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Ensigns described in the poem "Canaris" (Victor Hugo, France)

Last modified: 2016-03-21 by ivan sache
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Canaris, a poem by Victor Hugo

The French poet, playwright and novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885) describes several national ensigns of his time in the poem Canaris (text), dated November 1828 and the second poem in the collection Les Orientales, published in 1829.
In the provocative preface of the first edition of the collection, Hugo presents his work as "an unnecessary book of pure poetry", further claiming that he got the idea of it "last summer when watching a sundown". Not unexpectedly, Les Orientales represents a masterpiece of the French Orientalist literature.
Several poems of the collection (13 out of 41) directly allude to the Greek War of Independence that had ended on 20 October 1827 with the suppression of the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Navarino. Hugo warmly supported the Greek aspirations to freedom and the philihellenic cause. Some poems of the collection evokes the Crusades but the general aim of the work is not to expose Ottomans and Muslims as barbarians. Those poems not linked to recent events mix feelings of fear/ condemnation and fascination/crude envy for an idealized "Orient", a common feature among Orientalist artworks.

Like most Hugo's early poems, Les Orientales is much less well known and studied, if not totally forgotten, than masterpieces such as Les Châtiments (1853), Les Contemplations (1856), and the unparalleled La Légende des Siècles (The Legend of the Ages - 1859, 1877, and 1883).
While Hugo's readers at the time of publication massively supported the Greek cause and had followed the evolution of the conflict, contemporary readers will be puzzled by the title of the poem. Canaris is homonym of the French word for "canary birds" - some lazy sources even quote the poem as Les Canaris! Moreover, the rationale for the title, probably straightforward at the time of publication, is made explicit only in the last stanza of the poem. Canaris is indeed the Frenchified name of the hero of the Greek Independence known in English as Kanaris.
Kanaris seems to have been forgotten quite quickly in France. In 1836, Hugo published the collection Les chants du crépuscule, including the poem À Canaris (text), dated October 1832. Lamenting on the short-lived fame of the heroes of the Greek independence, the poem starts with "Canaris! Canaris! We forgot you!".

Constantine Kanaris (1793/95-1877) was born on the island of Psara, famous for ages for its fleet. One of the first Greek freedom fighters to dare attack Ottoman vessels with fire ships, Kanaris inflicted heavy losses to the much powerful Ottoman navy. In a revenge of the Chios Massacre, he destroyed on 18 June 1822 the Ottoman flagship, killing 2,000 seamen and officers, including Captain Pasha (Admiral of the Navy) Kara-Ali Pasha. On 9 November 1822, Kanaris, using two fire ships under false Ottoman flag, failed to destroy the new Ottoman flagship but hit her escort vessel, killing 1,600 seamen and forcing the Ottoman fleet to withdraw to the Dardanelles. After having escaped the Psara Destruction in June 1824, Kanaris resumed the fight. On 10 August 1825, he led a failed attempt against the Ottoman fleet in the port of Alexandria (Egypt). Kanaris did not fought in the Battle of Navarino, as recalled by Victor Hugo in another poem included in Les Orientales, Navarin (text), dated 23 November 1827.
After the independence of Greece, Kanaris was awarded the rank of Admiral in the new Greek Navy. He served six times as Prime Minister, mostly for short periods (one month in 1844, 13 months in 1848-1849, two months in 1854, one month in 1864, six months in 1864-1865, and three months in 1877).

Ivan Sache, 23 September 2012

Ensigns described in the poem Canaris

The poem Canaris is made of 22 stanzas of four syllabic verses each - one 12-syllable line (alexandrine), one 6-syllable line (hexasyllable), one 12-syllable line, and one 6-syllable line -, with alternate rhyme ("ABAB").
I have not been able to locate an English translation of the poem, therefore the excerpts given before are my own, approximate translation. I have not attempted to render Hugo's style, especially alliterations (un vaisseau vaincu dérive; de la poupe à la proue; Espagne peint aux plis des drapeaux).

The first six stanzas of Canaris forms the epic description of a "vanquished vessel drifting on deep sea". The winning vessel appears in the seventh stanza, capturing the vessel with its "black grapnel", "like a powerful eagle puts, after the fighting, its nail on its prey".
The next ten stanzas describe how the nations proudly host their ensign on captured vessels:

And then nations are seen spreading
The proudest colours,
And purple, silver and azure [are seen] waving
To the folds of their banners.


Malta displayed its cross; Venice, king of the nations,
[displayed] on its moving sterns
The heraldic lion that makes roaring with terror
The living lionesses.

Hugo means here that lionesses are scared by the image of the Venice lion.

The Naples ensign is bright in the air,
And when it unfurls,
It looks like a flow of gold and silk
Ripples from the stern to the sea.

Spain paints to the folds of the flags fluttering
On its miserly fleets,
Leon with golden lions, Castile with silver towers,
The chains of the Navarres.

I believe that Hugo deliberately changed the colours of the lion of Leon and of the towers of Castile as a poetic license - to keep the required number of syllables in the verse and for the sake of the rhyme - voltigeant (fluttering) / argent (silver). Navarres, in the plural form, probably refers to the Spanish Navarre and French, Lower Navarre. The odd and quite meaningless epithet "miserly" was probably used for the sake of rhyme - avares / Navarres.

Rome has the keys; Milan [has] the child still screaming
In the jaws of the viper;
And the vessels of France have golden fleurs-de-lis
On their brass livery.

Hugo uses guivre to name the Visconti biscione. which is the accurate term in French heraldry, therefore the quite odd use of cuivre (brass) for the sake of the rhyme.

Istanbul the Turkish around the abhorred crescent
Hangs three white tails;
America eventually free spreads a golden sky
Dotted with blue stars.

Hugo uses the old French written form "Stamboul" - the modern form is "Istanbul" or "Istamboul". The golden field of the canton of the US flag must be another poetic license; for the sake of the rhyme - abhorré (abhorred) / doré (golden).

Austria bears the odd eagle, with ruffled pinions,
Shining on the moiré,
Towards both ends of the world equally threatened,
Turns a black head.

The other double-headed eagle, obeying the czar's laws,
Her old enemy,
As she, watching two worlds together,
Holds one of them in her claws.

Triumphant England imposes on the bitter waves
Its splendid banner,
So rich that its reflection on the seas
Looks like the shadow of a flame.

Then Hugo exposes the vanity of the kings appending their symbols to the defeated fleets:

That is the way the kings do hoist their arms
To the masts of the vessels,
And sentence the ships conquered on the waves
To change of country.

They drag in their ranks those sails
Whose lot misleads their destiny
So proud to see sailing back to the port
More numerous blazoned fleets.

blasonnées (blazoned) means here "marked with a coat of arms".

To the captive vessels they will ever hang
Their victory flags,
So that the vanquished bear written on the forehead
Their shame with their glory!

The last verse reads "the shame of the vanquished with the glory of the winner".

Kanaris finally appears, in the closing stanza of the poem, as opposed in behaviour to the nations:

But good Kanaris, whose daring boat
Is followed by a burning wake,
On the vessels he seizes, as his ensign,
Displays the blaze!.

Victor Hugo intended to present Kanaris as a stateless libertarian who burned down the enemy vessels, as opposed to the heads of states, who conquer the vessels and incorporate them into their own fleet. According to Hugo's specialists, the libertarian theme of Les Orientales matches the writer's disinvolvement with absolute monarchy and increasing support to Bonapartism; later on, Hugo would became a main opponent to Napoléon III and an emblematic supporter of the French Republic.

In the text, the occurrences of words describing flags are:
drapeau - bannières - pavillon - drapeaux - oriflamme - drapeaux - pavillon.

Ivan Sache, 23 September 2012