Alfred de Vigny

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1145

Alfred Victor de Vigny led an essentially quiet, uneventful life in an age noted for the turbulent, sometimes melodramatic lives of its political and artistic figures. He was largely a private man, with a personality of many seeming contradictions. Deeply religious, he subscribed to no single creed or system of belief throughout his adult life, yet on his deathbed he returned to the Catholicism of his upbringing. A man of great literary ambitions, he disdained to publish a single volume for the last twenty-six years of his life. Of a pessimistic and stoic disposition, he possessed an ultimately optimistic belief in the progress of the species.

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Vigny’s parents were of the old, pre-Revolution, provincial noblesse. They had somehow escaped both the guillotine and forced emigration but were required to live under constant government supervision. Of their four children, three died in infancy. The last, Alfred Victor, a rather sickly child, was to be the sole survivor and the family’s ultimate scion. Throughout his life, Vigny attached great importance to his noble descent, but he tended to exaggerate the family’s degree of nobility, eventually adopting the title of “Count” based on some spurious claims of his father. The family moved to Paris when Vigny was not quite two years old, and, not many years later, his mother undertook strict control of her son’s education. This instruction was a curious combination of liberal, rationalist philosophy, absorbed by way of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and an ancien régime adherence to the institutions of Church and monarchy. In a youth passed during the turbulence of the Directorate, the Consulate, and the Empire, Vigny was taught to view the Revolution as a hideous reversal of the natural order, to judge Napoleon Bonaparte as a consummate charlatan, and to long for the restoration of the monarchy.

With the fall of Napoleon in 1814 and the restoration of Louis XVIII, opportunities resurfaced for Royalist nobility, and the seventeen-year-old Vigny was enrolled in the elite, ceremonial Gendarmes du Roi as a sublieutenant. Thus, he inaugurated a long and disillusioning military career. During those years, he was transferred from regiment to regiment, always serving honorably, but chafing, like so many young men of his time, at the lack of opportunity for significant advancement and for some chance at glory through action. There was little chance for either, however, in the years immediately succeeding the Napoleonic era; opportunity and stimulation would have to arise in other quarters.

In the early 1820’s, when stationed outside Paris, Vigny was introduced into the literary circles of the capital, attending the salons of Madame d’Ancelot and Charles Nodier, where Vigny would eventually meet and befriend the young Victor Hugo. Vigny began to write seriously and, in 1822, published his first volume of poetry, Poèmes, followed in 1824 by a miniature epic poem, Eloa. In anticipation of war with Spain, his regiment was transferred to various posts in central and southern France, and it was in 1825 in one of these posts that he met and soon married Lydia Bunbury, the daughter of a wealthy and somewhat eccentric lord, Sir Hugh Bunbury. Both Vigny and his mother had cultivated and sealed this alliance, at least partly, in expectation of a sizable inheritance, but Lydia’s father was not pleased with the marriage and cut the couple off with a small allowance. After Sir Hugh’s death in 1838, Vigny became involved in a lawsuit aimed at claiming an inheritance, an effort which left him and his wife little better off than before. Early in the marriage, Lydia suffered three miscarriages which left her a lifelong invalid. Intellectually, she had little in common with her husband, but neither this nor her physical condition caused Vigny to abandon her, although he had a succession of mistresses throughout the marriage, several of whom could hardly have been unknown to his wife. The marriage held together, however, with Vigny assuming the household duties, managing the slender budget, and, in the end, devotedly attending Lydia in her final sickness.

After numerous successive leaves of absence from the army, Vigny was placed on permanent and honorable retirement in the spring of 1827. A period of great literary activity ensued, which saw the success of the historical novel Cinq-Mars, the republication of Poèmes antiques et modernes, and a generally successful series of works for the stage, culminating, in 1835, in the stunning reception of the three-act drama Chatterton. In 1831, Vigny had begun a relationship with Marie Dorval, the famous actress who was to play the female lead in Chatterton. This liaison, which would last until 1838, proved to be highly unstable, as a result of Dorval’s increasingly frequent absences from Paris when on tour and Vigny’s violent fits of jealousy. The years with Dorval also saw the publication of the novel Stello and a collection of three stories culled from Vigny’s experience of army life, collectively titled The Military Necessity.

Upon his mother’s death in 1837, Vigny inherited the country property of Maine-Giraud, where, in reserved retirement from public life, he and his wife would remain almost exclusively until their deaths. Vigny never published a full-length book after The Military Necessity, but he composed a good deal of poetry and puzzled over the ultimate disposition of a selection of poems for a final collection, which was not to be published until after his death by his friend and literary executor, Louis Ratisbonne. Of the eleven poems that constitute this final collection, Les Destinées, several were published individually during Vigny’s lifetime in the literary review Revue des deux mondes, among them “La Mort du loup,” “Le Mont des Oliviers,” “La Maison du berger,” and “La Bouteille à la mer.”

In addition to this creative activity, Vigny made five unsuccessful attempts (from 1842 through 1845) to be admitted to the Académie Française and was finally elected in 1846. He also stood for election as a Royalist candidate to the National Legislative Assembly in 1848, but he was defeated by his Bonapartist opponent. Vigny’s campaigning had been rather too patrician: His political opinions were printed for distribution, but he had disdained to circulate among the constituency he hoped to represent. In any case, the Revolution of 1848 had begun to erode Vigny’s loyalties, and he began to question the actual accomplishments of the Bourbon regime. He never again seriously considered a career as an elected official.

In 1860, Vigny’s wife began to fail, and for two years he attended and nursed her faithfully. When she died in December, 1862, Vigny was unable to attend the funeral because he was suffering from the painful stomach cancer that would eventually kill him. Before he died, after years of proudly refusing to submit to a religious creed, Vigny received the last rites and was reconciled with the Catholic Church. He died in Paris on September 17, 1863, and is buried in the cemetery of Montmartre.

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