Alfred de Vigny Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Apart from the evidence of the poetry itself, nowhere is there more certain testimony that, as a literary artist, Alfred de Vigny considered himself, first and foremost, a poet than in the posthumously published Le Journal d’un poète (1867; a poet’s diary). Given its well-chosen title by Vigny’s friend and literary executor, Louis Ratisbonne, the journal is a kind of mixed personal and literary diary covering the years from 1823 to 1863. Along with entries on personal events and philosophical observations are extensive notes on Vigny’s reading and on his literary projects. The latter, many of which are but germs of ideas for works which were never developed or completed, are predominantly concerned with poetry.

In the France of the early nineteenth century, however, it was drama, not poetry or fiction, which was considered the true proving ground of literary merit, and the establishment of the Romantic movement was largely accomplished “on the boards.” Vigny played no small part in this task, two of his dramatic works being considered watersheds in the history of the Romantic theater. The first of these was the premiere of Vigny’s translation of William Shakespeare’s Othello (1604), Le More de Venise (1829; the Moor of Venice), which helped pave the way for the more sensational success of Victor Hugo’s Hernani at the Comédie-Française in 1830. The second work was the three-act prose drama Chatterton (pr., pb. 1835), which developed the popular theme of the poet, the man of genius, persecuted by an uncomprehending, materialistic society. The sensational first performance of Chatterton was the greatest public triumph not only in Vigny’s career, but also in that of the female lead, the celebrated actress Marie Dorval, who was Vigny’s mistress. Vigny’s two other works for the stage were composed as display pieces for Dorval: La Maréchale d’Ancre (pr. 1831) and the one-act Quitte pour la peur (pr. 1833).

Vigny produced one historical novel, Cinq-Mars (1826; Cinq-Mars: Or, A Conspiracy Under Louis XIII, 1847); an “experimental” novel, Stello (1832); two novel fragments, L’Alméh (1831), concerning Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt, and Daphné (1912), an account of Julian the Apostate; and a work that some consider one of the masterpieces of nineteenth century French fiction, Servitude et grandeurs militaires (1835; The Military Necessity, 1919), a collection of three stories depicting the soldier’s life and exploring the meaning of military experience.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Alfred de Vigny’s literary output is remarkably small, particularly in comparison with that of most of his contemporaries. Moreover, his reputation in France (he is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world) rests almost exclusively on three works: the drama Chatterton, the collection of stories The Military Necessity, and the posthumous verse collection Les Destinées. Nevertheless, Vigny is ranked by general consensus as one of the four great poets of French Romanticism, along with Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Musset, and Victor Hugo. Vigny consciously set himself apart from these contemporaries in order to find a distinct, individual style not bound to any literary “school,” and the very inclusion of his name in this quartet extends one step further the already misty, indeterminate boundaries of the term “Romantic.”

Vigny, by temperament and discipline, stood in dramatic contrast to his contemporaries. He was incapable of the lyric effusion of Lamartine, the confessional tones of Musset, the technical brio or the self-proclaimed “voice of the people” attitude of Hugo. Vigny’s verse is predominantly sober, dry, and spare; he had no taste for the verbal display which characterized Hugo’s collection Les Orientales (1829; Eastern Lyrics, 1879), and, although Vigny had a genius for scene setting, he was rarely sidetracked by the details of the purely picturesque.


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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Bowman, Frank Paul. “The Poetic Practices of Vigny’s Poèmes philosophiques.” Modern Language Review 60 (1965): 359-368. Vigny was famous for his use of Stoic philosophy in his poems. This essay examines Vigny’s skill in persuading his readers to admire his characters, who maintain their dignity in the face of true suffering.

Doolittle, James. Alfred de Vigny. New York: Twayne, 1967. This short book is a good introduction in English to Vigny’s lyric poetry and to his more famous historical novels, including Cinq-Mars and The Military Necessity. Includes bibliography.

McGoldrick, Malcolm. “The Setting in Vigny’s ‘La Mort du loup.’” The Language Quarterly 29, nos. 1/2 (Winter/Spring, 1991): 104-114. In one of Vigny’s best-known poems, the speaker is a hunter who kills a wolf but finally comes to admire the dying wolf’s courageous efforts to protect his family. Shows how the setting in a forest isolates the hunter from others and makes him reflect on the consequences of his actions.

McLeman-Carnie, Janette. “Monologue: A Dramatic Strategy in Alfred de Vigny’s Rhetoric.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 23, nos. 3/4 (Spring/Summer, 1988): 253-265. Some of Vigny’s most famous poems are dramatic monologues in which the speaker conveys his understanding of what he sees before him. Vigny was also a dramatist, and this essay examines his skill in making his readers identify with the internal struggles of his speakers.

Shwimer, Elaine K. The Novels of Alfred de Vigny: A Study of Their Form and Composition. New York: Garland, 1991. Critical study includes bibliographic references.

Wren, Keith. Vigny’s “Les Destinées.” London: Grant & Cutler, 1985. A thoughtful study of Vigny’s posthumously published book of poetry. This short book describes the artistry and philosophical depth of this work.