Vigny, Alfred (Victor) de (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
Alfred (Victor) de Vigny 1797-1863
French poet, dramatist, short story writer, and novelist.
The following entry presents criticism on Vigny from 1863 through 1992. For further information on Vigny's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 7.
A leader of the early French Romantic movement, Vigny is considered one of the finest poets of the nineteenth century. He is best known for the philosophical poems of his Les destinées: Poèmes philosophiques (1864), which feature a study of the artist's spiritual disaffection in modern society. Vigny is additionally recognized for his historical novel Cinq-Mars (1826), his play Chatterton (1835)—which is numbered among the most profoundly influential Romantic dramas—and for his short works of prose fiction. Though rarely accorded the acclaim granted to his contemporaries Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, and others, Vigny is praised for the technical virtuosity, philosophical content, and imagery of his poetry.
Vigny was born at Laches in the Touraine region of France to aristocratic parents who, though once wealthy, had suffered financially following the French Revolution. The family moved to Paris, where Vigny was raised among the survivors of the ancien régime of pre-Revolutionary France. In 1814, he followed family tradition by joining the Royal Guard, and served for thirteen years. Near the end of his military service, he married Lydia Bunbury, the daughter of a rich and eccentric Englishman who disapproved of Vigny and promptly disinherited her. The marriage rapidly disintegrated, and Vigny subsequently became involved with several other women. Meanwhile, he had begun his literary career, establishing his early reputation with Poèmes antiques et modernes in 1826. The same year he also published his novel Cinq-Mars; ou, Une conjuration sous Louis XIII (Cinq-Mars; or, A Conspiracy under Louis XIII) to immediate popular success. Shortly thereafter, Vigny developed an interest in the theater when, in 1827, he saw the performances of an English Shakespearean troupe in Paris. He translated several of Shakespeare's plays into French, including Othello, which was produced as Le more de Venise at the Comédie-française in 1829. While he continued to write fiction, poetry, and dramas, after more than a decade of disillusionment with politics, failed love affairs, and lack of recognition as a writer, Vigny withdrew from Parisian society in 1835. In 1845 he was elected to the prestigious literary Académie française, having been denied membership on several previous attempts. Three years later, Vigny retreated to the family home at Charente, where he lived quietly until his death in 1863.
Poèmes antiques et modernes includes the ten verses of his earlier Poëmes (1822) and Éloa; ou, La soeur des anges, mystère, (1824) containing a total of twenty-one poems divided into three groups: mystical, ancient, and modern. With this collection Vigny championed the poème, which he defined as an epic or dramatic composition in verse crystallized around a particular philosophical idea. Characterized by their stoical pessimism, compact form, and visual imagery, Vigny's poèmes explore themes such as God's indifference to humanity, women's deceit, inexorable fate, and the poet's alienation from the world. Based upon historical events, his novel Cinq-Mars depicts life in the court of the seventeenth-century French monarch Louis XIII. Vigny's didactic purpose in the work was to demonstrate that the king's chief minister, Duc Armand du Richelieu, contributed to the downfall of the French monarchy by weakening the aristocracy. In his collections of shorter prose works, Les consultations du Docteur Noir: Stello; ou, Les diables bleus, Première consultation (1832; Stello: A Session with Doctor Noir), Servitude et grandeur militaires (1835; The Military Necessity), and Daphné (Deuxième consultation du Docteur Noir) (1913), Vigny defended those he considered to be the outcasts of society: the poet, the soldier, and the visionary. Stello takes the form of a dialogue between Stello, a poet symbolizing the imagination and generous spirit of the creative artist, and Docteur Noir, an embodiment of rational intellect, who recounts the stories of three poets—Thomas Chatterton, Nicolas Gilbert, and André Chénier—and examines the poet's relationship to authority. The Military Necessity, similar in form and thought to Stello, consists of three stories unified by the author's personal comments on the soldier as a victim of society. In the work, Vigny describes the struggle between a soldier's conscience and the exigencies of war; he also contends that the soldier's greatness lies in his dignified and passive obedience to authority. Vigny's third collection, which was to detail the sufferings of the religious prophet, contains only one story, Daphné. A dramatic adaptation of a short tale earlier published in Stello, Chatterton depicts the tragic love story of an English poet eventually driven to suicide by an unappreciative and materialistic society. Although classical in its taut construction, simple plot, and restrained emotion, the drama offers its attack on society, moral examination of the artist's soul, and impassioned defense of emotion in the Romantic mode. In the poems of his posthumously published Les destinées, Vigny refined and developed thoughts already present in earlier works, including his ambivalent feelings toward women and nature, the role of the poet in an increasingly mechanized world, and the ruptured relationship between humanity and its creator—the governing idea of the collection. Composed between 1839 and 1863, the eleven poems of Les destinées trace Vigny's departure from an attitude of stoical resignation in the early works to his rejection of Christian fatalism and renewed confidence in the human spirit, particularly in his last poem, “L'esprit pur.”
Despite the popular success of Cinq-Mars upon publication—which can be attributed in part to the current vogue of the historical novel at the time, prompted by the successful writings of Sir Walter Scott—the work has generally been denigrated by critics who have found his characters flat and his historical thesis untenable. In regard to Vigny's later fiction, commentators have praised the improved literary technique in his story collections Stello and The Military Necessity, and have admired the simple and effective plots of these tales. However, some critics have observed that by combining didactic intent with storytelling, Vigny often sacrificed coherent narrative to the dictates of his philosophical ideas. Generally, critics have considered the poems of Vigny's Les destinées his greatest poetic achievement, though some have viewed their quality as uneven. Still, many commentators have praised the technical skill of his finest and most frequently studied poems: “La maison du berger,” “La mort du loup,” “Le mont des oliviers,” “La bouteille à la mer,” and “L'esprit pur.” Although Les destinées confirmed Vigny's reputation as the philosopher of Romantic poetry, it has since been associated with his efforts to develop a coherent doctrine of preexisting ideas rather than with the introduction of any innovative thoughts. Finally, in relation to his influence as a dramatist, critics have acknowledged that the success of Vigny's translation of Shakespeare's Othello had a tremendous impact on subsequent French drama. In addition, his preface to the published version of Le more de Venise has been regarded as one of the most important manifestos of the nineteenth-century French theater. Additionally, his tragedy Chatterton has been regarded as his most influential artistic exploit, though the work itself is infrequently studied.
Poëmes (poetry) 1822
Éloa; ou, La soeur des anges, mystère (poetry) 1824
Cinq-Mars; ou, Une conjuration sous Louis XIII [Cinq-Mars; or, A Conspiracy under Louis XIII; also translated as The Conspirators and The Spider and the Fly] (novel) 1826
Poèmes antiques et modernes (poetry) 1826
Le more de Venise [translator; from the drama Othello by William Shakespeare] (drama) 1829
Le maréchale d'Ancre (drama) 1831
Les consultations du Docteur Noir: Stello; ou, Les diables bleus, Première consultation [Stello: A Session with Doctor Noir] (short stories) 1832
Quitte pour la peur (drama) 1833
Chatterton (drama) 1835
Servitude et grandeur militaires [The Military Necessity; also published as The Military Condition] (short stories) 1835
Oeuvres complètes. 7 vols. (poetry, short stories, novel, and dramas) 1837-39
Théâtre complet du comte Alfred de Vigny (dramas) 1848
Les destinées: Poèmes philosophiques (poetry) 1864
Alfred de Vigny: Journal d'un poète (journal) 1867
Oeuvres complètes. 8 vols. (poetry, short stories, novel, and dramas) 1883-85...
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SOURCE: “Alfred de Vigny: Poet,” in Temple Bar, Vol. 9, October, 1863, pp. 500-505.
[In the following anonymous essay, the critic reviews Vigny's career and works.]
“Let no oration be pronounced over my tomb.” Such was the expressed wish of Alfred de Vigny only a short time before his death; and it was a wish consonant with that silent reserve with which he had enshrouded himself from public notice during the last half of his life. He shuddered at the thought of cold official praises being uttered over his tomb, and would have blamed himself for sanctioning it beforehand, as a sort of posthumous indiscretion. The single and innocent vanity of which he has left a trace was the desire that military honours should be paid to his coffin. In this he was faithful to one of the dearest, the liveliest, and the most constant instincts of his character. The illustrious writer, the soldierly Academician, only asked that his young comrades of the army should follow to the cemetery the old Captain of Infantry: the single sound which he permitted around his grave was the muffled voice of the drums veiled in crape.
Alfred Victor, Count de Vigny, was born at Loches, in Touraine, on the 27th of March 1799, of a family of soldiers who originally came from Beauce. His father had distinguished himself in the Seven Years' War; his mother was the granddaughter of Admiral Baraudin, and cousin of...
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SOURCE: “Vigny's Stello and Existential Freedom,” in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 8, Nos. 1-2, Fall, 1979, pp. 37-46.
[In the following essay, Nugent interprets Vigny's Stello as a romantic and existential revolt against rationalism.]
Vigny's Stello is significant from three points of view: biographical, literary, and philosophical. Clearly the three are interrelated; the first two have frequently been discussed. In 1831-32 Vigny went through a period of self-examination and self-questioning, going from a sense of immaturity to one of maturity.1 This doubt and anguish found a parallel shift in Vigny's writings from a Romantic lyricist to a philosophical poet; from a historical novelist to one of ideas; from Romantic idealism to Stoic realism. The shift further reflects a contemporary dilemma between poetic idealism and social concern, between spiritualist psychology and a materialistic one resulting from an evaluation of rationalism.2 The dilemma arose at a time of failure of political idealism (around 1830) and a persistent materialism. Both conditions of this dilemma, moreover, demand from a writer a resolution, a belief, which allows him to exist and function. Vigny's answer, in Stello, refuses either term. His answer is, rather, one of “no answer,” a “theory of uncertainty,”3 that is basically existential freedom and...
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SOURCE: “Exploitation of the Body in Vigny's Chatterton: The Economy of Drama and the Drama of Economics,” in Theatre Journal, Vol. 34, No. 1, March, 1982, pp. 20-26.
[In the following essay, Cooper explores references to the body as they contribute to an economic analysis of Chatterton.]
In the preface he composed during the night of 29-30 June 1834 for his just completed drama, Chatterton, Alfred de Vigny wrote: “This is not ideology.”1 That statement was not a pro forma disclaimer of philosophical bias. Rather, it was a deliberately made and seriously intended definition of the grounds on which Vigny meant to fight for the unencumbered leisure to develop his artistic talents.2 “Already in Stello, [Vigny] had proclaimed the superiority of Poetry and Imagination over philosophy and ‘the mind that weighs and measures.’”3 That Vigny must make clear he his not arguing his case on the basis of some political or philosophical doctrine tells us much about the world in which he lived and the society he was addressing.4
But if Chatterton is not an ideological drama, it is, nonetheless, a “drama of ideas” for, as Vigny stated in his preface: “The Poet was everything to me; Chatterton was just a man's name, and I have deliberately set aside some of the actual facts of his life and borrowed from it only...
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SOURCE: “A Suitable Case for Treatment: Ideological Confusion in Vigny's Cinq-Mars,” in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, October, 1982, pp. 335-50.
[In the following essay, Wren critiques the political thesis of Vigny's novel Cinq-Mars, contending that it is weakened by the author's inability to find in Cardinal Richelieu a suitable historical persona to satisfy his view of French history.]
In May 1837 Alfred de Vigny wrote of his novel Cinq-Mars, first published eleven years previously, that “il n'y a pas de livre que j'ai plus longtemps et plus sérieusement médité”.1 This opinion of the importance which the author retrospectively ascribed to the position of Cinq-Mars in his literary output has not, in any great measure, been echoed by critics, who tend to dismiss the novel as a heavily biased and over-subjective interpretation of historical reality. Most would subscribe without demur to the assessment of Georg Lukács:
Vigny … sees history sufficiently clearly to regard the French Revolution not as an isolated, sudden event, but rather as the final consequence of the “youthful errors” of French development … In his novel he goes back to the time of Richelieu in order to reveal artistically the historical sources of this “error” … which could be made good with proper insight … He...
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SOURCE: “Mirror Images in ‘La Maison du berger,’” in French Review, Vol. 56, No. 3, February, 1983, pp. 393-99.
[In the following essay, Evans studies Vigny's poem “La Maison du berger” in the context of psychoanalytic theories of self-consciousness and reflection.]
That homely object the mirror has played over the centuries an extraordinarily rich metaphoric role. At various times a figure of human vanity, an image of the mimetic function of art, or a mythic emblem of self-consciousness, it has lately been elaborated and enriched as a metaphor of human consciousness by psychoanalysts like Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray. In his essay “Le Stade du miroir”1 Lacan brilliantly condenses Hegel's description of self-consciousness and Freud's formulation of narcissism into a new mythic figure: the child before the mirror. In Lacan's view the process by which the child reaches self-consciousness always includes the splitting and projection of the self into an external image so that the self is first perceived as being out there, in the mirror. The formation of the Ego, one of the products of this defensive strategy, thus inextricably links visual processes with aggressive impulses.
In Speculum de l'autre femme (1974), Luce Irigaray develops further the meaning of this myth by asserting that the child before the mirror must of necessity be a male. His...
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SOURCE: Vigny: Chatterton, Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1984, 78p.
[In the following excerpt, Buss considers Chatterton as a dramatic defense of the poet and his purpose in an otherwise materialist society, and continues by assessing the influence of this “drama of ideas” on subsequent literature.]
‘La maladie est incurable’, remarks the Quaker and, when Chatterton asks: ‘La mienne?’, replies:
Non, celle de l'humanité.—Selon ton cœur, tu prends en bienveillante pitié ceux qui te disent: Sois un autre homme que celui que tu es;—moi, selon ma tête, je les ai en mépris, parce qu'ils veulent dire: Retire-toi de notre soleil; il n'y a pas de place pour toi.
But Chatterton, throughout his answer, carries on speaking quietly to Rachel: it is not the place of the mythical hero to understand his own role in the myth.
The Quaker's reply not only points to the social dimension of the drama, but shows also that its target is specifically the ruling class in society, those whose enjoyment of the sunshine incites them to exclude any individual subject to other laws than the ones they have devised for their own benefit and the maintenance of their power. Literally, the class under attack must be the industrial bourgeoisie and the aristocracy of wealth in Britain in the 1770s,...
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SOURCE: “Poetry,” in The French Romantics, Vol. 1, edited by D. G. Charlton, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 113-62.
[In the following excerpt, Ireson surveys Vigny's adaptation of the short, eighteenth-century heroic poem as a vehicle for the representation of modern values.]
Vigny's development as a poet is initially associated … with the renovation and advancement of an older form of poetry. His concern was principally with the poème, a form which, in the later eighteenth century, had been used to signify a short epic or heroic poem, and Vigny's intention was to adapt it to the ideas and style of his time. His experiments with the poème lasted between 1820 and 1829, during which period he also turned, more briefly, to another form, the mystère, probably from the examples given by Byron in Cain (1821) and Heaven and Earth (1822). Two other forms, the élévation, with which he experimented for a short time around 1830, and the poème philosophique, which preoccupied him from about 1839 to the year of his death (1863), were designed to permit the expression of ideas in a more complex way than was possible with the poème and the mystère.
It was probably his intention to form individual volumes from sequences of these individual types of poem. In the event, his first major volume of verse, Poèmes antiques...
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SOURCE: “Vigny's Post-Structuralist Novel: Writing History or the Story of Writing?” in French Review, Vol. 60, No. 2, December, 1986, pp. 216-21.
[In the following essay, Craven probes the post-structuralist implications of Vigny's historical novel Cinq-Mars by discerning the work's concern with history as a form of fictive literature and its demonstration of meaning subverted via the medium of writing.]
Although Vigny ranks among the major literary figures of the nineteenth century, his most ambitious prose piece, the historical novel Cinq-Mars remains largely neglected by contemporary criticism. Scholarly disaffection may be due in part to the author's ultra-conservative ideology as well as to his central focus on a marginal episode and an anecdotal figure of French history—the rise and fall of Louis XIII's minion, the bold Marquis de Cinq-Mars, one of the many prominent aristocratic victims of Richelieu's centralizing policies. Sainte-Beuve may well have conditioned future readers' indifferent or negative response to the novel. Although he welcomed Vigny's audacity in placing major historical figures at the forefront of the action, he did object to his turning them into virtually unrecognizable caricatures. Basically, he writes,
M. de Vigny est resté au point de vue actuel, et n'a écrit qu'avec des souvenirs. Rien d'étonnant donc qu'il ait...
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SOURCE: “Vigny's ‘Le Mont des Oliviers’ and Amos,” in French Studies Bulletin, No. 32, Autumn, 1989, pp. 5-8.
[In the following essay, McGoldrick describes the influence of the Old Testament on Vigny's poem “Le Mont des Oliviers” and, by implication, his other late poetry.]
“Le Mont des Oliviers” is one of the best known of Vigny's poems. Vigny recounts Jesus' mental anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, with a wealth of detail culled from the Gospels. Vigny's own footnotes to his manuscript attest to his precise and detailed knowledge of all four Gospels, and the selective use he made of them. The poem is confusing to a considerable degree because the Gospels are chronologically distorted to make Jesus enumerate actual details of his crucifixion. But critics have assumed that Vigny's Biblical borrowings were taken solely from the New Testament, and, understandably, have discounted the possibility of any borrowing from an Old Testament source. Marc Citoleux, for example, writes: ‘Après 1842, par un renversement singulier … Vigny délaisse l'Ancien Testament au profit du Nouveau.’1 [“Le Mont des Oliviers” was published in 1843]. Another critic, Vera Summers, states categorically that this is ‘le seul de ses poèmes d'inspiration évangélique où des souvenirs de l'Ancien Testament ne viennent pas se mêler.’2 Not surprisingly, therefore, the New...
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SOURCE: “The Setting in Vigny's ‘La Mort du loup,’” in Language Quarterly, Vol. 29, Nos. 1-2, Winter, 1991, pp. 104-14.
[In the following essay, McGoldrick views the setting, rather than the action, of Vigny's “La Mort du loup” as the source of tension in the poem.]
Vigny's poem “La Mort du Loup” recounts the tracking-down of a wolf, its mate, and two cubs, by a band of hunters with a pack of dogs. The wolf is pursued, easily cornered and caught off guard, and attacked by one of the dogs. It seizes the dog, and only releases it from the clutch of its jaws after the animal lies dead. Then, mortally wounded by knife and bullet wounds, it too lies down to die. In the poem's second and third sections, Vigny uses the wolf's death to spell out his message of stoic resignation and submission to fate exemplified by the wolf. The poem becomes a fable, and the wolf is extolled as an example for mankind.
Because Vigny's critics have concentrated on the poem's moral lesson, they have paid relatively scant attention to the intrinsic merit of the setting in “La Mort du Loup.” V. L. Saulnier and P.-G. Castex have included some descriptive notations about the setting in their critical commentaries.1 However, they have not exhausted all the critical comment to be made about Vigny's setting, in which the atmosphere of suspense and murder is present as “… a dramatic and...
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SOURCE: “Alfred de Vigny's ‘La Colère de Samson’ and Solar Myth,” in Nineteenth Century French Studies, Vol. 20, Nos. 3-4, Spring/Summer, 1992, pp. 478-81.
[In the following essay, Duncan details Vigny's mythologizing of his personal feelings of feminine betrayal in the poem “La Colère de Samson.”]
The Biblical account of the Nazarite, Samson, involves three levels of narrative. While it relates the amorous adventures of Samson and the treachery of Dalilah, its central reference is to the superhuman exploits of a hero whose life echoes the epic of Hercules in a neighboring culture. Additionally, Samson and Dalilah (as well as Hercules) behave as celestial deities anthropomorphized. Alfred de Vigny's “La Colère de Samson” virtually suppresses the elements of gigantism and the marvelous to focus on the human passion and pathos that mask a combat of male solar and female lunar principles.
Vigny's troubled liaison with the actress Marie Dorval provoked the poem. There seems no doubt that his passion was intense and that he expected uncompromising affection in return. In this he was cruelly disappointed by Marie's bisexual divagations. No doubt Vigny's own truculence contributed to her disenchantment with a severe and self-righteous companion. Marie's betrayals, her sexual and emotional inconstancy, are an issue in Vigny's transposition of his personal experience to the...
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SOURCE: “The Relation of History to Literature in Vigny's Thought before the Preface to Cinq-Mars,” in French Forum, Vol. 18, No. 2, May, 1993, pp. 165-83.
[In the following essay, Jensen discusses Vigny's thoughts on the close relationship of history and literature as represented in his historical novel Cinq-Mars and its apologetic preface.]
During the lifetime of Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863), Cinq-Mars, ou une conjuration sous Louis XIII1 was without a doubt his most widely read work. Written in 1824-25 and published in January 1826, the novel went through 12 or 13 separate editions; its popular success was thus about twice that of Stello and Servitude et grandeur militaires. In the introduction to his translation of Cinq-Mars, William Hazlitt (the younger) remarked: “There is no person of any reading who has not present in his memory” the various characters of the novel.2 Nor was the success of Cinq-Mars merely popular: both Louis-Philippe and Napoléon III discussed the book's thesis with the author.3
Vigny's attitude toward popular success was almost always an aristocrat's disdain, and there is no doubt that its very popularity led Vigny to scorn Cinq-Mars, stocked as it was with elements of romance and melodrama calculated to appeal to a broad public. He hoped, however, that success would...
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Bury, J. P. T. “A Glimpse of Vigny in 1830.” In French Studies Bulletin 19 (Summer 1986): 8-10.
Provides anecdotal evidence of a likely biographical source for Captain Renaud of Vigny's Servitude et grandeur militaires.
Charlton, D. G. “Prose Fiction.” In The French Romantics, Volume 1, edited by D. G. Charlton, pp. 163-203. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Briefly mentions Vigny's Stello and Servitude et grandeur militaires within a survey of nineteenth-century French narrative fiction.
Corkran, Henriette. “A Little Girl's Recollections of Le Comte Alfred de Vigny.” In Temple Bar 85 (April 1889): 580-83.
A selection of notes written to the author by Vigny, as well as her memories of their time together when she was a young child and he a man in his sixties.
Denommé, Robert T. “Chatterton, Ruy Blas, Lorenzaccio: Three Tragic Heroes.” In Laurels 61, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 55-67.
Evaluates the historical protagonists of three Romantic dramas, including that of Vigny's Chatterton.
Howarth, W. D. “Drama.” In The French Romantics, Volume 2, edited by D. G. Charlton, pp. 205-247. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Assesses Vigny as one of four...
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