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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Alfred de Vigny (1797–1863)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Grace Elizabeth King (1852–1932)
 
ALFRED VICTOR, Comte de Vigny, is represented in the voluminous literature of his country in the nineteenth century by a mere handful of books: briefly, by two volumes of poetry, ‘Poésies Antiques et Modernes’ and ‘Les Destinées’; by a novel, ‘Cinq Mars’; a comedy, ‘Quitte pour la Peur’ (Let Off with a Scare); a prose epic, ‘Stello’; four tales from military life, ‘Military Servitude and Grandeur’; a play, ‘Chatterton’; and ‘The Journal of a Poet.’ And in the resounding fame of great contemporaries and successors in literature, de Vigny’s name and this handful of books might, with easy supposition, have been relegated to the position of a dwindling and expiring reminiscence of the past; the fate of long catalogues of successful writers and books of his day. De Vigny’s name and work, however, have gained rather than lost luster by the friction of time upon them; and the eulogy by Théophile Gautier, that he was “the purest glory of the romantic school,” is as fresh in its truth to-day, as when it was penned over a half-century ago. Of all the romanticists, he remains, to the critical eyes of to-day, as the most genuine, the most sincere, and the least illogical; in short, as a romanticist by blood, birth, and traditions, not by school or profession of faith.  1
  He was born at Loches in Touraine, in 1797, the last descendant of a once wealthy and distinguished family. Through his mother, he was connected with great admirals and sea captains; through his father, with courtiers, army officers, and princely seigneurs. Ruined by the Revolution, his parents removed to Paris; where they consecrated their life, and what fortune remained to them, to his education. On the knees of his white-haired father, an old courtier of Louis XV. and a crippled veteran of the Seven Years’ War, the child learned to know Louis XV., the great Frederick, Voltaire, and the history of the great campaigns of the past century; and was taught war, he relates, by his father’s wounds, by the parchments and escutcheons of his family, by the portraits in armor of his ancestors,—the nobility acting the rôle of a great family of hereditary soldiers.  2
  He was barely sixteen when the Restoration opened to him the predestined career, as he saw it, of the sons of the nobles of France. He entered the household troops of the King, a company composed of young men of family, all graded as sous-lieutenants. But France, as he says, had sheathed her sword “in the scabbard of the Bourbons”: with Napoleon the glory of army life had departed; only the dullness and routine of it remained. To while away the burdensome hours of ennui during his garrison life, the young officer returned to his early and precocious passion for poetry. His haversack library, consisting of the Bible and a few classics, ministered to him as Muse. In 1822 he published the collection of these first essays,—‘Poems Ancient and Modern.’ It contained some of his best pieces: ‘Moses,’ ‘The Deluge,’ ‘The Adulterous Woman.’ The following year he published his ‘Eloa.’ The historical novel of ‘Cinq Mars’ (1826) was however the maker of de Vigny’s reputation in literature. Based upon a fine episode of the reign of Louis XIII., its dramatic interest, the virile strength of its characters, its brilliant coloring, and the elevated purity and elegance of its style and language, insured it a success that has been prolonged until the book has become fixed in its reputation as a modern classic.  3
  After fourteen years of pacific and inglorious service, during which he attained only to the rank of captain, de Vigny resigned from the army. In Paris he retired into what Sainte-Beuve wittily called “his ivory tower,”—a life of seclusion, aristocratic and mediæval in its lofty isolation. He emerged but once,—in 1842, to take his seat in the French Academy. He died in 1863, leaving ready for publication a volume of poems, ‘Les Destinées,’ and a collection of personal notes and reflections which was published by his literary executor as ‘The Journal of a Poet.’ This last volume contains some of the most exquisite passages of his writings and of his life: the long painful illness of his mother; his devotion, her death, and his grief; and afterwards, the long years of devotion to his invalid wife.  4
  Placed chronologically by birth between Victor Hugo and Lamartine, de Vigny’s intrinsic value as a poet receives its best illustration from the juxtaposition. His originality, as Sainte-Beuve says, “is distinct from both, in its inspiration and filiation: we can connect Victor Hugo and Lamartine with anterior French poetry, but in it we vainly seek the parentage of Moses, Eloa, and Dolorida.”  5
  De Vigny’s earliest conception of the fatal and sublime gift of genius,—condemning man to solitude and sadness, “imprisoning him in his own greatness,” as it has been expressed,—became his master idea through life. It appeared first in ‘Moses,’ and reappeared in all his writings, poetry and prose, in different reincarnations;—in the ‘Maison de Berger,’ idyllic, in love; in ‘Stello,’ tragic, in the sufferings of the modern poet; the idea reaches its culmination in moral grandeur in ‘Military Servitude and Grandeur,’ where self-abnegation and virile honor are depicted as the only ransom of greatness, and the price of the happiness of the common mortal.  6
 
 
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