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.