Alfred Victor, Comte de Vigny (1797-1863), was one of the finest poets of French romanticism. His lengthy journal reveals his sensitive and aristocratic nature.
Comte de Vigny
Alfred de Vigny was born at Loches on March 27, 1797, the son of Léon, Comte de Vigny, a 60-year-old wounded veteran of the Seven Years War, and Marie Jeanne Amélie de Baraudin. After early education at home under his mother's influence and later training at the Pension Hix, where he spent three miserable years, and at the Lycée Bonaparte, Vigny was admitted at the age of 17 into an aristocratic corps of the Gendarmes Rouges. From 1816 to 1823 he served as an officer in the Royal Guard, but he became disillusioned with military life and in 1827 obtained his discharge from the army.
Marriage and Literary Pursuits
Meanwhile, Vigny's love affair with Delphine Gay had been broken up by his mother and, in 1825, he had married Lydia Bunbury, the daughter of a wealthy and eccentric Englishman. His wife became a chronic invalid a few years after their marriage and remained in ill health until her death in 1862.
Vigny's first volume of poems appeared anonymously in 1822 under the title Poèmes. It was republished in expanded editions in 1826, 1829, and 1837 as Poèmes antiques et modernes. After his literary debut, he wrote in various genres. In 1845 he was elected to membership in the French Academy after six refusals.
A love affair with the great actress Marie Dorval culminated in disillusionment and bitterness, and Vigny had later liaisons with Louise Colet and, during the last years of his life, with Augusta Bouvard. In 1848-1849 he was defeated as a candidate for office in the Chamber of Deputies. Thereafter, he settled down on his estate at Maine-Giraud, where he grew grapes for cognac and lived as a country squire. He died on Sept. 17, 1863.
Vigny's literary masterpieces are his best compositions in the form he called the poème, which he defined as "compositions in which a philosophic thought is staged under an epic or dramatic form." The first fine example of this form was Moïse (1822), in which the figure of Moses going up in lonely grandeur to die on Mt. Nebo represents the man of genius of all ages, "weary … and in despair at seeing his aloneness more vast and more arid in proportion as he grows in stature."
The remarkable concentration possible in the poème is evident in Moïse, but one sees there the tyrannous nature of the idea as dramatized in Vigny's finest poems and in his best prose narratives (the tales of Stello and of Servitude et grandeur militaries). In all these pieces the relentless emphasis and focus of action does not allow the development of the subject matter in any but the prescribed direction. The staged "philosophic idea" is also evident in such fine poems of Les Destinées (1864) as La Mort du loup, Le Mont des Oliviers, La Maison du berger, La Bouteille à la mer, and La Colère de Samson. His poèmes are characterized by lonely stoicism, compact form, fine resonance, visual imagery, and remarkable use of symbolic landscapes.
Plays and Prose Fiction
Vigny's career as a dramatist began with adaptations from Shakespeare. These included Roméo et Juliette (1827), Shylock, le marchand de Venise (1828), and Le More de Venise (1829). La Maréchale d'Ancre (on the murder of Concini and his wife, Leonora Galigai) was played at the Odéon in 1831. His elegant one-act play Quitte pour la peur was presented in 1833. His finest drama, Chatterton, was first played at the Comédie Française on Feb. 12, 1835, with Marie Dorval a sensation as its heroine, Kitty Bell.
In 1826 Vigny published Cinq-Mars, ou Une Conjuration sous Louis XIII, the first significant French historical novel of the period. An interesting preface of 1827 (Réflexions sur la vérité dans l'art) acclaimed artistic truth as more important than the facts of history. In later works—Stello (1832) and Servitude et grandeur militaires (1835)— he developed a "philosophic thought" (in each case in three episodes) much in the manner of his poèmes. In Stello the idea expounded was that the poet is always misunderstood, envied, and hated under whatever form of government he lives and that he should always maintain the thinker's "armed neutrality" and never form connections with those in power. Vigny's prose narrative Daphné on Julian the Apostate was published posthumously in 1912. The three tales of Servitude et grandeur militaires represent the sacrificial life of the soldier, whom Vigny sees, like the poet, as a martyr to an insentient society. Vigny's Journal d'un poète (1867 and later) shows at once his elegant and aristocratic qualities and his weaknesses; but above all it reveals the courage, sensitiveness, and moral elevation of the poet.
Further Reading on Comte de Vigny
Two English translations of Vigny's Servitude et grandeur militaires are Humphrey Hare's The Military Necessity (1953) and Marguerite Barnett's The Military Condition (1964). A recent study of Vigny in English is James Doolittle, Alfred de Vigny (1967). Also useful is Arnold Whitridge, Alfred de Vigny (1933).