Alfred de Vigny’s place in the mainstream of French poetry seems assured. In his life, he made few concessions to popular tastes and did not therefore attract the same adulation as his contemporaries Lamartine and Hugo. For a period of voluble Muses, his output was not great. Nonetheless, the esteem in which Vigny is held has remained constant since his death.
Until about 1830, it seemed that Vigny might rival Victor Hugo as the leader of the Romantic school; however, it became evident that his true position was outside the turmoil of the Romantic Cenacle. For Vigny was essentially a thinker, distrustful of lyrical effusions, who had a sense of moderation and discipline more characteristic of a previous generation than of his own. Eventually, he saw himself as having a social mission, but this he fulfilled from a distance, in the seclusion of his manor at the Le Maine Giraud, to which he retired in 1837.
The collection titled POEMES ANTIQUES ET MODERNES, though of uneven quality, shows that as early as 1826, Vigny was capable of treating serious problems in verse. Moreover, his use of the symbol, although hesitant, marks a major development in French poetry; for it allows Vigny to bring his ideas to life, to suggest more than he actually says, while retaining an impersonal form.
The first book, the “Livre mystique,” of the POEMES ANTIQUES ET MODERNES is made up of three pieces: “Moise,” “Eloa” and “Le Deluge.” In “Moise,” Moses is given a sense of discouragement he does not possess in the Old Testament. He feels all the weight of his age and experience; having led the Jews to within sight of the Promised Land, he now seeks only to die, to throw off the burden of wisdom and responsibility which alienates him from other men:
O Lord! I have lived powerful andalone,Let me fall into the deep sleep of theearth!
The dominant idea of this poem is that of the moral solitude, the alienation, of the man of genius. So powerful, so convincing, is the portrait of Moses, that it takes on all the qualities of a myth. As Vigny himself pointed out in a letter to Mlle. Maunoir in December, 1838, Moses’ name serves as a mask to suggest the weariness of the superior man of any century.
In “Moise,” the wrath and even the injustice of God are stressed: Moses does not seek immortality, but has it thrust upon him. This theme is developed in “Eloa.” Eloa, an angel born of a tear shed by Christ, attempts to save an archangel fallen from Heaven. At first, Satan, the fallen archangel, seems to repent. If God had intervened at that moment, writes Vigny, perhaps evil would have ceased to exist. But God abandons Eloa, and she is dragged off by Satan as his victim.
“La Fille de Jephte,” which is to be found in the “Livre antique” of POEMES ANTIQUES ET MODERNES, may have been inspired by a reading of Chateaubriand, while its form was possibly borrowed from Byron. Nonetheless, the poem bears the unmistakable imprint of Alfred de Vigny, and is probably, after “Moise,” one of the finest in the collection of 1826. The form, alexandrines in four-line stanzas, with couplet rhymes, is an innovation in French poetry, admirably suited to the rigor and sense of tragic inevitability implicit in the theme. Vigny tells the story of Jephtah, one of the judges of Israel, who, before attacking the Ammonites, promised to sacrifice to God, after his victory, the first person to come to meet his army. Jephtah’s daughter, his only child, was that person, and the poem describes the tragic meeting of the two.
The “Livre antique” of POEMES ANTIQUES ET MODERNES draws on classical and Biblical antiquity, while the third and final book, the “Livre moderne,” is inspired by the Middle Ages, episodes in Spain, or happenings in France. Of the poems represented here, mention must be made of “Le Cor.” The latter describes the plight of Roland, trapped in the pass of Roncevaux, summoning help by means...
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