In 1852, the whole body of Alfred de Musset’s poetry was gathered into two volumes and published as the First Poetic Works and New Poetic Works. The first volume is made up of Romances of Spain and Italy (1829) and A Show from an Easy Chair (1833). The second collection contains pieces written after 1833. It is worth recalling that by 1840, when the poet was thirty years old, Musset’s creative talents were virtually exhausted. A complete explanation of this premature exhaustion should not be sought in the character of Musset’s poetic doctrine. However, in the light of Musset’s stated belief that the greatness of verse was commensurate with the magnitude of the poet’s suffering and the intensity of his emotion, it will be readily understood that his creative talent was likely to fade relatively early.
Only a handful of people turned up for Musset’s funeral in 1857. This seems remarkable now, in the light of Musset’s continuing popular appeal both as poet and as dramatist. It is all the more remarkable in view of the enthusiastic welcome given him by the members of the Romantic Cénacle when he first joined the group in 1828. His precocious poetic talent and dazzling wit could not, and did not, fail to impress its members.
Musset’s Romances of Spain and Italy was written after the first collected works of Victor Hugo were available. Just as it is of little moment that Hugo’s Les Orientales (1829; Les Orientales: Or, Eastern Lyrics, 1879) was inspired by his watching the sun set over Paris, so it matters little that when Musset’s collection first appeared, he was not familiar with either Spain or Italy. The brightness and color of these countries, remembered or imagined, appealed to the young Romantics seeking a vivid contrast with the drabness of France in their day; Spain and Italy provided a rich backcloth in front of which intense passion could be appropriately represented.
The poems for which Musset is best known are the series of four “Nights”: “The Night of May,” “The Night of December,” “The Night of August,” and “The Night of October.” All four relate directly to his turbulent, unhappy love affair with the novelist George Sand. Although it is easy to exaggerate the effect of this liaison on Musset, it does seem certain that he was deeply marked by it and that subsequent affairs even served to remind him of it.
The four “Nights” contain some of the finest lyrical passages that may be found in French verse. They take the dramatic form of dialogues between the poet and his Muse, with the latter acting as a confidant who listens, advises, and consoles.
In “The Night of May,” the Spring Muse vainly begs the poet to give form to his suffering in a work of art; by so doing, he will participate in the rites of creation and eternal renewal taking place around him. At first, the poet thinks he is only imagining the voice of the Muse, but little by little it grows louder and more urgent, and he clearly makes out the words “Poet, take thy lute.” The Muse despairs of banishing the poet’s indolence, after insisting, however, that his very unhappiness would have been a guarantee of the beauty of his verse: “The most desperate songs are the most beautiful;/ I know some immortal ones that are pure sobs.” The poet breaks his silence to claim that the weight of his grief is such that no form of expression can bear it: “But I have suffered a hard martyrdom/ And the least I might say about it,/ Were I to try it on my lute,/ Would break it like a reed.”
“The Night of December” presents, beside the poet, a mysterious companion who follows him through all the stages of his life. This brother reveals himself to be the image of loneliness. In “The Night of August” a happier note is struck, for the work is a hymn of praise to the forces of life that allow human beings to recover from the setbacks in life. However, “The Night of October” contains a...
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