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.