Louis Charles Alfred de Musset was born in Paris on December 11, 1810, the second child of Victor-Donatien de Musset and Edmée-Claudine Guyot Desherbiers. The genealogy of the Musset family was aristocratic and could be traced back as far as the twelfth century. Alfred’s father had survived the French Revolution in spite of his noble descent, partially as a result of his liberal sympathies, and he had served as a soldier and civil servant under the Republic and Napoleon Bonaparte’s First Empire. Victor-Donatien was a man of literary tastes and scholarly temperament. An ardent admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he not only wrote a biography of the great eighteenth century philosopher and writer but also published an edition of Rousseau’s works. There had been a similar literary background in Alfred’s mother’s family, and consequently, the young boy was reared in an atmosphere of books and periodicals. The young Musset’s readings of The Thousand and One Nights, Miguel de Cervantes’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620, better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha), and Ludovico Ariosto’s Renaissance epic, Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591), established a precocious taste for the exotic, the fantastic, and the ironic, a taste that nourished his poetic and dramatic composition throughout his artistic career.
From the ages of nine to seventeen, Musset studied at the Collège Henri IV in Paris, where he quickly established and maintained a reputation as a student of great talent and application, typically winning a number of prizes at the conclusion of each school year. On leaving this school, Musset, at his father’s suggestion, made some trifling efforts to study first law and then medicine but was quickly bored and disgusted by both professions. His studies at home and school had established in him a strong preference for the arts, and he took up further studies in foreign languages, music, and drawing. Musset displayed some talent in the latter and contemplated a future as a painter. With the composition of his first poems (written under the influence of his readings of the eighteenth century poet André Chenier), however, Musset set his sights unalterably on a literary career.
While still at school, Musset was introduced to two figures of considerable importance in the Parisian literary scene, two of the artists who helped inaugurate the new romantic movement in early nineteenth century France: Charles Nodier and Victor Hugo . Both were poets and novelists and were the hosts of literary clubs that attracted the participation of most of the literary hopefuls of the day. Hugo hosted a club called the Cénacle, and it was there that Musset, at the urging of the literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, first read his poems, which were received enthusiastically. At the same time, Musset’s noble descent, youthful charm, affability, and good looks guaranteed him an effortless entrée into Parisian high society. He was soon drawn into the circle of wealthy young dandies, among whom he developed what became a lifelong predilection for wine, gambling, and women.
In 1828, Musset’s translation of Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 novel, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (to which he had interpolated some original, personal material), was published anonymously. This literary exercise, together with the success of his poetry readings at the Cénacle, convinced him to find a publisher for his own original work, and, in 1829, Contes d’Espagne et d’Italie (1829; Tales of Spain and Italy, 1905) appeared. This brief collection, containing several tales in verse, a short drama, and some fantasy poems, jolted romantic circles with its indirect jibes at the exotic brand of poetry exemplified by Hugo’s recent collection, Les Orientales (1829; English translation, 1879). That same year, at the request of...
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