Musset, Louis Charles Alfred De
MUSSET, LOUIS CHARLES ALFRED DE (1810-1857), French poet, play- writer and novelist, was born on the nth of December 1810 in a house in the middle of old Paris, near the H&tel Cluny. His father, Victor de Musset, who traced his descent back as far as 1 140, held several ministerial posts of importance. He brought out an edition of J. J. Rousseau's works in 1821, and followed it soon after with a volume on the Genevan's life and writing. In Alfred de Mussel's childhood there were various things which fostered his imaginative power. He and his brother Paul (born 1804, died 1880), who afterwards wrote a biography of Alfred, delighted in reading old romances together, and in assuming the characters of the heroes in those romances. But it was not until about 1826 that Musset gave any definite sign of the mental force which afterwards distinguished him. In the summer of 1827 he won the second prize (at the College Henri IV.) by an essay on "The Origin of our Feelings." In 1828, when Eugene Scribe, Joseph Duveyrier, who under the name of Melesville, was a prolific playwriter and sometimes collaborator with Scribe, and others of note were in the habit of coming to Mme de Mussel's house at Auteuil, where drawing-room plays and charades were constantly given, Musset, excited by this companionship, wrote his first poem. This, to judge from the exlracts preserved, was neither betler nor worse lhan much olher work of clever boys who may or may nol aflerwards turn out lo be possessed of genius. He took up the study of law, threw it over for that of medicine, which he could not endure, and ended by adopting no set profession. Shortly afler his firsl altempt in verse he was taken by Paul Foucher lo Viclor Hugo's house, where he mel such men as Alfred de Vigny, Prosper Merimee, Charles Nodier and Sainle-Beuve. It was under Hugo's influence, no doubl, lhal he composed a play. The scene was laid in Spain, and some lines, showing a marked advance upon his first effort, are preserved. In 1828, when the war between Ihe classical and the romanlic school of lileralure was growing daily more serious and exciling, Mussel had published some verses in a counlry newspaper, and boldly reciled some of his work lo Sainle-Beuve, who wrole of il to a friend, " There is amongst us a boy full of genius." At eighteen years old Mussel produced a Iranslation, with addilions of his own, of De Quincey's " Opium-Ealer." This was published by Mame, allracled no allenlion, and has been long oul of prinl. His firsl original volume was published in 1829 under the name of Contes d'Espagne et d'ltalie, had an immediale and slriking success, provoked biller opposition, and produced many unworthy imilalions. This volume conlained, along wilh far belter and more importanl Ihings, a fanlaslic parody in verse on cerlain produclions of the romanlic school, which made a deal of noise al the time. This was the famous " Ballade a la lune " with its recurring comparison of the moon shining above a steeple to the dot over an i. It was, lo Mussel's delight, taken quite seriously by many worthy folk.
In December 1830 Musset was jusl Iwenly years old, and was already conscious of lhat curious double exislence wilhin him so frequenlly symbolized in his plays in Oclave and Clio for inslance (in Les Caprices de Marianne), who also sland for the two camps, the men of mailer and the men of feeling which he has elsewhere described as characlerislic of his generation. At this date his piece the Nuit vinilienne was produced by Harel, manager of the Odeon. The exact causes of its failure might now be far to seek; unlucky stage accidents had something to do with it, but there seems reason to believe that there was a strongly organized opposition. However this may be, the result was disastrous to the French stage; for it put a complete damper on the one poet who, as he afterwards showed both in theoretical and in practical writings, had the fine insight which took in at a glance the merits and defects both of the classical and of the romantic schools. Thus he was strong and keen to weld together the merits of both schools in a new method which, but for the fact that there has been no successor to grasp the wand which its originator wielded, might well be called the school of Mussel. The serious effect produced upon Musset by the failure of his Nuit vSnitienne is curiously illustrative of his character. A man of greater strength and with equal belief in his own genius might have gone on appealing to the public until he compelled them to hear him. Musset gave up the attempt in disgust, and waited until the public were eager to hear him without any invitation on his part. In the case of his finest plays this did not happen until after his death; but long before that he was fully recognized as a poet of the first rank and as an extraordinary master of character and language in prose writing. In his complete disgust with the stage after the failure above referred to there was no doubt something of a not ignoble pride, but there was something also of weakness of a kind of weakness out of which it must be said sprang some of his most exquisite work, some of the poems which could only have been written by a man who imagined himself the crushed victim of difficulties which were old enough in the experience of mankind, though for the moment new and strange to him.
Musset now belonged, in a not very whole-hearted fashion, to the " Cenacle," but the connexion came to an end in 1832. In 1833 he published the volume called Un Spectacle dans un fauteuil. One of the most striking pieces in this " Namouna " was written at the publisher's request to fill up some empty space; and this fact is noteworthy when taken in conjunction with the horror which Musset afterwards so often expressed of doing anything like writing " to order " of writing, indeed, in any way or at any moment except when the inspiration or the fancy happened to seize him. The success of the volume seemed to be small in comparison with that of his Conies d'Espagne, but it led indirectly to Mussel's being engaged as a contributor to the Revue des deux mondes. In this he published, in April 1833, Andre del Sarto, and he followed this six weeks later with Les Caprices de Marianne. This play afterwards took and holds rank as one of the classical pieces in the repertory of the Theatre Franc,ais. Afler the retirement in 1887 from the stage of the brilliant actor Delaunay the piece dropped out of the Francais repertory until it was replaced on the stage by M. Jules Claretie, administrator-general of the Comedie Franqaise, on the 19th of January 1906. Les Caprices de Marianne affords a fine illuslration of the method referred to above, a method of which Musset gave somelhing like a definite explanation five years later. This explanation was also published in the Revue des deux mondes, and il sel forth thai the war belween the classical and the romantic schools could never end in a definite victory for either school, nor was it desirable that it should so end. " It was time," Musset said, " for a third school which should unite the merits of each." And in Les Caprices de Marianne these merits are most curiously and happily combined. It has perhaps more of the Shakespearian qualily the quality of artfully mingling the terrible, the grotesque, and the high comedy lones which exisls more or less in all Mussel's long and more serious plays, than is found in any other of these. The piece is called a comedy, and il owes Ihis litle to its extraordinary brilliance of dialogue, truth of characterization, and swiftness in action, under which there is ever lalenl a sense of impending fale. Many of the qualilies indicated are found in others of Mussel's dramalic works and nolably in On ne badine pas avec I'amour, where the skill in insensibly preparing his hearers or readers through a succession of dazzling comedy scenes for the swift destruction of the end is very marked. But Les Caprices de Marianne is perhaps for this particular purpose of illuslralion Ihe mosl compacl and most typical of all.
The appearance of Les Caprices de Marianne in the Revue (1833) was followed by thai of " Rolla," a symplom of the maladie du siecle. Rolla, for all the smack which is nol lo be denied of Werlherism, has yel a decided individually. The poem was wrilten at the beginning of Mussel's liaison with George Sand, and in December 1833 Mussel slarled on the unforlunale journey lo Ilaly. Il was well known lhal the ruplure of what was for a lime a mosl passionale altachment had a disastrous effect upon Musset, and brought out the weakest side of his moral character. He was at first absolulely and complelely slruck down by the blow. But it was not so well known unlil Paul de Musset pointed it out lhal the passion expressed in the Nuit de decembre, written aboul Iwelve monlhs afler the journey to Italy, referred nol lo George Sand bul lo anolher and quile a differenl woman. The story of the Italian journey and its results are told under the guise of fiction from two points of view in the two volumes called respectively Elle et lui by George Sand, and Lui et elle by Paul de Mussel. As to the permanenl effecl on Alfred de Mussel, whose irresponsible gaiely was killed by the breaking off of the connexion, there can be no doubl.
During Mussel's absence in Italy Fantasia was published in the Revue, Lorenzaccio is said lo have been written al Venice, and nol long afler his relurn On ne badine pas avec I'amour was written and published in the Revue. In 1835 he produced Lucie, La Nuit de mai, La Ouenouille de Barberine, Le Chandelier, La Loi sur la presse, La Nuit de decembre, and La Confession d'un enfant du siecle, wherein is conlained what is probably a Irue accounl of Mussel's relations with George Sand. The Confession is exceptionally inleresling as exhibiling the poel's frame of mind al the lime, and the approach to a revulsion from the Bonaparlisl ideas amid which he had been brought up in his childhood. To the supreme power of Napoleon he in Ihis work allribuled lhal moral sickness of the lime which he described. " One man," he wrole, " absorbed the whole life of Europe; the resl of the human race slruggled lo fill Iheir lungs wilh the air lhat he had breathed." When the emperor fell, " a ruined world was a resting-place for a generation weighled with care." The Confession is further importanl, aparl from ils high literary merit, as exhibiting in many passages the poet's lendency lo shun or wildly prolest against all lhal is disagreeable or difficull in human life a lendency lo which, however, much of his finesl work was due. To 1836 belong the Nuit d'aout, the Lettre a Lamartine, the Stances a la Malibran, the comedy // ne faut jurer de rien, and the beginning of the brillianl letters of Dupuis and Colonel on romanticism. II ne faut jurer de rien is as lypical of Mussel's comedy work as is Les Caprices de Marianne of the work in which a lerrible falalily underlies the brillianl dialogue and keen polished characterization. In 1837 was published Un Caprice, which afterwards found its way to the Paris stage by a curious road. Mme AUan-Despreaux, the aclress, heard of il in Si Pelersburg as a Russian piece. On asking for a French Iranslation of the play she received the volume Comedies et proverbes reprinted from the Revue des deux mondes. In 1837 appeared also some of the Nouvelks. In 1839 Mussel began a romance called Le Poete dechu, of which the existing fragments are full of passion and insighl. In 1840 he passed through a period of feeling lhat the public did not recognize his genius as, indeed, they did nol and wrole a very short but very striking series of reflections headed wilh the words "A Irente ans," which Paul de Musset published in his Life. In 1841 there came out in the Revue de Paris Mussel's " Le Rhin allemand," an answer to Becker's poem which appeared in the Revue des deux mondes. This fine war-song made a great deal of noise, and broughl lo the poet quanlilies of challenges from German officers. Belween Ihis dale and 1845 he wrole comparalively little. In the lasl named year the charming " proverbe " // faut qu'une porte soil ouverte ou fermee appeared. In 1847 Un Caprice was produced at the Theatre Francais, and the employment in it of such a word as " rebonsoir " shocked some of the old school. But the success of the piece was immediate and marked. It increased Mussel's reputation with the public in a degree out of proportion to its intrinsic importance; and indeed freed him from the burden of depression caused by want of appreciation. In 1848 // ne faut jurer de rien was played at the Theatre Francais and the Chandelier at the Theatre Historique. Between this date and 1851 . Bettine was produced on the stage and Carmosine written; and between this time and the date of his death, from an affection of the heart, on the 2nd of May 1857, the poet produced no large work of importance.
Alfred de Musset now holds the place which Sainte-Beuve first accorded, then denied, and then again accorded to him as a poet of the first rank. He had genius, though not genius of that strongest kind which its possessor can always keep in check. His own character worked both for and against his success as a writer. He inspired a strong personal affection in his contemporaries. His very weakness and his own consciousness of it produced such beautiful work as, to take one instance, the Nuit d'oclobre. His Nouvellesaxe extraordinarily brilliant; his poems are charged with passion, fancy and fine satiric power; in his plays he hit upon a method of his own, in which no one has dared or availed to follow him with any closeness. He was one of the first, most original, and in the end most successful of the first-rate writers included in the phrase " the 1830 period." The wilder side of his life has probably been exaggerated; and his brother Paul de Musset has given in his Biographic a striking testimony to the finer side of his character. In the later years of his life Musset was elected, not without opposition, a member of the French Academy. Besides the works above referred to, the Nouvelles et conies and the (Euvres posthumes, in which there is much of interest concerning the great tragic actress Rachel, should be specially mentioned.
The biography of Alfred de Musset by his brother Paul, partial as it naturally is, is of great value. Alfred de Musset has afforded matter for many appreciations, and among these in English may be mentioned the sketch (1890) of C. F. Oliphant and the essay (1855) of F. T. Palgrave. See also the monograph by Arvfede Barme (Madame Vincens) in the " Grands ecrivains francais " series. Musset 's correspondence with George Sand was published intact for the first time in 1904.
A monument to Alfred de Musset by Antonin Merci6, presented by M. Osiris, and erected on the Place du Theatre Francais, was duly " inaugurated " on the 24th of February 1906. The ceremony took place in the vestibule of the theatre, where speeches were delivered by Jules Claretie, Frangois Coppe'e and others, and Mounet-Sully recited a poem, written for the occasion by Maurice Magre. (W. H. P.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)