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."