1909-02-01, English, Article, Journal or magazine article edition: A GREAT FRENCH PESSIMIST. ALFRED DE VIGNY. (1 February 1909)

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A GREAT FRENCH PESSIMIST. ALFRED DE VIGNY. (1 February 1909)
 
Bookmark: https://trove.nla.gov.au/version/264984767
Physical Description
  • 2257 words
  • article
  • Journals
  • Magazines
Published
  • vra, Thomas Lothian, 1909-02-01
Language
  • English

Edition details

Title
  • A GREAT FRENCH PESSIMIST. ALFRED DE VIGNY. (1 February 1909)
Appears In
  • The trident : an Australian review., v.2, no.10, 1909-02-01
Other Contributors
  • ARCHIBALD T. STRONG.
Published
  • vra, Thomas Lothian, 1909-02-01
Physical Description
  • 2257 words
  • article
  • Journals
  • Magazines
Part Of
  • The trident : an Australian review.
  • Vol. 2 No. 10 (1 February 1909)
Subjects
Summary
  • A GREAT FRENCH PESSIMIST. ALFRED DE VIGNY. A diverting modern novelist makes one of his characters eulogise the House of Lords as the one great Democratic institution of England, maintaining that it consists of a very useful body of ordinary dinary men, whose business it is to keep within due bounds the tyranny of the intellectually aristocratic House of Commons. mons. And certain it is that the noblest men, in point of intellect and character, are not always to be found among the ranks of noblemen. Occasionally, however, ever, one finds a true aristocrat, who is also a member of the aristocracy; and in Literature, too, there arise personalities exhibiting qualities of thought and of style which seem the expression of birth and breeding noble in the truest sense of the word; and of this class one of the most striking members is Alfred de Vigny. His family was an old one, and had behind hind it a long record of brave and honourable ourable warfare in the service of France. The name Vigny is mentioned in certain tain of the memoires of the 17th and 18th centuries, in those, for example, of the Due de Luynes. His more immediate diate ancestors had fallen into a state of comparative poverty, and too proud to show themselves in this condition at Court, they had withdrawn to their small family estate in Beauce. Vigny, during the earlier part of his life, attached tached a good deal of importance to his descent, but in one of his posthumous poems (L’Esprit Pur), after speaking of his ancestors as lords of great possessions sions and mighty hunters before the Lord, he says that he does not envy any of them, as none of them have left any lasting memorial, as he hopes to do; and that, though he may be in a physical sense their descendant yet, if he writes their history, they will, in a truer sense, descend from him. It will thus be seen that he was no blind ancestor-worshipper per ; especially as it should be noticed that in this poem he hails Spirit, the Ideal of the poet, and the spread of universal literature as the true marks of aristocracy and of progress. It may be noticed, by the way, that the exploits of his ancestors in the chase, as well as certain of his own personal sonal experiences, were to inspire later in his life one of his finest poems, La Mori du Loup, of which I shall have more to say in the second part of this article. His father was a brave soldier, wno had been wounded in the Seven Years War, and as Vigny tells us in the most interesting preface to his Servitude et Grandeur Militaires, had been personally ally acquainted with Frederick the Great. His father spoke much to him of war and of warriors, and it is partly owing to this, and partly to the tremendous dous events of the time, that we find him in 1814, at the age of 16, entering the Red Guards, in the service of Louis XVIII., whom he followed out of Paris, remaining with him in exile till the end of the Hundred Days. On returning he remained in the army for 13 years, and found apparently the rigour and the uniformity of military discipline rather a stimulus than a hindrance rance to thought and to production : for it was here that he wrote some of the most beautiful of his earlier poems, including cluding Symetha , with its reminiscence of Cheniers best work; Moise, personifying ing the solitude of the soul of genius; and the mystical Eloa, which Gautier proclaimed to be “the most perfect poem in French literature.” Of these productions tions I shall have more to say afterwards, wards, but I wish at present to glance briefly at a few of the later facts in the poet’s life which were to react most powerfully upon his work. The decade 1820-1830 was, in a literary ary sense, possibly the most interesting that France has ever seen. It i£ at least improbable that any single assembly cf Frenchmen had ever been so illustrious as that which met at the house of the famous Nodier, the author of Trilby , the librarian of the Arsenal , and the brilliant liant host of still more brilliant guests. Here, as early as 1822, Hugo came, and Soumet, and Emile Deschamps, and Vigny himself; and towards the great year 1830 there were added to these Sainte-Beuve, Antony Deschamps, Alfred fred de Musset, Balzac, Louis Boulanger, ger, Eugene Delacroix, and David d’Angers. It was here, too, that Vigny met and won the love of the famous Delphine Gay, a love which he to some extent returned, though the great romance ance of his life had not yet come. A vivid picture of this bright company is given in a Ballade of Banville’s, of the last two verses of which, for want of a better, I offer the following translation lation : I, too, will sing my ballade in my turn. O Poesy, O dying mother of mine ! How in the good year Thirty did men burn With longing love to know thy face divine ! For them the Funds, the Austrian Combine, Consols, the talk of ’Change, were very Greek — For Musset sang, whose peer is still to seek, And all at Beauty’s very fount could quaff, And all were ears to hear, did Hugo speak ! Now, well-away, ’tis over late to laugh ! Ah ! days at Nodier’s, gone past all return ! The two Deschamps, whose music thrilled like wine, And dear de Vigny charmed our blithe sojourn, journ, And tragic Dorval, darling of the Nine, Fired the dull crowd with Passion’s frenzy fine ! Then diamonds shone on every mountain peak : Did Glory’s car our path with splendour streak, E’en had she brayed us ’neath her wheels like chaff, We sought her ’mid the battle’s thickest reek ! Now, well-away, ’tis over late to laugh ! It should be noticed that mention is here made of the great tragic actress Dorval, who, in 1830, held much the same position with regard to the stage that Sarah Bernhardt holds to-day—that of an actress of passion in contradistinction tion to, let us say, Rachel, and, later, to Mme. Barthet, in both of whom one may perhaps say that the intellect holds sway over the emotions and constantly directs them. It is chiefly because her name is coupled with Vigny’s here that I have given in full the above quotation, for his love for her was at once the great passion and the great tragedy of his life. In 1828 he had married Lydia Bunbury, the daughter of a wealthy Englishman of good family. It was not till two years after this that he met and loved Dorval. This passage in his life is one of quite extraordinary psychological interest. Dorval was, as I have described her, a creature of passion and emotion; but the love of Vigny had in it something of a spirituality which she could never compass, pass, nay, something religious and transcendental, cendental, holding, as a recent editor remarks, marks, rather of the mystics of the middle dle ages or the Renaissance Platonists than of the men of 19th century France. Although it will not do to make an antithesis tithesis of this kind too complete, there was here such divergence of temperament that unhappiness and disaster might have been foreseen from the first. At the beginning, however, the power of Vigny’s character, always strongly felt by those around him, had the strongest possible influence on Dorval, an influence ence strikingly manifested alike in her life and in her delineation of the etherial Kitty Bell in Vigny’s tragedy, Chatterton. ton. But her love for him had always been something of a tour de force , and though the open rupture between them did not occur till five years had passed, it was probably some time before this that she had transferred her affection to the masterful and exuberant personality of Alexandre Dumas. I have stated the facts of this liaison with some fullness, because they had an almost incalculable effect in Vigny’s later life and thought. The whole of this passage in his life is intensely dramatic. It was in February* ary* *835, that Dorval’s astonishing acting ing in Chatterton had helped Vigny to a success unparalleled on the French stage since the production of Le Cid. In love, as in fame, the cup of his success cess seemed full to the brim. Ten months later, in December of the same year, the blow fell upon him. He knew then that he had not been able to retain the love of the woman he had worshipped, shipped, and the earth seemed to fall away beneath his feet. He had always been rather a dreamer than a lover, and like his mighty contemporary, Baudelaire, delaire, he had in him less of passion for personality than of worship for the general eral idea of Beauty imaged in personalities ties and transcending them. This truth, however, he did not recognise—it would have been much happier for him if he had ; for he would then have seen, as, M. Paleologue reminds us, Leopardi saw in a similar case, that the blame for what had happened lay not so much with the woman he had loved, as with the man who had lost sight of her personality in the idealism with which he had overlaid it. Unable to transcend his grief as Leopardi pardi had transcended it, he fell into a state of intense and gloomy despair, which clung to him for the remainder of his life. The ordinary duties of existence istence he indeed performed as usual— nay, ambition of a kind was not wholly dead in him, for, in 1845, after three repulses, he was elected to the Academy, an honour for which, according to custom, tom, he had conducted a personal canvas. vas. But nevertheless the zest of life had departed from him, and had been swallowed up in a pessimism as intense and desperate as any to be found in the world’s literature. One must guard very carefully against the error of supposing that this tragedy in his life had been the cause of his pessimism—this quality had been clearly marked before in his earlier poems, especially pecially in- Moise —and had found powerful expression in Chatterton : in the preface of which he indicates that suicide is the only remedy left for the poet to whom the world has become unbearably bearably cruel. The strain then was in Vigny before; if it had not been, it is not possible that his great grief should have got the hold upon him that it did; but before 1835, his pessimism had been rather in the nature of that delicate, though sincere, mournfulness, which is by no means inconsistent with a keen joy in many of the good things of life; after the crisis, his gloom became so huge and deep, as almost to transcend his personality ality and to merge in one of the mighty forces which sway and interpenetrate trate the universe. Up till then, solitude had been to him merely a place of retirement, tirement, a coign of vantage from which he could watch the world and launch forth upon it the thoughts that came to him. “When, I said,” he wrote, in 1832, “that solitude was holy, I did not mean by solitude a separation and entire tire forgetfulness of men and society, but a retreat where the soul may retire tire into itself, enjoy its faculties in their fit fashion, and gather up its strength for the production of something great.” This, then, was his earlier conception ception of solitude; but, after the crisis, to use the fine phrase of M. Paleologue, it became “a refuge for him against the jostling of the world, an impenetrable Thebaid, where he lived with no companion panion but his thought.” And though the finest and deepest part of his work— namely, his Journal and his Derniers Poemes —was produced after this period, yet for a reason which I shall presently indicate, he gave little or nothing to the world of thought and art which he had captured with Cinq-Mars, Chatterton , and Servitude et Grandeur Militaires. The last twenty-five years of his life were spent in retirement on his estate in Maine-Giraud in Charente. Here, in the silent company of his wife, he spent whole months together in reading and in thought. He corresponded with a few friends—in especial with Auguste Barbier, the celebrated author of Les lambes and 11 Pianto. A few months of each year he spent in Paris; but even here he resisted all attempts to draw him into society. He had ever been reticent as to his inmost thoughts; and during these last years of his life he presents unfailingly to the world that aspect of lofty and impassive stoicism, which was but the reflex or obverse of his intense and transcendent pessimism. On the threshold of old age, physical suffering was added to his mental grief; for he was attacked by cancer, or, to use the words of his letter to M. Ratisbonne, “I am overcome with the weariness of my struggle against the vulture bequeathed , u -n .1 , • 1 . , to me by Prometheus, which is devour- ing me with unimaginable cruelty.’ ’ On the 17th of September, 1863, he was rescued from all this by death, {To be continued, in the next number). ' ARCHIBALD T. STRONG.
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