Vigny, Alfred de
Alfred de Vigny
BORN: 1797, Loches, France
DIED: 1863, Paris, France
GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry
Cinq-Mars; or, A Conspiracy under Louis XIII (1826)
Stello: A Session with Doctor Noir (1832)
The Military Necessity (1835)
Alfred de Vigny is known for his philosophical plays, short stories, and poems, which are recognized as an important part of the French Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. In particular, his drama Chatterton contributed significantly to the development of the Romantic movement in French literature. Critics agree that Vigny is most admired
for his creative use of form, command of technique, innovative use of symbols, and philosophical themes.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Association with the Romantics Vigny was born at Loches in the Touraine region of France to aristocratic parents who, though once wealthy, had lost their fortune during the French Revolution less than a decade before. The French Revolution had been a revolt of the working class against the rule and power of the nobility and the clergy; because of this, noble families such as Vigny's were stripped of much of their past prestige and wealth after the revolution. The family moved to Paris where Vigny was raised among the nostalgic survivors of the old nobility of prerevolutionary France. In 1814 he followed family tradition by joining the Royal Guard, where he served for thirteen years.
During this period he renewed his ties with his childhood friend Émile Deschamps; in 1820, he met through Deschamps the growing body of Romantics—including Antony Deschamps, Jacques Ancelot, Alexandre Soumet, Pierre Guiraud, Jules de Rességuier, and Gaspard de Pons—who belonged to the first Cénacle and met in the home of Charles Nodier. They soon gravitated toward Victor Hugo, with whom the aspiring poet Vigny became, for a while at least, the best of friends. Vigny made his poetic debut in the December 1820 issue of Victor, Abel, and Eugène Hugo's Conservateur littéraire.
Poetry Vigny began his literary career by writing poetry. He wrote slowly and with difficulty, leaving less than three dozen “poèmes,” long philosophical pieces of sustained verse on generally grandiose themes, on which his reputation primarily rests. Despite money worries, he was never constrained to live by his pen and could afford both the slow maturation of his poetry and the long delays during its composition and revision. He abandoned or destroyed a great deal of material. He regarded himself, as he wrote in his Journal, as “a sort of epic moralist.” Poèmes antiques et modernes, which includes the ten works published in Poèmes and Eloa; ou, La soeur des anges, mystère, contains twenty-one poems that are divided into three groups according to their sources of inspiration: mystical, ancient, and modern poems. The ancient group is further divided into biblical and Homeric poems.
Novels, Drama, and Other Writings Cinq-Mars; or, A Conspiracy under Louis XIII is Vigny's first significant novel. Influenced by the writings of Sir Walter Scott, this historical novel about the age of Louis XIII concentrates on the historical events of the period at the expense of its fictional scenes, which, according to critics, are flat and lack a genuine warmth and vitality.
Vigny's theatrical career began with his successful translation and adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello for the French stage. Chatterton followed, as a dramatic adaptation of Vigny's own short story “Chatterton,” which depicts the fate of the poet Thomas Chatterton, who is eventually driven to suicide by a materialistic society that neither appreciates his talent nor offers him love. The play is classical in its taut construction, simple plot, and restrained emotion. Yet the attack on society, moral examination of the hero's soul, and impassioned defense of emotion over reason all contributed to its success as a Romantic drama.
Vigny's writings also include a significant collection of short prose works, including Stello: A Session with Doctor Noir, which represent his attempts to combine philosophy with storytelling. In these works, he consistently defended what he considered to be the outcasts of society: the poet, soldier, and visionary. The work testifies to Vigny's bitterness toward a society that, in his view, despises genius. The Military Necessity, similar in form and thought to Stello, consists of three stories unified by the author's personal comments on the role of the soldier, who is also a victim of society. Vigny depicted the struggle between the requirements of the soldier's conscience and the dictates of war; he contended that the soldier's greatness lies in his dignified and passive obedience to authority. Vigny began a third collection of stories on the suffering of the religious prophet, but he only completed one story, titled Daphne. In comparing these stories with his earlier prose work Cinq-Mars, critics commend Vigny's improved literary technique. Both collections of stories are admired for their simple plots, especially the two stories, “Laurette; ou, Le cachet rouge,” and “La vie et la mort du capitaine Renaud; ou, La canne de jonc,” which are often cited as Vigny's best fiction.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Vigny's famous contemporaries include:
Charles Darwin (1809–1882): An English naturalist, Darwin proposed and explained the processes of evolution and natural selection in such a satisfactory manner that his theories now form the basis of modern biology and evolutionary theory.
Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794–1876): Over four turbulent decades, Santa Anna held various military and political positions, rising as high as president and general; fighting both against and in favor of Mexican independence; and infamously leading the Mexican forces in an ill-fated attempt to suppress the Texan Revolution.
Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875): A Danish author, Andersen penned several famous fairy tales, including “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor's New Clothes,” and “The Ugly Duckling,”that are now considered international treasures.
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859): French historian and political philosopher, de Tocqueville wrote the two-volume Democracy in America, a study of early American democracy and its effects on the average person.
Napoléon III (1808–1873): Born Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew to the legendary general, Napoléon III was an unlikely politician who rose to become president of the French Republic, then proclaimed himself emperor of the Second Empire, a title he held until he was deposed in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832): One of the true geniuses of the Enlightenment period, Goethe was an acclaimed author and poet, theologian, philosopher, and scientist. His two-part play Faust has been hailed as one of the greatest works of world literature.
Disillusionment and Isolation Near the end of his military service, he married Lydia Bunbury, the daughter of a rich and eccentric Englishman who disapproved of Vigny and promptly disinherited her. Lydia became a chronic invalid shortly thereafter, and the marriage rapidly disintegrated. Vigny turned to other women for comfort, including the great Romantic actress Marie Dorval. Disillusioned by politics, failed love affairs, and his lack of recognition as a writer, Vigny withdrew from Parisian society after 1840. In 1845 he was elected to the prestigious literary Académie française after several unsuccessful attempts. Three years later, Vigny retreated to the family home at Charente, for which the French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve coined the famous phrase a “tour d'ivoire,” or ivory tower, where he lived quietly until his death.
Works in Literary Context
With his collection Poèmes antiques et modernes Vigny championed the poème, which he defined as a composition in which a philosophic thought is staged under an epic or dramatic form. Vigny's poèmes are characterized by their stoical pessimism, compact form, and visual imagery. Their principal themes include God's indifference to humanity, women's deceit, inexorable fate, and the poet's alienation from a mediocre world. According to many critics, “Moise” is one of the finest works in Poèmes antiques et modernes and an outstanding example of Vigny's use of the poème to dramatize a single idea through symbols. “Moise” has been described as his pronouncement on the nineteenth-century Romantic poet's position in society.
Isolation and Misunderstanding Virtually all of Vigny's work deals with the isolation of the individual and his belief in values that bring him into tension with a society from which he stands apart. Stello is essentially a collection of stories about the isolation of poets as beings superior to the rest of society and again explores the Romantic theme of being true to a vocation, whatever the cost in comfort or happiness. The work contains a condemnation of all social and political illusion and especially of philistine materialism. It also affirms the individual's duty to allow himself to be destroyed by society rather than abandon his ideal. His three major plays share the same concerns as the novels.
The poems convey images of stoical superiority, silent isolation, and dignified suffering, which take self-dramatization no doubt too far for modern taste, but which convey the quintessential Romantic need to investigate the values of the individual, especially of the outcast, who needs to remain aloof and alone in order to be true to his inner self, sometimes disguised as destiny. Vigny's poetic output was slight in quantity but was clearly intended to be prodigious in depth and to make a claim for the leadership of the new school, a role that went in the end to Victor Hugo, whose Odes et ballades, published in 1826, overtook Vigny's Poèmes in prestige and popularity.
The Reform of French Theater As early as 1823, Vigny admired Shakespeare's adroit synthesis of styles that allowed him to capture both the prosaic and lyrical aspects of the totality of human expression and aspiration. He found such attributes to be conspicuously absent in the virtually moribund neoclassical dramas of the period. He became convinced that Shakespearean drama could serve as a model for the reform and modernization of French theater.
Vigny's sporadic career as a dramatist began precisely at the time the Shakespeare controversy erupted in France during the 1820s. When his collaboration in 1827 with Émile Deschamps on a French adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (1594) was neither produced nor subsequently published, he set to work alone to translate Othello as The Moor of Venice, first performed at the Comédie-française on October 24, 1829. Vigny wanted his adaptation to serve as a point of mediation between the neoclassical factions that resisted all change and the Romantic innovators who advocated a complete revamping of the French stage. His translation endeavored to show that a new style, crucially informed by a different worldview, could triumph over the arbitrary limitations imposed by neoclassicism. His adaptation of Othello succeeded in softening the diehard resistance of opponents of Shakespeare and may be justifiably credited with preparing the atmosphere that enabled the success of Hugo's Hernani in 1830 and other daring dramas later.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Vigny was one of the leading lights of the Romantic movement in French theater; other works that touch upon Romantic themes include:
La Morte Amoureuse (1836), a short story by Théophile Gautier. Combining Gothic and Romantic themes, this short story by one of the acknowledged masters of Romanticism tells the story of a priest who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a vampire.
Voyage to the Orient (1851), a nonfiction work by Gérard de Nerval. Perhaps the definitive Romantic poet, Nerval also penned this hallucinatory travel account of a drug-fueled trip through the Middle East in the 1840s. His work would prove a tremendous influence on later Symbolists and surrealists.
René (1802), a novella by François-René de Chateau-briand. Considered by many critics to be the first true work of French Romanticism, this novella—by the man who inspired Romantics as much through his lifestyle as through his writings—includes all the classic elements of Romantic drama, particularly in its sensitive young protagonist's rebellions against society.
Works in Critical Context
Vigny's works have received significant critical acclaim but little popular support. Only Cinq-Mars was an immediate popular success, yet it is ignored today. While Chatterton influenced the course of French Romantic drama, it, too, has fallen into neglect. Of Vigny's collections of stories, Stello and The Military Necessity have enjoyed both popular and critical acclaim since their publication. Most critics also agree that Vigny conveys his philosophy most successfully in his poetry. For instance, Les Destinées: Poèmes philosophiques is generally considered to be Vigny's greatest poetic achievement, though some scholars have termed many of the poems uneven in quality. Nevertheless, Albert Thibaudet called Les Destinées's tercets “the most lastingly luminous poems, the fixed stars of French poetry,” and a further example of Vigny's substantial contribution to the development of nineteenth-century French literature.
Poèmes antiques et moderns The collection of poems elicited mixed popular and critical reaction. Critics point to Vigny's inconsistency, inauthenticity, and notso-subtle moral lessons. Whatever else, Poèmes antiques et modernes attested to the significant accomplishment of a poet whose verse was intricately linked to the mood and tenor of the new civilization being fashioned in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
Cinq-Mars Cinq-Mars proved to be an immediate popular success in 1826. A second printing came out in June of the same year, and by 1827, Vigny counted thirteen printings in various formats—this despite glaring shortcomings in the novel. Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve criticized the work severely in the Globe, chiding Vigny for his outrageous falsification of historical personalities and events and for the irritating anachronisms that undermined the narrative at crucial intervals. He alluded to chapter 20, “The Reading,” as a case in point. Vigny situates the episode in the salon of the celebrated courtesan Marion Delorme in 1642. Members of the audience listen distractedly to Milton as he reads from Paradise Lost (actually not written until 1665). In the background, a somewhat larger group listens in rapt attention to a libertine poet discuss Madeleine de Scudéry's “Map of Love” from Clélie, which she published between 1654 and 1661. Such anachronisms and sudden shifts in plot development were bound to disconcert the more discerning reader. Even the portrait of the main protagonist is, at times, skimmed over in rather cavalier fashion.
Legacy Alfred de Vigny, poet, novelist, and dramatist, was an influential figure in the Romantic movement, particularly as it developed in the late 1820s and 1830s. His influence on the direction of French theater was profound, despite the fact that his dramatic output was relatively small. He completed only three original plays, each of which he saw produced and published, and several translations of Shakespeare, only one of which was produced in his lifetime.
Responses to Literature
- Read a selection of poems from the early years of Vigny's career and some from his later years. In an essay, compare and contrast how Vigny's philosophical views seem to change between his early and later writings. Use specific examples from the poetry to support your ideas.
- The plays Chatterton and Stello share a similar focus. With a group of your classmates, discuss what you think that focus is. How are the two plays linked through this shared theme?
- Write an informal essay in which you describe the sort of picture of military life Vigny paints in The Military Necessity. What do you think his motivation was for depicting military life in such a light?
- Make a chart in which you list and define the attributes of French Romanticism in one column, and in the other, list the attributes of Chatterton that make it an exemplar of Romantic drama.
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 119: Nineteenth-Century French Fiction Writers: Romanticism and Realism, 1800–1860. Edited by Catharine Savage Brosman. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1992.
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 192: French Dramatists, 1789–1914. Edited by Barbara T. Cooper. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1998.
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol.217: Nineteenth-Century French Poets. Edited by Robert Beum. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1999.
Doolittle, James. Alfred de Vigny. New York: Twayne, 1967.