1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Musset, Louis Charles Alfred de

22136711911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 19 — Musset, Louis Charles Alfred deWalter Herries Pollock

MUSSET, LOUIS CHARLES ALFRED DE (1810–1857), French poet, play-writer and novelist, was born on the 11th of December 1810 in a house in the middle of old Paris, near the Hôtel Cluny. His father, Victor de Musset, who traced his descent back as far as 1140, held several ministerial posts of importance. He brought out an edition of J. J. Rousseau’s works in 1821, and followed it. soon after with a volume on the Genevan’s life and writing. In Alfred de Musset’s childhood there were various things which fostered his imaginative power. He and his brother Paul (born 1804, died 1880), who afterwards wrote a biography of Alfred, delighted in reading old romances together, and in assuming the characters of the heroes in those 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 won the second prize (at the Collège Henri IV.) by an essay on “The Origin of our Feelings.” In 1828, when Eugene Scribe, Joseph Duveyrier, who under the name of Mélesville, was a prolific playwriter and sometimes collaborator with Scribe, and others of note were in the habit of coming to Mme de Musset’s house at Auteuil, where drawing-room plays and charades were constantly given, Musset, excited by this companionship, Wrote his first poem. This, to judge from the extracts preserved, was neither better nor worse than much other work of clever boys who may or may not afterwards turn out to be possessed of genius. He took up the study of law, threw it over for that of medicine, which he could not endure, and ended by adopting no set profession. Shortly after his first attempt in verse he was taken by Paul Foucher. to Victor Hugo’s house, where he met such men as Alfred de Vigny, Prosper Mérimée, Charles Nodier 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 had published some verses in a country newspaper, and boldly recited some of his work to Sainte-Beuve, who wrote of it to a friend, “There is amongst us a boy full of genius.” At eighteen years old Musset produced a translation, with additions of his own, of De Quincey’s “Opium-Eater.” This was published by Marne, attracted no attention, and has been long out of print. His first original volume was published in 1829 under the name of Contes d’Éspagne et d’Italie, had an immediate and striking success, provoked bitter opposition, and produced many unworthy imitations. This volume contained, along with far better and more important things, a fantastic parody in verse on certain productions of the romantic school, which made a deal of noise at the time. This was the famous “Ballade à la lune” with its recurring comparison of the moon shining above a steeple to the dot over an i. It was, to Musset’s delight, taken quite seriously by many worthy; folk.

In December 1830 Musset 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 has 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 reason 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 of 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, might 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 imagined himself the crushed victim of difficulties which were old enough in the experience of mankind, though for the moment new and strange to him.

Musset now belonged, in a not very whole-hearted fashion, to the “Cénacle,” but the connexion came to an end in 1832. In 1833 he 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 afterwards took and holds rank as one of the classical pieces in the repertory of the Théâtre Français. After the retirement in 1887 from the stage of the brilliant actor Delaunay the piece dropped out of the Français repertory until it was replaced on the stage by M. Jules Claretie, administrator-general of the Comédie Française, on the 19th of January 1906. Les Caprices de Marianne affords a fine illustration of the method referred to above, a method of which Musset gave something like a definite explanation five years later. This explanation 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 has perhaps more of the Shakespearian quality—the quality of artfully mingling the terrible, the grotesque, and the high comedy tones—which exists more or less in all Musset’s long and more serious plays, than is found in any other of these. 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 Musset’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.

The appearance of Les Caprices de Marianne in the Revue (1833) was followed by that of “Rolla,” a symptom of the maladie du siècle. Rolla, for all the smack which is not to be denied of Wertherism, has yet a decided individuality. The poem was written at the beginning of Musset’s liaison with George Sand, and in December 1833 Musset started on the unfortunate journey to Italy. It was 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 first 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 from two points of View in the two volumes called respectively Elle et lui by George Sand, and Lui et elle by Paul de Musset. As to the permanent effect on Alfred de Musset, whose irresponsible gaiety was killed by the breaking off of the connexion, there can be no doubt.

During Musset’s absence in Italy Fantasio was published in the Revue, Lorenzaccio is said to have been Written at Venice, and not long after his return On ne badine pas avec l’amour was written and published in the Revue. 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, wherein is contained what is probably a true account of Musset’s relations with George Sand. The Confession 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 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 shun 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. To 1836 belong the Nuit d’août, the Lettre à Lamartine, the Stances à la Malibran, the comedy Il ne faut jurer de rien, and the beginning of the brilliant letters of Dupuis and Cotonet on romanticism. Il ne faut jurer de rien is as typical of Musset’s comedy work as is Les Caprices de Marianne of the work in which a terrible fatality underlies the brilliant dialogue and keen polished characterization. In 1837 was published Un Caprice, which afterwards found its way to the Paris stage by a curious road. Mme Allan-Despréaux, the actress, heard of it in St Petersburg as a Russian piece. On asking for a French translation of the play she received the volume Comédies et proverbes reprinted from the Revue des deux mondes. In 1837 appeared also some of the Nouvelles. In 1839 Musset began a romance called Le Poète 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 reflections headed with the words “À 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 school. But the success of the piece was immediate and marked. It increased Musset's reputation with the public in a degree out of proportion, to its intrinsic importance; and indeed freed him from the burden of depression caused by want of appreciation. 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 his death, from an affection of the heart, on the 2nd of May 1857, the poet produced no large work of importance.

Alfred de Musset now holds the place 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. He inspired a strong personal affection in his contemporaries. His very weakness and his own consciousness of it produced such beautiful work as, to take one instance, Nuit d’octobre. His Nouvelles are extraordinarily 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 wilder side of his life has probably been exaggerated; and 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 opposition, a member of the French Academy. Besides the works above referred to the Nouvelles et contes and the Œuvres posthumes, in which there is much of interest concerning the great tragic actress Rachel, should be specially mentioned.

The biography of Alfred de Musset by his brother Paul, partial as it naturally is, is of great value. Alfred de Musset has afforded matter for many appreciations, and among these in English may be mentioned the sketch (1890) of C. F. Oliphant and the essay (1855) of F. T. Palgrave. See also the monograph by Arvede Barine (Madame Vincens) in the “Grands écrivains français” series. Musset's correspondence with George Sand was published intact for the first time in 1904.

A monument to Alfred de Musset by Antonin Mercié, presented by M. Osiris, and erected on the Place du Théâtre Français, was duly “inaugurated" on the 24th of February 1906. The ceremony took place in the vestibule of the theatre, where speeches were delivered by Jules Claretie, François Coppée and others, and Mounet-Sully recited a poem, written for the occasion by Maurice Magre.  (W. H. P.)