The Poetry of Vigny

by Alfred de Vigny
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1701

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 of his horn, his oliphant. The poem is outstanding for its economy of word and syllable, the sense of urgency it communicates.

The importance of POEMES ANTIQUES ET MODERNES resides in Vigny’s success in expressing in verse some of the problems at the center of his philosophic position. The poet’s interpretation of man’s condition seems to be summed up in the “Why?” and “Alas!” uttered by Moses in the first poem discussed here. In exposing his ideas, Vigny managed to give his verses an impersonal quality, a general value, through a clever, if timid, use of the symbol.

Twenty to thirty years of experience and meditation separate the POEMES ANTIQUES ET MODERNES from LES DESTINEES. The latter collection, having as its subtitle POEMES PHILOSOPHIQUES, was published in 1864, a few months after Vigny’s death. It is the fruit of an attempt to clothe philosophical reflection in verse. The undoubted success of this venture is due in large measure to Vigny’s consistent and conscientious use of the symbol. The publication of LES DESTINEES marks a new development in the history of French poetry.

LES DESTINEES owes its title to the first poem of the collection. Here the poet poses the basic problem of man’s condition on earth: since man was created, says Vigny, he has lived in uncertainty and unhappiness, the slave and victim of fate. The coming of Christ brought some relief, for the collar around man’s neck was slackened. But, Vigny continues, the chain is still held from above, and though mankind may accomplish great deeds, there is still no real freedom or certainty about God’s works.

After the extreme pessimism of “Les Destinees,” Vigny, in “La Maison du Berger” (“The Shepherd’s House”), announces the ideal after which he strives. The title expresses the symbol inspiring the poet’s meditation; the poet, a thinker and social apostle who guides the people towards the ideal life, here resembles the shepherd in his caravan. For the poet should live ideally far from the tumult of an industrial society. Alluding no doubt to Lamartine, Vigny claims that poetry has been cheapened by writers who seek the plaudits of the crowd. On the other hand, nature is insensible. So the poet, turning to Eva, probably an ideal abstraction, not a single figure, whom he has led to the caravan, will prefer to the harshness of nature and the corruption of society the compassion and pity only woman can offer.

In “La Maison du Berger,” Vigny proposes an ideal. In “La Mort du Loup” (“The Death of the Wolf”) and “Le Mont des Oliviers” (“The Mount of Olives”), he suggests an attitude. The mood of these two poems is pessimistic. In the former, the courage of the wolf, as it dies, is held up as an example to man. This creature, its body wracked with pain after it has been mortally wounded, utters no sound. Man’s duty, according to the poet, is to display the same courage: he must complete his tasks and prepare to meet misfortune and death uncomplainingly.

The somber stoicism of “La Mort du Loup” is also advocated in “Le Mont des Oliviers,” another outstanding poem. First published in 1844, this work depicts Christ, a Christ perhaps more human than divine, in the garden of Gethsemane, where His sufferings began. Christ asks of God that His sufferings be used to explain to mankind the reasons for the apparent injustice of the Divinity and the presence of evil in the world. His plea goes unanswered:

But the sky remains black,and God does not answer

In a final stanza, added in 1862, Vigny says that in the face of God’s silence, man can only remain silent and aloof also.

In these two poems the image evoked is admirably appropriate. Yet their appeal lies essentially in Vigny’s ability to develop and fill out the image, to give it a life of its own, while translating his thought faithfully. The thought, in a sense, feeds the image, and where the thought is strong and consistent, as is the case here, the image stands out in sharp relief.

Were LES DESTINEES to end here, one must conclude that Vigny’s message was purely pessimistic: to exist is to suffer, to exist as a superior being requires a religion of honor to meet more suffering, a readiness to remain uncomplaining, stoical, and even unenthusiastic. In fact, this religion of honor, this stoicism, is for the poet only a beginning, not an end.

“La Bouteile a la Mer” (“The Bottle in the Sea”) and the final poem of LES DESTINEES, “L’Esprit pur” (“The Pure Spirit”), indicate an evolution in Vigny’s thought. In the former, an intrepid sea captain casts a bottle containing vital information about reefs and currents into the sea, just before his death. The poet’s message is clear. Just as the bottle was later recovered, so might a work of art guide future generations; therefore the writer must ignore present adversity and look toward the future. A poem is a bottle cast into the sea.

“L’Esprit pur” may be considered Vigny’s moral and literary testament. In this poem, written some months before his death, he affirms that the reign of the “Pure Spirit,” of the written word, has come. The poet has a mission; he must serve as a guide for future generations and write for posterity; he will acquire nobility through his ability to join the past to the future by his writings.

Vigny’s place in literature is inside no single school. Several of his themes are characteristically Romantic, while his restraint and respect for his art are reminiscent of Classical French poets. Moreover, his use of the symbol reminds the reader of the debt owed him by the Symbolist movement of the late nineteenth century. Alfred de Vigny’s most outstanding trait, reflected in his poetry, was probably the esteem in which he held the Idea throughout his life. While a poet, he was always a thinker, a fact that explains much of the force as well as the occasional stiffness of his verse.

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