Alfred de Musset (18101857). The Story of a White Blackbird.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
IT did not take me more than six weeks to bring out my first work. It was, as I had intended, a poem in forty-eight cantos. There was, indeed, some careless work here and there, owing to the great rapidity of my production; but I thought that the public of today, being used to the literature which is printed at the foot of the page in the papers, would not criticize me for that.
My success was worthy of me, that is to say, it was unparalleled. The subject of my work was simply myself: In this choice of subject I was following the usual custom of the present time. I narrated my past sufferings with charming fatuity; I acquainted the reader with a thousand of the most intimate domestic details. The description of my mothers porringer filled no less than fourteen cantos: I counted the grooves, the holes, the lumps, the splinters, the slivers, the nails, the spots, the various tints, the reflections; I pictured the inside, the outside, the edges, the bottom, the sides, the sloping surfaces, the straight surfaces; passing on to the contents, I made a study of the blades of grass, the straws, the dead leaves, the bits of wood, the pebbles, the drops of water, the fragments of dead flies, the broken legs of June bugs which were in the nest; it was a ravishing description. But dont imagine that I printed it all in one place; some readers would have had the impertinence to skip it. I skillfully cut it in pieces, and mixed it in with the story, in order that nothing should be lost; so that, at the most interesting and dramatic moment, you would suddenly find fifteen pages of porringer. I believe that this is one of the great secrets of art, and as I am not avaricious, any one who wishes may profit by it.
All Europe was in an uproar over the appearance of my book; and devoured the intimate revelations which I had condescended to make. How could it have been otherwise? I not only gave all the facts relating to my own person, but I gave the public a complete picture of all the reveries that had passed through my head since the age of two months; I even interpolated, in one of the most beautiful passages, an ode composed when I was in the egg. And, as a matter of course, I did not neglect to touch, in passing, on the great subject which is now occupying the attention of so many; that is to say, the future of humanity. This problem appeared interesting to me, and in a leisure moment, I outlined a solution which was generally considered satisfactory.
Every day I received complimentary verses, letters of congratulation, and anonymous declarations of love. As to visits, I followed strictly the plan that I had formed; my door was closed to all the world. Nevertheless I could not refuse to receive two strangers who had sent word that they were relatives of mine. One was a blackbird from Senegal, and the other a blackbird from China.
Ah, Monsieur, said they, smothering me with caresses, what a great blackbird you are! How well you have painted, in your immortal poem, the profound sufferings of misunderstood genius! If we were not already as little understood as possible, we should be so after having read your work. How we sympathize with your sorrows, with your sublime contempt of the commonplace! We too, Monsieur, we know by our own experience, the secret sufferings which you have sung! Here are two sonnets which we have written, the one supplementing the other. We beg you to accept them.
Eh! Monsieur, answered the native of Senegal, look how I am built. My plumage, indeed, is good to look at, and my coat is of that fine green color that you see glistening on the backs of ducks; but my beak is too short and my feet are too big; and see what a tail I am encumbered with! My body is not two-thirds the length of my tail. Isnt that enough to make any one go to the devil?
Gentlemen, I replied, I pity you with all my heart. It is always troublesome to have too much or too little of anything whatever. But allow me to inform you that there are in the Jardin des Plantes several persons who resemble you, and who have already been there for some time, quite peaceably stuffed. Just as mere shamelessness is not sufficient to enable a literary woman to write a good book, so mere discontent is not enough to turn a blackbird into a genius. I am the only one of my kind, and I grieve for it; I may be wrong, but I have a right to my opinion. Gentlemen, I am white; turn white, and we will see we will see what you can manage to say then.