Alfred de Vigny Vigny, Alfred (Victor) de (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.”

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

Correspondence de Alfred de Vigny, 1816-1863 (letters) 1905

*Shylock [translator; from the drama The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare] (drama) 1905

Daphné (Deuxième consultation du Docteur Noir) (unfinished novel) 1913

*This work was composed in 1830.

Temple Bar (essay date 1863)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Nugent (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Barbara T. Cooper (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Keith Wren (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Martha Noel Evans (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robin Buss (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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J. C. Ireson (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patrick Craven (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Malcolm McGoldrick (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Phillip A. Duncan (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mark K. Jensen (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 315 words.)