Alfred de Vigny was born in Loches (a town to which he never returned) into an aristocratic family. His father was an aged veteran of the Seven Years' War who died before Vigny's 20th birthday; his mother, twenty years younger, was a strong-willed woman who was inspired by Rousseau and took responsibility herself for Vigny's early education.
As was the case for every noble family, the French Revolution diminished the family's circumstances considerably. After Napoléon's defeat at Waterloo, a Bourbon, Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI, was restored to power. In 1814, Vigny enrolled in one of the privileged aristocratic companies of the Maison du Roi.
Always attracted to letters and versed in French history and in knowledge of the Bible, he began to write poetry. He published his first poem in 1820, published an ambitious narrative poem entitled Eloa in 1824 on the popular romantic theme of the redemption of Satan. Prolonging successive leaves from the army, he settled in Paris with his young English bride, Lydia Bunbury, whom he married in Pau in 1825. He collected his recent works in January 1826 in Poèmes antiques et modernes. Three months later, he published a substantial historical novel, Cinq-Mars, based on the life of Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, Marquis of Cinq-Mars; with the success of these two volumes, Vigny seemed to be the rising star of the burgeoning Romantic movement, though this role would soon be usurped by one of Vigny's best friends, Victor Hugo. Unlike his friend, Vigny retained his Royalist sympathies in politics: "The Victor I loved is no more . . . now he likes to make saucy remarks and is turning into a liberal, which does not suit him." Vigny would later denounce members of his inner circle whom he suspected of republican sympathies to the imperial police.
An English theater troupe visiting Paris in 1827 having revived French interest in Shakespeare, Vigny worked with Emile Deschamps on a translation of Romeo and Juliet (1827). In 1831, he presented his first original play, La Maréchale d'Ancre, a historical drama recounting the events leading up to the reign of King Louis XIII. Frequenting the theater, he met the great actress Marie Dorval, and became her jealous lover until 1838. (Vigny's wife had become a near invalid and never learned to speak French fluently; they had no children, and Vigny was also disappointed when his father-in-law's remarriage deprived the couple of an anticipated inheritance.)
In 1835, he produced a drama titled Chatterton, based on the life of Thomas Chatterton, and in which Marie Dorval starred as Kitty Bell. Chatterton is considered to be one of the best of the French romantic dramas and is still performed regularly. The story of Chatterton had inspired one of the three episodes of Vigny's luminous philosophical novel Stello (1832), in which Vigny examines the relation of poetry to society and concludes that the poet, doomed to be regarded with suspicion in every social order, must remain somewhat aloof and apart from the social order. Servitude et grandeur militaires (1835) was a similar tripartite meditation on the condition of the soldier. Although Alfred de Vigny gained success as a writer, his personal life was not happy. His marriage was a disappointment; his relationship with Marie Dorval was plagued by jealousy; and his literary talent was eclipsed by the achievements of others. He grew embittered. After the death of his mother in 1838 he inherited the property of Maine-Giraud, near Angoulême, where it was said that he had withdrawn to his 'ivory tower' (an expression Sainte-Beuve coined with reference to Vigny). There Vigny wrote some of his most famous poems, including La Mort du loup and La Maison du berger. (Proust regarded La Maison du berger as the greatest French poem of the 19th century.) In 1845, after several unsuccessful attempts to be elected, Vigny became a member of the Académie française.
In later years, Vigny ceased to publish. He continued to write, however, and his Journal is considered by modern scholars to be a great work in its own right, though it awaits a definitive scholarly edition. Vigny considered himself a thinker as well as a literary author; he was, for example, one of the first French writers to take a serious interest in Buddhism. His own philosophy of life was pessimistic and stoical, but celebrated human fraternity, the growth of knowledge, and mutual assistance as high values. In his later years he spent much time preparing the posthumous collection of poems now known as Les Destinées (though Vigny's intended title was Poèmes philosophiques) which concludes with Vigny's final message to the world, L'Esprit pur.
Alfred de Vigny developed what is believed to have been stomach cancer in his early sixties. He endured its torments with exemplary stoicism for several years: Quand on voit ce qu'on fut sur terre et ce qu'on laisse/Seul le silence est grand; tout le reste est faiblesse. ('When we see what we were on Earth and what we leave behind/Only silence is great; everything else is weakness.') Vigny died in Paris on 17 September 1863, a few months after the passing of his wife, and is buried beside her in the Cimetière de Montmartre in Paris, France.
Several of his works were published posthumously.