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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
By Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–1869)
 
From ‘Causeries du Lundi,’ May 11th, 1857. (Abridged.)

IT is the duty of each generation, as it is of an army, to bury its dead and to do them the last honors. It would not be just that the charming poet who has just been taken away should disappear without receiving—amid all that has been said and what will be said, true and heart-felt, of his talent—some special words of farewell from an old friend, from a witness of his first steps. The melodious strain of Alfred de Musset was so familiar to us, so dear from the very first; it had so penetrated our hearts in its freshness and buoyant novelty; it was, though more youthful, so part of our own generation,—a generation then all poetry and all devoted to feeling and expression. It is nineteen years ago; and I see him still making his entry in the literary world,—first in the intimate circle of Victor Hugo, then in that of Alfred de Vigny and the Deschamps brothers. What a début! What easy graciousness! and at the very first verses that he recited,—his ‘Andalouse,’ his ‘Don Paez,’ and his ‘Juana,’—what surprise, what rapture he aroused among us! It was spring itself; a whole springtime of poetry that budded before our eyes. He was not eighteen. His forehead was strong and proud. His downy cheek still preserved the roses of childhood, his nostrils swelled with the breath of desire. He advanced with firm tread and eye upcast, as though sure of conquest and full of the pride of life. No one at the first sight gave a better idea of adolescent genius. All those brilliant couplets, those outpourings of verse that their very success has since caused to be outworn, but which were then so new in French poetry; all those passages marked as if with a Shakespearean accent, those furious rushes mingled with petulant audacities and smiles, those flashes of heat and precocious storm,—seemed to promise a Byron to France.  1
  The graceful delicate songs that flitted each morning from his lips, and presently were running over the lips of all, were indeed of his age. But passion was to him a divination. He breathed it in with might, he sought to outrun it. He asked its secret of friends richer in experience, still dripping from their shipwreck…. At the dance, at receptions and gay festivals, when he met pleasure he did not restrain himself; he sought by reflection to distill its sadness, its bitterness. He said to himself, even as he gave himself up with an appearance of self-surrendering transport, and even as it were to increase its savor, that this was only a fleeting instant, soon to be irreparable, that would never recur in this same light. And in all he sought a stronger, keener sensation, in accord with the key to which he had tuned his soul. He found that the roses of a day did not fade fast enough. He would gladly uproot them all that he might the better breathe them in and press from them their essence….  2
  I only touch the subject; but if we take up and glance over again, now that he is no more, many of the pieces and personages of Alfred de Musset, we shall now perceive in this child of genius just the opposite of Goethe: of that Goethe who detached himself in time from his creations, even from those most intimate in their origin; who worked out his characters only to a certain point; who cut the bond in time, abandoned them to the world, being already himself altogether elsewhere; and for whom “poetry was a deliverance.” Goethe, even from his youth, from the time of Werther, was preparing to live till past eighty. For Alfred de Musset, poetry was the opposite of that. His poetry was himself. He was riveted wholly to it. He cast himself into it recklessly. It was his youthful soul, it was his flesh and blood that flowed; and when he had cast to others these shreds, these glorious limbs of the poet, that seemed at times like limbs of Phaëthon and of a young god (recall, for instance, the magnificent apostrophes and invocations of ‘Rolla’), he kept still his own shred, his bleeding heart, his burning weary heart. Why was he not patient? All would have come in due time. But he hasted to condense and to devour the years….  3
  Musset was poet only. He wished to feel. He was of a generation whose password, the first wish inscribed at the bottom of their hearts, had been, Poetry for its own sake, Poetry above all. “In all the period of my fair youth,” one of the poets of that same epoch has said, “there was nothing that I desired or summoned so with prayers or adored as I did holy Passion,”—passion; that is to say, the living substance of poetry. So Musset was superlatively prodigal above all. Like a reckless soldier, he would not provide in advance for the second half of the journey. He would have disdained to accept what men call wisdom, and what seemed to him the gradual ebbing of life. It was not for him to transform himself. When he attained the summit, and even while he was still climbing the hillside, it seemed to him that he had reached and passed the goal of all desires. Satiety had laid hold on him….  4
  Recall his first songs of page or knightly lover,… and put opposite to this that admirable and pitiful final sonnet: the whole poetic career of Alfred de Musset is embraced between these two,—Glory and Pardon. What a brilliant track, boldly traced; what light, what eclipse, and what shadow! Poet who was but a dazzling type of many obscurer souls of his age, who has symbolized their nights and their falls, their grandeurs and their miseries,—his name will not die. Let us guard it engraven with peculiar care; us to whom he left the burdens of age, and who could say that day, with truth, as we returned from his funeral, “For years our youth was dead, but we have just buried it with him.” Let us admire, let us continue to love and honor in its better part, the spirit, deep or fleeting, that he breathed into his songs. But let us draw from it also this witness to the infirmity that clings to our being, and never let us presume in pride on the gifts that human nature has received.  5
 
 
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