his daughter, son-in-law, wife, and two sons, he explored metaphysical poetry which largely dealt with God, Satan, and the struggle between good and evil. Born on February 26, 1802, Hugo died on May 22, 1885, seven years after he was stricken with cerebral congestion. Till today, he is celebrated as one of the fathers of French literature.
Here are similar poems if you enjoyed ‘The Sower’:
- ‘The Wanderers‘ by Robert Browning: A poem detailing the journey of strong and eager men to a desolate island.
- ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A seven-part romantic poem narrating an ancient mariner’s journey back to his country.
- ‘Our Casuarina Tree‘ by Toru Dutt: A nostalgic poem about Dutt’s happy childhood.