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Of the forty-one poems, thirty-six were written during 1828. They offer a series of highly coloured tableaux depicting scenes from the eastern Mediterranean -- in particular, scenes which would set off the contrast between the (implicitly) freedom-loving Greeks and the imperialistic Ottoman Turks. The fashionable subject ensured the book's success.
Although Hugo described it as ce livre inutile de poesie pure, the general theme of the poems is a celebration of liberty, linking the Ancient Greeks with the modern world, freedom in politics with freedom in art, and reflecting Hugo's turn from the royalism of his early twenties to a rediscovery of the Napoleonic enthusiasms of his childhood (for example, see the fortieth, Lui). The poems are also intended to undermine the classicists' exclusive claim on antiquity.
The depiction of Turks in Les Orientales mixes condemnation, idealisation, and crude envy. It is often cited as being representative of the "Orientalist" attitudes in much of French literature.
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