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© Patrick O'Donovan 1986–2019

Vigny's stones
18 Jun 2019

On 26 October 1838, Alfred de Vigny began to take full possession of his property of Le Maine-Giraud, “ce vieux manoir de mes pères maternels, isolé au milieu des bois et des rochers” (1948, 876), by marking out its boundaries with stones. He noted in his diary that he had “[p]osé les bornes aux limites du terrain” (2012– , vol. 3, 542).

“Le Maine Giraud” by Words and Eggs is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

He had already identified trees that were to be retained and in the days that followed he progressed around the eighty-five hectares of the domain, arpent in hand. On 8 November, he again placed markers in the ground on the eastern side of his lands. This work was interspersed with the completion of “La Mort du loup”, which he had begun in Paris: “La nuit écrit La Mort du loup — Poème” (542). Residence in the Charente marked a moment of poetic renewal (Jarry 2010, 71–72) and led Vigny in new poetic directions: several of the poems that were to be collected in Les Destinées of 1864 are presented as having being written at the Maine-Giraud. The house was, Vigny wrote in a letter to Adolphe Dumas, “sauvage et à l’abri des visites”, and he recorded also that while there he felt his “force” to be “inaltérée sinon inaltérable”, a state of affairs that owed something to his dual regime as a landowner and a poet: “Quand la tête travaille trop je marche la nuit au clair de lune sous les grands chênes en écrasant les bruyères et les ajoncs à coups de pied et, l’animal exercé, je le ramène écouter l’esprit” (2012– , vol. 3, 372).

The act of marking boundaries is a dimension of the all too human habitation of the environment, where natural materials, like stones or pieces of wood, function as tokens of social control of territory. In Roman religion, these termini are dedicated to the god Terminus, an ancient association at the heart of the apparatus designed to sustain peaceful and orderly interactions:

Terminus signifies boundary, and to this god they make public and private sacrifices where their fields are set off by boundaries; of living victims nowadays, but anciently the sacrifice was a bloodless one, since Numa reasoned that the god of boundaries was a guardian of peace and a witness of just dealing, and should therefore be clear from slaughter. (Plutarch, Lives. Numa, XVI)

Boundary markers continued to carry a distinct sacred charge throughout the Roman republic and beyond, as Ovid also recalls:

Termine, sive lapis, sive es defossus in agro
stipes, ab antiquis tu quoque numen habes.

O Terminus, whether thou art a stone or stump buried in the field, thou too hast been deified from days of yore. (Ovid, Fasti II, 641–42)

The feast of the Terminalia took the form of a procession (Rüpke 2012, 30), just as for Vigny the assertion of private ownership lay in his transit across and around his domain on foot. Boundaries were marked by long-lasting materials and did not blend with the earth in which they were inserted, so consolidating their symbolic functions in Roman religion (Piccaluga 1974, 86–87). It is the ubiquity of boundary stones that gave them their divine aura as cult objects (Lipka 2009, 89). The granite stones of which Vigny availed (Ambrière 1989, 271), by virtue of this ancient element of alterity, acquire a connotative value, explicitly numinous or not.

At the same time, boundaries were held to have an important contractual as well as religious function, in that they sustain relations of friendship alongside respect for the law (Dumézil 1987, 212). Limits point, then, not only to discrete configurations of space but also to all of the systems, variously temporal, economic, legal and religious, that give the occupation of territory its social meaning (Piccaluga 1974, 85; 139). They evoke the conflicts, latent or overt, to which the possession of land give rise. While no violent struggles resulted from Vigny’s ownership of land in the Charente, he observed in the course of the volatile spring of 1848 that an old proverb still resonated: “Le: Qui terre a guerre a est toujours vrai” (2012– , vol. 6, 190). Even though Plutarch claims that Romulus “knew that a boundary, if observed, fetters lawless power; and if not observed, convicts of injustice” (Lives. Numa, XVI), in this as in other contexts, like that of the oath, the supposed interdependence of the sacred and the legal calls for renewed critical scrutiny, in that none of the many discourses that boundaries mobilize can give an exhaustive account of them, while any attempt at synthesis is bedevilled by the plurality of these same discourses (Agamben 2010, 2; 27). And of course, boundaries can be challenged and are regularly modified, legally or otherwise, especially because it was “[n]ot the act of tracing boundaries, but their cancellation or negation [that] is the constitutive act of the city (and this is what the myth of the foundation of Rome, after all, teaches with perfect clarity)” (Agamben 1998, 85).

Vigny himself was acutely conscious of the precariousness of boundaries in Revolutionary France and in the course of the same initial visit of 1823 to Le Maine-Giraud dwells in his diary on what he saw as the violations to which the domain had been subject in those years: “Le souffle de la Terreur avait traversé cette demeure, mais sans pouvoir la déraciner” (1948, 876). On more than one occasion in later years, Vigny again found himself marking out his land as he negotiated and reaffirmed its boundaries with neighbours in each direction (Vigny 2012– , vol. 6, 691–94). Borders and boundaries, which are dynamic and not static (Piccaluga 1974, 84), prove to be markers also of the flux of the times that shape them.

In “La Maison du berger”, Vigny invokes Terminus in a context that points ultimately to the instability of borders, namely the slow historical progression of an increasingly secular humanity:

Le marbre des vieux temps, jusqu’aux reins, nous enchaîne,
Et tout homme énergique au dieu Terme est pareil. (Vigny 1986, 125)1

He draws less on the aniconic identification of the god with boundary markers (Lipka 2009, 88–89) than on figurative representations of Terminus since the Renaissance, where he is depicted as a human torso emerging from a marble base (Joconde 2019). Vigny’s allusion to Terminus marks a dramatic conceptual shift, in that the god is here associated with the breaching of boundaries. The same applies to the appraisal of successive historical civilizations in the course of the poem: Terminus stands less for the perpetuation of order than the rapid increase in human interventions in nature. The reference is striking, then, for its defiant affirmation of human agency and for the prospect of the emancipation of “les Peuples tout enfants” (l. 211) that it heralds — though this gesture will itself be heavily qualified later in the poem at the point where the relationship between modern man and the earth from which, like the god Terminus, he springs is at issue.

At the end of “La Maison du berger”, Vigny’s sorrowful acceptance of mortality carries him into the future. Poetry itself has become a “pierre” (l. 201), and the poet a stonemason (Thibaudet 2018, 49; Pearson 2015, 560). Like the stones used by the Romans, this one is not absorbed into the landscape in which it is inscribed:

Reste des nations mortes, durable pierre
Qu’on trouve sous ses pieds lorsque dans la poussière
On cherche les cités sans en voir un seul mur. (ll. 201–03)

The fate that Vigny imagines for his Destinées here and in the later poem “L’Esprit pur” seems to lend sustenance to Dominique Aury’s view of an ecology of literature in which books, if we continue to hold that they “n’aient jamais de fin, qu’ils durent plus que les forêts, plus que les pierres même”, can be the bearers of our secrets in perpetuity (1958, 7). His readers of today can be less confident perhaps of the survival of poetry, if only because, as Philippe Descola argues, we inhabit a world facing the much graver “échéance lointaine” of the extinction of our species (2005, 689–90). Perhaps Vigny, in urging us still to turn to a discourse of poetry that is reminiscent of the figure of Terminus, seeking to overcome all of the forces that threaten it, can equip us to face this threat. After all, as Descola argues, the risk is one that compels us somehow to find and to perpetuate “de véritables moyens d’expression” (690).


Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Agamben, Giorgio. 2010. The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath (Homo Sacer II, 3). Translated by Adam Kotsko. Cambridge: Polity.

Ambrière, Madeleine, et al. 1989. Alfred de Vigny et les siens: documents inédits. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Aury, Dominique. 1958. Lecture pour tous. Paris: Gallimard.

Descola, Philippe. 2005. Par-delà nature et culture. Paris: Gallimard.

Dumézil, Georges. 1987. La Religion romaine antique. Paris: Payot

Jarry, André. 2010. Alfred de Vigny: poète, dramaturge, romancier. Paris: Classiques Garnier.

Joconde: Portail des collections des musées de France. 2019. Terme à figure d’homme barbu. Accessed 23 May 2019.

Lipka, Michael. 2009. Roman Gods: A Conceptual Approach. Boston: Brill.

Pearson, Roger. 2016. Unacknowledged Legislators: The Poet as Lawgiver in Post-Revolutionary France. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Piccaluga, Giulia. 1974. Terminus: i segni di confine nella religione romana. Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo.

Rüpke, Jörg. 2012. Religion in Republican Rome: Rationalization and Ritual Change. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Thibaudet, Albert. 2018. Alfred de Vigny. Edited by Stéphane Zékian. Paris: Équateurs parallèles.

Vigny, Alfred de. 1948. Œuvres complètes. Vol. 2. Edited by Fernand Baldensperger. Paris: Gallimard.

Vigny, Alfred de. 1986. Œuvres complètes. Vol. 1. Poésie — Théâtre. Edited by François Germain and André Jarry. Paris: Gallimard.

Vigny, Alfred de. 2012– . Correspondance. Edited by Madeleine Ambrière et al. 6 vols to date. Paris: Classiques Garnier.

  1. Future references to this poem (Vigny 1986, 119–28) will be given by line number; here ll. 216–17. [return]

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