Other Literary Forms
Alfred de Musset’s prose contes and nouvelles have sustained an appreciative audience, but it is his lyric verse and, above all, his dramas that truly endure. As Phillipe Van Tieghem has observed, Musset’s theater is an admirable synthesis of the neoclassical tastes of seventeenth as well as eighteenth century theater with the passion and variety of Romantic trends. This synthesis also characterizes the best of Musset’s verse.
Henry James called Alfred de Musset “one of the first poets” of his day, a judgment which many modern critics would dispute. Although neither innovative nor influential, Musset’s verse achieves a distinctive personal voice. In his foreword to a recent French revaluation of Musset and his works, Yves Lainey muses that no one has replaced Musset as the supreme poet of love, and Lainey poses the loaded question of whether it is possible to lose one’s taste for reading Musset. This query can be answered by only a consideration of the handful of Musset’s poems which, both in the original French and in translation, maintain their vitality.
Born in Paris on December 11, 1810, Louis Charles Alfred de Musset lived the role of the Romantic artist with a self-destructive passion. His family traced itself back to the twelfth century, numbering among its ancestors the great Renaissance poet Joachim du Bellay. Musset spent his childhood in an atmosphere of belles-lettres. His father not only was responsible for an edition of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau but also wrote a critical and biographical study of Rousseau. Musset’s mother held a salon attended by some of the noted literary figures of the day, and it was in this milieu that Musset took his first, faltering steps in verse.
Two important notes in the ground bass of Musset’s life were sounded in the poet’s youth—his emotional hypersensitivity and his dependency on his brother Paul. The latter, in his biography of Musset, has recorded an anecdote demonstrating both characteristics. A gun which Musset was handling accidentally fired a shot that narrowly missed Paul; perhaps as a result, Musset was stricken with a high fever. Indeed, “brain fever,” as it was known in the nineteenth century, plagued the poet throughout his life.
Musset achieved literary celebrity with his first volume of verse, Tales of Spain and Italy. In the following decade, he produced a great number of plays, a fair body of poetry, and a variety of work in other forms as well. In 1833, he began a stormy liaison with the novelist George Sand (who was then thirty years old to Musset’s twenty-three). Both Musset and Sand wrote novels based on the affair: Musset’s La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (1836; The Confession of a Child of the Century, 1892) and Sand’s Elle et lui (1859; She and He, 1902); the latter prompted a rebuttal from Paul de Musset, the novel Lui et elle (1859; he and she). Alfred de Musset’s liaison with Sand was only the most notorious of a number of love affairs in which he was involved. Among them, one of the most important was his relationship with the great tragic actress Rachel (Elisa Felix), who nourished his love for the neoclassical masterpieces of French, particularly the works of Jean Racine.
Musset’s production dropped sharply in the 1840’s and the 1850’s, though he enjoyed several theatrical successes and was elected to the Académie Française. The last years of his life were marred by alcoholism. Musset died in Paris on May 2, 1857.
Alfred de Musset’s passion for neoclassical literature and femmes fatales offers a useful guide to his lyric poetry; in addition, to anyone with an essentially Anglo-American background in literature, the career of George Gordon, Lord Byron might offer a passport into that of Musset. Indeed, the neoclassical strain in the works of Musset is very like that in Byron. Both made solid contributions to a Romantic trend that they despised. In their best work, they looked to Greco-Roman classicism and French neoclassicism for their models. Musset’s aesthetic, like Byron’s, was neither Romantic nor neoclassical; rather, elements of the two were counterpoised in a balanced tension. Musset also resembles Byron in his posing and attitudinizing before what he regarded as the “infernal feminine.” Both men took personal delight and gained poetic capital from the pains they suffered at the hands of a rather impressive number of women. Although both poets were masters of satire, neither indulged in didacticism—political or religious.
Although Musset later denied any direct influence from Byron, his first two collections of poetry are filled with Byronic elements. Tales of Spain and Italy and A Performance in an Armchair, after their initial publication, were later authoritatively compiled in First Poetic Works. Beyond their biographical importance as juvenilia, these poems are of only slight significance.
By the standards of a Byron or a Hugo, Musset’s output was quite small; moreover, his most ambitious poems, such as Rolla, have fallen by the wayside. Musset the poet worked best in miniature, when he could keep his Romantic and his neoclassical impulses in perfect balance.
Musset’s growing mastery of poetic form became evident in “La Nuit de mai” (1835; “May Night”), composed in the year of his final separation from George Sand, the year in which he came under the more benevolent influence of a Madame Jaubert. In this work, Musset’s persona, the poet, has suffered from a love affair—presumably based on that of Musset and Sand. “May Night,” which found its definitive place in the collection titled New Poetic Works, is the most frequently anthologized representative of Musset’s less restrained Romantic side. Even this undeniably passionate work, however, is not without a certain restraint. The dialogue form permits the poet to maintain a certain distance from the personal subject matter, although such control is not sustained throughout the poem. Musset’s failure to maintain aesthetic control of his material is reflected in the form of the verse: As the poem progresses, the caesura is often lost, and lines alternate randomly between ten and twelve...
(The entire section is 2648 words.)