Traditionally, discussions of Alfred de Vigny’s poetry have been characterized by a focus on the ideas which inform individual poems as well as on the quasi-philosophical “system” which informs his œuvre as a whole. In Vigny studies, technical analysis of how such ideas are expressed (through prosody, form, and so on) has always taken second place to discussion of what is said. If this is so, it is largely a result of the emphasis the poet himself placed upon the concept of the poem as an artistic medium for the exploration of philosophical issues, the concept of the poème philosophique. It is certain, from numerous entries in the personal and literary diary Le Journal d’un poète, that Vigny conceived of all the technical aspects of poetry as being at the service of underlying philosophical concepts. Discussing poetry in one of his letters, he states: “All of humanity’s great problems can be discussed in the form of verse.”
Vigny’s central themes are few; taken together, they lend one another a resonance which virtually endows them with the coherence of a philosophical system. Humanism is the unvarying foundation of that quasi system; human experience is examined repeatedly in terms of three fundamental relationships: the relationship of the individual man with God, with society, and, in ultimate solitude, with the self. These themes possess a natural kinship, and a Vigny poem may deal with any combination of the three simultaneously. The figure of Christ in the poem “Le Mont des Oliviers” (the Mount of Olives), for example, is seen in relation to God (to whom he prays), in relation to man (for whom he prays), and in relation to his own double identity as God and man. In “La Bouteille à la mer” (the bottle in the sea), man is seen as purveyor of his own individual knowledge and experience for the benefit of society, but the transmission of knowledge and experience from man to man is a precarious affair in the hands of Divine Will. Vigny’s poetry is often obsessed with the special isolation of the poet, the man of genius and vision (a preoccupation finally symbolic of the condition of the species itself). The theme of the particular plight of the poet ran throughout his career, from the youthful “Moïse” (Moses) to the valedictory “L’Esprit pur” (the pure spirit). Religion (the traditional Judeo-Christian ethic, at least) offers little relief for la condition humaine, for Vigny conceives of it as the impossible dialogue between a confused creation and a deaf (or at any rate dumb) Creator. In spite of the dark pessimism of this vision, Vigny ultimately asserts the liberating capacity for human dignity in the face of limitations and sustains the idea of progress through human endeavor.
In the early stages of his career, Vigny seized upon the idea of a single, concrete symbol to serve as a dramatic metaphor in each individual poem. The symbol could be a simple object, such as a flute or a bottle cast into the sea; an animal, such as the wolf; or it might be in the form of a person (usually from the Bible), such as Jephthah’s daughter, Samson, or Moses. Such symbols frequently attain a mythic dimension appropriate to the scope of the idea expressed, and all Vigny’s technical efforts went into their animation.
Some critics have argued that Vigny’s most successful realization of the poème philosophique came, not in the poems of his maturity (collected in Les Destinées), but in a work of his youth (written at the age of twenty-five), the masterful “Moïse.” Indeed, Moses—lawgiver, leader, prophet—serves as a perfect symbol for Vigny’s concept of the poet-prophet, spiritually and intellectually isolated from his fellow man. Vigny himself stated that his Moses “is not the Moses of the Jews”; he is rather the man of genius in all times, laboring under the weight of the knowledge he attempts to impart to a society which shuns him.
The poem consists of 116 lines in the French heroic meter (Alexandrines in rhyming couplets), a prosodic scheme with an effect of great weight and deliberation. The Alexandrine is a rhetorical and dramatic line which reinforces seriousness of tone and helps create in this Moses a figure of immense and tragic proportions. The poem opens with a vividly descriptive segment (lines one through forty-four) in which the reader views, through the prophet’s eyes, the sunlit tents of the Israelite encampment and, farther in the distance, the vast stretches of the Promised Land. Moses is ascending Mount Nebo to speak with the Lord, and his ascent underscores his dual relationship with the people, for he is both superior to them and increasingly excluded from their society. Upon reaching the summit, Moses is surrounded by a dark cloud, so that his interview with God is cloaked in deepest secrecy, to the confusion of those below. Moses begins his speech, a plaint, with lines which, with some variation, serve as a refrain throughout the course of the poem: “Je vivrai donc toujours puissant et solitaire?/ Laissez-moi m’endormir du sommeil de la terre” (“Must I, then, live always mighty and apart?/ Let me sleep the sleep of the earth”).
Moses outlines his accomplishments as leader of his people: He has power over the seas and over nations; he has conducted the Israelites to the threshold of their salvation. The power he has gained and the control which he exercises, however, come from the knowledge he has acquired as the “elect of God” and which he, in turn, must impart to the uncomprehending masses. The price has been heavy. From the moment of his birth, he has been a stranger to his fellow men, whose “eyes lower before the fire of my eyes.” He is literally wearied to death, for this virtual loss of his humanity has created a barrier of fear in his relations with his kind. In the final segment of his plaint, he begs with simple dignity for release from his fate as a man of vision. There is no divine response, at least in words, and, as the reader shifts perspective to the Israelite camp below (privileged to return to common humanity as Moses is not), the black cloud of mystery lifts from the mountaintop and the prophet is seen no more. The reaction of the people is simple and somewhat coolly observed: “Il fut pleuré” (“He was mourned”). The actions of Vigny’s God are...
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