1902 Encyclopedia > Alfred de Vigny

Alfred de Vigny
French poet and novelist

ALFRED VICTOR DE VIGNY, COUNT (1797-1863), a distinguished French poet and novelist, was born at Loches, in Touraine, March 27, 1797 (or 1799). His father, a man of noble descent, was a cavalry officer, who had served with distinction in the Seven Years' War. His mother was the daughter of an admiral. Tales of military achievements and traditions of the ancien regime were familiar to him in his childhood, and furnished the most powerful influences towards the formation of his character and the direction of his early ambition. He received his education at Paris, at the school of M. Hix ; but, his royalist sympathies being threatened by the prevailing admiration for the empire, he was removed and placed under a private tutor. After the first restoration of the Bourbons he was admitted, at the age of sixteen, into the musqueteers of the royal household, and in this capacity he accompanied the royal family to Ghent in 1815. In the following year, on the suppression of the musqueteers, he passed into the royal guard. He remained in the army about thirteen years, and attained the rank of captain, but without seeing active service ; and, wearied with the dulness of the life which he had desired, resigned his com-mission in 1827. He had not long before married a rich English lady. The leisure of his soldier-life had not been wasted. Not only was he gaining knowledge by observa-tion of men and experience of life, but he meditated much, and, as he says, had all his works in his head,—" ils marchaient avec moi ... et quand on m'arrêtait, j'écrivais." His first publication was a volume of poems, which appeared in 1822. Some of these had already been published in periodicals ; and he was therefore starting on his poetical career about the same time that Victor Hugo was writing his earliest Odes and Lamartine his earliest Méditations. Two years later (1824) he published the poem of Eloa, a graceful embodiment of a delicate fancy. It is the story of a bright creature, "sister of the angels," born of a tear of the Saviour, and whose tender pity for the evil spirit becomes the occasion of her own fall. This was followed by several other poems, Le Déluge, Moise, Dolorida, &c. In these later pieces De Vigny shows himself to have been under the powerful influence of Victor Hugo. Hitherto, however, notwithstanding the evident tokens of his genuine inspiration as a poet, he had not attained general recogni tion. This he first secured, won it even by storm, by the publication, in 1826, of his historical romance, Cinq-Mars, the story of a conspiracy under Louis XIII. This work appeared one year before Manzoni's famous novel, I Promessi Sposi; and both works were among the most noteworthy productions of the school of Walter Scott, whose Continental reputation was then at its height. The book had. an immense run, and passed through many edi-tions. In its pages the author shows himself qualified to present in a masterly and truthful way the character of an age, to draw vigorous portraits of great historical figures, and to depict feeling with delicacy and simplicity. It was about this time that De Vigny's friendship with Lamartine began. He was now one of the recognized chiefs of the new school, the Romantic, and one of the editors of the Muse française. In 1829 he produced a translation of Othello, which was acted at the Théâtre Français, but was not very warmly received. His next dramatic attempt was La Maréchale d'Ancre, performed at the Odeon in 1831. It is characterized as a learned study of the period, wanting the breath of life and the fire of poetic passion. These qualities were present in superabundance in his next and last dramatic work, Chatterton, produced in 1835. Although faulty in construction, and better fitted for the closet than for the stage, this powerful play has kept its place in the theatrical repertory. De Vigny's remarkable prose work, entitled Stello, ou les Diables bleus, appeared in 1832. It consists of three biographical studies, the subjects of which are three unfortunate poets, Gilbert, Chatterton, and André Chénier, whose fate is narrated to Stello, an invalid poet, by a philosophical physician, le docteur noir. True in spirit while inaccurate in detail, these stories, exquisitely told, are intended to teach poets the lesson of self-renunication. Stello was followed, in 1835, by another prose work of equal, perhaps superior, literary merit, entitled Servitude et grandeur militaire. This too, like Stello, is composed of three stories ; and in these is depicted the soldier's life, his sufferings, his duty, and his true reward. "The poem of human life," says J. S. Mill, in his review of De Vigny's works (Dissertations, vol. i.), "is opened before us, and M. de Vigny does but chant from it, in a voice of subdued sadness, a few strains telling of obscure wisdom and unrewarded virtue, —of those antique characters which, without self-glorification or hope of being appreciated, carry out, as he expresses it, ' the sentiment of duty to its extremest consequences.' " De Vigny's latest gift to the world was his Poèmes philosophiques, or Les Destinées, part of which appeared in his life-time in the Revue des Deux Mondes ; the rest, with these, were published after his death by his literary executor. These poems are mainly utterances of unbelief and despondency, intermixed with exhortations to a stoical resignation and self-reliance. De Vigny was received at the French Academy in January 1846 ; but, in con-sequence of the coldness of the reception and the offensive speech of M. Molé on the occasion, he refused to be presented to the king. He died at Paris, after severe and prolonged sufferings bravely borne, September 17, 1863. (W.L.E.C.)

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