Among the romantic poets who made themselves known between 1820 and 1830, ALFRED DE VIGNY is distinguished by the special character of his genius, and by the fact that nothing in his poetry is derived from his contemporaries. Lamartine, Hugo, and, at a later date, Musset, found models or suggestions in his writings. He, though for a time closely connected with the romantic school, really stands apart and alone. Born in 1797, he followed the profession of his father, that of arms, and knew the hopes, the illusions, and the disappointments of military service at the time of the fall of the Empire and the Bourbon restoration. He read eagerly in Greek literature, in the Old Testament, and among eighteenth-century philosophers. As early as 1815 he wrote his admirable poem La Dryade, in which, before André Chénier's verse had appeared, Chénier's fresh and delicate feeling for antiquity was anticipated. In 1822 his first volume, Poèmes, was published, including the Héléna, afterwards suppressed, and groups of pieces classified as Antiques, Judaïques, and Modernes. Already his Moïse, majestic in its sobriety, was written, though it waited four years for publication in the volume of Poèmes Antiques et Modernes (1826). Moses climbing the slopes of Nebo personifies the solitude and the heavy burden of genius; his one aspiration now is for the sleep of death; and it is the lesser leader Joshua who will conduct the people into the promised land. The same volume included Eloa, a romance of love which abandons joy through an impulse of divine pity: the radiant spirit Eloa, born from a tear of Christ, resigns the happiness of heaven to bring consolation to the great lost angel suffering under the malediction of God. Other pieces were inspired by Spain, with its southern violence of passion, and by the pass of Roncesvalles, with its chivalric associations.
The novel of Cinq-Mars, which had a great success, is a free treatment of history; but Vigny's best work is rather the embodiment of ideas than the rendering of historical matter. His Stello in its conception has something of kinship with Moïse; in three prose tales relating the sufferings of Chatterton, Chénier, and Gilbert, it illustrates the sorrows of the possessors of genius. Vigny's military experience suggested another group of tales, the Servitude et Grandeur Militaires; the soldier in accepting servitude finds his consolation in the duty at all costs of strenuous obedience.
In 1827 Vigny quitted the army, and next year took place his marriage—one not unhappy, but of imperfect sympathy—to an English lady, Lydia Bunbury. His interest in English literature was shown by translations of Othello and the Merchant of Venice. The former was acted with the applause of the young romanticists, who worshipped Shakespeare ardently if not wisely, and who bore the shock of hearing the unclassical word mouchoir valiantly pronounced on the French stage. The triumph of his drama of Chatterton (1835) was overwhelming, though its glory to-day seems in excess of its deserts. Ten years later Vigny was admitted to the Academy. But with the representation of Chatterton, and at the moment of his highest fame, he suddenly ceased from creative activity. Never was his mind more energetic, never was his power as an artist so mature; but, except a few wonderful poems contributed to the Revue des Deux Mondes, and posthumously collected, nothing was given by him to the world from 1835 to 1863, the year of his death.
He had always been a secluded spirit; external companionship left him inwardly solitary; secret—so Sainte-Beuve puts it—in his "tower of ivory"; touching some mountain-summit for a moment—so Dumas describes him—if he folded his wings, as a concession to humanity. A great disillusion of passion had befallen him; but, apart from this, he must have retreated into his own sphere of ideas and of images, which seemed to him to be almost wronged by an attempt at literary expression. He looked upon the world with a disenchanted eye; he despaired of the possibilities of life for himself and for all men; without declamation or display, he resigned himself to a silent and stoical acceptance of the lot of man; but out of this calm despair arose a passionate pity for his fellows, a pity even for things evil, such as his Eloa felt for the lost angel. La Colère de Samson gives majestic utterance to his despair of human love; his Mont des Oliviers, where Jesus seeks God in vain, and where Judas lurks near, expresses his religious despair. Nature, the benevolent mother, says Vigny, is no mother, but a tomb. Yet he would not clamour against the heavens or the earth; he would meet death silently when it comes, like the dying wolf of his poem (La Mort du Loup), suffering but voiceless. Wealth and versatility of imagination were not Vigny's gifts. His dominant ideas were few, but he lived in them; for them he found apt imagery or symbol; and in verse which has the dignity of reserve and of passion controlled to sobriety, he let them as it were involuntarily escape from the seclusion of his soul. He is the thinker among the poets of his time, and when splendours of colour and opulence of sound have passed away, the idea remains. In fragments from his papers, published in 1867, with the title Journal d'un Poète, the inner history of Vigny's spirit can be traced.