France and its Poets: Middle Ages to the 19th Century
Author: Christiane Guise

Chapter 2
Alfred de Vigny

Alfred de Vigny   La Mort du Loup   The Death of the Wolf  (1846)

 

Alfred de Vigny is a romantic and his poetry is essential based on spiritual solitude. All his life, Vigny has regretted the mediocrity of his condition; but too proud to expose his misery in lyricism, he chooses to adopt a stoic attitude, which is to rise above the vicissitudes of life with dignity and resignation. Indifferent to pleasure and pain, Vigny controls his passions by showing compassion and humanity to all fellow human beings who suffer the same cruel fate.

In Vigny’s creepy atmosphere and vivid wilderness descriptions, we recognise the romantic style and deeply feel his loneliness. La Mort du Loup taken from Les destinées is certainly the finest expression of Vigny’s philosophy where he honours the stoic grandeur of a dying wolf and her companion: the father who dies without uttering a sound and the mother whose duty is to save her cubs not her mate so they may learn to live and suffer with dignity. Vigny presents a graphic account of the hunt with concrete and striking symbols; then, facing the ultimate moment of the death sentence, he admires the animals who proudly accept the fatal denouement. Vigny plays with tenses, suddenly using the present when the wolf is trapped and returning to the past, skilfully marking the animal’s recognition of the futility of an unequal combat and an impossible flight. 

 

The Death of the wolf

 

The clouds were running fast on the blazing moon

As we could see the smoke fleeing from the fire,

And the woods were black up to the horizon.

We were walking, in silence, on the wet lawn,

In the thick heather and the high yellow grass,

When, under the fir-trees like those in the Landes,[1]

We saw imprinted on the path the big claws

Of the wandering wolves that we were hunting.

We listened cautiously while holding our breath

And we stopped on the track. –The wood and the plain

Did not let out a sigh in the air; only

The sad weathercock moaned to the firmament;

For the wind, well above the lands, could only

Brushed with his feet the solitary towers,

And the oaks below, lying against the rocks

On their elbows, seemed to have fallen asleep.

Not a rustling sound then, when, bending his head,

The oldest of the hunters who watched the track

Looked carefully at the sand and layed down; soon,

He whom no one ever saw making mistakes,

Declared beneath his breath that these recent marks

Announced the proud gait and the powerful claws

Of two big wolves, the stag-hunters,[2] and two cubs.

At once, all of us prepared our sharpest knives

And, hiding our riffles and their too white glint,

We walked slowly pushing the branches aside.

Three stopped, and looking at what they were seeing,

I suddenly notice two big eyes glowing

And not far away, I see the four light shapes

Dancing under the moon amid the heather

As always do, with great noise, under our eyes,

When the master comes back, the happy greyhounds.

Their shapes were the same and the same were their dance;

But the Wolf’s children were playing in silence,

Knowing well that two steps away, half-asleep,

Man, their worst enemy, lies behind his walls.

The father was standing, and against a tree,

His She-wolf was resting as the marble one

That the Romans adored and whose hairy flanks

Fed the demi-gods Remus and Romulus.[3]

The Wolf comes[4] closer and sits down, his legs straight

On their hooked claws sunken deep into the sand

Taken by surprise, he knew that all was lost,

His retreat cut off and the other ways blocked;

So, he seized, in his burning mouth,

The panting throat of the hardiest dog

And did not loose his iron jaws,

Despite the gun-shots which were piercing his flesh

And our sharp knives, which like pincers

Criss-crossed and plunged in his entrails,

Until the last moment, when the strangled dog

Dead longer before him, rolled under his feet.

The Wolf then leaves it and proudly looks at us.

The knives were still hanging deep into his flank

Nailing him onto the lawn all bathed with blood;

Our riffles encircled him in a crescent.

He looks at us again, and then, he lies down,

Licking the warm blood on his mouth,

And, without deigning to know how he perished,

He closes his eyes, and dies without a cry.

My forehead lying on my empty riffle,

I started thinking unable to pursue

His She-wolf and his brave sons, who, the all three,

Had waited for him, and, as I do believe,

Without her two cubs, the beautiful widow

Would never have left him fighting all alone;

But her duty was to save her sons so that

She could teach them how to suffer hunger,

To never get caught in the pact of the towns

That Man made one day with servile animals[5]

Which now hunt with him for a small place to sleep,

They, who were the owners of the wood and rocks.

Alas! I thought, despite this great name of Men

How ashamed I am of us, how fool!

How we should leave life and all its sufferings,

Only you, sublime animals, know!

Seeing what we were and what we leave behind,

Silence alone is great; all else is weakness.

–Ah! I understand you now, wild wanderer,

And your last look went just straight into my heart!

Saying: “If you can, make sure that your soul climbs,

By always remaining studious and thoughtful,

Up to the highest degree of stoic pride

Where, born in the woods, I naturally reached.

To moan, weep, and pray are coward attitudes.

With good energy, do your long and hard task

As destiny has seen fit to call you and

As I do, suffer and die without a word.”




[1] Region in the south-west of France

[2] This type of wolf was known for attacking stags

[3] The founders of Rome were supposed to have been reared by a she-wolf but the statue is in bronze not marble as Vigny says

[4] Note how the present tense increases the excitement

[5] The dogs

 

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