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.