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Comte Alfred Victor de Vigny (1797-1863)


French poet, playwright, and novelist, who started first a military career but then became a poet. Vigny's Chatterton (1835) is one of the most important and influential plays of the romantic stage. Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was an English poet, whose life and early death fascinated the Romantics. Vigny's works were marked by a stoical despair, pessimism, and philosophical, meditative tone. In his lyrics Vigny was more restrained about his inner feelings than his great colleague, Lord Byron, but in his Journal intime Vigny openly revealed his personal thoughts.

"The study of social progress is to-day not less needed in literature than
is the analysis of the human heart. We live in an age of universal
investigation, and of exploration of the sources of all movements.
France, for example, loves at the same time history and the drama,
because the one explores the vast destinies of humanity, and the other
the individual lot of man. These embrace the whole of life. But it is the
province of religion, of philosophy, of pure poetry only, to go beyond
life, beyond time, into eternity."
Cinq-Mars, 1826)

Alfred de Vigny was born in Loches, Indre-et-Loire, the only son of Léon Pierre de Vigny, a former officer of the king's army. While still a student, Vigny wrote and afterward destroyed a series of neoclassical tragedies based on the figures of Roland, Julian the Apostate, and Anthony and Cleopatra. At the age of sixteen, he entered military service-it was the time when the Napoleonic Empire was collapsing. For his disappointment, military life wasn't glamorous wars and victories in far countries, but life in the barracks and daily routine manoeuvres. To overcome boredom he started to read such classics as Homer, Tacitus, and Aeschylus, and wrote poems, among them 'La Dryade' and 'Symétha'.

When the French army stamped its way through the Spanish Civil War in 1823, Vigny's regiment was in reserve in the Pyrenees. Enthusiastic about new, Romantic winds in poetry, Vigny wrote some of his best known works, among them Moíse and Éloa, about a fallen angel. They were later published in the collection Poèmes antiques et modernes (1826). The image of a fallen angel, with its associations of freedom and progress,  fascinated also other British and French romantics, such as Byron, Thomas Moore, Lamartine, Constant, and Hugo. Vigny's Eloa descents from heaven to console and save Satan, but Satan seduces her and they fall to the depths of Hell. In some fragments of the poem Satan is redeemed. Referring to these versions, Vigny said that they "make me fearful of being immediately excommunicated."

Vigny's historical novel dealing with a conspiracy against Cardinal de Richelieu, Cinq-Mars  (1826), was inspired by the works of Walter Scott. Later Ford Madox Ford wrote in The March of Literature (1938), that "if it is really historic enough in the episodes it selects to render, it selects historic events that are always of romantic coloring." Cinq-Mars was well received by readers, but Victor Hugo's friend Charles-Augistin Sainte-Beuve reviewed it badly. Embittered Vigny noted of his critic in Journal d'un poete (1829): "He behaves very humbly and had made himself a henchman of Victor Hugo, who encouraged him to turn his hand to poetry . . . Though he addresses him like a master, Hugo is Sainte-Beuve's pupil. He is well aware that Sainte-Beuve is providing him with a literary education but he does not see to what extent that clever young man dominates him politically." Hugo in turn took a theme from the work and wrote a five-act play in verse, Un Duel sous Richelieu (retitled Marion de Lorme) in 1829.

Vigny served "twelve long years of peace", resigning in 1827. He had already published verse-Poémes which came out in 1822 and went unnoticed-but in Paris he devoted himself to writing. To his military career Vigny returned later in Grandeur et servitude militaires  (1835), an exploration of contradictions of the military life. Vigny condemned the savagery of war, but he appreciated the discipline and camaraderie of soldiers. Napoleon was for the author somewhat more hero than a fallen idol.

Vigny's mother resisted his idea to marry Delphine Gay, but she inspired 20 years later many of his poems. In 1825 he married Lydia Bunbury, a young English heiress; they had no children. Sir Hugh Bunbury disinherited his daughter for having married a foreigner. Lydia Bunbury became a life-long invalid, but in spite of his extra marital relations, Vigny cared for her too.

After an English troupe visited Paris in 1827 with a Shakespearean production, Vigny became interested in theatre. He wrote Alexandrine verse adaptations of Romeo and Juliet (1828), The Merchant of Venice (1830), which he retitled Shylock, and Othello  (1829). Theatre was for Vigny a good means to reach his audience, the educated people. Also a theater ticket was less expensive than a book. Although Gervaus Charpentier published his works in a format, that provided t wice as much text as a traditional octavo volume for half the price, 3,50 francs, the relatively well-made publications still did not reach a public of petit-bourgeois, craftsmen, or workers, who earned little more than 4 francs per day.

Vigny's first original play was La Maréchale d'Ancre  (1831), a historical drama focusing on the events leading to the rule of Luis XIII. Because his mistress, the actress Marie Dorval, did not get the planned leading part, Vigny composed for her Quitte pour la peur (1833). Vigny's Chatterton, considered one of the best of the French Romantic dramas, was also written for Mlle. Dorval. It was a major theatrical event, made Vigny famous and he was recognized as Victor Hugo's rival in literature. His friendship with Hugo, the center of a group of writers and artists, the Cénacle, that included Alfred de Musset, Delacroix, and David d'Angers, became strained, although already in 1829 he had noticed: "The Victor I loved is no more. He used to be a touch fanatical in his royalism and religion . . . But now he likes to make saucy remarks and is turning to a liberal, which does not suit him". Toward the end of his life, Vigny allied himself with conservative forces, expressing his willingness to collaborate with the government of Napoleon III.

Chatterton (1835) - The plot was taken from one of the stories in Vigny's short story collection Stello (1832), in which the fates of the poets Nicolas-Joseph Gilbert, André de Chéhier, and Thomas Chatterton are related. The English poet Chatterton was commemorated by Wordsworth as "the marvelous boy... that perished in his pride". Chatterton, an 18-years old poet, rents a room in the home of John Bell, a merchant. A secret sympathy develops between him and Bell's terrorized wife Kitty. Bell starts to suspect them. Chatterton writes to Lord Mayor Beckford, his father's old friend, asking for financial aid. Beckford shows little sympathy for either the poet or poetry. Unable to cope with accusations of plagiarism, debts and other disappointments, Chatterton takes an overdose of opium, and Kitty dies heartbroken.

Although Vigny had gained success as a writer, he experienced great frustrations: The French Academy rejected his candidacy for five times, and it was not until 1845 when he was accepted. Moreover, Count Molé's welcoming address was more or less mean. Vigny's marriage with Lydia Bunburry turned sour, and his liaison with Marie Dorval between the years 1831 and 1837 was stormy. When she left him for George Sand, Vigny wrote the poem 'La Colère de Samson'. From 1840 he lived a reclusive life in Paris or in Le-Maine-Giraud in his country house, where he took care of his sick wife and his mother. His attempts to enter the political scene failed. Occasionally Vigny contributed poems to the magazine Revue des Deux Mondes. "Silence alone is great; all else in weakness," he once said. Vigny died in Paris on September 17, 1863, a few months after his wife. His poetical testament, Les Destinées, appeared in 1864, and Journal d'un poète in 1867. The unfinished novel, Daphné, was published in 1912.

(Le Mont des Olives)
(...) Si le juste et le bien, si l'injuste et le mal
Sont de vils accidents en un cercle fatal,
Ou si de l'univers il sont lees deux grands pôles,
Soutenant terre et cieux sur leurs vastes épaules;
Et pourquoi les Esprits du mal sont triomphants
Des maux immérités, de la mort des enfants;
Et si les Nations sont des femmes guidées
Par les étoiles d'or des divines idées,
Ou de folles enfants sans lampes dans la nuit
Se heurtant et pleurant, et que rien ne conduit;
Et si, lorsque des temps l'horloge périssable
Aura jusqu'au dernier versé ses grains de sable,
Un regard de vos yeux, un cri de votre voix,
Un soupir de mon coeur, un signe de ma croix,
Pourra faire ouvrir l'ongle aux Peines éternelles,
Lâcher leur proie humaine et reployer leurs ailes.
-Tout sera révélé dès que l'homme saura
De quels lieux arrive et dans quels il ira. (...)
For further reading: Alfred de Vigny by Arnold Whitridge (1933); Alfred de Vigny by James Dolittle (1967); Vigny's Cinq-Mars: Dialogue on Political Power by Virginia Boggs Gunn (1975); Alfred De Vigny Et La Comedie-Francaise by Fernande Bassan (1984); Vigny: Les Destinees by Keith Wren (1985); Paradigm and Parody: Images of Creativity in French Romanticism by Henry F. Majewski (1989); The Novels of Alfred De Vigny: A Study of Their Form and Composition by Elaine K. Shwimer (1991); The Poetic Enigma of Alfeed de Vigny - The Rosetta Stone of Esoteric Literature by Denise Bonhomme (2006)

Selected works:

  • 'Le Bal', 1820
  • Poémes, 1822 (rev. edition, 1837; ed. E. Ésteve, 1931)
  • Éloa, ou La sœur des anges, 1824 [(Éloa, or the Sister of the Angels]
  • Poèmes antiques et modernes, 1826 (enlarged edition of Poémes)
  • Cinq-Mars, 1826
    - Cinq-Mars: or, A conspiracy under Louis XIII (tr. William Hazlitt, 1847) / The Conspirators (tr. 1877) / The Spider and the Fly (tr. 1925) - Cinq-Mars eli eräs salaliitto Ludvig XIII:nen aikana (suom. K. Cronstedt, 1879)
  • verse adaptations: Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1828), Othello, prod. at the Comédie-Française 1829, The Merchant of Venice (1829), retitled as Shylock
  • La Maréchale d'Ancre, 1831 (prod.)
    - television film 1979, dir. Jean Kerchbron, adaptation by Jean Kerchbron, starring Silvia Monfort, Jean-Pierre Bisson, Philippe Clay, Jean-François Poron
  • Les amants de Montmorency, 1831
  • Stello, 1832
    - Stello; A Session with Doctor Noir (translated with introd. and notes by Irving Massey, 1963)
  • Laurette ou Le cachet rouge, 1833
    - Laurette, or the Red Seal (tr. Roger Gard, in Servitude and Grandeur of Arms, 1996)
    - Laurette eli punainen sinetti (suom. 1911)
    - film 1931, prod. Nicaea Films Production, dir.  Jacques de Casembroot, starring Jim Gérald, André Allehaut, Jean-Bernard Fay, Georges Térof
  • Quitte pour la peur, 1833 (prod.)
  • Servitude et grandeur militaires, 1835
    - Military Servitude and Grandeur (tr. 1919) / The Military Necessity (tr. Humphrey Hare, 1953) / Military Condition (translation anfd notes by Marguerite Barnett, introduced by John Cruickshank, 1964) / Servitude and Grandeur of Arms (tr. Roger Gard, 1996)
    - Sotilaan orjuudesta ja suuruudesta (suom. Kaarle Hirvonen)
  • Chatterton, 1835 (prod., ed. L. Petroni, 1962; A.H. Diverres, 1967)
    - Chatterton: A Play by Alfred de Vigny (introduction and notes by Eric A. Dawson, et al., 1939) / Chatterton (ed. Jean-Pierre Barricelli, 1967) / Alfred de Vigny's Chatterton (translated by Philip A. Fulvi, with an introduction by Henry Paolucci, 1990) 
  • La flûte, 1843
  • Les destinées, 1864 (ed. Edmond Estève, 1924; Maurice Weiler, 1943; André Cœuroy, 1946; V.L. Saulnier, 1947; Paul Viallaneix, 1983)
  • Journal d'un poète, 1867 (ed. Louis Ratisbonne)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1883-85
  • Correspondance 1816-63, 1905
  • Daphné, 1912 (ed. Fernand Gregh)
    - An English translation of Alfred de Vigny’s Daphné: la deuxième consultation du Docteur Noir = Daphne: the second consultation of Doctor Noir (translated by Henry F. Majewski, with a foreword by Pascal Ifri, 2010)  
  • Œuvres complètes, 1914-35 (7 vols., ed. F. Baldensperger)
  • Poèmes choisis, 1918 (ed. E. Allison Peers)  
  • Lettres inédites d'Alfred de Vigny á Victor Hugo, 1925
  • Lettres á Saint-Beuve, 1929
  • Œuvres complètes, 1948 (2 vols., ed. F. Baldensperger)
  • Poèmes, 1952 (ed. Jean Chuzeville)
  • Lettres d'un dernier amour: Alfred de Vigny et Augusta, 1952
  • Mémoires inédits; fragments et projets, 1958 (ed. Jean Sangnier)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1960-65
  • Plus belles lettres de Alfred de Vigny, 1963 (ed. Francis Ambrière)
  • Manuscrit de travail de La sauvage, 1974 (ed. André Jarry)  
  • Dernier amour: Alfred de Vigny et Augusta: lettres et documents inédits, 1975 (ed. Maurice Toesca)
  • Œuvres poétiques, 1978 (ed. Jacques-Philippe Saint-Gérand)
  • Œuvres complètes, 1986-1993 (2 vols., ed. François Germain and André Jarry)
  • Correspondance d'Alfred de Vigny, 1989-1997 (4 vols., ed. Madeleine Ambrière)
  • Œuvres complètes: Œuvres en vers, Theatre en vers, La Defense Obstinee, 1999
  • Pous vous seule: 53 lettres inédite à Céline Chollet, 2000 (ed. Jacques Charpentreau)  
  • Lettres pour lire au lit: correspondance amoureuse d'Alfred de Vigny et Marie Dorval, 1831-1838, 2009 (ed. Ariane Charton)

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