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PREFACE

Considering Alfred de Vigny first as a writer, it is evident that he
wished the public to regard him as different from the other romanticists
of his day; in fact, in many respects, his method presents a striking
contrast to theirs. To their brilliant facility, their prodigious
abundance, and the dazzling luxury of color in their pictures of life he
opposes a style always simple, pure, clear, with delicacy of touch,
careful drawing of character, correct locution, and absolute chastity.
Yet, even though he had this marked regard for purity in literary style,
no writer had more dislike of mere pedantry. His high ideal in literary
art and his self-respect inspired him with an invincible repugnance
toward the artificialities of style of that period, which the
romanticists--above all, Chateaubriand, their master--had so much abused.

Every one knows of the singular declaration made by Chateaubriand to
Joubert, while relating the details of a nocturnal voyage: "The moon
shone upon me in a slender crescent, and that prevented me from writing
an untruth, for I feel sure that had not the moon been there I should
have said in my letter that it was shining, and then you would have
convicted me of an error in my almanac!"

This habit of sacrificing truth and exactitude of impression, for the
sake of producing a harmonious phrase or a picturesque suggestion,
disgusted Alfred de Vigny. "The worst thing about writers is that they
care very little whether what they write is true, so long as they only
write," we read on one page of his Journal. He adds, "They should seek
words only in their own consciences." On another page he says: "The most
serious lack in literary work is sincerity. Perceiving clearly that the
combination of technical labor and research for effective expression, in
producing literary work, often leads us to a paradox, I have resolved to
sacrifice all to conviction and truth, so that this precious element of
sincerity, complete and profound, shall dominate my books and give to
them the sacred character which the divine presence of truth always
gives."

Besides sincerity, De Vigny possessed, in a high degree, a gift which was
not less rare in that age--good taste. He had taste in the art of
writing, a fine literary tact, a sense of proportion, a perception of
delicate shades of expression, an instinct that told him what to say and
what to suppress, to insinuate, or to be left to the understanding. Even
in his innovations in form, in his boldness of style, he showed a rare
discretion; never did he do violence to the genius of the French
language, and one may apply to him without reserve the eulogy that
Quintilian pronounced upon Horace: 'Verbis felicissime audax'.

He cherished also a fixed principle that art implied selection. He was
neither idealist nor realist, in the exclusive and opposing sense in
which we understand these terms; he recommended a scrupulous observance
of nature, and that every writer should draw as close to it as possible,
but only in order to interpret it, to reveal it with a true feeling, yet
without a too intimate analysis, and that no one should attempt to
portray it exactly or servilely copy it. "Of what use is art," he says,
"if it is only a reduplication of existence? We see around us only too
much of the sadness and disenchantment of reality." The three novels that
compose the volume 'Servitude et Grandeur militaire' are, in this
respect, models of romantic composition that never will be surpassed,
bearing witness to the truth of the formula followed by De Vigny in all
his literary work: "Art is the chosen truth."

If, as a versifier, Alfred de Vigny does not equal the great poets of his
time, if they are his superiors in distinction and brilliancy, in
richness of vocabulary, freedom of movement, and variety of rhythm, the
cause is to be ascribed less to any lack of poetic genius than to the
nature of his inspiration, even to the laws of poesy, and to the secret
and irreducible antinomy that exists between art and thought. When, for
example, Theophile Gautier reproached him with being too little impressed
with the exigencies of rhyme, his criticism was not well grounded, for
richness of rhyme, though indispensable in works of descriptive
imagination, has no 'raison d'etre' in poems dominated by sentiment and
thought. But, having said that, we must recognize in his poetry an
element, serious, strong, and impressive, characteristic of itself alone,
and admire, in the strophes of 'Mozse', in the imprecations of 'Samson',
and in the 'Destinees', the majestic simplicity of the most beautiful
Hebraic verse.

Moreover, the true originality of De Vigny does not lie in the manner of
composition; it was primarily in the role of precursor that he played his
part on the stage of literature. Let us imagine ourselves at the period
about the beginning of the year 1822. Of the three poets who, in making
their literary debuts, had just published the 'Meditations, Poemes
antiques et modernes, and Odes', only one had, at that time, the instinct
of renewal in the spirit of French poesy, and a sense of the manner in
which this must be accomplished; and that one was not Lamartine, and
certainly it was not Victor Hugo.

Sainte-Beuve has said, with authority, that in Lamartine there is
something suggestive of Millevoye, of Voltaire (he of the charming
epistles), and of Fontanes; and Victor Hugo wrote with very little
variation from the technical form of his predecessors. "But with Alfred
de Vigny," he says, "we seek in vain for a resemblance to any French
poetry preceding his work. For example, where can we find anything
resembling 'Moise, Eloa, Doloeida'? Where did he find his inspiration for
style and composition in these poems? If the poets of the Pleiades of the
Restoration seem to have found their inspiration within themselves,
showing no trace of connection with the literature of the past, thus
throwing into confusion old habits of taste and of routine, certain it is
that among them Alfred de Vigny should be ranked first."

Even in the collection that bears the date of 1822, some years before the
future author of Legende des Siecles had taken up romanticism, Alfred de
Vigny had already conceived the idea of setting forth, in a series of
little epics, the migrations of the human soul throughout the ages. "One
feels," said he in his Preface, "a keen intellectual delight in
transporting one's self, by mere force of thought, to a period of
antiquity; it resembles the pleasure an old man feels in recalling first
his early youth, and then the whole course of his life. In the age of
simplicity, poetry was devoted entirely to the beauties of the physical
forms of nature and of man; each step in advance that it has made since
then toward our own day of civilization and of sadness, seems to have
blended it more and more with our arts, and even with the sufferings of
our souls. At present, with all the serious solemnity of Religion and of
Destiny, it lends to them their chief beauty. Never discouraged, Poetry
has followed Man in his long journey through the ages, like a sweet and
beautiful companion. I have attempted, in our language, to show some of
her beauties, in following her progress toward the present day."

The arrangement of the poems announced in this Preface is tripartite,
like that of the 'Legende des Siecles: Poemes antiques, poemes judaiques,
poemes modernes.--Livre mystique, livre antique, livre moderne'. But the
name of precursor would be a vain title if all that were necessary to
merit it was the fact that one had been the first to perceive a new path
to literary glory, to salute it from a distance, yet never attempt to
make a nearer approach.

In one direction at least, Alfred de Vigny was a true innovator, in the
broadest and most meritorious sense of the word: he was the creator of
philosophic poetry in France. Until Jocelyn appeared, in 1836, the form
of poetic expression was confined chiefly to the ode, the ballad, and the
elegy; and no poet, with the exception of the author of 'Moise' and
'Eloa', ever dreamed that abstract ideas and themes dealing with the
moralities could be expressed in the melody of verse.

To this priority, of which he knew the full value, Alfred de Vigny laid
insistent claim. "The only merit," he says in one of his prefaces, "that
any one ever has disputed with me in this sort of composition is the
honor of having promulgated in France all works of the kind in which
philosophic thought is presented in either epic or dramatic form."

But it was not alone priority in the sense of time that gave him right of
way over his contemporaries; he was the most distinguished representative
of poetic philosophy of his generation. If the phrases of Lamartine seem
richer, if his flight is more majestic, De Vigny's range is surer and
more powerful. While the philosophy of the creator of 'Les Harmonies' is
uncertain and inconsistent, that of the poet of 'Les Destinees' is strong
and substantial, for the reason that the former inspires more sentiment
than ideas, while the latter, soaring far above the narrow sphere of
personal emotion, writes of everything that occupies the intellect of
man.

Thus, by his vigor and breadth of thought, by his profound understanding
of life, by the intensity of his dreams, Alfred de Vigny is superior to
Victor Hugo, whose genius was quite different, in his power to portray
picturesque scenes, in his remarkable fecundity of imagination, and in
his sovereign mastery of technique.

But nowhere in De Vigny's work is that superiority of poetic thought so
clearly shown as in those productions wherein the point of departure was
farthest from the domain of intellect, and better than any other has he
understood that truth proclaimed by Hegel: "The passions of the soul and
the affections of the heart are matter for poetic expression only in so
far as they are general, solid, and eternal."

De Vigny was also the only one among our poets that had a lofty ideal of
woman and of love. And in order to convince one's self of this it is
sufficient to reread successively the four great love-poems of that
period: 'Le Lac, La Tristesse d'Olympio, Le Souvenir, and La Colere de
Samson'.

Lamartine's conception of love was a sort of mild ecstasy, the sacred
rapture in which the senses play no part, and noble emotions that cause
neither trouble nor remorse. He ever regarded love as a kind of sublime
and passionate religion, of which 'Le Lac' was the most beautiful hymn,
but in which the image of woman is so vague that she almost seems to be
absent.

On the other hand, what is 'La Tristesse d'Olympio' if not an admirable
but common poetic rapture, a magnificent summary of the sufferings of the
heart--a bit of lyric writing equal to the most beautiful canzoni of the
Italian masters, but wherein we find no idea of love, because all is
artificial and studied; no cry from the soul is heard,--no trace of
passion appears.

After another fashion the same criticism applies to Le Souvenir; it was
written under a stress of emotion resulting from too recent events; and
the imagination of the author, subservient to a memory relentlessly
faithful, as is often the case with those to whom passion is the chief
principle of inspiration, was far from fulfilling the duties of his high
vocation, which is to purify the passions of the poet from individual and
accidental characteristics in order to leave unhampered whatever his work
may contain that is powerful and imperishable.

Alfred de Vigny alone, of the poets of his day, in his 'Colere de
Samson', has risen to a just appreciation of woman and of love; his ideal
is grand and tragic, it is true, and reminds one of that gloomy passage
in Ecclesiastes which says: "Woman is more bitter than death, and her
arms are like chains."

It is by this character of universality, of which all his writings show
striking evidence, that Alfred de Vigny is assured of immortality. A
heedless generation neglected him because it preferred to seek subjects
in strong contrast to life of its own time. But that which was not
appreciated by his contemporaries will be welcomed by posterity. And
when, in French literature, there shall remain of true romanticism only a
slight trace and the memory of a few great names, the author of the
'Destinees' will still find an echo in all hearts.

No writer, no matter how gifted, immortalizes himself unless he has
crystallized into expressive and original phrase the eternal sentiments
and yearnings of the human heart. "A man does not deserve the name of
poet unless he can express personal feeling and emotion, and only that
man is worthy to be called a poet who knows how to assimilate the varied
emotions of mankind." If this fine phrase of Goethe's is true, if true
poetry is only that which implies a mastery of spiritual things as well
as of human emotion, Alfred de Vigny is assuredly one of our greatest
poets, for none so well as he has realized a complete vision of the
universe, no one has brought before the world with more boldness the
problem of the soul and that of humanity. Under the title of poet he
belongs not only to our national literature, but occupies a distinctive
place in the world of intellect, with Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe, among
those inspired beings who transmit throughout succeeding centuries the
light of reason and the traditions of the loftiest poetic thought.

Alfred de Vigny was elected to a chair in the French Academy in 1846 and
died at Paris, September 17, 1863.

                  GASTON BOISSIER
          Secretaire Perpetuel de l'Academie Francaise.