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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Alfred de Musset (1810–1857)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Alcée Fortier (1856–1914)
THE THREE greatest French poets of the nineteenth century are Lamartine, Hugo, and Musset. The first one touches us deeply by his harmonious and simple verses; the second impresses us with the force of his genius; and the third is sometimes light and gay, and sometimes intensely passionate and sad. Musset wrote several poems which cannot be surpassed by any in the French language. He was highly nervous and sensitive, and lacked Lamartine’s spirit of patriotism and Hugo’s well-balanced mind. He was unfortunate, and led a reckless life, committing excesses which nearly destroyed his genius, and rendered it sterile for the last ten years of his existence. It is, however, to his nervous temperament—to the fact that he felt so deeply the misfortunes of love—that we owe his finest works. In the beginning of his career—in 1828, when he was eighteen years old—we see him admitted at Hugo’s house, and considered by the poets of the famous Cénacle, by the disciples of the Master, as their favorite child, as a Romantic poet of great promise. He published at that time in a newspaper at Dijon a poem, ‘The Dream,’ which was warmly received by his brother poets and protectors. In 1830 appeared his first volume, ‘Tales of Spain and Italy,’ which are rather immoral in tone, and somewhat ironical. The author followed still the precepts of the Romantic school; but one may see already that he is not a true disciple of Hugo, not an idolater like Gautier. His famous ‘Ballad to the Moon’ was intended as a huge joke, and is indeed wonderful in its eccentricity. Musset speaks with great irreverence of the celestial body which shone on Lamartine’s immortal ‘Lake.’  1
  The ‘Ballad to the Moon’ created a great sensation; and to this day, Musset is better known to many people by his earliest poems than by his magnificent ‘Nights.’ It is true that his ‘Tales of Spain and Italy’ are entrancing, in spite of their immorality, and contain some beautiful verses. The last lines of ‘Don Poez’ are full of passion; but most of these poems are ironical. Portia is white-armed like Andromache, but she is not faithful to her husband like Hector’s wife. ‘The Chestnuts out of the Fire’ is, without doubt, a parody on Racine’s ‘Andromaque’; and ‘Mardoche’ can hardly be understood, and seems to have been written for a mystification. The rhythm is little marked; and in accordance with the precept of the Romantic school, the author makes an abuse of the enjambement or overflow. ‘The Willow’ is more serious in tone, and relates a tragic love story; while in ‘Octave’ we see the charming Mariette die of love for Octave, who has disdained her, and who is a woman dressed as a man. The earliest works of Musset are very eccentric, but they are not lacking in poetic spirit.  2
  The director of the Odéon requested Musset to write a comedy for his theatre; and the poet produced the ‘Venetian Night,’ which was played in December 1830, without any success. The author declared that he would never write again for the stage, and gave his next volume of dramas, published in 1833, the title of ‘Spectacle in an Arm-chair.’ ‘The Cup and the Lips’ is a work of great energy. It is a dramatic poem in five acts, and represents the weird character of Frank and the brutal and passionate love of Belcolore. Frank is attracted by the charm and purity of the sweet Déidamia, and is about to marry her when she is murdered by Belcolore. The idea of the poet is, that when once vice has taken possession of a man he cannot free himself from it. Musset expressed thus but too well his own faults and his own weakness. There is in the work a chorus which seems unnecessary, and which is very strange. Unlike the Greek chorus, it has nothing to do with the development of the plot, and it is not, like Racine’s choruses, a pretext for beautiful lyric poetry.  3
  ‘Of What do Young Girls Dream?’ is a very incredible comedy; but it is an interesting and romantic work, full of the innocent and simple charm of youth. ‘Namouna’ is as strange and immoral as ‘Mardoche’; but is far superior in poetic merit, and was greatly admired by Sainte-Beuve. Musset makes fun of local color, which was so much appreciated by the Romantic school; and his work bears some resemblance to Byron’s ‘Don Juan,’ although he says:—“I was told last year that I imitated Byron. You who know me, you know that this is not true. I hate like death the trade of the plagiarist: my glass is not large, but I drink from my glass. It is very little, I know, to be an honest man; but still it is true that I exhume nothing.” The whole poem is written in stanzas with two rhymes, and displays admirably Musset’s sarcastic wit and his sensual feelings.  4
  There is not much to say about Musset’s life; but his love for George Sand had such an influence on his works that we must mention it here. In 1833 he went with George Sand to Italy, and they traveled together for some time. At Venice Musset fell sick; and after many pathetic scenes the lovers parted from one another. They had wished to act in life like the personages in the dramas and novels of the Romantic school, and saw that no one is happy who does not observe the moral and social laws of his time. Musset and George Sand met again, but could not agree, and made each other unhappy. This incident seems to have affected George Sand very little in later life; but Musset was wounded to the heart, and his genius was stung to activity and vigor by his misfortune. It is his own story which he relates in his celebrated ‘Confession of a Child of the Century,’ and in at least two of his admirable ‘Nights.’  5
  The ‘Confession’ is an extraordinary book, and written with wonderful force and eloquence. The author describes most vividly skepticism, the disease of the century. Octave believes in nothing; he loves and yet he does not believe in love, in spite of the devotion of Brigitte Pierson. Why is it so? Because “during the wars of the Empire, while the husbands and the brothers were in Germany, the anxious mothers had given birth to an ardent, pale, nervous generation…. Thousands of children looked at one another with a dark look while testing their weak muscles.” When they grew to manhood, the Restoration gave them no opportunity to display their strength; and they led a useless life, which often ended like ‘Rolla’ in a night of debauchery.  6
  ‘Rolla’ is a powerful poem, and one of the masterpieces of Musset. The conception of the work is immoral, and proves again the lack of true moral courage in the author. It is very seldom that he admits that reform is possible,—that there can be a healthy reaction after a fault has been committed. Rolla enjoys life, and puts into three purses all the money which he possesses. When that has been spent, then he will kill himself in a night of orgies. There is such a lack of true manhood in the debauchee, his character is so despicable, that it is difficult to take any interest in the poem. The poetry, however, is so grand that we forget the subject of the work, and are entranced by the beautiful words of passion and love.  7
  Of the four ‘Nights’ of Musset, the ‘Night of May’ is in my opinion the finest. It was written when his heart was still bleeding after the rupture with George Sand, and is a proof that the poet’s genius is the highest when he treats of love. Indeed, the misfortune of love concerns him more than anything else; and in ‘Sadness’ he says:—
          “The only happiness which remains to me in the world is, that I have sometimes wept.”
  When he wrote his ‘Nights,’ his brother Paul de Musset tells us that he had his supper served in his room, which was brilliantly illuminated in order to do honor to his Muse when she came to visit him. That idea of dualism is to be seen in a number of Musset’s works, and indicates perfectly his disposition. There were two men in him: one gay and reckless, the other sad and tender. In the ‘Night of May’ the Muse appears to the poet, and asks him to love again. She tells him to take his lute and to give her a kiss:—
          “This evening, everything will bloom: immortal nature is filled with perfumes, with love and murmur.”
  She has consoled him already once: let him now console her; let him go with her to some place where there is oblivion; let him give her at least a tear.  10
  The ‘Night of May’ reminds us somewhat of our immortal Poe’s ‘Raven’; but the despair, the gloom, of the American poet is deeper than that of the French poet. Musset’s work is more graceful and tender, Poe’s is more forcible and weird.  11
  In the ‘Night of December’ the poet speaks to “a stranger dressed in black, who resembles him like a brother,” and who follows him everywhere. The vision replies: “Friend, I am Solitude.” The ‘Night of August’ is almost as beautiful as the ‘Night of May.’ This time it is the Muse who is sad and the poet who consoles her.  12
  In the ‘Night of October’ the poet forgets the past, pardons it, and wishes to think only of the future. When Musset wrote in 1837 the ‘Night of October,’ he thought that he could love again and forget the past; but in February 1841 he said in ‘Remembrance’:—“I say to myself only this: ‘At this hour, in this place, one day I was loved, I loved; she was beautiful. I hide this treasure in my immortal soul, and I carry it to God!’” Musset had already expressed admirably in his ‘Letter to Lamartine’ (February 1836) the idea that love alone survives of all things human.  13
  The ‘Stanzas to La Malibran,’ the great singer and actress, are noble and sad, and may be compared with the ‘Letter to Lamartine,’ and with some parts of the ‘Nights.’ Let us mention also, among the best poems of Musset, ‘Lucie,’ an elegy as sorrowful and tender as ‘The Willow’; the ‘Hope in God,’ where the author wishes to shake off the skepticism of his century, but presents to us rather a pantheistic view of religion; ‘Sylvia,’ a touching love story,—taken from Boccaccio, as well as ‘Simone’; ‘A Lost Evening,’ lines inspired by a representation of ‘The Misanthrope’ before a very small audience.  14
  The poet is more gay and lively in four poems: ‘A Good Fortune,’ an episode of a journey to Baden; ‘Dupont and Durant,’ an amusing dialogue between two wretched poets; ‘Mid-Lent,’ where the pleasures of the waltz are described with great harmony; and ‘Le Mie Prigioni,’ where the poet, imprisoned for not having mounted guard, gives a pleasant description of his prison. Let us notice also the ‘German Rhine,’ a proud and patriotic reply to Becker’s song.  15
  ‘On Three Steps of Rose-colored Marble’ is a most graceful poem; nothing can surpass the delicacy of some of the verses.  16
  As a poet Musset is sometimes witty, sarcastic, and graceful, and sometimes most passionate. As already said, his verses written when his heart was bleeding are by far his best. There is certainly nothing in French literature superior to the four sublime ‘Nights,’—of May, of December, of August, of October. These poems are not inferior to the best works of Lamartine and of Hugo.  17
  We have already spoken of Musset’s two dramas in verse, ‘The Cup and the Lips’ and ‘Of What do Young Girls Dream?’ written after the failure of his ‘Venetian Night.’ He did not intend his dramas to be acted, but in 1847, ten years after it had been published in the Revue des Deux Mondes, ‘A Caprice’ was played in St. Petersburg by Mrs. Allen Despréaux. On her return to Paris the distinguished actress played ‘A Caprice’ with great success at the Comédie Française. This called attention to Musset’s dramas, and they were nearly all put on the French stage. Love is the subject of all these works except ‘Lorenzaccio.’ The latter drama is Shakespearean in tone, and is written with great force. It is the story of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who wishes to rid Florence of her tyrant, Alexander de’ Medici. He becomes the boon companion of the duke, shares his ignoble pleasures, is despised by the people, and after he has killed the tyrant, finds that he also is polluted without hope of redemption. It is the same idea which was expressed in ‘The Cup and the Lips’ by the murder of the sweet Déidamia. In ‘Lorenzaccio’ the author gives us a correct picture of life at Florence in the sixteenth century, when the city had lost her glory and her independence, and was governed by tyrants appointed by Charles V.  18
  ‘The Candlestick’ is a witty and amusing comedy, but far from moral. Fortunio is charming, and reminds us of Chérubin in Beaumarchais’s ‘Marriage of Figaro.’ His love for Jacqueline, however, is much more true and passionate than Chérubin’s light love for the Countess.  19
  In ‘One Must Swear to Nothing’ we meet Valentin, who is captivated by the charm and simplicity of the young girl whom he courted at first merely to win a wager from his uncle Van Breck. ‘The Caprices of Marianne’ present to us Celio, tender and sad, and Octave, frivolous and corrupt,—the two inseparable friends, who personify admirably the two sides of Musset’s character.  20
  It is impossible to describe ‘One Cannot Think of Everything,’ and ‘A Door Must be Open or Shut.’ There is hardly any plot in these little comedies; and what interests us is the playful mirth, the delicate irony, the wit of the dialogue.  21
  ‘Louison’ is a picture of life in the eighteenth century, and reminds us of ‘The Beauty Patch,’ one of the most charming novelettes of Musset. ‘André del Sarto’ is a drama, but inferior to ‘Lorenzaccio’; and ‘Bettine’ is the least interesting of Musset’s comedies. ‘Carmosine’ and the ‘Distaff of Barberine’ treat of the epoch of chivalry. In the former we see the beautiful Carmosine fall in love with King Peter of Aragon, on seeing him at a tournament. She repulses the clownish Sir Vespasiano, and Périllo her betrothed, and is dying of love for the King. The troubadour Minuccio relates the story of the young girl to the Queen, and the latter takes her husband to see Carmosine. The King soothes her, kisses her forehead, gives her in marriage to Périllo, and the play ends amid great rejoicing.  22
  We love the gentle Carmosine, but we are still better pleased with the noble Barberine. Ulric, her husband, goes to the court of the King of Hungary to seek his fortune; and she remains at home with her distaff. Rosenberg, a conceited young man, has bought a magic book, which will teach him to kill giants and dragons, and to be loved by all women. He wagers with Ulric that he will win the heart of Barberine, and goes to the latter’s castle with a letter of introduction from Ulric. Barberine succeeds in shutting him up in a room, and orders him to take her distaff and spin; otherwise he will have nothing to eat. While Rosenberg, conquered by hunger, is about to try to obey Barberine, the Queen and Ulric arrive at the castle and witness the humiliation of the young man and the triumph of the faithful wife.  23
  ‘Fantasio’ reminds us of Marivaux’s graceful ‘Games of Love and of Chance,’ but is sometimes as strange, as fantastic, as the ‘Tales of Spain and Italy.’ Fantasio, in his madness and in his wisdom, is Musset himself, sometimes Hamlet, and too often Scapin.  24
  ‘One Must Not Play with Love’ is probably Musset’s most original drama, the strongest after ‘Lorenzaccio.’ Master Blazius and Master Bridaire are really comic personages, as well as Dame Pluche; and the chorus is interesting. The play, however, can hardly be called a comedy. It is too bitter in some scenes, and the end is too tragic. Perdican loves his cousin Camille, and feigns to love Rosette, in order to render Camille jealous. The poor little Rosette dies of grief on hearing Perdican speak words of love to Camille, and the latter returns to the convent where she had been educated.  25
  Musset’s dramas made him celebrated for the last ten years of his life, and they are still played with success on the French stage. Among his other prose works are the ‘Letters of Dupuis and Cotonet,’ in one of which he makes fun in a most amusing manner of the Romantic school, by his extraordinary definition of the word romantisme.  26
  Musset published a number of short stories and novelettes in the Revue des Deux Mondes, and most of them are very interesting and witty. The best are ‘The Son of Titian,’ ‘Croisilles,’ ‘Frédéric et Bernerette,’ ‘Mimi Pinson,’ ‘The Beauty Patch,’ and the ‘History of a White Blackbird.’ In the latter work he refers in a sarcastic manner to George Sand without naming her.  27
  Alfred de Musset died on May 1st, 1857, and his last words were: “Sleep!—at last I am going to sleep.” He needed rest; for his last years had been agitated by great nervousness. He was carried to the tomb accompanied by twenty-seven persons,—he whose works were known to all human beings whose hearts could be touched by truly passionate notes. A monument has been erected to him in Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and a few of his immortal lines have been inscribed on his tombstone. I read lately these charming words with a feeling of sadness, and thought of the Muse, the tender friend of the poet. I repeated to myself some of the wonderful verses of the ‘Night of May,’ and it seemed to me then that Musset had really taken his lute, as requested by his Muse, and that the Père Lachaise was filled with divine harmony.  28

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