Musset, Alfred de
Alfred de Musset 1810-1857
(Full name Louis Charles Alfred de Musset) French playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, and short story writer.
The following entry presents critical discussion of Musset from 1969 to 2003. For further information on Musset's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 7.
Considered one of the leading figures of the French Romantic movement, Musset produced numerous distinguished works of lyric poetry and several esteemed plays, including his outstanding historical tragedy Lorenzaccio (1834). Musset's verse cycle Les nuits (1835-37; The Nights), inspired by his love affair with French writer George Sand, is typically regarded among his preeminent poetic compositions. This brief, tumultuous relationship with Sand also found expression in Musset's only novel, La confession d'un enfant du siècle (1836; Confession of a Child of the Century). In these works drawn from his personal life, Musset sought to universalize his experiences of failed passion and emotional suffering, constructing a persona of the prototypical Romantic artist. Likewise, the protagonists in many of his remaining works, including a series of comic plays that pioneered the tradition of “armchair theater”—dramatic works designed to be read rather than staged—are also frequently viewed as projections of Musset himself. Unlike the dramatic works of his contemporaries, however, Musset's plays continue to be staged with regularity well over a century after his death. His lyric poems, especially those he composed during the years 1833 to 1837, are generally viewed as some of the finest in the French language.
Musset was born in Paris in 1810. His parents were both descended from cultured families and provided an intellectual environment for their child. A brilliant though undisciplined student, Musset pursued medicine, law, and painting at the Collège Henri IV in Paris before choosing a career in literature. This decision was influenced in part by his acquaintance with Victor Hugo, who introduced him to the Romantic cénacle, or literary society, which included Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Charles Nodier, and Prosper Merimée. Musset's earliest literary work was a free translation and redaction of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Published before De Quincey's work became well known, L'Anglais mangeur d'opium (1828) received little attention from Musset's contemporaries. His next work, a collection of short plays and narrative poems entitled Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie (1830; Tales of Spain and Italy), however, was an immediate popular success that introduced the young author to all of Paris. In 1830, Musset's first play La nuit vénitienne; ou, Les noces de Laurette (A Venetian Night) was staged. Its infamous public failure prompted the author to compose most of his subsequent plays to be read, not produced. Musset's next volume of plays Un spectacle dans un fauteuil (1833-34; Scene in an Armchair), lent its name to a form of drama known as “armchair theater” and would later be recognized as among his most enduring literary creations. In 1833, Musset met the French novelist George Sand at a dinner in honor of contributors to the Revue des deux mondes. Their ensuing affair, though brief, provided the passion that he felt his poetry lacked. After spending several months together in Paris, they traveled to Venice for the winter. Musset became ill, and, while nursing him back to health, Sand fell in love with his doctor, Pietro Pagello. Devastated, Musset left Italy. Upon Sand's return to Paris, they resumed their tempestuous love affair, which continued intermittently until early 1835. Despite its disastrous effect on his physical and emotional health, Musset's relationship with Sand proved an unequalled inspiration; beginning in 1833, and during the next several years, Musset composed what are generally considered to be his greatest works of drama and poetry. In 1847, Musset's comedy Un caprice (1840; A Caprice) was successfully produced at the Comédie-Française, the French national theater in Paris. Emboldened by this achievement, Musset revised several of his armchair dramas for the stage during the late 1840s and early 1850s and composed new works. By this time, however, Musset's literary powers had entered a period of radical decline. Elected to the prestigious Académie Française at age forty-two after two unsuccessful nominations, Musset had nevertheless surpassed the pinnacle of his career. As editions of his collected works appeared in the 1850s, increasing bouts of depression and rapidly deteriorating physical health, abetted by the dissolute lifestyle he had led since his youth, culminated in Musset's death in 1857.
Comprised of four separate poems—“La nuit de mai,” “La nuit de décembre,” “La nuit d'août,” and “La nuit d'octobre”—Musset's Les nuits cycle chronicles the poet's gradual recovery from the intense suffering and bitterness caused by the end of a love affair, capturing this process over four disparate nights. All but “La nuit de décembre” take the form of a conversation between the poet and his Muse. In that work, an evocation of winter that depicts loneliness and desperation, a black-clad figure of death appears. Through the poems of Les nuits, Musset affirmed his belief in the importance of love and its relationship to art. In the last of the series, “La nuit d'octobre,” the poet rests after reconciling with his past. Musset's other notable poetic works composed in the same period as Les nuits include his outstanding Romantic lyrics “Lettre à M. de Lamartine” and “Souvenir,” which were anthologized in the collection Poésies nouvelles, 1836-1852 (1852). This volume, along with Poésies complètes (1840), reflects the bulk of Musset's mature poetic output and includes numerous examples of his later poetry. In these works, Musset frequently adopts a tone of witty, light, and graceful detachment that contrasts with the passionate anguish and longing of his earlier poetry. While they differ from Les nuits and the Romantic lyrics of the 1830s in terms of mood and subject, these pieces nevertheless share certain stylistic qualities with their predecessors, including striking imagery, natural speech, and varied patterns of meter, rhythm, and rhyme. Among Musset's dramas, Lorenzaccio, Fantasio, and On ne badine pas avec l'amour (No Trifling with Love), all of which were composed during the writer's affair with Sand and published in the collection Un spectacle dans un fauteuil, are generally categorized among his finest works. In the historical drama Lorenzaccio, Musset portrays a sixteenth-century attempt by Lorenzo de' Medici to liberate the republic of Florence from foreign dominion, concentrating on the gradual disillusionment and surrender of his hero to treachery and deceit. Set in a fantastical projection of late medieval Germany, the comedic Fantasio, a work noted for its effective use of Romantic irony, follows its title figure as he disguises himself by employing the garb and mien of a jester in order to enter the court of the Bavarian king. Acting the role of the sardonic clown, Fantasio saves the king's daughter Elsbeth from an unwanted marriage. On ne badine pas avec l'amour, as well as the later play Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermée (1845; You Can't Have It Both Ways), are examples of Musset's proverbs dramatique, short comic sketches designed to illustrate their aphoristic titles with wit and a characteristic lightness of touch. Musset's only complete novel, La confession d'un enfant du siècle is an autobiographical work that chronicles its protagonist's search for pleasure following a failed love affair. The novel also depicts the Romantic mal du siècle, a term that describes the malaise of the generation that was born after the fall of Napoleon, too late to take part in the glories of either the French Revolution or the Napoleonic Empire. A life-long essayist and reluctant but accomplished writer of short prose fiction, Musset composed the noted Lettres sur la littérature (Letters of Dupuis and Cotonet), a series of four articles that first appeared in the Revue des deux mondes between 1836 and 1837 and satirize the excesses of the Romantic movement; his short stories, collected in Nouvelles (1848) and Contes (1854), were largely written for financial reasons but nevertheless include several works of merit.
In an unfinished novel entitled Le poète déchu, Musset describes his semi-autobiographical protagonist as a “fallen poet.” Likewise, during his own lifetime, Musset was forced to accept with a certain degree of irony the fact that his prose works, rather than the poetry and dramas on which he prided himself as a writer, would form the basis for his popular acclaim. Indeed, the notoriety surrounding Musset's affair with George Sand, coupled with his alluring persona as a troubled, suffering artist contributed to the success of his novel La confession d'un enfant du siècle. Since his death, however, scholars have asserted that Musset's enduring reputation rests upon his lyric and dramatic compositions. Remarking on his collected poetry, twentieth-century critics largely have moved beyond a prior focus on the personal nature of these works in order to appreciate both Musset's stylistic luminosity and the inventive means by which he evokes themes of suffering and love as they relate to artistic creation. In regard to his plays, Musset's outstanding works of the 1830s continue to elicit the greatest share of scholarly interest, with contemporary critics acknowledging that Lorenzaccio and the plays of Un spectacle dans un fauteuil form the basis of his fame as a Romantic playwright. In examining these works, ranging from tragedy to light drama, critics have praised Musset's brilliant use of dialogue as well his balance of stylistic delicacy and emotional power. While biographical assessments of Musset's highly personal works, thought to embody his descent into debauchery and search for innocent, exalted love, broadly persist, scholars of the contemporary period generally attribute the continuing popularity of his work to the universality and passion of his poetic expressions of love and loss.
*L'Anglais mangeur d'opium [translator; from the autobiography Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey] (autobiography) 1828
†Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie [Tales of Spain and Italy] (play and poetry) 1830
La nuit vénitienne; ou, Les noces de Laurette [A Venetian Night] (play) 1830
‡Un spectacle dans un fauteuil. 3 vols. [Scene in an Armchair] (plays) 1833-34
La confession d'un enfant du siècle [Confession of a Child of the Century] (novel) 1836
§Comédies et proverbes (plays) 1840
∥Poésies complètes (poetry) 1840
Nouvelles (short stories) 1848
#Poésies nouvelles, 1836-1852 (poetry) 1852
**Comédies et proverbes (plays) 1853
††Contes (short stories and essays) 1854
Oeuvres posthumes (plays, poetry, and letters) 1860
Oeuvres complètes de Alfred de Musset. 10 vols. (plays, poetry, novel, short stories, essays, and letters) 1866
Correspondance de George Sand et d'Alfred de Musset (letters) 1904
The Complete Writings of Alfred de Musset. 10 vols. (plays, poetry, novel, short stories, essays, and letters) 1905
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SOURCE: King, Russell S. “Alfred de Musset: Some Problems of Literary Creativity.” Nottingham French Studies 8, no. 1 (May 1969): 16-27.
[In the following essay, King highlights the theme of creative lassitude in Musset's life and writings.]
Baudelaire describes Musset disparagingly as “un paresseux à effusions gracieuses.”1 Like all writers who believe in, or rely on, artistic inspiration for composing their works, Musset and his critic, Baudelaire, frequently if not permanently feared lest their inspiration might “dry up.” Sometimes this fear is expressed explicitly, sometimes it is transformed into something more subtle, such as we find in, for example, Mallarmé's sonnet beginning Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui. Sartre's condemnation of Baudelaire—whether it be valid or otherwise is irrelevant at this point—could more appropriate be directed against Musset. Musset's refusal to accept responsibilities and act positively would make him an easier target for an existentialist critic. The portrait his brother gives us,2 though fascinating in some of the detail, is that of a dull and motiveless existence.
Despite his not inconsiderable output, Musset was always tormented by the notion that he was a literary impotent. It is interesting to examine how this flaw in his personality, if flaw it is, pervades his writings,...
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SOURCE: King, Russell S. “Indecision in Musset's Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie.” Nottingham French Studies 8, no. 3 (October 1969): 57-68.
[In the following essay, King surveys Musset's Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie, examining this work as a product of the writer's early literary apprenticeship.]
In the early and middle years of French Romanticism, few writers and fewer critics succeeded in defining the movement clearly and positively. Hugo's Préface de Cromwell, published in 1827, the most prominent of Romantic manifestos, is seen to be inadequate when one examines its validity in so far as even Hugo himself was concerned. What relevance does the Préface have in such disparate works as Les Orientales (1829), Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné (1829), Hernani (1830), and Les Feuilles d'Automne (1831)? Earlier, Stendhal, in his Racine et Shakespeare, had argued on much safer grounds, by declaring that being Romantic meant being “modern,” being of one's age, but this says little.
Despite the manifestos, despite Hernani, despite the Cénacle, Sainte-Beuve, Le Globe, despite Chateaubriand and Lamartine, Romanticism meant different things for different writers. In England, the role and significance of imagination binds together the principal exponents of Romanticism, with the glaring exception of...
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SOURCE: King, Adele. “The Significance of Style in Fantasio.” Language and Style 4, no. 1 (fall 1971): 301-10.
[In the following essay, King analyzes various modes of language—poetic, prosaic, and sentimental—employed in Musset's drama Fantasio, describing the characters and themes associated with each.]
The way we use language often reveals our basic attitudes towards life. In Musset's Fantasio there are three styles of language, three ways of looking at life. Fantasio and his friends are spontaneous and playful. Their sense of values is not predetermined by fixed ideas, but is discovered in the process of living. The language they use is witty, metaphoric, and nuanced. We might call this language poetic, since it contains shades of feeling and insight only expressible through word-play. Contrasted to Fantasio and his friends is the court, which represents responsibility, duty, and the fixed values of society. Those aligned with the values of the court speak in clichés, dead expressions, and pompous diction. We might call this language prose, since it limits the expression of possible responses to life. A third language is that of the governess, who speaks in images drawn from romances and sentimental stories. She represents a false romanticism of fixed, stylized illusions. A central theme of Fantasio is the battle for the soul of Elsbeth. Although her use of...
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SOURCE: King, Russell S. “Romanticism and Musset's Confession d'un enfant du siècle.” Nottingham French Studies 11, no. 1 (May 1972): 3-13.
[In the following essay, King acknowledges that La Confession d'un enfant du siècle is a decidedly Romantic work featuring Musset's projection of the post-Napoleonic social malaise in France and comments on the novel as it analyzes a young libertine who succumbs to a lack of faith in his society and its ideals.]
Musset published his only novel, La Confession d'un Enfant du Siècle, in 1836. Professor Grimsley is right to complain that the work is too infrequently examined for its intrinsic literary merits.1 Readers and critics have tended to concentrate on two aspects of this work. Firstly they have seen the novel in an autobiographical light, comparing the hero with Musset himself and the heroine with George Sand, emphasizing similarities and discrepancies between the real relationship and the version of the novel, measuring it against the other accounts of the celebrated liaison. Secondly students of the Romantic movement have limited their study to Chapter Two of the first book, which had already been published separately in the Revue des Deux Mondes on 15 September 1835 and which gives a clear analysis of the mal du siècle interpreted largely in a historical context.
In this article I propose...
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SOURCE: Tappan, Donald W. “Musset's Murderous Rose.” Romance Notes 15, no. 3 (spring 1974): 430-32.
[In the following essay, Tappan explicates the thematic function of the rose in Musset's “La nuit de mai,” linking it with the poem's representation of fecundity and procreative union.]
La rose, vierge encor, se referme jalouse Sur le frelon nacré qu'elle enivre en mourant.
This image from the second speech of the Muse in the early lines of “La Nuit de mai” has been the subject of several explanatory footnotes by editors of texts destined for students. Most agree that it is the “frelon” who is dying. Steinhauer and Walter, for example, in their anthology translate the second line: “on the pearly drone which it intoxicates as he dies.”1 French editors generally agree with the interpretation; Chassang and Senninger explain “en mourant” as “tandis qu'il meurt.”2 Others justify it by attempting to explain away the “unusual” grammatical structure. Thus Lagarde and Michard inform the student that “en mourant” “se rapporte à frelon (construction archaïque),”3 and the editor of the Classiques Larousse selections explains: “Dès le XVIIIe siècle, le gérondif ne peut plus se rapporter qu'au sujet. Or, ici, c'est bien le frelon qui meurt. Archaïsme ou solécisme.”4 Morris Bishop offers the...
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SOURCE: King, Russell S. “Linguistic and Stylistic Clues to Characterization in Musset's Fantasio.” Neophilologus 58, no. 2 (April 1974): 187-94.
[In the following essay, King concentrates on Musset's depiction of the title figure in his drama Fantasio as a faithless young man, examining this character's extensive use of exclamation, rhetorical questioning, conditional phrases, and similar ironic or manipulative forms of speech.]
The playwright does not enjoy the novelist's more obvious advantages in portraying and analysing characters, for the benefits obtained from a multiplicity of modes of narration are largely closed to him. The playwright, unlike the third person narrator in the novel, is unable to pause to describe and analyse the emotions of a character; and, in most drama, the soliloquy is used more sparingly than interior monologue or free indirect speech, at least in modern writings. Character indications—age, temperament, etc.—in the dramatis personae or at the beginning of an act or scene are intended primarily for the casting producer or actor, rather than for the public for whose entertainment the work is composed. Of course the reader-spectator of dramatic writings has always—and rightly—been encouraged to pay particular attention, firstly, to what a character says about himself, and, secondly, to what other characters say about him. However characters...
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SOURCE: Luce, Louise Fiber. “The Mask of Language in Alfred de Musset's Proverbes.” Romance Notes 17, no. 3 (spring 1977): 272-80.
[In the following essay, Luce studies Musset's skilled application of language as a medium of disguise, deception, and equivocation in his short theatrical pieces, or proverbes.]
An appropriate arena to observe the problematic role of language in Musset's theater is with that group of plays belonging to the subgenre, the proverbe. According to its formal rules, dialogue itself holds center stage in the proverbe; language is the “main character.” The plot, what little there is, serves merely as a foil for a dazzling display of repartee, for discourse characterized by wit, refinement and elegance. Yet the dramatic tradition we find in Musset's proverbes, with their liberal dose of the précieux conventions, veils more serious considerations. The verbal dialectic between speaker and receiver, where words can serve as obstacle or mediator, casts language in a problematic and very contemporary light.
Three of Musset's proverbes, Il faut qu'une porte soit ouverte ou fermée, Un Caprice, and On ne saurait penser à tout, ably demonstrate the thesis that language can play an essential role in man's search for self-realization. In these plays, words become an externalization of the self, or what...
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SOURCE: Maclean, Marie. “The Sword and the Flower: The Sexual Symbolism of Lorenzaccio.” Australian Journal of French Studies 16, no. 1 (January-April 1979): 166-81.
[In the following essay, Maclean probes the masculine and feminine symbolism of Musset's drama Lorenzaccio in relation to its tragic theme of sexual defilement.]
The world of Lorenzaccio is a world of striking, almost stylized contrast. Night and day, male and female, purity and debauchery, are shown in a type of Manichean opposition. These basic oppositions are, however, subject to a pattern of reversal. In Musset's Florence, under the corrupt Alexandre de Medicis, an inversion of values appears to have become the norm. Musset often deliberately negates or perverts the traditional meaning of symbolism and imagery in order to impress on his audience this distortion of values. For the Medici court:
Faire du jour la nuit et de la nuit le jour, c'est un moyen commode de ne pas voir les honnêtes gens.
The hero is subject to the same process. His mission of “righting the wrong” is invalidated by ambiguities and flaws in his motivation. The highly conscious process of deceiving others blinds him to the fact that unconsciously he is deceiving himself.
A study of the ambiguities inherent in the...
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SOURCE: Rubin, Vivien L. “The Idea of the Clown in Musset's Fantasio.” French Review 52, no. 5 (April 1979): 724-30.
[In the following essay, Rubin underscores Musset's ironic evocation of Fantasio as a court jester figure associated with ennui, futility, and disenchantment rather than light-hearted comedy.]
As David Sices has commented, “Fantasio is a play that seems to generate misunderstandings.”1 One misunderstanding which persists and which is shared by a number of distinguished commentators is, I believe, a crucial one. It is, to put it briefly, the belief that, alone among the plays of Musset's most creative dramatic period, Fantasio is a work “in which for once everything works out for the best.”2 To read Fantasio in this way is to fail to recognize fully the use that Musset makes here of the idea of the clown and hence is to miss one of the fundamental ironies of a play which proposes as hero the figure of the court jester.
Let us look first at the picture that we are given of Saint-Jean, the dead jester whose place at court Fantasio briefly fills, for Saint-Jean is essential to the play, even though we never meet him. We are alerted at once to his importance for he is first spoken of in the very opening exchange of the play where, in a conversation between the king and his secretary, we learn both that the buffoon...
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SOURCE: Bishop, Lloyd. “Romantic Irony in Musset's ‘Namouna.’” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 7, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 1979): 181-91.
[In the following essay, Bishop regards Musset as the first practitioner of Romantic irony in French poetry and drama and evaluates his use of this mode in the long poem “Namouna.”]
Since romantic irony, as Henri Peyre has pointed out, has been studied chiefly by German scholars and has received relatively little attention by specialists of French Literature, a definition or two may be in order at the outset.1 In A Dictionary of Literary Terms (Barnet et al) we are told that “The romantic ironist detaches himself from his own artistic creation, treating it playfully or objectively, thus presumably showing his complete freedom.”2 Henri Peyre stresses the crucial point that this ironic detachment comes not after but during the creative performance itself: “Through that irony, the creator stressed his independence of his own creation precisely as he was accomplishing it.”3 A well-known example is Byron's Don Juan on shipboard bidding farewell to Spain and to his beloved Julia, vowing never to “think of anything, excepting thee” and suddenly growing sea-sick. One impetus to this particular form of irony was no doubt the desire to avoid the embarrassing sentimentality, bathos and hyperbole that marred...
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SOURCE: Lowin, Joseph. “The Frames of Lorenzaccio.” French Review 53, no. 2 (December 1979): 190-98.
[In the following essay, Lowin describes Musset's structural framing of action, character, and theme in Lorenzaccio.]
Were one to view a full-length play, not as one observes a stage production, through perception of its temporal, linear development, but, spatially, as one views a painting, with an immediate impression of a static whole, one would perceive the most “important” scene of the play at or near the center of the canvas, receiving the greatest concentration of light. It would be less clear but no less true that the first and last acts of the play would be at or near the margins of the canvas in a subtle play of darkness, shadow, and diffused light. One might find as well, embedded in works of art of considerable technical subtlety and nuance—for example in Las Meninas by Velázquez or in Hamlet—a structure which, by its mirroring of the whole of the work of art, reveals its unity.
In what ways does the play—as a literary text—circumscribe itself so that it may best posit a created world within its limits? How does the play reveal what it is that is going on? If many plays lend themselves to such “frame analysis,” few lend themselves to such an analysis more fully than Musset's Lorenzaccio.1
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SOURCE: Bishop, Lloyd. “Musset's ‘Souvenir’ and the Greater Romantic Lyric.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 12, no. 4 (summer 1984): 119-30.
[In the following essay, Bishop maintains that Musset's poem “Souvenir” fits the structural, thematic, and narrative mode of the “greater Romantic lyric” as defined by Meyer Abrams and exemplified in poetic works by William Wordsworth, John Keats, Victor Hugo, and others.]
The earliest formal invention produced by Romantic poets is a genre that Meyer Abrams has called the “greater Romantic lyric,” a genre that evolved out of eighteenth-century loco-descriptive poetry and that includes such well known poems as Coleridge's “The Eolian Harp” and “Fears in Solitude,” Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey,” Shelley's “Stanzas Written in Dejection,” Keat's “Ode to a Nightingale” and Schiller's “Der Spaziergang.”1 It is only recently that the genre has been shown to include French poems as well, specifically “Tristesse d'Olympio” and “Le Lac.”2 That “Souvenir” is very similar thematically to “Le Lac” and to “Tristesse d'Olympio” is a cliché of literary history; that it is an important exemplar of the greater Romantic lyric is a fact that needs to be demonstrated. The purpose of this essay is to provide such a demonstration by placing Musset's poem in this larger context.
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SOURCE: Hamilton, James F. “From Ricochets to Jeu in Musset's On ne badine pas avec l'amour: A Game Analysis.” French Review 58, no. 6 (May 1985): 820-26.
[In the following essay, Hamilton examines the motif of game-playing and display of structural, thematic, and psychological tensions between spontaneity and calculation in Musset's On ne badine pas avec l'amour.]
Des ricochets! Ma tête s'égare; voilà mes idées qui se bouleversent. Vous me faites un rapport insensé, Bridaine. Il est inoui qu'un docteur fasse des ricochets.
Our understanding of Musset's masterpiece on love has progressed from the study of parallels between the couples Perdican-Camille and Musset-George Sand to the examination of conflicting bipolarities, psychological and temporal.2 To this approach must be added structural and ideological dimensions capable of elucidating the play's dramatic mechanism. Only then can motivation, time, and space be grasped as a dynamic whole. The generative principle of this expanded interpretation derives from the verb badiner in the title to Musset's tragi-comedy. The implied motif of jeu goes to the heart of Romantic drama, its psychology and metaphysics.3 The complementary image, ricochets, appears four times at the end of Act 1 and is...
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SOURCE: Hamilton, James F. “Mimetic Desire in Musset's Lorenzaccio.” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 32, no. 4 (1985): 347-57.
[In the following essay, Hamilton elucidates patterns of imitative desire in Musset's Lorenzaccio, linking these structural elements with the drama's themes of disillusionment, futility, and sexual ambivalence, as well as with character motivation in the work.]
“Pour comprendre l'exaltation fiévreuse qui a enfanté en moi le Lorenzo qui te parle, il faudrait que mon cerveau et mes entrailles fussent à nu sous un scalpel.”
In the above passage, the hero challenges us to probe the motives of his obsessive desire. Lorenzo de Médicis dedicates his life to the accomplishment of one feat, the murder of his cousin and constant companion, Alexandre, the Duke of Florence. Musset's insistence upon the sexual exploits of the Medici scions and the underlying tension of their sibling rivalry pushes the text beyond a historical accuracy assured by his travels to Italy and research in Renaissance chronicles. The Lorenzo portrayed by Musset is inspired by a madness akin to the creative impulse of the poet and artist. Lacking ideological conviction, he is not taken seriously as a political assassin.2 He represents a type of Romantic hero and embodies an aesthetics of...
(The entire section is 5352 words.)
SOURCE: Cooper, Barbara T. “Breaking Up/Down/Apart: ‘L'Eclatement’ as a Unifying Principle in Musset's Lorenzaccio.” Philological Quarterly 65, no. 1 (winter 1986): 103-12.
[In the following essay, Cooper explores the principle of fragmentation in Lorenzaccio, suggesting that the play is “a prototype of modern French drama.”]
In act 3, scene 3 of Musset's Lorenzaccio, Lorenzo de Médicis tries to convince Philippe Strozzi that his idealized, optimistic vision of life and humanity is the product of a (self-) delusion—an illusion.
Ah! vous avez vécu tout seul, Philippe [Lorenzo tells his aged friend]. Pareil à un fanal éclatant, vous êtes resté immobile au bord de l'ocean des hommes, et vous avez regardé dans les eaux la réflexion de votre propre lumière. … Mais moi, pendant ce temps-là, j'ai plongé; je me suis enfoncé dans cette mer houleuse de la vie; j'en ai parcouru toutes les profondeurs, couvert de ma cloche de verre; tandis que vous admiriez la surface, j'ai vu le débris des naufrages, les ossements et les Léviathans.1
Where Philippe sees a smooth, radiant surface, Lorenzo perceives a turbulent sea whose every wave can be counted. While Philippe stands immobile on the banks of the ocean of life, Lorenzo dives to its bottom and explores its murky depths which he finds...
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SOURCE: Zielonka, Anthony. “Images of the Poet in Musset's Le Poèt déchu.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 15, nos. 1-2 (fall-winter 1986-87): 87-93.
[In the following essay, Zielonka centers on distinctions Musset makes between the qualities of a poet and those of a prose writer in his unfinished novel Le poète déchu.]
Musset est quatorze fois exécrable pour nous, générations douloureuses et prises de visions,—que sa paresse d'ange a insultées! O les contes et les proverbes fadasses! ô les nuits! ô Rolla, ô Namouna, ô la Coupe! tout est français, c'est-à-dire haïssable au suprême degré; […] Musset n'a rien su faire: il y avait des visions derrière la gaze des rideaux: il a fermé les yeux. Français, panadif, traîné de l'estaminet au pupitre de collège, le beau mort est mort, et, désormais, ne nous donnons même plus la peine de le réveiller par nos abominations!1
Alfred de Musset is an author who is studied predominantly as a writer of plays (his greatest work being Lorenzaccio), and, to a lesser degree, of poetry. Of his prose writings only the major novel La Confession d'un enfant du siècle has attracted anything like the amount of critical attention that it deserves. Ever since the virulent attacks that were made on Musset's reputation by the Symbolists, of which the passage from...
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SOURCE: Gamble, Donald. “Developing Drama: The Earliest contes en vers of Alfred de Musset.” Dalhousie French Studies 12 (spring-summer 1987): 3-18.
[In the following essay, Gamble evaluates the narrative and dramatic structure of Musset's early verse works “Don Paez,” “Portia,” and “Les marrons du feu,” published collectively as Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie in 1830.]
Les Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie, Musset's first collection of verse, was completed in late 1829 and published in January, 1830. With the exception of an accomplished sonnet, ten chansons still found in anthologies and “Mardoche,” a long poem in the manner of Byron expressly written to round out the volume, the collection contains three contes en vers: “Portia,” “Don Paez” and “Les Marrons du feu.” Characterised as they are by intrigue, violent passion and Mediterranean exoticism, these three poems clearly reflect the literary fashions of their time; that is probably a reason why they are so rarely read in our own, and still less often discussed. As is frequently the case, however, this first collection of the author reveals many of the themes and attitudes that would inform much of his later work; and it is no less significant for questions of style: in the pages that follow I hope to show that it was with these early poems that Musset began his career as a dramatist, and...
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SOURCE: Duncan, Phillip A. “Patterns of Stasis and Metamorphosis in Musset's First Sonnet.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 16, nos. 1-2 (fall-winter 1987-88): 78-83.
[In the following essay, Duncan interprets Musset's sonnet that begins “Que j'aime le premier frisson d'hiver,” emphasizing themes of equilibrium and cyclic change in the poem.]
The complexities and subtle resonance of Musset's first sonnet justify multiple readings of this densely woven poetic statement. A recent analysis by Lloyd Bishop virtually exhausts one approach, emphasizing the theme and imagery of inconstancy and examining the poet's ambivalence toward change. “Images of inconstancy, impermanence and change,” he finds, “are coextensive with the text; they provide its formal constant.”1 An earlier, and likewise very valuable, commentary by James Hewitt stresses also the centrality of the theme of inconstancy, arguing that the poem celebrates “a change of season and a change of heart” and that its “images of inconstancy … combine to threaten any possible permanence.”2 These two are the only scholars who have examined carefully Musset's first sonnet:
Que j'aime le premier frisson d'hiver! le chaume, Sous le pied du chasseur, refusant de ployer! Quand vient la pie aux champs que le foin vert embaume, Au fond du vieux château s'éveille le foyer;
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SOURCE: Bishop, Lloyd. “After 1830: A Poet of Many Styles and Genres.” In The Poetry of Alfred de Musset: Styles and Genres, pp. 17-52. New York: Peter Lang, 1987.
[In the following excerpt, Bishop presents a survey of Musset's poetic genres and styles, including his short lyric poetry, narrative and dramatic verse, and Les nuits cycle.]
Musset's shorter pieces are written in many different genres: elegy, sonnet, rondeau, madrigal, chanson, romance, ballad, epigram, epistle, billet, impromptu. Some, like “Un Rêve,” his first published poem, and “Une Vision,” another early work, deal with the fantastic; others (e.g., “Charles-Quint,” “Jeanne d'Arc,” “Napoléon”) with the historical. They offer a wide variety of moods, from the very grave (“Sur la Naissance du Conte de Paris”) to the light and humorous (“Le Songe du Reviewer”). The theological seriousness of the long poem “L'Espoir en Dieu” was immediately followed by the brief and frivolous “A la mi-Carême,” showing, as his brother Paul tells us, the “mobility” of a young and impressionable mind. Stylistically, the shorter pieces are characterized on the whole by a simplicity that contrasts sharply with the flamboyant manner of the Contes. The vocabulary is ordinary, there are few learned allusions and few bold images. A sustained repetition...
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SOURCE: Piette, Alain. “Musset's Lorenzaccio.” The Explicator 48, no. 1 (fall 1989): 17-20.
[In the following essay, Piette contends that the protagonist of Musset's drama Lorenzaccio is an ironic figure associated with chaos, self-destruction, and futility, rather than a tragic hero.]
Lorenzaccio is usually considered Musset's most original contribution to world literature and drama. Yet, although most critics agree on the play's literary quality, history shows us few successful productions. As was the case with most of his plays, Musset did not write this drama for the stage. Musset's plays are primarily meant to be read, as the title of one of his collections, Armchair Theatre (Un Spectacle dans un fauteuil, 1832, 1834) indicates. But the trouble with the play lies chiefly in the enigmatic character of its protagonist: the complex, almost obscure motivation for his climactic act is the substance of the play. Lorenzaccio's characterization is a delicately woven texture, whose threads seem to converge toward the murder in act IV, scene 8.1 Yet the murder does not solve anything: in view of its final result—the immediate coronation of another tyrant—and Lorenzaccio's own indifference, our general comprehension of the play's “hero” is confused, and we are left with more questions than answers.
I would like to suggest that...
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SOURCE: Gamble, D. R. “Alfred de Musset and the Uses of Experience.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 18, nos. 1-2 (fall-winter 1989-90): 78-84.
[In the following essay, Gamble discusses Musset's artistic application of life experience to his literary works.]
“Alfred de Musset, féminin et sans doctrine, aurait pu exister dans tous les temps et n'eût jamais été qu'un paresseux à effusions gracieuses. …”1 No one, of course, can be right all the time, and Charles Baudelaire was no exception: originally offered in his essay on Gautier of 1859, this embarrassing estimation of the character and contribution of Musset has since been successfully challenged by the studies of a number of scholars and literary critics. It is true that Musset disliked prefaces and literary manifestoes and so wrote very few; his attitude to theory and theoretical discussion in general is best revealed in the remarks he made in a letter to his brother during the summer of 1831:
Chacun de nous a dans le ventre un certain son qu'il peut rendre, comme un violon ou une clarinette. Tous les raisonnements du monde ne pourraient faire sortir du gosier d'un merle la chanson du sansonnet.2
Through the study, however, of the critical remarks found in his correspondence, newspaper articles, short stories, plays and poems, it has been...
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SOURCE: Hamilton, James F. “Reversed Polarities in the Nuits: Anatomy of a Cure.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 20, nos. 1-2 (fall-winter 1991-92): 65-73.
[In the following essay, Hamilton offers a psychoanalytic reading of Musset's Les nuits as poems based on the polarity of projected ego and anima.]
Musset structures his series of lyrical poems as a dialogue between the Muse and the Poet and, in one instance, between the implied poet and his alter ego, “qui me ressemblait comme un frère.”1 The two voices or roles in the poems are linked with Musset's “duality of temperament.”2 In the Nuits, personality and biography lend themselves to his romantic technique of dédoublement, the projected splitting of self and the feeling that one contains dual and usually opposed identities.3 Polarity in the Nuits (1835-37) arises from the emotional aftermath of Musset's two-year love affair with George Sand that ended in March 1835. Through the self-therapy of poetry, he attempts to come to terms with his conflicting feelings.4
My interpretation focuses on the internal dynamics of Musset's Nuits in order to shed light on the creative process. I see the Poet and the Muse not only as projections of Musset, but more specifically, from the standpoint of Jungian psychology, as his dramatized ego and...
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SOURCE: Fuchs, Jeanne. “George Sand and Alfred de Musset: Absolution through Art in La Confession d'un enfant du siècle.” In The World of George Sand, edited by Natalie Datlof, Jeanne Fuchs, and David A. Powell, pp. 207-16. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Fuchs appraises Musset's novel La Confession d'un enfant du siècle, illuminating its religious qualities as confessional literature.]
The love affair between George Sand and Alfred de Musset is probably the best-documented liaison in nineteenth-century letters. Musset was the first to publish an account of their romance in his novel, La Confession d'un enfant du siècle, which appeared in February, 1836—one year after the lovers' final separation. Actually, parts of the novel had been published as early as September 1835 in La Revue des deux mondes.1
Before turning to the specific analysis of this novel, it would be helpful to recapitulate briefly what had happened between Sand and Musset during the one year and nine months that their relationship lasted. George Sand and Alfred de Musset first met in June 1833 at a dinner party given by François Buloz, publisher of La Revue des Deux Mondes. Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve introduced them. She was twenty-nine; he was twenty-three. Both were already famous. She had published Indiana in 1832; he had...
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SOURCE: Johnson, Warren. “Capricious Exuberance: Gender and Mediation in Musset's Comedies.” Dalhousie French Studies 33 (winter 1995): 27-34.
[In the following essay, Johnson cites the relationship between language and desire portrayed in such works as Fantasio, Les caprices de Marianne, and On ne badine pas avec l'amour.]
When Count Almaviva disguises himself as the music teacher in Le barbier de Séville, his mask allows him to penetrate a space previously interdicted. The role reversal of Le jeu de l'amour et du hasard likewise permits entry into a privileged space of observation. The mask in these two eighteenth-century precursors of Musset creates the possibility of contact between spheres that have been socially constructed as separate, whether they be physical places or social classes.
Musset's reworking of the master-servant inversion in Fantasio exemplifies his shift in emphasis from the transgression of social obstacles to a questioning of the nature and value of the individual. Whereas disguise in these plays of Beaumarchais and Marivaux implies an exercise of power by occluding identity and motives in order to control the way the Other perceives the self, such attempts to manipulate one's image in Musset are frequently doomed to failure. But equally unsuccessful are the efforts to inspire feeling by the simple assertion of existence or love....
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SOURCE: McCready, Susan. “Performing Stability: The Problem of Proof in Alfred de Musset's Un Caprice and La Quenouille de Barbérine.” Romance Notes 38, no. 1 (fall 1997): 87-95.
[In the following essay, McCready regards the theme of fidelity and its proof in two of Musset's comedies of the 1830s.]
A husband is unsure of his wife's fidelity and hatches a scheme to prove that she is unfaithful; a wife worries that her husband is about to stray and enlists the help of her maid to spy on him; a young man promised in marriage to a young woman wants to test her to prove that she will be faithful before he says “I do.” Disguises are worn; letters are intercepted; conversations overheard, but in the end, the lovers always recognize each other's true, essential value and are united. This is a standard comic plot: some sort of conflict (a doubt about fidelity) is introduced into a once-stable system (a happy marriage) and the conflict is resolved through “negotiations,” which, in the end, uphold the (slightly altered) status quo.1 The traditional comic resolution eliminates a sometimes sinister indeterminacy, through a performance of stability—usually the promise of the marriage of the young protagonists to the “correct” partner or the reunion of husband and wife. The lovers in such traditional comedies are exemplary figures whose negotiations about fidelity or marriage...
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SOURCE: Sices, David. Introduction to Historical Dramas of Alfred de Musset, translated by David Sices, pp. 1-6. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.
[In the following excerpted introduction to his translations of Musset's historical tragedies, Sices briefly summarizes the contexts and content of Lorenzaccio and Andrea del Sarto.]
Would you deny the history of the entire world? …
I don't deny history. I just wasn't there.
Lorenzaccio, V, 2
Alfred de Musset's literary work abounds in contradictions: his abiding reputation as one of the major French Romanticists, vs. his attack on the romantic æsthetic in the name of classical tradition, constitutes only the most pervasive of them. But another significant contradiction can be found in his historical tragedies. It is true that he managed to complete only two of them, quite early in his career; but one of those—Lorenzaccio—is probably the most successful and enduring of the entire genre, certainly the most frequently produced on the French and international stage.1 Its ultimate message, however, is, paradoxically, the meaninglessness of history.
The major practitioners in France of Romantic historical drama—Ludovic Vitet, Alexandre Dumas père, Victor Hugo—had essentially a dual purpose: to...
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SOURCE: Le Vay, John. “Musset's ‘La Nuit d'octobre.’” The Explicator 57, no. 4 (summer 1999): 209-12.
[In the following essay, Le Vay observes mythic patterns and imagery of rebirth and redeemed love in Musset's Les nuits poems.]
According to myth, in the fall (October), Attis/Adonis is slain. He goes underground in winter (December), is reborn in spring (May), and attains heroic strength in summer (August).1 There is something of that pattern in the four “Nights” (Les Nuits) of Alfred de Musset. But the May rebirth is abortive: “le printemps naît” (line 3), but the frozen poet remains in suspended animation: “who can write on the sand / in the teeth of the north wind?” (194-195).2 December conforms to the underworld archetype, being dominated by a melancholic, ghostly visitant clad all in black. August begins with a lovelorn, girlish goddess and a world-weary, slightly patronizing poet who has not yet recovered the power of song—one who is not reborn poetically.
For Adonis-Musset, October, or autumn, serves two symbolic functions: It is indeed the time of the slaying of Adonis by the black boar (George Sand), but it is also the time of harvest, and at the end of “La Nuit d'Octobre” the poet gathers a modest golden harvest of poetical sensibility from his love-harrowed heart.
What the wise Muse in the poem...
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SOURCE: Beus, Yifen. “Alfred de Musset's Romantic Irony.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 31, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 2003): 197-209.
[In the following essay, Beus considers the ironic mood of Musset's collected drama and poetry, characterizing the writer as an outstanding proponent of nineteenth-century French Romantic irony.]
The year of 1797, though somewhat arbitrary in terms of historical significance in German and French drama, marks German philosopher and theorist Friedrich Schlegel's initial efforts to establish irony as a philosophical as well as literary concept. The concept of irony was then being rediscovered and redefined by the early Romantics and is now considered by scholars of Romanticism essential to the understanding of the Romantic doctrines. As Friedrich and his brother August Wilhelm Schlegel drew inspiration from the early (Shakespeare and Cervantes) as well as the contemporary moderns (Sterne, Diderot, and Goethe) in analyzing and theorizing modern art and literature, the French also noticed the dominance of Shakespeare in English and German literary criticism as well as of eighteenth-century sentimentality. Sterne's A Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy were widely read in France and gave him a near celebrity status during his visits to numerous literary salons in Paris. Diderot deliberately copied Sterne's model when writing his Jacques le...
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Callen, A. “The Place of Lorenzaccio in Musset's Theatre.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 5, no. 3 (July 1969): 225-31.
Claims that Lorenzaccio demonstrates the unity of Musset's dramatic vision.
———. “Dramatic Construction in Musset's Lorenzaccio.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 9, no. 2 (April 1973): 182-91.
Concentrates on Musset's break with classical dramatic structure in Lorenzaccio.
Collister, Peter. “Taking Care of Yourself: Henry James and the Life of George Sand.” Modern Language Review 83, no. 3 (July 1989): 556-70.
Mentions Musset's use of his real-life relationship with George Sand in his La confession d'un enfant due siècle within the context of Henry James's literary perceptions of Sand and her writing.
Cooper, Barbara T. “Staging a Revolution: Political Upheaval in Lorenzaccio and Léo Burckart.” Romance Notes 24, no. 1 (fall 1983): 23-9.
Compares treatments of historical, political, and rhetorical themes in Musset's Lorenzaccio and Gérard de Nerval's Léo Burckart.
Cox, Jeffrey N. “Melodrama, Monodrama and the Forms of Romantic Tragic Drama.” In Within the Dramatic Spectrum: The University of Florida Department of...
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