Alfred (Victor) de Vigny 1797–1863
French poet, short story writer, dramatist, and novelist
Vigny was a pioneer of the French Romantic movement whose work received considerable critical acclaim but little popular support. The author of influential plays and prose fiction, today his reputation rests primarily on his poetry. His major poetic works are distinguished by his innovative use of traditional forms, his intense concentration on poetic technique, and his determination to explore philosophical ideas in metaphor and verse. Although overshadowed by contemporaries such as Lamartine and Hugo, Vigny is still ranked among the great French poets of the nineteenth century.
Vigny was born in the Loches in the Touraine region of France to aristocratic parents who, though once wealthy, had lost their fortune during the French Revolution. The family moved to Paris where Vigny was raised among other families nostalgic for the ancien régime of pre-Revolutionary France. In 1814, he followed family tradition and joined the Royal Guard, in which he served for thirteen years. Near the end of his military service, Vigny married Lydia Bunbury, the daughter of a rich and eccentric Englishman. Her father disapproved of Vigny and promptly disinherited her. Lydia became a chronic invalid shortly after their marriage, and Vigny became involved with several other women, including the great Romantic actress Marie Dorval. Disillusioned by politics, failed love affairs, and his lack of recognition as a writer, Vigny withdrew from Parisian society after 1840. In 1845, following several unsuccessful attempts, he was elected to the prestigious literary society, Académie française. Three years later, Vigny retreated to the family home at Charente, for which the French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-beuve coined the famous phrase "tour d'ivoire" or "ivory tower." There, he lived quietly until his death.
Vigny began and ended his literary career with poetry. His first two published collections were Poëmes (1822) and Éloa; ou, La soeur des anges, mystère (1824). The ten works in these two volumes were among the twenty-one poems included in Poèmes antiques et modernes (1826). The dominant genre in this collection is the poème, which Vigny defined as "compositions in which a philosophical thought is staged under an epic or dramatic form." Though the structure is dramatic, each poème is tightly restricted in scope, showing only one episode and its effect on no
more than two characters. Vigny's poèmes are characterized by their stoical pessimism: Their principal themes include God's indifference to humanity, women's deceit, inexorable fate, and the poet's alienation from a mediocre world. Vigny divided the poems in this collection into three groups: "Livre mystique" (mystical poems), "Livre antique" (ancient poems), and "Livre moderne" (modern poems). The "Livre antique" is further divided into "Antiquité biblique" (biblical poems) and "Antiquité homérique" (Homeric poems). "Le cor," based on the medieval legend of Roland, is acclaimed for its evocation of atmosphere, particularly the description of the sound of the hero's horn in the woods. For many critics, "Moïse" is an outstanding example of Vigny's use of the poème to dramatize an idea through symbols. "Moïse" has been described as Vigny's pronouncement on the position of the Romantic poet in nineteenth-centuy society. Like the prophet, the poet is chosen for his artistic gift but must pay for his talent by becoming an outcast.
Most critics agree that Vigny's greatest literary achievement is the collection of poems that marked the end of his literary career: Les destinées: Poèmes philosophiques (1864). The eleven poems of Les destinées were composed between 1839 and 1863. The genre is an extension or transformation of the poème, in which Vigny opened up the originally tight dramatic structure to allow more thematic exposition. He refined and developed the ideas present in earlier works, including his ambivalent feelings toward women and nature and the role of the poet in an increasingly mechanized world. The philosophical problem that governs Les destinées is the ruptured relationship between humanity and its creator. While the early pieces are characterized by an attitude of stoical resignation, the later poems, particularly "L'esprit pur," Vigny's last work before his death, reflect his rejection of an earlier Christian interpretation of fate and his renewed confidence in the human spirit. Vigny combined his interest in philosophical thought with a passion for perfecting poetic form. His goal in Les destinées was to rework and condense themes and images until he achieved a "hard, brilliant diamond" in each of the poems. Commentators agree that his technical skill is responsible for the purity of the greatest poems in this collection: "La maison du berger," "La mort du loup," "Le Mont de Olivier," "La bouteille à la mer," and "L'esprit pur."
Although Vigny was regarded as an innovator and a leader during the early years of the Romantic movement, his small poetic output cost him his initial prominence. His work was largely neglected until the early twentieth century, when scholars began a critical re-evaluation. Today, critics remain divided about the extent of Vigny's achievement in poetry. Albert Thibaudet calls the tercets of Les destinées "the most lastingly luminous poems, the fixed stars of French poetry." Others praise not only the texture of the verse but the dramatic pleasures of the poetry—including the highly visual descriptions of the setting and the stirring action in poems such as "la mort du loup." Some critics, however, consider Vigny's poems uneven in quality; his verse has been described as awkward, prosaic, and obscure. J.M. McGoldrick criticizes "Le Mont des Oliviers" as a "series of heterogeneous impressions" that contribute to "the organic disunity of the poem." Other critics, such as Stirling Haig and Frank Paul Bowman, read these conflicts and contradictions as ambiguities that support rather than disrupt the coherence of Vigny's poetry. Harry Kurz praises "the depth and originality of his imaginative spirit," and many readers have admired the struggle in Vigny's poetry between despair over the human condition and faith in the eventual triumph of the human spirit. Others criticize his didacticism and his tendency toward what W.N. Ince calls "over-simple, dogged symbolism." Many scholars, however, would agree with Ince, who writes of Vigny: "He is a great and original poet: it is often by the criteria implied by his best poems that his shortcomings can best be seen."
Éloa; ou, La soeur des anges, mystère 1824
Poèmes antiques et modernes 1826
*Les destinées: Poèmes philosophiques (poetry) 1864
Other Major Works
Cinq-Mars; ou, Une conjuration sous Louis XIII (novel) 1826
[Cinq-Mars; or, A Conspiracy under Louis XII, 1847; also published as The Spider and the Fly, 1925]
Le more de Venise [translator, from the drama Othello by William Shakespeare] (drama) 1829
La maréchale d'Ancre (drama) 1831
Les consultations du Docteur Noir: Stello; oui, Les diables bleus, Première consultation (short stories) 1832
[Stello: A Session with Doctor Noir, 1963]
Quitte pour la peur (drama) 1833
Chatterton (drama) 1835
Servitude et grandeur militaires (short stories) 1835
[The Military Necessity, 1953; also published as The Military Condition, 1964]
Oeuvres complètes. 7 vols, (poetry, short stories, novel, and drama) 1837-39
Théâtre complet du comte Alfred de Vigny (drama) 1848
Alfred de Vigny: Journal d'un poète (journal) 1867
Oeuvres complètes. 8 vols, (poetry, short stories, novel, and drama) 1883-85
Correspondance de Alfred de Vigny, 1816-1863 (letters) 1905
**Shylock [translator, from the drama The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare] 1905
Daphné (Deuxième consultation du Docteur Noir) (unfinished novel) 1913
*Many of these poems were originally published in the journal Revue des deux mondes between 1843 and 1854.
**This work was written in 1830.
SOURCE: "The Function of La colère de Samson' in Les destinées," in The Modem Language Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1, March, 1957, pp. 63-8.
[In the following essay, Doolittle argues that 'La colère de Samson' belongs in the thematic progression of Les destinées as a representation of one stage of "the gradual emergence of spirit from the matrix of tradition and substance."]
There is no doubt that Vigny intended to include "La Colère de Samson" in Les Destinées. Yet the colossal figure of Samson, knowingly and voluntarily bowing to the weaknesses of his own nature, and the voluptuous portrait of the empty-headed and utterly selfish Dalila...
(The entire section is 2742 words.)
SOURCE: "The Centenary of a Poet," in The American Legion of Honor Magazine, Vol. 34, No. 2, 1963, pp. 73-86.
[In the following excerpt, Kurz provides an overview of Vigny's poetic achievements.]
… The passing of a century has strikingly increased his stature and has led to an ever-growing appreciation of the depth and originality of his imaginative spirit. His name is Alfred de Vigny.
Most American college men and women who took French will remember the name as that of the author of a poem popular in anthologies, "Le Cor" (The Horn). It recalls the betrayal of Roland at Roncevaux. To Charlemagne's nephew has been given the duty of guarding...
(The entire section is 2777 words.)
SOURCE: "Vigny's View of History," in Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Vol. 69, No. 9, November, 1965, pp. 609-17.
[In the following excerpt, Kushner surveys Vigny's poetic examination of historical progress and his search for "the collective destiny of mankind."]
Historical Consciousness is one of the battle cries of French Romanticism. On the level of literary expression, this is shown by the historical reconstructions abounding in "couleur locale" with which every French Romantic writer filled his poems, novels, and plays. In depth, it manifests itself by the Romantics' keen and pathetic awareness of the historicity of man and all things created. The...
(The entire section is 2504 words.)
SOURCE: "Alfred de Vigny's Conception of Esthetics," in Symposium, Vol., XXIII, No. 3-4, Fall-Winter, 1969, pp. 265-276.
[In the following essay, Gullace examines the tension in Vigny 's aesthetic between poetry as a means for philosophical inquiry and poetry as an expression of emotion.]
The development of esthetic theory in France is to be credited more to the practitioners of the arts than to philosophers or critics. Poets and artists seem, in fact, to have expressed more penetrating views on the nature of artistic creation than did the builders of esthetic systems. Alfred de Vigny's is a case in point. Among the men of his generation he is perhaps the most deeply...
(The entire section is 5365 words.)
SOURCE: "Some Simple Reflections on the Poetry of Alfred de Vigny," in Symposium, Vol., XXIII, No. 3-4, Fall-Winter, 1969, pp. 277-283.
[In the following essay, Ince argues that Vigny is, most essentially, a didactic poet whose chief fault is a tendency toward "overt moralizing. "]
Vigny says his ambition is to write poetry in which "une pensée philosophique est mise en scène sous une forme Épique ou Dramatique."1 He asserts: "Ce que je suis partout (je crois), c'est moraliste et dramatique." He calls himself "une sorte de moraliste épique." More clearly still: "Concevoir et méditer une pensée philosophique; trouver dans les actions...
(The entire section is 3317 words.)
SOURCE: "Jesus as Romantic Hero: Le Mont des Oliviers," in The French Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 5, Spring, 1973, pp. 41-8.
[In the following essay, Bishop defends the coherence of Vigny 's portrait of Christ in Le Mont des Oliviers, arguing that Christ in the poem shares the religious doubts of Vigny and his contemporaries as well as their continuing need to believe.]
Alfred de Vigny's famous poem on Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane has recently been attacked in an interesting article by J. M. McGoldrick for its "utter confusion," its "organic disunity."1 The problem according to McGoldric lies in the characterization of Christ. The image the...
(The entire section is 3218 words.)
SOURCE: "Alfred de Vigny and the Poetic Experience: From Alienation to Renascence," in Romantic Review, Vol. LXVI, No. 1, 1976, pp. 268-89.
[In the following essay, Majewski describes the transformation of Vigny's conception of the poet in society: from the portrait of the poet as a scapegoat and a victim in Stello to the poet as spiritual leader in "La Maison du Berger."]
C. S. Lewis, Jung and others have analyzed the movement of the romantic consciousness in the experience of poetry as a desire to create through harmonious, symbolic language the image of a world which would be whole; that is coherent, ordered and beautiful. The essential rhythm of the poet's...
(The entire section is 10514 words.)
SOURCE: "The Double Register of "Les Destinées," in Studi Francesi, Vol. 64, 1978, pp. 104-6.
[In the following essay, Haig analyzes the ambiguous imagery in Les Destinées of the relationship between humanity and the divine and concludes that the poem affirms Vigny's conviction "that hope is cruel folly."]
The argument of the liminary poem of Vigny's most famous collection is well known. At the Savior's birth, the powers that Vigny syncretically terms destinée must temporarily relax their cruel hold over man; they appeal to the Lord (here called "Jéhovah", which for Vigny always means the terrible and vengeful God of the Old Testament), who reaffirms...
(The entire section is 1417 words.)
SOURCE: "Symbolic Gesture in Vigny's 'Poëme,'" in The Renaissance of the Lyric in French Romanticism: Elegy, "Poëme" and Ode, French Forum Publishers, Lexington, Kentucky, 1978, pp. 19-74.
[In the following excerpt, Porter examines Vigny's "visual sensitivity" and traces his use of gesture and posture to illustrate character in his symbolic poetry]
At first, Vigny's poetic projects were determined mainly by the epic ambitions he shared with his contemporaries. In 1823, he planned to rival Hesiod by composing a "Théogonie chrétienne," "poëme immense qui achèverait l'œuvre du Dante et de Milton" by...
(The entire section is 7802 words.)
SOURCE: "Poetry," in The French Romantics, edited by D.G. Charlton, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 113-162.
[In the following excerpt, Ireson examines the relationship between French Romantic poetry and Vigny 's experiments with poetic form.]
Poetry appears to have enjoyed a favoured status in the Napoleonic and Restoration societies. The officer classes in the later years of the Empire seem to have viewed the writing of verse as a fashionable accomplishment; Joseph-Leopold Sigisbert Hugo, a general in Napoleon's army and latterly governor of a province in Spain, gave his son advice on prosody when Victor was serving his apprenticeship in the art. Vigny appears...
(The entire section is 4257 words.)
SOURCE: "The Setting in Vigny's 'La Mort du Loup,'" in Language Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1-2, Winter-Spring, 1991, pp. 104-14.
[In the following essay, McGoldrick shows how Vigny uses contrasting effects to construct the setting of "La Mort du Loup" so it contributes to the plot.]
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...
(The entire section is 2616 words.)
SOURCE: "Alfred de Vigny's 'La Colère de Samson' and Solar Myth," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1992, pp. 478-81.
[In the following essay, Duncan examines how Vigny combines elements of celestial mythology with psychological realism to add a "mythic dimension " to a story of romantic betrayal.]
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...
(The entire section is 1608 words.)