1902 Encyclopedia > Alfred de Musset

Alfred de Musset
French poet, dramatist and novelist

ALFRED DE MUSSET (1810-1857), poet, play-writer, and novelist, was born on the 11th December 1810 in a house in the middle of old Paris, near the Hôtel Cluny. His father, Victor de Musset, who in the course of his life held several ministerial posts of importance, traced his descent back as far as 1140. In Alfred’s childhood there were various things which fostered his imaginative power. He and his brother Paul, who afterwards wrote a biography of Alfred, delighted in reading old romances together, and in assuming the characters of the heroes of these romances. But it was not until about 1826 that Musset gave any definite sign of the mental force which afterwards distinguished him. In the summer of 1827 he all but won a prix d’honneur by an essay on "The origin of our feelings," and in 1828, when Scribe, Mélesville, and the elder Brazier were in the habit of coming the Madame de Musset’s house at Auteuil, where drawing-room plays and charades were constantly given, Musset, excited by this companionship, wrote his first poem, which to judge from he extracts preserved, was neither bettter nor worse than much other work of clever boys who may or may not afterwards turn out to be possessed of genius. Shortly after his attempt in verse he was taken by Paul Foucher to Victor Hugo’s house, where he met such men as Alfred de Vigny, Mérimée, and Sainte-Beuve. It was under Hugo’s influence, no doubt, that he composed a play. The scene was laid in Spain, and some lines, showing a marked advance upon his first effort, are preserved. In 1828, when the war between the classical and the romantic school of literature was growing daily more serious and exciting, Musset, who had published some verses in a country newspaper, boldly recited some of his work to Sainte-Beuve, who wrote of it to a friend, "Theere is amongst us a boy full of genius." At eighteen years old Musset produced a translation, with a few insertions of his own, of De Quincey’s Opium-Eater. This was published by Mame, attracted no attention, and has been long out of print. His first original volume was published in 1829 under the name of Contes d’Espagne et d’Italic, had an immediate and striking success, provoked bitter opposition, and produced many unworthy imitations. In December 1830 he was just twenty years old, and was already conscious of that curious double existence within him so frequently symbolized in his plays, —in Octave and Célio for instance (in Les Caprices de Marianne), who also stand for the two camps, the men of matter and the men of feeling, —which he h as elsewhere described as characteristic of his generation. At this date his piece the Nuit Vénitienne was produced by Harel, manager of the Odéon. The exact causes of its failure might now be far to seek; unlucky stage accidents had something to do with it, but there seems to believe that there was a strongly-organized opposition. However this may be, the result was disastrous to the French stage; for it put a complete damper on the one poet who, as he afterwards showed both in theoretical and in practical writings, had the fine insight which took in at a glance the merits and defects both of the classical and the romantic schools. Thus he was strong and keen to weld together the merits of both schools in a new method which, but for the fact that there has been no successor to grasp the wand which its originator wielded, well be called the school of Musset. The serious effect produced upon Musset by the failure of his Nuit Vénitienne is curiously illustrative of his character. A man of greater strength and with equal belief in his own genius might have gone on appealing to the public until he compelled them to hear him. Musset gave up the attempt in disgust, and waited until the public were eager to hear him without any invitation on his part. In the case of his finest plays this did not happen until after his death; but long before that he was fully recognized as a poet of the first rank, and as an extraordinary master of character and language in prose-writing. In his complete disgust with the stage after the failure above referred to there was no doubt something of a not ignoble pride, but there was something also of weakness—of a kind of weakness out of which it must be said sprang some of his most exquisite work, some of the poems which could only have been written by a man who was face to face with difficulties which were old enough in the experience of mankind, though for the moment new and strange to him, and by which he felt himself to be overwhelmed.

In 1833 Musset published the volume called Un Spectacle dans un Fauteuil. One of the most striking pieces in this—Namouna—was written at the publisher’s request to fill up some empty space; and this fact is noteworthy when taken in conjunction with the horror which Musset afterwards so often expressed of doing anything like writing "to order,"—of writing, indeed, in any way or at any moment except when the inspiration or the fancy happened to seize him. The success of the volume seemed to be small in comparison with that of his Contes d’Espagne, but it led indirectly to Musset’s being engaged as a contributor to the Revue des Deux Mondes. In this he published, in April 1833, André del Sarto, and he followed this six weeks later with Les Caprices de Marianne. This play, which now ranks as one of the classical pieces in the repetory of the Théâtre Français, is a fine illustration of the method above referred to, a method of which Musset gave something like a definite explication five years later. This explication was also published in the Revue des Deux Mondes, and it set forth that the war between the classical and the romantic schools could never end in a definite victory for either school, nor was it desirable that it should so end. "It was time," Musset said, "for a third school which should unite the merits of each." And in Les Caprices de Marianne these merits are most curiously and happily combined. It so happens that, as the piece is generally given on the stage, with the omission of one change of scene, the classical unities are almost exactly preserved, while the whole play is impregnated with romanticism in the best sense of the word. It has perhaps more of the Shakespearean quality—the quality of artfully mingling the terrible, the grotesque, and the high comedy tones—which exists more or less in all Musset’s longer and more serious plays than is found in any other of these. In Claudio, the husband, the terrible and the grotesque are strangely and powerfully allied; Tibia, his serving-man, is grotesque with a touch of grimness caught from his master; Octave and Célio represent the two elements which were always warring in Musset’s own heart—one is the careless half-cynical man of the world and the other the wholly tender romantic lover; Marianne is that type of the highest comedy to which events lend a touch of tragedy, while in Hermia, Célio’s mother, is the very poetry of maternal love. The piece is called a comedy, and it owes this title to its extraordinary brilliance of dialogue, truth of characterization, and swiftness in action, under which there is ever latent a sense of impending fate. Many of the qualities indicated are found in others of Musse’s dramatic works, and notably in On ne badine pas avec l’ Amour, where the skill in insensibly preparing his hearers or readers through a succession of dazzling comedy scenes for the swift destruction of the end is very marked. But Les Caprices de Marianne is perhaps for this particular purpose of illustration the most compact and most typical of all. One other point in Musset’s method may be noted in connexion with this play. Paul de Musset asked him where he had ever met a Marianne. He answered, "Everywhere and nowhere; she is not a woman, she is woman." Thee appearance of Les Caprices de Marianne in the Revue was followed by that of Rolla, a marked symptom of the "maladie du siècle." Then came the unfortunate journey which Musset made to Italy with George Sand. It is well known that the rupture of what was for a time a most passionate attachment had a disastrous effect upon Musset, and brought out the weakest side of his moral character. He was at fisrt absolutely and completely struck down by the blow. But it was not so well known until Paul de Musset pointed it out that the passion expressed in the Nuit de Décembre, written about twelve months after the journey to Italy, referred not to George Sand but to another and quite a different woman. The story of the Italian journey and its results are told under the guise of fiction two points of view in the two volumes called respectively Elle et Lui and Lui et Elle. During Musset’s absence in Italy Fantasio was published in the Revue, and not long after his return On ne badine pas avec l’Amour appeared in the same way. In 1835 he produced Lucie, La Nuit de Mai, La Quenouille de Barberine, Le Chandelier, La Loi sur la Presse, La Nuit de Décembre, and La Confession d’un Enfant du Siècle. The last-named work, a prose work, is exceptionally interesting as exhibiting the poet’s frame of mind at the time, and the approach to a revulsion from the Bonapartist ideas amid which he had been brought up in his childhood. To the supreme power of Napoleon he in this work attributed that moral sickness of the time which he described. "One man," he wrote, "absorbed the whole life of Europe; the rest of the human race struggled to fill their lungs with the air that he had breathed." When the emperor fell, "a ruined world was a resting-place for a genera-fell. "a ruined world was a resting-place for a generation weighted with care." The Confession is further important, apart from its high literary merit, as exhibiting in many passages the poet’s tendency to shum or wildly protest against all that is disagreeable or difficult in human life—a tendency to which, however, much of his finest work was due. In 1836 appeared, amongst other things, Il ne faut jurer de Rien, a comedy which holds, and is likely long to hold, the stage of the Théâtre Français, and the beginning of the brilliant letters of Dupuis and Cotonet on romanticism. Il ne faut jurer de Rien is as typical of his comedy work as is Les Caprices de Marianne of the work in which a terrible fatality underlies the brilliant dialogue and light keen characterization. In 1839 were published the Caprice (which afterwards found its way to the Paris stage through, in the first instance, the accident of Madame Allan the actress hearing of it in a Russian translation) and some of the Nouvelles. In 1839 he began a romance called Le Poéte Déchu, of which the existing fragments are full of passion and insight. In 1840 he passed through a period of feeling that the public did not recognize his genius—as, indeed they did not—and wrote a very short but very striking series of reflexions headed with the words "A trente Ans," which Paul de Musset published in his Life. In 1841 there came out in the Revue de Paris Musset's Le Rhin Allemand, an answer to Becker’s poem which appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes. This fine war-song made a great deal of noise, and brought to the poet quantities of challenges from German officers. Between this date and 1845 he wrote comparatively little. In the last-named year the charming "proverbe" Il faut qu’une Porte soit ouverte ou fermée appeared. In 1847 Un Caprice was produced at the Théâtre Français, and the employment in it of such a word as "rebonsoir" shocked some of the old guard of the old school. In 1848 Il ne faut jurer de Rien was played at the Théâtre Français, and the Chandelier at the Théâtre Historique. Between this date and 1851 Bettine was produced on the stage and Carmosine written; and between this time and the date of is death, from an affection of the heart, in May 1857, the poet produced no large work of importance.

Alfred de Musset now holds the rank which Sainte-Beuve first accorded, then denied, and then again accorded to him as a poet of the first rank. He had genius, though not genius of that strongest kind which its possessor can always keep in check. His own character worked both for and against his success as a writer. His very weakness and his own consciousness of it produced such beautiful work as, to take one instance, the Nuit d’Octobre, but it too often prevented him, from one cause or another, from producing any work at all. His Nouvelles are extraordinary brilliant; his poems are charged with passion, fancy, and fine satiric power; in his plays he hit upon a method of his own, in which no one has dared or availed to follow him with any closeness. He was one of the first, most original, and in the end most successful of the first-rate writers included in the phrase "the 1830 period." The wildness of his life, though it cannot be denied, has probably been exaggerated; and it has lately been suggested by M. Arsène Houssaye that the symptoms of the heart disease which caused his death may sometimes have been mistaken for the symptoms of intoxication. His brother Paul de Musset has given in his Biographie a striking testimony to the finer side of his character. In the later years of his life Musset was elected, not without some difficulty, a member of the French Academy. Besides the works above referred to, the Nouvelles et Contes and the Oeuvres Posthumes, in which there is much of interest concerning the great tragic actress Rachel, should be specially mentioned. Musset has had no successor in France either as a poet or as a dramatist. (W. H. P.)

The above article was written by: Walter Herries Pollock, M.A., Barrister; formerly editor of the Saturday Review; author of The Modern French Theatre, Verse Old and New, Mémoires Inédits du Marquis de --- , Jane Austen: her Contemporaries and Herself.

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