Alfred de Vigny Biography


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1145 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In French literature Alfred Victor, Comte de Vigny (veen-yee), is important as a great pioneer of the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century, but to speakers of English he is best known as the author of Cinq-Mars, a historical romance. Vigny, following a long family tradition, began his career as an officer in the French army in 1814, at the age of seventeen. He retired from military life in 1827, after thirteen years of peacetime service. Before retiring he had already begun to write, and a volume of his verse, Poèmes, had been published in 1822. This volume was followed by a series of narrative poems, including Eloa in 1824.

Vigny’s early poetry, collected in 1837, was, according to his own preface to that edition, philosophic thought clothed in the form of poetic art. Alfred de Musset, Victor Hugo, and Alphonse de Lamartine, all later important French Romantic poets, were influenced by Vigny’s work. In his later poetry he tried to analyze human problems and present them through biblical symbols.

In addition to his poetry and his very popular novel Cinq-Mars, Vigny translated works of William Shakespeare into French, wrote studies of the poet in modern society in Stello, wrote plays (including one about the English poet Thomas Chatterton), and published a volume of sketches and essays on military life.

In private life Vigny was unfortunate. He was married to an Englishwoman, Lydia Bunbury, in 1825, but she shortly afterward became permanently disabled. From 1831 to 1838 Vigny was the lover of Marie Dorval, a celebrated actress, but the affair ended unhappily. He was barely elected to the French Academy in 1845. Twice he ran unsuccessfully for the French Assembly, in 1848 and 1849. Vigny died of cancer September 17, 1863.