ALFRED DE VIGNY
The reputation of Alfred de Vigny has endured extraordinary vicissitudes
in France. First he was lauded as the precursor of French romantic poetry
and stately prose; then he sank in semi-oblivion, became the curiosity of
criticism, died in retirement, and was neglected for a long time, until
the last ten years or so produced a marked revolution of taste in France.
The supremacy of Victor Hugo has been, if not questioned, at least
mitigated; other poets have recovered from their obscurity. Lamartine
shines now like a lamp relighted; and the pure, brilliant, and profoundly
original genius of Alfred de Vigny now takes, for the first time, its
proper place as one of the main illuminating forces of the nineteenth
It was not until one hundred years after this poet's birth that it became
clearly recognized that he is one of the most important of all the great
writers of France, and he is distinguished not only in fiction, but also
in poetry and the drama. He is a follower of Andre Chenier, Lamartine,
and Victor Hugo, a lyric sun, a philosophic poet, later, perhaps in
consequence of the Revolution of 1830, becoming a "Symbolist." He has
been held to occupy a middle ground between De Musset and Chenier, but he
has also something suggestive of Madame de Stael, and, artistically, he
has much in common with Chateaubriand, though he is more coldly
impersonal and probably much more sincere in his philosophy. If
Sainte-Beuve, however, calls the poet in his Nouveaux Lundis a "beautiful
angel, who has been drinking vinegar," then the modern reader needs a
strong caution against malice and raillery, if not jealousy and perfidy,
although the article on De Vigny abounds otherwise with excessive
At times, indeed, under the cruel deceptions of love, he seemed to lose
faith in his idealism; his pessimism, nevertheless, always remained
noble, restrained, sympathetic, manifesting itself not in appeals for
condolence, but in pitying care for all who were near and dear to him.
Yet his lofty prose and poetry, interpenetrated with the stern despair of
pessimistic idealism, will always be unintelligible to the many. As a
poet, De Vigny appeals to the chosen few alone. In his dramas his genius
is more emancipated from himself, in his novels most of all. It is by
these that he is most widely known, and by these that he exercised the
greatest influence on the literary life of his generation.
Alfred-Victor, Count de Vigny, was born in Loches, Touraine, March 27,
1797. His father was an army officer, wounded in the Seven Years' War.
Alfred, after having been well educated, also selected a military career
and received a commission in the "Mousquetaires Rouges," in 1814, when
barely seventeen. He served until 1827, "twelve long years of peace,"
then resigned. Already in 1822 appeared a volume of 'Poemes' which was
hardly noticed, although containing poetry since become important to the
evolution of French verse: 'La Neige, le Coy, le Deluge, Elva, la
Frigate', etc., again collected in 'Poemes antiques et modernes' (1826).
Other poems were published after his death in 'Les Destinies' (1864).
Under the influence of Walter Scott, he wrote a historical romance in
1826, 'Cinq-Mars, ou une Conjuration sans Louis XIII'. It met with the
most brilliant and decided success and was crowned by the Academy.
Cinq-Mars will always be remembered as the earliest romantic novel in
France and the greatest and most dramatic picture of Richelieu now
extant. De Vigny was a convinced Anglophile, well acquainted with the
writings of Shakespeare and Milton, Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Matthew
Arnold, and Leopardi. He also married an English lady in 1825--Lydia
Other prose works are 'Stello' (1832), in the manner of Sterne and
Diderot, and 'Servitude et Grandeur militaire' (1835), the language of
which is as caustic as that of Merimee. As a dramatist, De Vigny produced
a translation of 'Othello--Le More de Venice' (1829); also 'La Marechale
d'Ancre' (1832); both met with moderate success only. But a decided "hit"
was 'Chatterton' (1835), an adaption from his prose-work 'Stello, ou les
Diables bleus'; it at once established his reputation on the stage; the
applause was most prodigious, and in the annals of the French theatre can
only be compared with that of 'Le Cid'. It was a great victory for the
Romantic School, and the type of Chatterton, the slighted poet, "the
marvellous boy, the sleepless soul that perished in his pride," became
contagious as erstwhile did the type of Werther.
For twenty years before his death Alfred de Vigny wrote nothing. He lived
in retirement, almost a recluse, in La Charente, rarely visiting Paris.
Admitted into L'Academie Francaise in 1845, he describes in his 'Journal
d'un Poete' his academic visits and the reception held out to him by the
members of L'Institut. This work appeared posthumously in 1867.
He died in Paris, September 17, 1863.
CHARLES DE MAZADE
de l'Academie Francaise.