1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Vigny, Alfred de
VIGNY, ALFRED DE (1797–1863), French poet, was born at Loches (Indre-et-Loire) on the 27th of March 1797. Sainte-Beuve, in the rather ill-natured essay which he devoted to Vigny after his death, expresses a doubt whether the title of count which the poet bore was well authenticated, and hints that no very ancient proofs of the nobility of the family were forthcoming; but it is certain that in the 18th century persons of the name occupied positions which were not open to any but men of noble birth. For generations the ancestors of Alfred de Vigny had been soldiers, and he himself Joined the army, with a commission in the Household Troops, at the age of sixteen. But the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were over, and after twelve years of life in barracks he retired, preserving, however, a very high estimate of the duties and career of the soldier. While still serving he had made his mark, if as yet unrecognized, by the publication in 1822 of a volume of poems, and in 1826 by another, together with the famous prose romance of Cinq-Mars. Sainte-Beuve asserts that the poet antedated some of his most remarkable work-This may or may not be the case; he certainly could not antedate the publication. And it; so happens that some of his most celebrated pieces Eloa, Dolorida, Möise—appeared (1822–23) before the work of younger members of the Romantic school whose productions strongly resemble these poems. Nor is this originality limited to the point which he himself claimed in the Preface to his collected Poems in 1837—that they were “the first of their kind in France, in which philosophic thought is clothed in epic or dramatic form.” Indeed this claim is disputable in itself, and has misled not a few of Vigny’s recent critics. It is in poetic, not philosophic quality, that his idiosyncrasy and precursor ship are most remarkable. It is quite certain that the other Alfred— Alfred de Musset—felt the influence of his elder namesake, and an impartial critic might discern no insignificant marks of the same effect in the work of Hugo himself. Even Lamartine, considerably Vigny’s elder and his predecessor in poetry, seems rather to have been guided by Vigny than Vigny by him. No one can read Dolorida or Le Cor without seeing that the author had little to learn from any of his French contemporaries and much to teach them. At the same time Vigny, from whatever cause, hardly made any further public appearance in poetry proper during the more than thirty years of his life, and his entire poems, including posthumous fragments, form but one very small pocket volume. Cinq-Mars, which at least equalled the poems in popularity, will hardly stand the judgment of posterity so well. It had in its favour the support of the Royalist party, the immense vogue of the novels of Walter Scott, on which it was evidently modelled, the advantages of an exquisite style, and the taste of the day for the romance as opposed to the novel of analysis. It therefore gained a great name both in France and abroad. But any one who has read it critically must acknowledge it to be disappointing. The action is said to be dramatic; if it be so, it can only be said that this proves very conclusively that the action of drama and the action of the novel are two quite different things. To the reader who knows Scott or Dumas the story is singularly uninteresting (far less interesting than as told in history); the characters want life; and the book generally stagnates.
Its author, though always as a kind of outsider (the phrase constantly applied to him in French literary essays and histories being that he shut himself up in a tour d’ivoire), attached himself more or less to the Romantic movement of 1830 and the years immediately preceding and following it, and was stimulated by this movement both to drama and to novel writing. In the year before the revolution of July he produced at the Théâtre Français a translation, or rather paraphrase, of Othello, and an original piece, La Marechale d'Ancre. In 1832 he published the curious hook Stello, containing studies of unlucky youthful poets— Gilbert, Chatterton, Chenier—and in 1835 he brought out his drama of Chatterton, which, by the hero’s suicide, shocked French taste even after five years of Romantic education, but had a considerable success. The same year saw the publication of Servitude et grandeur militaires, a singular collection of sketches rather than a connected work in which Vigny’s military experience, his idea of the soldier’s duties, and his rather poetical views of history were all worked in. The subjects of Chatterton and Othello naturally suggest a certain familiarity with English, and in fact Alfred de Vigny knew English well, lived in England for some time and married in 1828 an Englishwoman, Lydia Bunbury. His father-in-law was, according to French gossip, so conspicuous an example of insular eccentricity that he never could remember his son-in-law’s name or anything about him, except that he was a poet. By this fact, and the kindness of casual Frenchmen who went through the list of the chief living poets of their country, he was sometimes able to discover his daughter’s husband’s designation. In 1845 Alfred de Vigny was elected to the Academy, but made no compromise in his “discourse of reception,” which was unflinchingly Romantic. Still, he produced nothing save a few scraps; and, beyond the work already enumerated, little has to be added except his Journal d'un poëte and the poems called Les Destinées, edited, with a few fragments, by Louis Ratisbonne after his death. Among his dramatic work, however, should be mentioned Quitte pour la peur and an adaptation of the Merchant of Venice called Shylock. Les Destinées excited no great admiration in France, but they contain some exceedingly beautiful poetry of an austere kind, such as the magnificent speech of Nature in “La Maison du berger” and the remarkable poem entitled “La Colère de Samson.” Vigny died at Paris on the 17th of September 1863.
His later life was almost wholly uneventful, and for the most part, as has been said, spent in retirement. His reputation, however, is perfectly secure. It may, and probably will, rest only on his small volume of poems, though it will not be lessened, as far as qualified literary criticism is concerned, should the reader proceed to the rest of the work. The whole of his non-dramatic verse does not amount to 5000 lines; it may be a good deal less. But the range of subject is comparatively wide, and extraordinary felicity of execution, not merely in language, but in thought, is evident throughout. Vigny, as may be seen in the speech of Nature referred to above, had the secret—very uncommon with French poets—of attaining solemnity without grandiosity, by means of an almost classical precision and gravity of form. The defect of volubility, of never leaving off, which mars to some extent his great contemporary Hugo, is never present in him, and he is equally free from the looseness and disorders of form which are sometimes blemishes in Musset, and from the effeminacy of Lamartine, while once more his nobility of thought and plentifulness of matter save him from the reproach which has been thought to rest on the technically perfect work of Théophile Gautier. The dramatic work is, perhaps, less likely to interest English than French readers, the local colour of Chatterton being entirely false, the sentiment conventional in the extreme, and the real pathos of the story exchanged for a commonplace devotion on the poet's part to his host's wife. In the same way, the finest passages of Othello simply disappear in Vigny 's version. In his remaining works the defect of skill in managing the plot and characters of prose fiction, which has been noticed in Cinq-Mars, reappears, together (in the case of the Journal d'un poëte and elsewhere) with signs of the fastidious and slightly affected temper which was Vigny's chief fault as a man. In his poems proper none of these faults appears, and he is seen wholly at his best. It should be said that of his posthumous work not a little had previously appeared piecemeal in the Revue des deux mondes, to which he was an occasional contributor. The prettiest of the complete editions of his works (of which there are several) is to be found in what is called the Petite bibliothèque Charpentier. For many years the critical attention paid to him was not great. Recently there has been a revival of interest as shown by monographs: M. Paléologue's “Alfred de Vigny” in the Grands écrivains français (1891); L. Dorison's Alfred de Vigny, poète-philosophe (1892) and Un symbole social (1894); G. Asse's Alfred de Vigny et les éditions originales de sa poésie (1895); E. Dupuy's La Jeunesse des Romantiques (1905); and E. Lauvrière's Alfred de Vigny(Paris, 1910). But in most of these rather excessive attention has been paid to the “philosophy” of a pessimistic kind which succeeded Vigny's early Christian Romanticism. This, though not unnoteworthy, is separable from his real poetical quality, and concentration on it rather obscures the latter, which is of the rarest kind. It should be added that an interesting sidelight has been thrown on Vigny by the publication (1905) of his Fragments inédits sur P. et T. Corneille.