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Life is a Verb

Verbs are the animators of most European languages. Whatever is happening in a piece of writing happens primarily through the verbs, however much they may be modified by adverbs or other elements of the sentence.

Verbs are the animators of most European languages. Whatever is happening in a piece of writing happens primarily through the verbs, however much they may be modified by adverbs or other elements of the sentence. We should therefore pay careful attention to the verbs used in a poem, and nowhere is this more true than in Victor Hugo’s ‘On vit, on parle’. Before we go any further, read through the poem and work out what the story is. You may like to listen at this stage to the recording by Justine Coppeaux in the next step.

I hope that you have realised that the story in this poem is a life-story, from birth to death, set out in chronological order and encompassing childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle-age and old age, with all the attendant joys and sorrows of each stage.

The next task is to highlight all the verbs – it may be helpful to print a copy off and literally underline or highlight every verb you find. Have a go at that now.

A Verb is a Doing Word

What did you find? You should have found that in a poem of twenty lines there are twenty-nine finite verbs, a remarkably high count. Why so many? Well, given that, as we learnt at primary-school, a verb is a ‘doing word’, this implies that there is an awful lot of ‘doing’ in this life, it is a life characterised by activity. In fact, the twenty-nine verbs are all in the first nineteen lines: there is no verb in the last line. Again, why not? This line describes death, and in death there is no activity and hence no verb.

As well as the number of verbs, we have to look at their tenses. Here, we find that every verb is in the present tense. What might we deduce from this? If this is a life-story, it is presented as a life that is lived only in the present moment, without anticipation or looking back, which could imply a number of different attitudes towards life. I will not suggest a particular reading here, but the phenomenon is not accidental.

Life as a Universal Experience

We then have to look at the subjects of the verbs and we find that of the twenty-nine finite verbs, twenty-three have ‘on’ as their subject. Again, as well as noticing this fact we have to ask ourselves why it is significant. It seems to suggest that this life-story is trying to describe a universal experience, it is the life of ‘on’, of one, of you, of anyone and everyone. When we note further that of the remaining six verbs, three have ‘vous’ as their object, which is the object form of ‘on’ as a subject, we cannot escape the conclusion that the poet is describing what he takes to be a common life experience.

We have not yet even looked at what verbs are used, and we need to do that if we are to understand the type of life that is being described. I will leave that to you, but in concluding this exercise we might note that the greatest concentration of verbs is towards the end of the poem, and that the very last verb is ‘on lutte avec effort’, so that we may say that the life described is one that is full of activity right up until the end, as if the person described were trying to squeeze the last drop out of life before it ends. And all that can be deduced merely from the verbs.

There are, incidentally, elements in this poem significantly that reduce its claimed universal applicability, one of them by 50%! Can you find what they are?

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